The shorter article following (A hated tax and how it was beaten) summarises points that have been made by leaders of the Socialist Party on how the anti-poll tax campaign was organised and how the hated tax was defeated.
The riot – what really happened
The demonstration on 31 March 1990 was the culmination of months of protest against Thatcher’s hated poll tax, and she was determined to break it up. The All Britain anti-poll tax federation (the Fed) had called the demonstration, and after a year of seeing the poll tax experiment’s effects on the people of Scotland, people in England and Wales would not take this tax without also putting up a fight.
Meetings and demos had taken place around the country. At first meetings were quite small. Then the bills started dropping onto people’s doormats: within a week meetings went from tens to hundreds, the idea of mass non-payment caught on like wildfire.
The government was waging a propaganda war against violent protest – there was some violence outside council chambers when the rate of the tax was set. The Fed, realising that Thatcher was trying to provoke violence, called for peaceful protests, understanding that the real strength of the protests lay in the numbers mobilised.
The Federation was made up of local activists and campaigners from across the country. Its national committee was democratically elected at a conference of all local anti poll tax unions. Militant had been at the forefront of the non-payment campaign in Scotland and much of the committee in England and Wales consisted of Militant members and supporters.
The 31 March demo would clearly be massive. Reports from around the country showed that 800 coaches had been booked and campaigners were finding it difficult to book any more, as coach firms had run out of vehicles. So we decided that Trafalgar Square would be too small and Hyde Park should be booked. When applying to book Hyde Park, the Home Office said the booking had been declined as “the daffodils would be out and they would get trampled”!
Security of the demonstration was important to the Fed and an army of stewards had to be organised. Anti-poll tax unions in the south-east provided about 50 chief stewards and every coach was asked to provide two stewards for their contingent. The Fed planned to have 2,000 stewards on the demo. Fed representatives met with senior officers from the Metropolitan Police to agree the logistics of the demo – the route, coach drop-off points, a contingency route if Whitehall became blocked and how people would be directed into Trafalgar Square in a quick and safe manner.
The London and south-east stewards had planning meetings. Information sheets were produced, along with 2,500 stewards’ vests (because of the numbers needed these were printed paper vests which were taped on). Chief Stewards would be stationed at all drop-off points to brief the coach stewards and equip them for their role. Radios would keep chief stewards in contact with each other.
On the morning of 31 March Kennington Park filled with thousands and thousands of marchers. As the march moved off you couldn’t see a blade of grass; it was just a sea of faces.
Then reports started to come in that the police were forcing coaches away from the official drop-off points, thus preventing the chief stewards from equipping and briefing the stewards from the coaches. At the time it was thought it was because of the overwhelming number of coaches.
A group of anarchists tried to take over the front of the march but after a while they went off and the official march began. There was a party atmosphere; like a family day out, with hundreds of push-chairs.
This was unlike the major demos of the 1970s or 1980s that were organised by the trade unions. This was a spontaneous outburst of anger by ordinary people. Instead of the usual disciplined, regimented union demos, this was a wave of humanity moving as one, spread across the street 25 – 30 abreast, banners and placards randomly dispersed in the throng.
Reports came in that Trafalgar Square was already filling up and the march hadn’t even reached Parliament Square. Kennington Park, where the march started, was still full of people! Clearly this would be the biggest demo in living memory. One steward counted up to 120,000 as the march passed parliament, before the tail of the march left the park.
Trafalgar Square and all the surrounding roads were filling to capacity and most of the demo had not yet arrived. The crowd was estimated at 190,000 people. Whitehall, which was split in half with barriers down the central part of the road, was still full.
A sit-down protest was taking place opposite Downing Street, so the rest of the march was diverted down the Embankment and along Northumberland Avenue. However before this part of the demo arrived, rows of riot police had cut off the top of Northumberland Avenue preventing marchers reaching Trafalgar Square. Up to then, there was no trouble on the march and speakers were addressing the vast crowd.
Then it all kicked off. Reports from Downing Street said fighting had broken out, then riot police at the top of Whitehall attacked the demonstrators. Northumberland Avenue then kicked off as well, the sheer pressure of people broke police lines. The building between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue was set alight by protesters and soon the fire had taken hold. A police car tried to force its way through the protesters and was attacked.
