Socialist Worker

Fifteen years since the poll tax revolt

The biggest riot in modern British history took place 15 years ago last week in London. Anti poll tax activists share their recollections

Issue No. 1946

Protesters fought back when the police attacked the anti poll tax march in London (Pic: Steve Eason)

Protesters fought back when the police attacked the anti poll tax march in London (Pic: Steve Eason)

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government boasted that the poll tax, their new local government tax, would mean that “a duke would pay the same as a dustman”.

The reaction of ordinary people was furious and organised. Beginning in Scotland, where the tax was introduced in 1989 one year before England and Wales, millions of people formed themselves into anti poll tax groups, unions and federations, pledging not to pay.

The courts saw thousands of ordinary people without lawyers conducting their own defences or those of fellow campaigners, through the system of lay representatives called “McKenzie’s friends”.

Courtrooms were invaded and people organised to block the bailiffs who were sent to follow up non-payers and seize their assets.

Demonstrations of thousands, even in small towns, showed the growing mood against the poll tax.

The anger exploded at the “Battle of Trafalgar” on 31 March 1990 when 200,000 people marched against the tax and then fought back as riot police attacked the peaceful protest.

When people today say Iraq could be “Blair’s poll tax”, they are remembering the struggle that saw off the hated tax, and forced Thatcher out of office.

Howard Wilson, Yorkshire miner

At Armthorpe pit we passed a resolution through our NUM union meeting to support the London protest and to send a coach down to the demo. It was supported unanimously.

Lots of pits put buses on and gave free seats to people from the anti poll tax groups. It gave a lift to activists to have union support. There were 2,000 miners there.

It was electrifying — one of two demos I’ve been on that really stand out. You could sense that you were doing something that was going to change something. For miners it was a chance to get revenge on Thatcher after the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

The demo changed things and the Tories had to capitulate. It wasn’t just the rioting, but the groundswell of support across the country.

Tommy Sheridan MSP, Anti Poll Tax Federation

The campaign really started in 1988. I remember the first meetings taking place in Pollok, Glasgow, and then Govan, where we established the first anti poll tax union, with membership cards and a statement of aims.

We committed ourselves to mass non-payment. I was chair of the Scottish Anti Poll Tax Federation. One year into the Scottish campaign there were about one million non-payers — about 50 percent. That was critical, because if it didn’t work in Scotland, it wouldn’t work in England.

On the day of the protest, I attended the Glasgow march of 40,000 people. Then I was flung on a plane to London. I was on the plinth at Trafalgar Square and I was next to speak, after George Galloway. But all hell broke loose. There was a rush of riot police. It was like a pressure cooker going off. I never got to speak.

In 1991 a lone parent from Greenock had her house broken into by sheriff’s officers — like bailiffs in England. They were going to sell her TV and furniture at a public auction — a warrant sale.

We got 400 people to the auction place. I had an interdict — like an English injunction — ordering me not to be within 100 yards, but I ripped it up publicly. The whole place went up. There was a fight and we won.

They called the warrant sale off. That was a victory, and they’ve never done one since. I was sent down for six months for contempt of court. But we got our own back because I was elected as a Glasgow city councillor when I was in jail.

It was an incredible campaign. It was a portent for the future.

Beccy Palmer, Poll tax prisoner

I was in Gateshead, Newcastle, and we had a really active anti poll tax group. We had a meeting down our street—almost everyone wasn’t paying.

When I got a summons I took it to the group and said, “I don’t want to pay but that will mean going to prison. What do people think?” They said they would support me. Being part of an organisation that could rally round made me feel more confident. There was a protest outside when I went to court, with union banners.

I showed the court I couldn’t afford the poll tax. I could have paid £1 a week, but I wasn’t paying on principle. They sent me down for three months. The council leader said I was a stupid girl who needed a spanking.

When other prisoners being taken from the court heard what I was in for, they started rocking the prison van, shouting, “Let her out!”

Durham prison was a shock. Taking away your liberty is an understatement. There were cockroaches, dirt, bad food — I went down to six and a half stone. But the prisoners respected me. I got more than 1,000 letters while I was in there from all around the world. It was worth it — absolutely.

Carmela Ozzi, Trafalgar Square defendent

The march was very exciting, loud and positive. When we got to Trafalgar Square it was starting to get tense.

