‘The Battle of Trafalgar': The Poll Tax Riot 20 Years on.

March 30, 2010

From the Peasant’s Revolt to the Boston Tea Party, Taxation has historically been a defining issue in the struggle of people against imposed government. The poll tax riot of March 31 1990 was ‘the most serious public order disturbance for over a century’ and the culmination of months of anti-poll tax protests and riots in the north of England and Scotland (where the tax had been ‘tested’ on the strongly anti-Conservative Scots) .

Background:

The Poll Tax was a Conservative government attempt to update the old rates system – which had put the onus of funding local council services on business and the wealthier population (the rates levied being based on the value of the house). The new tax forced everyone to pay the same for council services despite wage differential or the ability to pay e.g. unemployed, homeless, students etc would be expected to pay the same as multi-millionaires and the aristocracy.

The government’s argument for the tax was that it was a ‘just tax’ spreading the cost of local amenities democratically across the population; though the reality was that the wealthier (Conservative voting) constituency were less likely to use local council amenities in favor of private services and therefore had less interest in properly funding the council run amenities – state schools, libraries, sports facilities etc). The rest of the country saw the tax as divisive and clumsy social engineering; a gift for the Thatcher voting middle classes for their continued loyalty and a punishment for the working classes who would anyway never vote Conservative. It was viewed as a continuation of the Monetarist agenda of replacing the state sector with private companies by starving local services of proper funds. Ultimately it was shibboleth defining the increasing political and economic polarisation of the country; a battle between the haves and have-nots.

After years of anger and frustration at Tory rule the London protest was widely seen as an opportunity for a final showdown with the Conservative government. For northerners descending on the capital in their thousands this was also time for revenge on Thatcher (the Prime Minister and Iron Lady of neo-conservatism) for the humiliating defeat of the miners strike some five years earlier and the devastation of Northern towns that followed.

…This was never going to be a peaceful event.

March 31 1990

The year previous to 1990 saw the collapse of Stalinist Governments across Europe, The winter of 1989 Nicolae Ceauşescu, Father of the Romanian People was dragged from hiding and shot. During our tours in Europe we (bourbonese qualk) had witnessed first hand the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Prague and the Neues Forum anti-Stalinist demonstrations in East Germany.  The Poll Tax Demonstration was to us, and many others*, a logical conclusion to popular removal of the old cold-war governments of Europe.

* A common sight was protesters carrying banners with images of Thatcher, Hoenecker and Ceauşescu – the doomed dictators of old Europe – union jacks with holes cut through them in imitation of the Romanian revolutionary flag (the hole where the Stalinist emblem had been removed)

As protesters started to gather in Kennington Park it is clear that the March to Trafalgar Square is going to be huge and unruly (it was later estimated that over 250,000 people took part). The locked gates of the park are broken open allowing protester to spill out onto the streets. The Police and their SWP stooges try to appeal for calm ‘let’s have a show of hands for a peaceful protest’ but despite this the march sets off, pushing down police cordons and closing the road to Lambeth Bridge.

Miles and I as usual joined the Anarchist group, marching at speed, black flags flying, across the bridge towards Whitehall and Downing Street (the Prime Ministerial residence and perceived centre of power). Trafalgar square is already full by the time we get to Whitehall and the march comes to a halt with the Anarchist block serendipitously stationary in front of the gates of Downing Street.

“There was nothing like being around such a strong group; we felt protected and untouchable, we could really change something. It felt like we were going to overthrow the State.”

Jane Spencer, North London

Seizing on this opportunity we immediately start a sit-down blockade right in front of Downing Street and the Police, sensing an imminent assault on Number Ten, form a line of riot cops facing us. A tense standoff ends when Miles single-handedly charges at the police lines armed with a metal bar – only to be felled by a brick thrown from the police lines. This act of heroic folly triggers an all out charge at the police lines who panic and fall back towards Trafalgar Square. Moments later a mounted police unit charges full speed into the protesters. The riot had started and continues until 6am the next morning.

