Poll Tax Riots
What subsequently became known as The Battle of Trafalgar Square, the London Poll Tax Riots of March 1990, was one of the turning points of modern British Politics. Margaret Thatcher , Prime Minister since 1979 , was heavily criticised by people both outside and inside the Conservative Party. Her refusal to move from a chosen path had previously been seen as a strength, now for many it seemed a great failing.
Behind the riots lay a perennial question in local taxation, how to find a decent and equitable system? The old rates scheme was outmoded, based solely on property rather than the number of people in it, throwing up ridiculous situations such as an old pensioner on his or her own paying more to the council than say half a dozen working people in a smaller property nearby. The new scheme in broad terms put property values to one side, and simply placed a charge on every head of working age.
But the new scheme also generally failed to address the question of ability to pay, i.e. income and family circumstances. Objections were ignored by the government; resolve, a virtue, had seemingly turned into arrogance, a vice.
A demonstration to be centred on Trafalgar Square was arranged to take place on March 31, but both organisers and those policing it lost control of the happening. When it became obvious the numbers were too great for Trafalgar Square, the organisers sought permission to move the venue to Hyde Park , but were refused. The far left became more prominent as the conventional left backed away from the affair.
On the day it is thought approaching 200,000 marched. Misjudgements regarding handling the crowds were made: exits were blocked preventing dispersal; allegedly heavy-handed arrests were carried out; police vans it is claimed were used to force their way into the crowd; and even earlier the constraints on police funding meant far fewer officers were on duty than would have been wished, and the riot equipment of some was lacking.
The point at which things got out of hand was near Downing Street: protesters staged a sit-in; police feared an attack on the sanctity of No 10. At about 4pm unrest changed to the violence that lasted until about 3am next day: symbols of conspicuous wealth such as high value cars were attacked; some shops in the West End were looted; police officers were pelted with bricks and scaffolding from building works in the area. It is suggested that at one point, though no gunshots were fired by protesters, the police were considering using armed response units, such was the scale of the violence, most evident in the pall of smoke over Trafalgar Square. Tube stations in the epicentre of the unrest were closed, as were pubs and restaurants: the capital as an entity was affected.
Almost 500 demonstrators were charged, though the cases against many collapsed rather too easily for the comfort of the government, suggesting that it was not simply a case of a few thousand unprovoked anarchists running amok. The riots were the worst seen in London in the entirety of the 20th century. In the 1381 poll tax rebellion the government of the day solved the problem by killing Wat Tyler , the head of the rebels. In the 1990 version it was the head of the government whose head rolled, albeit metaphorically, with the riots as one of the factors in the decision of the Conservative later in the year to replace Thatcher with John Major – his first Commons speech as PM saw him lance the poll tax boil by promising to replace it with the Council Tax, imperfect still but more easily defended than its forerunner.
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