Exactly 20 years ago today, an estimated 200,000 -to-300,000 demonstrators converged on London in what was probably (then) the biggest protest march in Britain since the war. Their target was Thatcher’s hated Community Charge (aka The “Poll Tax”), a viciously regressive local tax that required (as someone put it) the duke to pay the same as the dustman, penalising the poor while massively reducing the annual rate bills of those with the most valuable properties. It had been introduced in Scotland the year before and resulted in mass protests, non-payment and jailings. Now it was to be introduced in England and Wales.
Anti-Poll Tax groups had been organised throughout the country, with the Militant Tendency generally taking the lead (the rest of the far left, including the SWP, had been a bit slow to register the level of anti-Poll Tax hatred that existed amongst the public) and it was these local groups who provided the mass support for the demo, organised by Militant wearing its hat as the “All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation” . But the mobilisation of London-based activists (especially anarchists) was decisive in what eventually happened.
Let me set the scene: a lovely hot sunny day, a magnificent turnout in a popular cause, everyone (so it seemed) in good spirits, the various factions of the left (relatively) united, and a good-natured march from Kennington (where the Chartists had gathered in 1848) to Trafalgar Square, accompanied by bands, drummers and other miscellaneous noise-makers. Even the cops seemed friendly and some made little secret of their personal sympathy with the cause.
So when we arrived at Trafalgar Square, I and a number of other comrades felt our job was done for that day at least, and having no particular desire to hang about for the speeches, headed off to a well-known nearby apres demo watering-hole.
The official plan was -as ever - to have just ”a quick one” and then return to the rally. But, of course, that didn’t happen. We stayed in the pub all afternoon and – as I recall – had a very agreeable booze-up, our enjoyment enhanced by the knowledge that we’d all played a crucial and irreplaceable role in the historic events of a few hours before.
Amazing as it may seem, we were completely oblivious to the events unfolding outside. When we eventually emerged unsteadily into the early evening, we were astonished to be confronted by by a hellish scene of fire and smoke, people running and screaming, mounted, baton-wielding police and helmeted riot cops attacking demonstrators and cowering figures in doorways, while mobs of anarchists smashed shop windows and looted. It was like something out of Dante.
I’d like to be able to say that I joined in with the anarchists, but the truth is that I was in no fit state for a punch-up with the cops and just wanted to get away and onto the train for home without being batoned or arrested - which I managed to do by a combination of cowardice, stealth and sheer good luck.
It was obvious – even at the time – that the anarchists had carefully planned and deliberately provoked the confrontation. The Militant Tendency / All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation were not happy about the riot and came close to publicly denouncing it. But it has to be said that the riot brought the campaign unprecedented media coverage, proved a tremendous boost to the anti-Poll Tax cause, eventually led to the downfall of Thatcher and surely contributed to the defeat of the Tory government itself seven years later.
My role that day was far from heroic. But at least I wasn’t amongst those contemptible fake-”left”‘s who said things like:
“These lunatics, anarchists and other extremists, principally from the Socialist Workers Party, were out for a rumble the whole time, and now they’ve got it. If they didn’t exist, the Tories would need to invent them” (G. Galloway MP).