Poll Tax Riots

Poll Tax Riots

The Poll Tax Riots were mass disturbances, or riots, which occurred in Britain during protests against the Community Charge (commonly known as the poll tax), introduced by the Tory government led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. By far the largest of these disturbances occurred in central London on Saturday March 31, 1990, shortly before the poll tax was due to come into force in England and Wales. Many believe that the London riot - the largest in the city in the 20th century - was the direct cause of Thatcher's downfall eight months later.

The disorder in central London arose from a demonstration which had begun around 11 a.m. The rioting and looting finally ended at around 3 a.m. the next morning. This riot is sometimes called the Battle of Trafalgar, particularly by opponents of the poll tax, because much of the rioting took place in Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square preparations

In November 1989 the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (The Fed) was set up by the Militant tendency as a visible national body which included many Anti-Poll Tax Unions. The Fed executive committee called a demonstration in London for March 31, 1990 (the Saturday before Community Charge implementation in England and Wales, it having already been introduced in Scotland a year earlier).

Three days before the event the Fed executive realised that the march would be even larger than the 60,000 capacity of Trafalgar Square. Executive officers of the Fed requested permission from the Metropolitan Police and the Department of the Environment to divert the march from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park but this request was denied.

In the days before the demonstration two symbolic "feeder" marches had followed the routes of the two mob armies of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. These arrived at Kennington Park in South London on 31 March.

The day itself

On March 31, 1990, people began gathering in Kennington Park, from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Turnout was encouraged by the fine spring weather, and it soon became apparent that between 180,000 and 250,000 people were gathering. The official police report, issued a year after the riot, suggested that numbers were close to 200,000. A contributing factor to the size of the demonstration may also have been a decision by the Labour Party to abandon plans to stage their own rally on the same day.

The march set off from Kennington Park at 1:30 p.m., and began moving faster than planned because some anarchistsFact|date=October 2008 had forced open the main gates of the park, so people were not forced through the smaller side-gates. This meant that the march spilt over onto both sides of the road, and despite police and stewarding efforts, stayed that way for much of the route.

By 2:30 p.m., Trafalgar Square, destination of the march and site of a planned rally, was nearing its capacity.

Unable to continue moving easily into Trafalgar Square, at about 3:00 p.m. the huge march slowed down and eventually stopped in Whitehall. The police, feeling challenged and worried about a surge towards the newly installed security gates of Downing Street, blocked off the top and bottom of Whitehall. The section of the march which stopped opposite the Downing Street entrance happened to contain a large proportion of veteran anarchists and a group called Bikers Against The Poll Tax, all of whom became annoyed by several heavy-handed arrests, including one of a man in a wheelchair.Fact|date=June 2007

Meanwhile, the tail-end of the march had been diverted at the Parliament Square end of Whitehall. Again, quite by chance, a large Class War banner (and the anarchists it had attracted) was at the head of this diverted and unpoliced march. They led the march up the Embankment for a few hundred yards, then turned off up Richmond Terrace, bringing the diverted march out into Whitehall, directly opposite the entrance of Downing Street.

Mounted riot police were brought up, and from about 3:30 p.m. police tried to clear people out of Whitehall, despite both retreat and advance being blocked by further lines of police. Fighting and scuffles broke out and the Whitehall section of the march eventually fought its way out into Trafalgar Square.

From around 4:00 p.m., with the rally nearly officially over, published reports of events become confused and contradictory. It seems that the mounted riot police (those who had earlier attempted to clear Whitehall) charged out of a side street straight into the packed crowds in Trafalgar Square. Whether intentional or not, this was interpreted by many in the crowd as an unwarranted provocation, further fueling anger among crowds in the Square. At about 4:30 p.m., four shielded police riot vans drove directly into the crowd (a recognised police tactic in dealing with mass demonstrations, at the time) outside the South African High Commission, apparently attempting to force their way through to the entrance to Whitehall where police were re-grouping. The crowd vigorously attacked the vans with wooden staves, scaffolding poles, and other items to hand, all in an attempt to slow down the vans. The rioting escalated.

By about 4:30 p.m. police had closed all the main Underground stations in the area and sealed the southern exits of Trafalgar Square, thus making it very difficult for people to disperse. Coaches had been parked south of the river, so many people's instinct was to try to move south. At this point, Militant Fed stewards were withdrawn on police orders. Sections of the crowd, apparently unemployed coal miners, climbed scaffolding and rained debris on the police belowFact|date=June 2007. Then, at about 5:00 p.m. builders' cabins below the scaffolding caught fire, followed by a room in the South African High Commission on the other side of the Square. The resulting smoke from the two fires caused near darkness in the Square and there followed a twenty minute lull in the rioting.