The Police tactics of ‘kettling’ (corralling the crowd into a controllable space) soon degenerated into chaos as they lose control and panic. In a chaotic attempt to defend themselves the police charge again and again into the crowd with horses and police vans. Witnessing this violence, previously restrained protesters retaliate by attacking the police lines and breaking through into the surrounding streets; buildings around the square are occupied and set alight, concrete blocks rain down onto the retreating police.

The noise and violence in the Square reaches an extreme pitch; screaming protesters, police helicopters, sirens, whistles, burning buildings, the medieval sight of horses hooves trampling an unconscious woman, a concrete block hitting a policeman’s head, a metal bar through a van’s window. The sky is full of missiles – bricks, bottles, wood – anything that comes to hand – raining down onto the police their scared and bloodied faces visible through their visors.

The riot spreads rapidly into the streets around Trafalgar square. Opulent displays of wealth ad shops with political links are destroyed; MacDonald’s, Israeli airlines, Furriers, Banks, jewelers, luxury car showrooms etc, yet the contents left untouched*…I walk up Regent Street crunching diamond necklaces under my boots…

* (Looting did occur later in the day around Charring Cross Rd when people uninvolved in the protest took advantage of the police retreat)

Several surreal vignettes describe the peculiar atmosphere of the abandoned city centre; In the sudden quiet after the intense noise of the square, a golden Rolls Royce makes a badly timed turn into Regent Street, blocked by protesters, the obese owner unbelievably scolds the mob – his public school arrogance provokes them to tip the car over, drag out the occupants (the still outraged pompous driver and his equally portly wife) and set it alight.

Later, a lone Police motorbike apparently unaware of the change of events heads towards the crowd. Realising his mistake to late, he attempts to turn, skids and crashes. Unhurt, he runs off in the opposite direction – the bike spins towards us spilling petrol in a long spiral across the road: this unexpected gift provokes a comical search for a lighter (eventually provided by an accommodating tourist trapped in a nearby shop) – the bike is torched, adding to the smoke of the burning Roller.

As darkness falls I make my way back through Whitehall; the only survivor of our group from the morning – I feel that I can’t go home un-arrested or uninjured so I decide on a suicidal plan and attack a row of police vans with a metal bar, smashing the windows and headlights. To my surprise, instead of arresting me, the shell-shocked and exhausted occupants just cower in fear. I walk home over the river to South London

Aftermath:

All the political parties including the ‘revolutionary left’ roundly condemned the events as mindless hooliganism, looting and mob violence instigated by Anarchist agitators. The Anarchists in turn were happy to take responsibility stating that the riot was a legitimate defense against the government’s destructive policies. About five hundred people were arrested; almost all of them on indiscriminate and randomly applied charges – the Police hoping that ‘public outrage’ would be enough to carry the prosecution.

The wider impact of the ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ is that it achieved exactly what it intended to do and brought an end to the Poll Tax project. After the fall of Thatcher, her heir apparent John Major (much to Thatcher’s fury) changed the policy in effect reinstating the old rates system as the ‘Council Tax’.  The events of the 31st March demonstrated how far removed the government was from the mood of the country – a fact that contributed to the eventual downfall of Thatcher later in the year.

“This was a great victory for the people and a salutary reminder to those who think they “rule” us i.e. politicians, bureaucrats, local government – in fact, all those in office and jobs because WE, the People, put them there- that we are the masters and they are not. We need more of this today rather than being driven around like a flock of docile sheep by crooked MPs, incompetent and grasping local politicians and the rest of the abominations.”

Links

http://libcom.org/library/summer-thousand-julys-other-seasons

http://norfolknonaligned.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/the-day-norwich-rioted-against-the-poll-tax/

http://www.dailybestarticles.com/the-battle-of-trafalgar-square-the-poll-tax-riots-revisited/

A revisionist document on The Socialist Worker – The SWP condemning the riots at the time, now claim leadership…

4 Responses to “‘The Battle of Trafalgar': The Poll Tax Riot 20 Years on.”

  1. Dear Simon

    As part of a Freedom of Information request a while back I got hold of the complete police radio log of the Poll Tax riot, which gives an interesting view of events from the Police side. I wrote this up for an article in the Morning Star (not, I imagine your fave publication, but I thought you would be interested in some of the details). If you want a complete copy of the log, you should ask the Home Office for there FOIA papers on the Poll Tax riot, it is tucked away in there. – click through my website for my excerpts from the log.