Then the police horses were sent in, charging marchers repeatedly. The marchers, with nowhere to go to escape had to fight back. The police commander who appeared on the plinth of Nelson’s column seemed to be directing the charges, and ignored appeals to stop.
People were trying to escape, but from Saint Martins to Whitehall protesters had no means of escape and were penned in. But as the horses charged the police line started to break.
Hundreds of thousands of people started returning to their coaches and trains, spreading back all over the country. The TV news was full of the day’s events, most starting with Thatcher’s speech condemning anti-poll tax violence, followed by clips of marchers throwing things at the police, a police car being attacked and then riot police going in followed by the mounted police.
Back in my home town of Stevenage, demonstrators gathered in a pub after the day’s events. When the news came on the TV a bar room lawyer started condemning the marchers. A voice from the other end of the bar shouted “That’s b*****cks, I was there and the police attacked the marchers!” Others backed him up. None of these protesters were on the official coach – like thousands of others, they independently made their way to the demo. This scene must have been repeated nationwide; in bars, clubs, and at work the following Monday.
On Sunday 1 April the Fed held a press conference. Every part of the media was there. For an hour their questions followed the government line – were people paid to attend the demo? Which demonstrator started the violence? Hadn’t the Fed planned a riot? However we pointed out to these ‘numpty’ journalists that the only people paid to be on the demo were wearing blue uniforms!
Questions were asked in parliament as Thatcher’s propaganda offensive was faltering. The official version was not believed, the eyes of 190,000 people were countering the state’s attempts to demonise the anti poll tax campaigners as violent. Even Labour shadow ministers, sensing a rat, asked why the Hyde Park option had been turned down.
The senior Chief Steward was asked to conduct an investigation, because in the absence of a labour movement inquiry, which the Fed had called for, the truth was needed.
Compiling observations submitted by stewards on their part of the march, and statements of individual marchers, the head steward reported to the Fed national committee. Even some of the media started to question the official story; some even started to show the video clips in the right order, showing it was not the marchers who started the violence.
Some reports gave a more sinister interpretation of the state’s intervention. Thatcher and her government had been carrying out a one-sided civil war against trade unionists and working people. Elements of a police state were common; freedoms such as the right to protest, to travel, to show solidarity were being outlawed.
The use of ‘agents provocateurs’ seemed unthinkable to many, but the events of the day gave credence to the state having used this tactic. Historically the French government had used ‘agents’ to infiltrate demonstrations etc and start violent acts to give soldiers and police a pretext to attack protesters.
The steward who was in Whitehall, opposite Downing Street, where the sit-down protest had blocked the road, noticed a van pull up right outside Downing Street, on the police side of the barriers. A group of young men got out of the van wearing light blue jeans and white T-shirts; they scaled the barriers and mingled with the crowd. Within minutes objects were being thrown at the police and fighting broke out, then the riot police went in.
At the same time, Thatcher rose to her feet to condemn violence! A few minutes later at the top of Whitehall, riot police, backed by mounted police, came out of the back streets; this was amongst an anarchist section of the demo. The stewards reported they were under attack from both police and anarchists, who claimed stewards were in league with the police. Sections of the anarchists may have had police agents in their ranks as they are relatively easy to incite.
Much was made of the police car that ended up in the middle of everything; it was a car containing transport police, who seemed to have blundered into the situation, and infuriated the marchers.
The mounted charges along the south-east corner of the square trapped marchers, as the police were blocking any escape route to Charing Cross. One young miner, who later was put on trial using photographic evidence of him throwing things at the police on horseback, was acquitted by a jury on the grounds that he was defending himself and other marchers from unprovoked attack. The Fed head steward gave evidence based on his report.
When events in Trafalgar Square started to peter out, attention moved to Soho. Thatcher claimed that rioters were looting shops in Covent Garden; the TV showed smashed windows and running battles between the police and anyone who happened to be in the area.
End of Thatcher
Interestingly another report identified a group of young men wearing light blue jeans and white T-shirts, rampaging through Covent Garden smashing shop windows, but not taking anything. This report was from a marcher who had not known about the events outside Downing Street and lived in a completely different part of the country from the Downing Street steward.