Between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. the police opened the southern exits of the Square and slowly managed to force people out of Trafalgar Square. A large section was moved back down Northumberland Avenue and eventually allowed over the River Thames to find their way back to their coaches. Two other sections were pushed north into the West End, where looting and vandalism of shops and cars took place. Police ordered all pubs in the area to close. Published and recorded accounts mention shop windows being broken, a goods looted, and expensive cars being overturned in: Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Charing Cross Road, and Covent Garden.Fact|date=June 2007

The original demonstrators rapidly became mixed with the general public. By midnight, nearly 5,000 people, mostly civilians but also some police officers, were reported injured, and 339 people had been arrested.cite news|title=Revealed: How police panic played into the hand of the poll tax rioters|last=Verkaik|first=Robert|date=21 January 2006|publisher=The Independent (UK newspaper)|pages=10|accessdate=2008-05-17] Scuffles between rioters and police continued until 3 a.m. Rioters attacked: The Body Shop, McDonalds, Barclays Bank, Tie Rack, Armani, Ratners, National Westminster Bank, and Liberty. As well as such shops and banks, Stringfellow's nightclub, car showrooms, Covent Garden cafés and wine bars were set on fire. Expensive cars such as Porsches and Jaguars were overturned and set on fire. Other potential targets were left untouched: pubs, small shops, older cars and the offices of the Irish airline Aer Lingus.Fact|date=March 2007

Hitherto classified UK Government documents, released in 2006 under freedom of information legislation, reveal the extent to which the police believed they had lost control and the degree to which they were prepared to act. Documented police radio communications and surveillance reports indicate that at one stage the police ended up calling for armed response teams to support attempts to regain control, despite there being no reports of the possession of firearms amongst the protesters.


The response of the London police, the government, the Labour Party and the labour movement and some sections of the far left, including Militant, was to condemn the riot as senseless and to blame anarchists. Some anarchists, especially the high-profile Class War organisation, were only too happy to take the credit, and were joined by other sections of the ultra left in explicitly condoning the riot as being largely legitimate self-defence against police attack. Despite this, the 1991 police report on the riot concluded there was "no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups".

Afterwards, the non-aligned Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign was set up, committed to unconditional support for all the defendants, and to full accountability to the defendants. The Campaign acquired more than fifty hours of police video tapes covering the riot, and these were influential in acquitting many of the 491 defendants, suggesting that the police had fabricated or inflated charges.

In March 1991, the official police report suggested various additional contributing internal police factors: squeezed overtime budgets which led to the initial deployment of only 2000 men; a lack of riot shields (only 400 "short" riot shields were available); and erratic or poor-quality radio communications, with a time-lag of up to five minutes in the computerised switching of radio messages during the evening West End rioting.

At the time of media coverage of the riot, Prime Minister Thatcher was attending a conference of the Conservative Party Council in Cheltenham. The Community Charge was the key focus of the conference; but as the coverage of the demonstrations unfolded, intense speculation also developed for the first time about Thatcher's position as Party leader.


The fall of Prime Minister Thatcher

It is thought that the riot in central London, together with the countrywide opposition to the Community Charge (which was especially vehement in the North of England and Scotland) strongly contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, who resigned as Prime Minister in November of the same year, still adamantly defending the tax at a time when opinion polls were showing 2% support for it. The next Prime Minister, John Major, announced immediately that it would be abolished.

Changes in policing of demonstrations

The trials of anti poll-tax demonstrators in the months after 31 March served to confirm substantial doubts about the policing styles and methods which had been developed and introduced during the 1980s to deal with mass protests such as those of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the New Age Travellers, anti-Apartheid groups, and the Miners' Strike. The trials also highlighted the ease with which miscarriages of justice could still take place, even after the high-profile compensation and acquittals arising from the Battle of the Beanfield, the New Age Travellers at Stonehenge, the CND at Greenham Common, and the miners at the Battle of Orgreave.

Illegitimacy of the labour movement

The riot brought into sharp focus the growth in Britain of an underclass, seen in violent collision with everyday symbols of late-1980s wealth and affluence. These media images crystallised a growing mood of political disenchantment.

This created a vivid image of the labour movement's crisis of legitimacy, just four months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the near-global collapse of state socialism and its allies.

Abandonment of the Poll Tax

Once Thatcher had resigned, her successor John Major announced in his very first parliamentary speech as Prime Minister that the Community Charge was to be replaced. It was succeeded by the Council Tax, which, unlike the Poll Tax, took some account of ability to pay. While generally less harsh on lower-income earners than the Poll Tax, the new tax took no account of the income earned by the taxpayer, but did take into account the value of the property in connection with which the householder was being taxed.


Further reading

* [http://www.revoltagainstplenty.com/toytowndestroyed.htm "The Destruction of Toytown UK"] . BM Blob; London, 1990.

* Burns, D. "Poll Tax Rebellion". Attack International/AK Press; London, 1992.
* [http://libcom.org/library/summer-thousand-julys-other-seasons "Like A Summer With A Thousand Julys"] . BM Blob; London, 1982.

* "Poll Tax Riot - Ten hours that shook Trafalgar Square". Acab Press, London; June 1990. (12 first-hand accounts of the rioting)

* Tommy Sheridan - "Time To Rage".

* Peter Taaffe - "Rise of the Militant" - Militant Publications.


"The Battle Of Trafalgar", (Despite TV). Broadcast on Channel 4, September 18, 1990.

External links

* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/31/newsid_2530000/2530763.stm BBC "On This Day": 31 March 1990]
* [http://www.caliach.com/paulr/news/polltax/ Gallery of photographs from the 31st March riot]
* [http://www.militant.org.uk/PollTax.html Militant's role in defeating the poll tax]
* [http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/militant/mil2frame.htm?ch35.htm Peter Taffe "The Rise of Militant" ch.8]
* [http://struggle.ws/awg/poll_tax.3.html Politicising the Poll Tax, Anarchist Workers Group]

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