Bollocks to the Poll Tax

Colin Revolting remembers the day 25 years ago when one of the biggest marches ever turned into a mass riot which sunk the Tory flagship Poll Tax policy and took Prime Minister Thatcher down with it.

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

“An anti-poll tax rally in central London has erupted into the worst riots seen in the city for a century. Forty-five police officers are among the 113 people injured as well as 20 police horses. A total of 340 people have been arrested…” (BBC News report.)

March 1990

The Poll Tax will mean that the Duke of Westminster who used to pay £10,255 rates on his estate will pay £419 – exactly the same as his chauffeur.

“Why should a Duke pay more than a dustman?” says the senior Tory Minister, “It is only because we have been subjected to socialist ideas for 50 years that people think this is fair.”

On the TV news there’s a large noisy crowd outside Hackney Town Hall. Scuffles break out as police block protesters from entering the building where the council is voting to set the rate for the tax. In Scotland there has been vigorous battle against the tax for a year already.

Across the left there are a range of positions on how to beat the Poll Tax, but they boil down to two:

Option 1 Don’t Collect. Council unions refuse to administer the process.
Option 2 Don’t Pay. People opposed to the tax refuse to comply with the process.

(A third option of Labour councils refusing to implement the tax has clearly fallen and Option 1, though favoured by many of us revolutionaries, is now looking impossible to achieve.)

We gather at Greenwich Town Hall and invade the council chambers. As we march in, the councillors rise to their feet and… stomp out. They ignore the shouts of “Sell outs!” and “Traitors!”, but when some of us do the playground “chicken” gesture one of them furiously challenges us to a fight.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock says that people shouldn’t be “exploited by Toy Town revolutionaries who pretend that the tax can be stopped and the government toppled by non-payment.”

The two rebel Greenwich councillors who voted against the Poll Tax call a public meeting in our local community centre. They’ve booked the huge Ballroom but only five people show up. The five of us talk about going on the national march on Saturday and decide to go petitioning on the neighbouring estate on the morning after.

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

Saturday 31st March 1990

By the time my friends and me arrive, Kennington Park in South London is spilling over with a sea of people. The sun is shining as the march streams across the River Thames singing, “We won’t pay the Poll Tax, we won’t pay the poll tax, la la la la, la la la la!” Banners include “Yorkshire Miners against the Poll Tax”, “Tax the Rich” “Bollocks to the Poll Tax” and from many many anti-Poll Tax groups across the country.

As the march passes Parliament we are somewhere in the middle of the 200,000 protesters. The march is bigger than anyone expected. Everything grinds to a halt outside Downing Street. The tax is Margaret Thatcher’s self declared “flagship policy”, and some protesters have sat down at her doorstep. We notice that Thatcher has had security gates erected since the Romanian President’s palace was invaded by a angry crowd and he was executed last Christmas day. Despite being tall and made of metal the gates are a sign of weakness not strength. “That crowd of a Romanians was no bigger than today’s,” I point out. “That’s just wishful thinking,” says my friend John.

The orange jacketed stewards stand beside the police and both urge us onwards, but, like many marchers, we side with the sit down protesters. Settling in the sun on the grass opposite Downing Street, one couple lay their baby on the ground to change its nappy, then a line of mounted police appear at one end of the grass. Some shouts, “What sort of animal has an arsehole in the middle of its back?”

My partner Kirsti says to the parents with the baby, “Those cops are about to charge.” They look at her like she is deluded.

Moments later the horses rampage, everyone scatters. Fear and panic spreads. Kirsti and me lose each other.

Trafalgar Square is a sea of people swaying back and forth in waves as the police push and protesters surge. “It’s like being in a crowd at Glastonbury,” my mate John says. Ten times better, I think, never having been in a moment like this.

I spot an older socialist clutching his newspapers to his chest, “Are we into this?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he shrugs, “but it’s fun, isn’t it…” and, smiling like he’s on a ride in an amusement park, is instantly swept away in the crowd.

There’s a pause in the push and shove and everyone is looking up. A guy has climbed up a crane on the south side of the Square holding a Pay No Poll Tax placard. Reaching the top he edges out along the arm of the crane.

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

Suddenly police horses charge into the demonstration from the Strand and the crowd parts like the sea. One young woman is knocked to the ground. The following horses trample over her.
The mood becomes more determined. The singing has stopped, reduced to a simple repetitive chant. “NO POLL TAX! NO POLL TAX!”
I see other Greenwich lefties in the crowd including some I’ve argued with or ignored many times but none of those disagreements matter right now.

The stewards have disappeared, or at least taken off their orange jackets, as some marchers are angry at them for standing alongside the police. One protestor near me, urging others not to retaliate, is caught in the middle, and gets hit over the head by a truncheon.
More horses, then police cars and even riot vans plough into the crowd at high speeds. People are hit and people hit back.