    The police log matches your train of events quite well, with the exception they do not share your view that the SWP were their “stooges” – the Police seem to have felt they were central to the Number 10 sit down. I was on the march as well, and think the police record is pretty accurate in this respect. That aside, I thought you might be interested in some of the details here – I think they reflect your sense of the ultimate demoralisation and disorentiation of the police towards the end of the day

    A few interesting points:- (1) the police had armed officers as part of the diplomatic protection force in South Africa house, but were anxious to keep them away from the trouble
    (2) The Police themselves quickly realised that trying to squeeze people into Trafalgar Square was a big mistake
    (3) After about 5pm, the “Gold ” and “Silver” commanders seem to just give up

    some excerpts:-

    One officer reports (4.29pm) the “crowd being pushed towards Trafalgar Square, where officers are under attack. This is the wrong strategy.”

    There are no further communications from either the “gold” or “silver” commander. Instead, officers on the ground wrestle with crowds slipping out of their grasp.

    As early as 4.24pm, a “bronze” reports: “We are unable to hold at Northumberland Avenue and will withdraw to reinforce the cordon across Whitehall.”

    By 4.52pm, officers report: “shield serials are not making any headway into the crowd.” At 5.04pm, they note that a “mounted charge has had no effect. We have lost the ground we had gained.”

    Even though the police reported (5.15pm) “looting in Charing Cross Road junction with Trafalgar Square,” they are in no position to take command of events. Aware of their lack of control, an officer reports: “Holding line outside South Africa House. I do not presume to push further.”

    But the back of South Africa House remained vulnerable. A message from “ranger control” says: “South African embassy. Windows being broken at the Strand entrance. No police about. Can you please deal, as we are not sending armed units.”

    Ranger control are the armed police who guard embassies. They wanted other officers to deal with the window-breakers because they did not want their gun-carrying men drawn into the melee.

    At 5.37pm, officers report a “stand-off at T/Square at the moment. Sporadic throwing of missiles.” Even this limited truce soon breaks down.

    From this point on, the communications log shows that dispersing demonstrators beyond Trafalgar Square simply spreads a mixture of rioting and spontaneous uncontrolled demonstrators throughout London.

    Entries include:

    6.31pm “Trocadero Centre, W1. Bin through window. Large crowds getting in.”

    6.56pm “Very large crowd now making their way back to Oxford Circus from Portland Place, smashing everything in sight. Unable to do anything on my own.”

    7.19pm “Windows being smashed, Hanover Street.”

    7.51pm “1,000 demonstrators towards Oxford Street. This is now another march. No police at head of march. Serials trying to police from the rear.”

    8.02pm “Tottenham Court Road police station under attack. PC on his own.”

    8.21pm “Charlotte Street, W1. Large number of youths rampaging in streets smashing windows.”

    9.37pm “Looters have entered a sports shop in Leicester Square and taken crossbows and knives.”

    The last reports of conflict are made at 10.57pm, with “windows being broken” by a “vociferous” group of 100-plus people

  2. ikhider said

    How long will the battle of Trafalgar ensue, Mr. Crab. I’ve pinged ye. Keep blogging, it has been a while since I heard from you.

    Best,

    -Ibrahim-

  3. [...] * Referring to the Poll Tax riot of  1989 “the police had armed officers as part of the diplomatic protection force in South Africa hous… [...]

  4. Delia said

    I’m a retired clinical psychologist and now conflict expert…I enjoy very much getting involved in other people’s conflicts and give tools and ideas to solve them.
    Conflicts are great to foster our self-growth! so, if you haven’t thought about it before, I’m inviting you to go out and get yourself a good enemy.
    Then, you can get to know yourself, what are your goals in life, your values and how to manage real anger in a
    productive way. What else can you wish for? Appreciate your enemy today, for teaching you so many things.
    … And, if you manage to solve the dispute and reconcile,
    its time to find another enemy!

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