‘The police piled into demonstrators from points around the square. Two police vans and a car were driven into the crowd at speed without warning.’
A pressure cooker of anger that had been building up in Britain exploded on the streets of central London on Saturday 31 March 1990. The police attacked a huge demonstration against the Tories’ poll tax, sparking a riot as thousands of people fought back.
The events of the day were pivotal in defeating the poll tax and forcing Margaret Thatcher from office.
More than 200,000 demonstrators had left Kennington Park bound for a rally in Trafalgar Square. As some people listened to speeches in the square, police attacked a section of the march as it sat down outside Downing Street.
The arrest of a protester in a wheelchair was a spark for some jostling and shouting.
Jane, a health worker from London, told Socialist Worker at the time, “The march stopped briefly. People sat down for a second time and then the police came for us. Riot cops who had been waiting were sent in to break up the crowd.”
Mounted police laid into the crowd with batons flying. At first demonstrators ran in all directions, trying to shield children and older people.
Within minutes the mood had changed and many marchers found a new confidence. Years of pent up anger at Thatcher’s right wing policies came to the surface.
In an echo of the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, demonstrators shouted “Stasi” at the police. The air filled with placard sticks.
Trafalgar Square was completely full. Jane, a teacher from Birmingham, told Socialist Worker, “There were people climbing up scaffolding to put up banners. A group put up a banner that read, ‘Yorkshire miners against the poll tax’.
“Tens of thousands of people were cheering and dancing. It was fantastic.”
Then the police piled into demonstrators from points around the square. Two police vans and a car were driven into the crowd at speed without warning.
Mounted officers backed by hundreds of riot police swept across the square, hitting out. Dozens of demonstrators were felled, blood pouring from their wounds.
Still the crowd would not disperse. Demonstrators set fire to portakabins by a building on the square. They turned their anger against the South African embassy – an outpost of the apartheid regime at the side of the square – and set it alight.
Mail on Sunday photographer Keith Parnell described what followed. People were “getting the better of the police,” he said. “Then these vans pulled up and the 25s, the guys in boiler suits and helmets, broke out. They just charged headlong at the crowd, hitting people.
“I fell over a barrier and as I was getting up I saw a policeman coming at me. I heard him say, ‘you’ll do’ and then he hit me with his baton. I put my arm up and he hit my forearm, breaking it. Then the police started hitting the bloke behind me… the police had lost control.”
After an hour of attacks, the police forced marchers into the surrounding streets, where the rioting was to spread throughout the afternoon and evening.
Banks, expensive shops and fancy cars became targets for protesters’ anger, while police snatch squads made mass arrests.
Yet later a police spokesman declared, “The amount of restraint shown by my officers today under such adverse conditions makes me very proud of them.”
Not to be outdone, Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley blamed anarchists and the Socialist Workers Party for the violence and called for the mass arrests of “ringleaders”. He demanded “exemplary sentences” for those convicted.
The press were united in a denunciation of “bloody mob rule”. But for many thousands of people there that day, the police violence was the worst thing they had seen – and an experience they would never forget.
‘Soon there were protests outside town halls across Britain. They involved thousands who had never been political before.’
The late 1980s were tough times for the left. Following the defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985, many former radicals argued that Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government had irrevocably changed Britain. Working class resistance, they argued, was an outdated and futile concept.
But the movement against the poll tax, the Tories’ replacement for the “rates” – local taxes – showed this argument to be false.
Rather than being based on your earnings, or the value of house you lived in, the poll tax would force every adult to pay the same amount – whether you were a duke or dustman.
The plan was the Tories’ flagship policy. Opposition to it began in Scotland in 1988 and soon spread to England and Wales. Unlike previous Tory attacks – which took on one group of workers at a time – the poll tax was an assault on everyone.
This became clear as local councils set their poll tax bills and millions saw their rates soar.
Shock and anger led to the founding of anti-poll tax unions. These often started with just a handful of people meeting in someone’s front room, only to grow to fill a whole community centre a week later.
They were coordinated by the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation, chaired by Tommy Sheridan.
Soon there were protests outside town halls across Britain. They involved thousands who had never been political before, and often took place in small towns and villages. Many local protests ended in confrontation with council bosses and police.
Market stallholders everywhere did a roaring trade in “Bollocks to the poll tax” T-shirts.
Support for the Tories collapsed, but Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party failed to capitalise on the anger. Kinnock ensured that the party was not associated with the “illegal” non?payment campaign.
Thatcher attacked the anti-poll tax movement in parliament, saying, “Demonstrations organised by the militant left… are a negation of democracy. I condemn anyone, particularly members of this house, who choose to disobey the law by refusing to pay.”
Disgracefully Kinnock responded, “May I first of all agree with everything that the prime minister just said.” Kinnock later denounced protesters as “Toytown revolutionaries”.
The movement continued to gather pace, despite Labour’s attacks.
‘The Tories were thrown into crisis, with many fearing that the rebellion could spread into a more general class confrontation’
Local protests continued after the riot in Trafalgar Square, but by the summer the focus of the campaign had shifted to the courts. Councils sent summons to the millions who had not paid a penny of the tax. Outside the courts, the non-payment movement filled the streets with protesters.
On the inside, magistrates were tied up in legal knots as campaigners fought on a case-by-case basis.
In Warrington, the Labour council issued 5,500 summonses, hoping that only a few would turn up and the cases would be a formality. But around 1,000 besieged the court and magistrates abandoned proceedings.
News that the courts could be resisted spread like wildfire and soon judges were adjourning hundreds of cases every week. The movement was winning the battle.
The Tories were thrown into crisis, with many fearing that the rebellion could spread into a more general class confrontation. By August senior government ministers were saying that both Thatcher and the poll tax would have to go.
Finally, in November, a tearful Margaret Thatcher emerged from Downing Street to announce her resignation.
While the government signalled a retreat, local councils sent bailiffs to “recover” goods from non-payers’ houses, leading to a series of confrontations.
By December the first people to be jailed for non-payment were being sentenced.
Bryan Wright, a 21 year old, was the first to go down and spent Christmas behind bars. He was to be followed by hundreds more. Gateshead mother of two Beccy Palmer spent three months in prison as Labour councils turned on the poorest in society.
Despite this, the resistance could not be broken. By 1991 the government admitted the tax was finished. The Observer newspaper wrote its obituary:
“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.
“Extraparliamentary 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.”