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