20 years ago today – the protest that brought down Thatcher and her Poll Tax!

20 years ago today, on March 31st 1990, I was part of this huge crowd of hundreds of thousands people protesting against Maggie Thatchers Poll Tax. This became known as the ‘Battle of Trafalgar Square’, after police attacks on the protest provoked the largest act of civil unrest in London for a century. This great protest was the culmination of a country wide uprising, where in every town and city in the land, angry crowds of thousands of people marched on their Town Halls. Everywhere, people ripped up and burned their poll tax forms, and millions refused to pay this unjust and anti-working class tax, defying the law in one of the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in that century. All this lead to a crisis in the government, and Thatchers hated regime fell within months, taking her hated poll tax with it. This was a great example of people power. Its what we need again today to stop our rulers making the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism and its bankrupt financial system. Soon we will be faced with massive cuts in jobs, pay, conditions and public services. We need to remember how to fight back!

Here is a film in four parts which outlines the events of that historic day.

Part one

Part two

Part three

Part four

To mark this anniversary, Adrian Johnson, Birmingham’s Poet Laureate, will be in Trafalfar Square, London, where he will perform live performance of his new poem ‘Still no Poll Tax here’ – at 11.30am at the foot of Nelson’s column.
Adrian says that the poem was written as a tribute to the protesters who brought about ithe abolition of the Poll Tax. He added: “Twenty years ago, the wall fell in Berlin, Chinese students stood up in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Mandela walked free and the Stone Roses rocked the dance floors in the UK. But it’s easy to forget that history was also being made closer to home … I was hugely inspired by the action taken by normal, everyday people across the UK to resist the Poll Tax which encouraged others to do the same”.

Still, no poll tax, eh?

by Adrian Johnson – Birmingham poet laureate, 2010

Watt Tyler lost his head for it

a prime minister lost her job for it

thousands went to court against it

Trafalgar Square heaved with life and love and protest to stop it

civil courts got right shirty, filled with anger, ideas and spirit

for what’s right and fair and will power – to just not pay it

bailiff’s got over time, short shrift and rarely could collect it

MP’s sniffed the air and mumbled – far too late – ‘Now we’ve done it.”

Leaflets, banners and street protest said what they could do with it

friendships made and courage raised, together we could fix it,

stuff it, beat it, sod it

that flagship idea that spawned a mutinous flotilla

got scuttled by anger and laughter – stood together

mother, son and daughter

they knew what was right, wanted something better

Twenty years later, you’d hardly believe it

those passionate millions that stood against it

wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t’ave’ad paid it

the tax that came in just one size for the duke in his mansion

and dustman in his terrace

that shook us into action and life – and though overlooked by history

we can remember…

now and then, our story

remember ,the laughter, friendship and life

standing up for something better

and still, no poll tax, here.

c. Adrian Johnson

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “20 years ago today – the protest that brought down Thatcher and her Poll Tax!

  1. Mark Krantz

    Great coverage. I too was there, but I have not seen a lot of this footage. Well done for posting it.

    The day after the battle of Trafalgar was key.

    The print and TV press was all about violent protesters. Roy Hattersley the Labour leader called for ‘exemplary sentences’ and the Militant, who had done brilliant work building the demo and the anti poll tax federation buckled. They too criticised the violence of the demonstrators – which damaged them politically.

    Many people thought trashing the rich shops in the West End was fair game – the level of class hatred at that time was high.

    With the millions who were not paying, and after police violence against the miners in peoples memories, the ‘blame the protesters’ line did not stick.

    Thatcher was brought down because her generalised assault on the class spurred a generalised resistance.

    One question I have. Did the Poll Tax jailings come after Trafalgar Square – or before? Twenty years ago my memory is unclear at the order of events.

  2. barrykade

    Hi Mark. For non-payment you mean? It must have been after the demo. I don’t think the court summonses had come out before then. The poll tax rates had been declared in March, escalating the outrage. I think payment was supposed to begin in April? Makes sense, – new financial year.