There was some kind of fight with the police. Things started flying. The police were getting very aggressive. This woman under a police van got hurt — then people got really angry.

The police started pushing and shoving people. The guy I was with thought he’d lost his brother.

He went to where there was a fight going on, to see if his brother was there. The cops arrested him and accused him of trying to hit a policeman. I ran towards him and I got grabbed by a copper from the back.

I was charged with throwing 12 placards and a bottle. I wasn’t jailed, but the guy I was with served ten days.

John Tipple, One of the Colchester 15

Thousands of us were demonstrating in Colchester and the police had barred our way from marching into town.

They cut up rough with us. There was pushing and shoving on the police line.

We marched down to the poll tax office. They’d covered up the sign on the office and someone ripped the sign off. A few things were thrown and then the police charged the demonstration on horseback.

The police made a few attempts to arrest me because I was an organiser. I was held for 72 hours and charged with incitement to riot. Others were charged with riot, and a lad was also charged with incitement.This was happening in all the sleepy towns around the country.

I am really proud to have been part of the movement that got rid of Thatcher. I’d gladly do it all again.The case against me fell apart. A few were found guilty of lesser charges. The longest prison sentence was about two years. We stuck together and remained solid. Many of the people involved in the trial are still in touch — it bound us together

Now I’m standing for Respect in the general election in Harwich.

Phil Ramsell, Poll tax prisoner

The poll tax was an unjust tax. We were refusing to pay in solidarity with those who couldn’t pay. The government was prepared to imprison people for non-payment.

The Labour council in Stockport stuck to the letter of the law. It dawned on me when I got the summons to court that I might be sent down. There were only a handful of people sent to prison in my area. I was sent to prison for 28 days.

Another activist, Andy Smalley, was also sent down. It was grim.

It was a year or two after the Strangeways prison riot and prisoners were being transferred to police cells around the north west and West Midlands. I was shipped about between locations.

Other prisoners were quite supportive — though they found it strange that someone had been sent down for a political campaign.

I got tons of mail and support. The coppers who were guarding the cells were amazed at the amount of mail they had to deliver.

I never paid the poll tax. It was not a pleasant experience, but I don’t have any regrets.

Phoebe Watkins, Trade union campaigner

I was a council worker in the Camden council housing department and the union convenor. I was living in another London borough, Islington, at the time. I refused to pay the poll tax.

I was arrested and faced up to three months in prison. We built a campaign around my court case. I think there were three court appearances with big demonstrations. We occupied the court and all got thrown into cells.

At the final hearing, which was to put me in prison, the council backed down and decided to take the money out of my wages. The campaign made them back off. Campaigns like mine were key to defeating the poll tax.

The main thing I learned was that the government was attacking us as individuals and it was important to try to turn it into a collective struggle.

The aftermath

THE MASS civil disobedience that confronted the poll tax — especially the Trafalgar Square riot — fatally wounded Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Tory MP Alan Clark, one of Thatcher’s biggest fans, wrote the day after the poll tax riot, “In the corridors and tea rooms people are now talking openly of ditching Thatcher to save their skins.”

Thatcher limped on until November 1990. The poll tax was abolished in March 1991.

The Tories haemorrhaged support. In the weeks after the Trafalgar Square riot Labour soared to 24.5 percentage points above the Tories.

But the Labour Party, led at the time by Neil Kinnock, squandered this support, allowing John Major to win the 1992 election.

In the wake of the 1992 election, Socialist Worker wrote, “Last week 11.5 million people voted Labour. That is three million less than the number of summonses, warrants and benefit deduction orders issued for poll tax non-payment.

“If all the people who have at some time refused to pay the tax had voted Labour, Neil Kinnock would have a majority of 119.”

Instead of capitalising on the wave of opposition to the tax, Labour attacked those who refused to pay and protested against it.

As councils in England and Wales started introducing the tax in 1990 protests began outside town halls. Kinnock condemned “vicious or intimidatory demonstrations”.

In the week when the Tories abandoned the tax, Socialist Worker summed up Labour’s record: “Labour did not call a single demonstration. Not one Labour council voted against implementing the tax.”

Following the Trafalgar Square riot, Labour’s home affairs spokesperson Roy Hattersley urged the courts to hand out “exemplary sentences to those involved”.

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Sat 9 Apr 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1946
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