Political reflections on the Poll Tax Riots 30 years on

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Poll Tax riots. 30 years on they look both glorious and yet a tiny blip in the history of the people of the UK. They mark the last time that the working class won on the streets. The civil disorder culminated in major battles with police in London’s Trafalgar Square on 30th March 1990 and in turn resulted in the downfall of Thatcher as prime minister.

The political legacy of the riots was the end of Thatcher’s hold on power in the UK but it would be wrong to think of the riots as the only factor in her downfall. She had already been in power for a decade and it’s not as if her downfall lessoned her ideological grip on the lives of people in the UK. Thatcherism continued and continues to negatively impact upon us all.

While we can look back and see the riots as an example of a working class political uprising, crucially one that actually worked, we can also lament at how rare these are and how much we have been in retreat. The Thatcher legacy of individualising struggle by destroying union power and devastating communities such as those in mining areas is there for all to see. Her deregulation of the markets is another “success” her followers seem to get sexually aroused over. The resulting privatisation of public services, and perhaps even more importantly, public spaces has made political action ever harder.

We need to view the success of these riots not with rose tinted spectacles then. We need to be realistic about what happened that Saturday. It was battle in a war which we are still losing. It cut off the head of the snake but it failed to kill the beast. It succeeded in bringing people together to fight the adversity of a grossly unfair tax. One of Thatcher’s mistakes was to trial the tax in Scotland before anywhere else. This naturally angered the people affective and stoked up the sense of rebellion across the UK and it just kept growing.

The argument for the tax being a flat fee for everyone was that it was fair. Everyone paid the same so it was equality in action. Except of course that not everyone could afford to pay the same amount. The previous rates system only included home owners and so this tax would extend the remit to all households, regardless of wealth and income. The sense of injustice was large and created a cohesive movement. The riot was backed up by masses of people refusing to pay the tax and clogging up the court system. There was also rioting taking place in towns and cities up and down the country in the run up to the main event. The attempt at individualising struggle failed with this tax. There is a contradiction in a political ideology intent on individualising struggle and then bringing in a tax which charges people the same amount, or in other words in a collectivised way. The violence that spread that day on the protest shocked the establishment. The tax was eventually abandoned and replaced with the more progressive Council Tax, still in operation.

Every now and again riots erupt in the UK. The rioting in England in 2011 lacked a strong political direction. They often do. Riots can erupt because of injustice at any moment but it is rare when they have a definite political objective. The last time we saw major violence in the UK of that sort was the student riots in 2010. The last time we can say for sure that the rioters won was in 1990 over the Poll Tax.

It will happen again. There will be riots from time to time. When they are clearly political they offer the best chance for radical change. However, as they are unpredictable they are also something that nobody can plan to influence down what anarchists might see as a positive political route. The best we can hope for is dynamic and active spaces where citizens are working together towards a better political future. The more people such organisations take with them and keep with them, the better placed they will be at nurturing revolt and helping it to flourish.

At some point the current leadership of the Tory party will try to do something vast swathes of the country dislike. When people come to vote with their feet they will need friendly organisations willing to help them on their way towards the barricades. If the lessons of the Poll Tax Riots tell us anything, it’s that the job was only partly done. There’s a war to be won.

Jon Bigger


Photo: James Bourne, CC BY-SA 4.0