    Just posted this on Socialist Unity blog – my reminiscences…

    “Was a brilliant day. The culmination of months of struggle, with huge demo’s in our Lancashire town in the weeks before. On that great day I was in the people-jam outside Downing street, where the police attacked the demo and it first kicked off. Then the police realised they had bit off more than they could chew! At one stage I saw riot police just drop their shields and batons and run for their lives to the sound of a massive roaring crowd! (Never seen that before or since). Sadly, our coaches were booked to head back up north departing at 5pm. So we rallied our large contingent and left, just as palls of smoke were starting to rise across central London. Excited cries came that it was Parliament on fire! But it was just those portacabins in the photo above! Felt like Cinderella having to leave the ball early, or be turned into a pumpkin! I was a young, very ultra-left quasi anarchist SWP member, and had never been so excited in my life. It was like our teenage revolutionist fantasies were coming true before our very eyes! Ah, bliss was it …

    In our small northern town, we had launched an anti-poll tax union (APTU) back in 1989. This was because we are as near to Glasgow as to London, and we took our lead from the Scottish movement, visiting frequently, and twinning with scottish ATPU’s (Scotland had the poll tax a year earlier than England and wales). Our campaign grew out of the network of local trades unionists we gathered around the ambulance workers dispute that preceded these events. Our anti-poll tax union launched itself spontaneously, from a large walk-out by people from a large meeting at the town hall called by the local ‘ratepayers association’ (run by Tory and independent councillors) on the ‘community charge’. People were angry that this ratepayers association said we had to pay it. So this walk out launched one of the first anti-poll tax unions in England. Its first driving energy came from our social drinking and music scene circle consisting of young SWP members and anarchists, then we got a labour left councillor to front us and really grew. We built a mass non-payment campaign from the start, finding the SWP CC position useless. We were too far from the centre, with no stupid party full-timers to curb and control our correct instincts.

    I remember hearing on the radio about the people of Swindon laying siege to their town hall. We thought – lets do that up here! But the first proper demo in our town was organised by a hairdresser on a housing estate. She just told her clients about it and hundreds turned up! Amazing! From this, we arranged another demo on a saturday- which grew to a thousand. Then we had a big demo in town every Saturday untill March 31st battle of Trafalgar. After this,we set up ATPU’s on every estate and had mass demo’s outside the magistrates court when people were summoned for non-payment. We had a mass poll tax form burning in the towns main square. And then we organised ‘bailiff busting’ with flying pickets on the estates, driving poll tax bailiffs from the streets, forcing the bailiff company to drop its contract with the council and flee!

    Every saturday for months we hung an effigy of Margaret Thatcher from a tree in the town centre while we sold copies of socialist worker etc. Little old grannies would come up and smash her face in with their umbrellas and walking sticks! We had to continually repair that bloody effigy! We finally burnt our ‘Thatcher’ on top of a mass community bonfire by the banks of the river on bonfire night in November. Then, a few weeks later, she resigned! There was literally spontaneous dancing in the streets, as people ran out of their houses upon hearing the great news. I wondered if we had voodooo powers, with our effigy burning. But subsequent attempts to repeat this vodoo magic with burning effigies of Blair during the anti-war uprising failed to yield such immediate results, alas!

    The anti-poll tax revolt crystalized all the revolutionary theories I had been filling my young brain with, and made them seem real. I witnessed what the working class could do when it moved en-mass. This has kept the flames of socialism burning in the subsequent 20 years. Our SWP branch trebled and even quadrupled in size, recruiting young workers, and having an average age of about 23. We felt part of history. The Iron curtain was falling and we were the future of socialism. I remember telling a union meeting in the run up to March 31st – “Mass protest has brought down the Iron Curtain – now lets bring down the Iron Lady!” Heady days! The momentum for my band of young comrades carried on, into the anti-Iraq war (Kuwait) movement, then the second great battle against pit closures in 1992, and then into the relaunched anti-nazi league in 1993 and the revolt against the criminal justice act in 1994, before finally breaking up, disoriented by the SWP’s lack of perspectives as the 1990’s went on. Was a great time for me. That was how the years of my youth flew past … ah memories …

  3. Thanks for those videos. Great footage. Well explained documentary too.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Papers #5: 4th April « Resonance

  5. Brilliant article – I was there too! follow me on twitter – @maggie_thatcher

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