Poll Tax Riots

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The Poll Tax Riots were a series of riots in British towns and cities during protests against the poll tax (officially known as the "Community Charge"), introduced by the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The largest protest occurred in central London on Saturday, 31 March 1990, shortly before the tax was due to come into force in England and Wales. The disorder in London arose from a morning demonstration which became a violent confrontation between the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), protesters and other activist demonstrators, which ended in rampaging and looting until 3 a.m.[citation needed]


The Thatcher government had long promised to replace domestic rates, which were unpopular and seen by many as an unfair way of raising revenue for local councils.[citation needed] Levied on houses rather than people, the rates meant that someone living alone had to pay the same amount towards the cost of local services as a multi-person household living next door, even though the latter had a much larger combined income and were using more services. The proposed replacement was a flat-rate per capita 'Community Charge', similar to the TV licence (every adult pays the same). The new Community Charge was rapidly renamed a 'poll tax' by its opponents, for the list of people required to pay was based on the electoral register. It was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in England & Wales a year later.

The Community Charge proved extremely unpopular, partly because rich and poor individuals all paid the same, and partly because many who had never had to pay rates (e.g. students and young people living at home with their parents) now had to contribute for the first time to the cost of local services. In November 1989 the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (The Fed) was set up largely by the Trotskyist Militant tendency as a national body which included many Anti-Poll Tax Unions. The committee called a demonstration in London for 31 March 1990, the Saturday before poll tax implementation in England and Wales, having been introduced in Scotland a year earlier. Three days before the event, organisers realised the march would be larger than 60,000 (the capacity of Trafalgar Square) and asked permission from the MPS and the Department of the Environment to divert the march to Hyde Park. The request was denied[1] on the basis that the policing had been arranged for Trafalgar Square and there was no time to re-plan it. A building site on Trafalgar Square with easily accessible supplies of bricks and scaffolding was left largely unsecured while the police set up their centre of operations on the other side of the square. In the days before the demonstration, two "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.[citation needed]

Events of the day[edit]

On 31 March 1990, people began gathering in Kennington Park from 12pm. Turnout was encouraged by fine weather, and between 180,000 and 250,000 arrived. The police report, a year after the riot, estimated the crowd at 200,000. An abandoned rally by the Labour Party may also have contributed to the number of protesters. The march began at Kennington Park at 1:30pm, moving faster than planned because some of the crowd had forced open the gates of the park, presumably in order to avoid being forced through smaller gates. This split the march over both sides of the road, and protesters continued in much the same way for the rest of the route.

By 2:30pm, Trafalgar Square was nearing its capacity. Unable to continue moving easily into Trafalgar Square, at about 3pm the march stopped in Whitehall. The police, worried about a surge towards the new security gates of Downing Street, blocked the top and bottom of Whitehall, and lined the pavement refusing to let people leave the road. Additional Police units were dispatched to reinforce the officers manning the barrier blocking the Downing street side of Whitehall. The section of the march which stopped opposite Downing Street reportedly contained veteran anarchists and a group called "Bikers Against The Poll Tax", some of whom became aggravated by reportedly heavy-handed arrests, including one of a man in a wheelchair.[1]

Mounted riot police were brought in, behind this immobilised section of the march, in theory to clear the protesters from Whitehall, despite both retreat and advance being blocked by further lines of police. Meanwhile, the tail-end had been diverted at the Parliament Square end of Whitehall, and the anarchists it had attracted were at the head of an unpoliced portion of the march. These people walked to Richmond Terrace, bringing the diverted march into Whitehall, opposite Downing Street and behind the police lines on that side of Whitehall. The protesters at the rear of the stationary group, being faced by Mounted police seemingly preparing to charge, sat down on for safety. Despite black-clothed and scarf-masked people running through seemingly from behind the police lines and urging them up, they remained seated until physically dragged away and arrested for "Obstructing Whitehall". The Mounted Police then advanced at speed, forcing the Whitehall section of the march to fight its way into Trafalgar Square.

From 4pm, with the rally nearly officially over, contradictory reports began to arise. According to some sources, mounted riot police (officially used in an attempt to clear Whitehall of protesters) charged out of a side street into the crowd in Trafalgar Square. Whether intentional or not, this was interpreted by the mob as a provocation, fueling anger in the Square where the police had already been pushing sections of crowd back into corners leaving no way out except through the police. At 4:30pm, four shielded police riot vans drove into the crowd (a tactic in dealing with mass demonstrations at the time) outside the South African Embassy, attempting to force through to the entrance to Whitehall where police were re-grouping. The crowd attacked the vans with wooden staves and scaffolding poles. Soon after, rioting began to escalate.

By 4:30pm police had closed the main Underground stations in the area and southern exits of Trafalgar Square, making it difficult for people to disperse. Coaches had been parked south of the river, so many marchers tried to move south. At this point, Militant Fed stewards were withdrawn on police orders. Sections of the crowd, including unemployed coal miners, climbed scaffolding and rained debris on the police below. At 5pm, builders' cabins below the scaffolding caught fire, followed by a room in the South African Embassy on the other side of the Square. The smoke from the fires caused near darkness in the Square and produced a 20-minute lull in rioting.

