Why Bono should welcome his Glastonbury reckoning | Ros Wynne-Jones

The threatened protests over U2's alleged tax avoidance prove that Glastonbury's founding spirit has been rekindled

'Did I disappoint you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth?" At Glastonbury this month, U2's headline set is more than likely to include One, the band's enduring hit – and the name of lead singer Bono's advocacy organisation for the world's poorest people. Originally released as a benefit single for Aids research, the song's lyrics carry an unintentional pertinence for the protesters threatening to use the festival to highlight the band's alleged tax avoidance.

The martyring of Saint Bono will take place courtesy of Art Uncut, a subsidiary of the tax avoidance campaign UK Uncut. It plans a series of actions over the Glastonbury weekend, stopping short of disrupting U2's set but an acute embarrassment to a band that has at times foregrounded morality over music.

The band was heavily criticised after moving parts of its business affairs from Ireland to the Netherlands in 2006, apparently in response to a cap on already generous tax breaks for artists in the republic. Though the band insists this simply reflects the global nature of their income as the world's highest-earning musicians, their decision not to pay all their tax in their home country looks even worse in the light of Ireland's financial meltdown. Bono is happy to tell the government how it should spend taxpayers' money – campaigning for an increase to the aid budget – yet he has taken his tax euros not just from Ireland's development fund, but also its hospitals and schools.

For some this is just a welcome comeuppance for another of that particular breed of multimillionaire who loves to lecture the world on poverty. But let's put the charge of rank hypocrisy aside – and how galling it is to be lectured by a man who wears indoor sunglasses – Bono has done much for Africa.

With Bob Geldof and others, through such initiatives as Drop The Debt and Make Poverty History, the U2 frontman has been at the forefront of a new advocacy for Africa that focuses not on aid but on grassroots campaigning: challenging the old trade inequalities, loosening the stranglehold of the debt burden and bringing the arguments for trade justice to a wider audience.

The case in Bono's favour – and it is a strong one – is that he's almost certainly done more for the world's poorest people than anyone who has come to protest against him in the Glastonbury crowd. Which makes his choices over tax even more curious.

But for a festival that shores up its status as the premier outdoor musical experience of the season with a strong commitment to social, environmental and charitable issues, Bono's dubious business arrangements must be a concern. And the prospect of more radical elements of the crowd turning on the much anticipated headliners cuts to the heart of Glastonbury's increasingly fractured body politic.

Like some modern-day Brigadoon the festival rises every year, its lanes and avenues laid out so similarly that it's hard to imagine the months between festivals when cows tramp the empty meadows. But Glastonbury is in fact made up of dozens of different festivals, all joined by bits of willow bunting.

And Glastonbury-goers are not a homogeneous group – nor have they been for a long time. For the subsection most likely to be found lolling in the festival's green fields to the sound of a cycle-powered electric banjo, the Pyramid stage – where U2 play – is like going into town on a Saturday night: big, loud and lairy, with Radio 1 favourites blaring on a loop. Fine for the odd visit, but an experience you can get at out-of-town "shopping centre" festivals such as Reading or Leeds without having to lug all your stuff three thousand miles from the car.

Glastonbury ought to be the natural constituency of Art Uncut, but in recent years, there has been noticeable corporate creep. And since the festival introduced the kind of fence that Texans would be proud to erect along the Mexican border, it has changed significantly. The price of the ticket excludes younger, poorer people – although there are plenty of ways to work the festival that still broaden its diversity.

Free tickets go to exactly the people who least deserve them – corporate execs who only come for a night or two like tourists on cruise ships, venturing bravely from their clean toilets in the backstage area only long enough to say they have been among the hoi polloi [see footnote]. The Guardian's daily review is no longer used only to light fires. It is all a long way from the hippies sipping free milk and freaking out to T-Rex at the Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival of 1970.

As the coalition government's savage cuts bite harder, the tax argument proves time and again that it is not a red herring. While the public sector continues to feel acute pain, tax researchers have concluded that tax avoiders actually received a boost from George Osborne's budget. UK Uncut's arguments received a simultaneous shot in the arm.

Perhaps Bono, who has spent years persuading the world that there's an activist inside of each and every one of us, should set aside his pride and give the protesters in the crowd a cheer. Arguably, Art Uncut's proposed action – as long as it is peaceful – is a welcome return of the festival's founding spirit.

• This footnote was appended on 8 June 2011. This article says "Free tickets go to exactly the people who least deserve them – corporate execs who only come for a night or two like tourists on cruise ships...". To clarify: the organisers of the Glastonbury Festival tell us that they do not give free tickets to "corporate execs". Free tickets may be distributed by organisations that buy them.


Ros Wynne-Jones

The GuardianTramp

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