20 years on: My Poll Tax Shame

March 31, 2010 at 7:13 pm (anarchism, anonymous, beer, Galloway, hell, history, Jim D, libertarianism, Socialist Party)

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).


  1. Rosie said,

    I’m sure you’re not the only one who went to the demo and didn’t quite see the whole thing through. Some leave the speeches at the rally for a drink, some because they and the person they were groping on the hire coach feel a strong impulse to be away from the crowd for a bit.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    Groping on the coach? It wasn’t you, was it Rosie?

  3. Rosie said,

    Not the poll tax demo. But there was a CND demo in London once. . . Happy days!

  4. Waterloo Sunset said,

    Much as I’d like to claim that anarchists deserve the credit for the riot, and hence the downfall of the tax, the honest truth is that we were as surprised as everyone else by the days events. (I was an excitable sixth former at the time and it was my first big demo).

    Certainly anarchists joined in with and supported the riot, but it really was a genuine explosion of unforseen class anger.

    Class War are the name generally bandyed about here. But the Poll Tax Riot pretty much saved them as an organisation. At the time they were moribund. Around 30 members nationally.

    The main aftermath I recall is that a lot of us got a bit carried away. As a whole, the anarchist movement tilted heavily towards the “one more push!” attitude to revolution for around three years after the riot.

  5. entdinglichung said,

    we young autonomous activists in Germany were thinking at that time, that the revolution in Britain is only a question of time … but we got our information mainly through Class War, Red Action, Direct Action, etc.

  6. Dr Paul said,

    The same thing happened with me. I worked at that time just the other side of the river, and at the end of the march I and a pal from Workers Power took our union banner back to the union room at work, and then went for a pint, completely unaware that a right old barney had in the meantime broken out in Trafalgar Square, less than a mile away.

  7. chjh said,

    Actually, it was obvious even at the time that the police had planned and provoked the confrontation, and that their plans had spectacularly backfired on them.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    Sunset and chjh: a friend and comrade of mine who lived in London and who put me up the night before the demo, told me *in advance* what was going to happen at Downing Street, the Strand and Trafalagar Square and how the anarchists / Class War would make use of the building sites near Traf Square. He was not an anarchist himself (actually a member of the same political tendency as myself: the forunner of the AWL) but he moved in their circles and told me pretty accurately what was going to happen. That’s not to deny the aggression and provocation of the cops, of course.

  9. martin ohr said,

    I ashamed to say I was ill and slept through my alarm ( to be fair to me, the millies/swp had arranged our coach from lancaster for stupidly early). Always amusing though to see some former swp members who also missed the same coach who now swear blind they were there.

  10. chjh said,

    I’m sure that some of the anarchists had plans for kicking off, and some of those actions may have come before the police actions on the demo as a whole. But I’ve been on plenty of demos where a few anarchists had had a pop, and the police have hit back at them, and most of the demo has just watched.

    Trafalgar Square wasn’t like that – thousands of people experienced it as a police attack on the demo as a whole, and either fought back, or stayed and supported those who were fighting back.

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