Between 6 and 7pm, the police opened the southern exits of the Square and slowly managed to move people out of Trafalgar Square. A large section of the crowd was moved back down Northumberland Avenue and allowed over the River Thames in order to return to their organised transport. Two other sections of demonstrators, now very angry and aggravated, were pushed north into the wealthy shopping streets of West End, which suffered reported theft and vandalism. Published accounts detail shop windows being broken, goods looted, and cars being overturned in Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Charing Cross Road, and Covent Garden. Police ordered pubs to close.

The demonstrators mixed in with the general public. By midnight, released figures claimed 113 were injured, mostly members of the public, but also police officers; and 339 people had been arrested.[2] Scuffles between rioters and police continued until 3am. Rioters attacked numerous shops, most notably Stringfellow's nightclub, and car showrooms; and Covent Garden cafés and wine bars were set ablaze, along with motor vehicles.


The response of the London police, the government, the Labour Party and the labour movement and some of the Marxist and Trotskyist left, notably "The Militant Tendency", was to condemn the riot as senseless and to blame anarchists. On ITV News at Ten that evening, the footage had already been rearranged to show the later attacks on the police lines as before the earlier police containment and horse charges. Tommy Sheridan of The Fed/Militant Tendency condemned the protesters. The next day, Steve Nally, also a Militant member and Secretary of the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, said that they would "hold an enquiry and name names."[3] Some anarchists, especially the high-profile Class War organisation and those from the Anarchist 121 Bookshop in Brixton, were happy to defend the actions of the crowd in response to the police. They were joined by other sections of the libertarian left in condoning the riot as legitimate self-defence against police attack. According to Danny Burns:[who?] "Often attack is the only effective form of defence and, as a movement, we should not be ashamed or defensive about these actions, we should be proud of those who did fight back."[4]

The UK Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), which was blamed for the violence by some in the media and by Labour MP George Galloway,[5] refused to condemn protesters, calling the events a "police riot." Pat Stack, then a member of the SWP's Central Committee, told The Times: "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."[6]

In contradiction to what was said at the time by the London police, the government, the Labour Party and the labour movement and most of the Marxist and Trotskyist left, the 1991 police report 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 the defendants, and to accountability to the defendants.[7] The Campaign acquired more than 50 hours of police video. Use of these was influential in acquitting many of the 491 defendants, suggesting the police had fabricated or inflated charges.[2]

In March 1991, the police report suggested additional contributing internal police factors: squeezed overtime budgets which led to the initial deployment of 2,000 men, insufficient given the number of demonstrators; a lack of riot shields (400 "short" riot shields were available); and erratic or poor-quality radio, with a lag of up to five minutes in the computerised switching of radio messages during the evening West End rioting. Prime Minister Thatcher was at a conference of the Conservative Party Council in Cheltenham. The poll tax was the focus of the conference; as coverage of the demonstrations unfolded, speculation developed for the first time about Thatcher's position as leader.[citation needed]


Fall of Thatcher[edit]

The riot in central London did much to contribute to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, who resigned as Prime Minister on November 28th the same year. The national opposition to the poll tax (especially vehement in the North of England and Scotland) was the major factor; an opinion poll had found 78% opposed to it.[8] John Major, who succeeded Thatcher, announced that the tax would be abolished.

Abandonment of the poll tax[edit]

John Major announced in his first parliamentary speech as Prime Minister that the poll tax was to be replaced by Council Tax. The new tax took no account of the income earned by the taxpayer, but did take into account the value of the property on which the householder was taxed. The anti-poll tax movement believed direct action was at least partially responsible for the change in government policy.[citation needed][citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Channel 4 Critical Eye documentary, "Battle of Trafalgar", 9 July 1990, Despite TV
  2. ^ a b Verkaik, Robert (21 January 2006). "Revealed: How police panic played into the hand of the poll tax rioters". The Independent (UK newspaper). p. 10. Retrieved 17 May 2008. 
  3. ^ "London: Anti Poll Tax Riot: The Violence | Archive Footage". ITN Source. 1 April 1990. Retrieved 8 August 2012. 
  4. ^ "Poll Tax rebellion", AK Press 1992, p. 116.
  5. ^ "Poll tax spurs riot", The Gainesville Sun, 1 April 1990.
  6. ^ "Bloody battle of Trafalgar — London poll tax riot", The Sunday Times, 1 April 1990.
  7. ^ Gross, David M. (2014). 99 Tactics of Successful Tax Resistance Campaigns. Picket Line Press. pp. 37–38. ISBN 978-1490572741. 
  8. ^ Nicholas Wood, Robin Oakley, "Poll shows 35% want to bring back rates", The Times, 30 April 1990. MORI found 35% wanted Rates, 29% a local income tax, 15% a 'Roof tax' combining property values with ability to pay, 12% the poll tax, with 9% in favour of neither of these options.

Further reading[edit]


  • The Battle Of Trafalgar, (Despite TV). Broadcast on Channel 4, 18 September 1990.[1]

External links[edit]