Even with their helmets, shields and truncheons the police are embattled, overwhelmed by the large numbers prepared to stand up to their assaults, determined to do so. Placard sticks, beer cans and traffic cones rain down on the police. People have come as protesters but are being turned into rioters. United.

This has turned into a massive riot, bigger than anything I’ve ever seen even on TV. Bigger than Notting Hill carnival riots and Northern Ireland street fighting in the 1970s. Compared to those crowds there are many more women involved today.

Snatch squads start to grab people. The crowd have thinned out and is mainly younger now. Sensing that the riot is winding down, John and me head into Soho for a drink and some post-match analysis.

Talk turns to the 10 years of Tory government – council houses sold, unemployment, the Clause 28 attack on gay rights, Alton Bill against abortion rights, the printers, dockers and steel workers and miners – so many reasons for today’s explosion.

Finishing our drinks we hear shouting coming up the road, are we imagining it? “NO POLL TAX! NO POLL TAX!” A bin flies across the street, a shop window shatters. The riot hasn’t wound down, it’s on the move…

The Police have lost control of the whole area. Shops are looted as small crowds roam the whole of the West End, chanting as they go, “No Poll Tax…!”

The TV news shows the riot continuing long into night with the BBC reporting “the worst riots seen in the city for a century.” Everyone from the Tory and Labour leaders to some of the organisers of the march is condemning the riot and calling for perpetrators to be “dealt with the up most severity”. In the Sunday Times, Pat Stack, speaking for the SWP says, “We did not go on the demonstration with any intention of fighting with the police, but we understand why people are angry and we will not condemn that anger.”

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

Photo: Paul Mattsson (paulmattsson@btinternet.com)

The morning after

Describing the riot, the TV reporter on the morning news stands in Covent Garden amongst smouldering rubble and burnt out bins. As he speaks, protestors, still buzzing from last night gather in the background and the hammering returns and over the reporter’s voice can be heard, “No Poll Tax, No Poll Tax…”

I feel a mixture of trepidation and increased confidence as we walk onto the estate and begin to knock on doors on the estate next to mine. Each door brings a different response but no one we meet likes the tax. People see the petition has a growing list of their neighbours’ names – along with the protests all over the media – the petition shows the growing movement. We hand out A4 posters NO POLL TAX HERE and they soon appear in windows across the estate. We meet many people who work locally including one who is the technician for the nuclear reactor in the neighbouring Naval College – potentially powerful people.

There are six blocks of flats on the estate and within a week we’ve knocked on every door and have filled sheets and sheets of petitions of people pledging not to pay. We propose a burning of the bills on the estate and call a meeting in the tenants room. There’s a bit of a buzz as thirty people pack the room to hear the rebel councillor and a council trade unionist discuss how the tax can be beaten.

I’m shocked to hear that two of Greenwich’s leading revolutionaries have already paid their poll tax – because the council workers unions didn’t vote to not collect. Me and hundreds of thousands of others receive summonses to appear in court for non-payment of the tax.

My friend Keith arrives at court to find twenty railway workers filling the corridors loudly joking about not paying while the police officers on duty keep their distance. Keith asks the railway workers if they have a “McKenzie friend”? They are aware this means a lay person who can support them in court. Despite brimming with battling confidence as a group they admit not knowing their rights in the court and accept Keith’s offer to be their McKenzie friend.

The strategy is to clog up the courts with as many the maximum number of people appearing and taking as long as possible to process – thus making it impossible to pursue the millions of other non-payers. With advice from Keith, each of the rail workers uses up precious minutes and soon the judge’s short morning session is over and everyone goes down the pub to celebrate. Across the country these scenes are being repeated and the courts are grinding to a halt.
The NO POLL TAX HERE posters in peoples windows don’t fair so well. The NO was printed in red for emphasis and red fades quicker than black so after the summer they read POLL TAX HERE…

The rulers want vengeance for the riot and many are jailed or fight in the courts for months. The non-aligned Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign is set up, acquires more than 50 hours of police video which is used in acquitting many of the 491 defendants.

In November Margaret Thatcher is pushed out and her replacement announces the Poll Tax will be scrapped.

I bump into a friend who’d dropped out of political activity shortly before the poll tax. He tells me he was lazing in a boat in Hyde Park on a sunny spring afternoon when clouds of black smoke appeared in the sky… He had no idea what he was missing.

In 1991 the police report into the day concludes there was “no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups.”

The campaign stretches on with bailiffs visiting our flat on a regular basis over the next couple of years – it’s not really a problem we just have to remember to keep the windows shut and not answer the door unless we know who it is. We’re lucky to have a see-through glass door and bailiffs who dress like the Men In Black, but with worse physiques.

The Observer newspaper writes when the tax is abolished:

“If the poll tax is dead it was killed by non-payment, a tactic which each of the three main parties insisted was pointless and wrong. Extra-parliamentary action, that nightmare of Westminster politicians, proved itself and in the process exposed the hollowness of our claims to democracy… this weekend each and every one of those non-payers should feel proud of themselves.”

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