The Fed report concluded that many events – including the refusal to allow the use of Hyde Park, the breaking of the Fed’s communications at the drop-off points weakening the stewarding structure, the seeming use of agents provocateurs and the timing of Thatcher’s speech at the exact time the violence started – had been maliciously planned by Thatcher and the state.
However it all backfired. It was the beginning of the end for Thatcher. Whilst sectarian groups in the anti-poll tax federation repeated the government’s story that the Fed leadership was going to name the marchers who had ‘started the violence’, no marchers were ever “grassed up to the police”. The Fed named Thatcher and the police as the instigators of the violence. Unfortunately some marchers were convicted of violent acts, who had been advised not to let the Fed defend them, unlike the young miner mentioned above.
The lessons of the ‘great poll tax riot’ need to be learnt. The state may be very powerful, but it can be countered by the mass action of hundreds of thousands of protesters. They not only neutralised government propaganda, but when they opposed it with the truth, Thatcher got the blame. This mass action went on in the form of the magnificent non-payment campaign that followed. Over 25 million court cases had to be held to try to collect the unjust tax. It became unenforceable.
Thatcher paid the price, being ousted in November 1990 in a palace coup by Tory MPs. Reflecting the ruling class’ fear that Thatcher would provoke the working class to fight back further, they replaced her with John Major and changed the poll tax to a banded system; so the Tories managed to stay in power at the next election.
Many people noted that Labour councils were often the most enthusiastic to take non-payers to court and try to get them imprisoned, an early sign of New Labour’s attacks on working people generally.
Thatcher now claims her legacy was not the poll tax, but New Labour. When similar movements erupt in future, workers and socialists will have to counter that legacy of Thatcher as effectively as the poll tax struggle ditched the Tory leader two decades ago.
A hated tax and how it was beaten
Never before had Trafalgar Square been the site of such scenes; riot police, around 200,000 protesters, buildings on fire; a full scale battle. The demonstration, just 20 years ago on 31 March 1990, became labelled by the media as the ‘great poll tax riot’.
The protest showed the hatred towards Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her government, though it was not the main reason why Thatcher was defeated in her attempt to bring in the poll tax. 18 million non-payers, boldly organised by the anti-poll tax unions, made the Tories retreat and abandon it. The anti-poll tax federation also defended people threatened with jail and seizure of homes, furniture and property.
As Thatcher’s successor John Major announced the poll tax’s demise, he admitted that 17.5 million people had either not paid or were in serious arrears. If the mass non-payment campaign had not been organised, the poll tax might well still exist and still be causing hardship. But the mass uprising, led by socialists in Militant (the forerunner to the Socialist Party), defeated both the poll tax and its main architect, Thatcher.
When Thatcher introduced the ‘community charge’ (poll tax) to finance local council services, rather than property-based rates as previously, the Tories’ aim was summed up by the cabinet minister responsible, Nicholas Ridley. He said there was no reason why a Duke should pay more for council services than a dustman.
Most people except the wealthy disagreed. Thatcher’s tax plan shifted the burden from rich to poor, landing working-class people with far higher bills. Thatcher called this legislation her ‘flagship’ and was determined to get it passed. The poll tax needed brave, determined opposition.
The new tax was due to replace the rates in Scotland in the 1989/90 financial year, with England and Wales following a year later. In 1988 delegates to a conference from Scottish towns where Militant had supporters, took up the tactic of “mass non-payment” of the poll tax. They also agreed to build a “Scottish-wide network of local anti-poll tax unions and regional federations”.
From November 1989, anti-poll tax unions were also set up on an all-Britain basis. These ‘unions’ spread the idea of non-payment, uniting people against the threat of jailing for non-payment and organising mass action to resist bailiffs’ attempts to seize non-payers’ goods.
Thatcher’s big mistake was to abandon her tactic of fighting her class enemies – miners, print workers, Liverpool council workers and councillors – one by one. She decided to take on most people in Britain in one battle. This helped to unite working class people against her government. Also, Thatcher thought ordinary people were as meek and pusillanimous as Britain’s labour and trade union leaders. But this battle was led by Marxists, supporters of Militant, who were determined to lead it to victory.