The Poll Tax Riots of 1990

Evil in return

 “Walter Cobb” [pen-name of Gwydion M. Williams] accepts the view of Tory Home Secretary David Waddington that the Trafalgar Square riot was caused by ‘sheer wickedness’. But the origins of that wickedness are to be found on the Tory front bench.

At a time when everyone expected the March 31st poll tax demonstration to be just another demo, several of us went to try to sell copies of L&TUR. We hoped to get through to a different crowd of people. We found a different crowd of people, indeed – but not one that was likely to buy copies of a serious political journal. We didn’t manage many sales, and people selling other left journals seemed to be doing no better. Though a great variety of people were there, as on any demonstration, a surprisingly large number were lumpen and apolitical. Shouting slogans against Thatcher was all they were interested in. We even got some hostility, because we identified ourselves as a part of the broad labour and trade union movement, rather than using some lurid title like Red Ranter or Socialist Headbanger.

All of us had gone before the big trouble started, so I am in no position to add to what has already appeared in the papers – except that the police were photographing people rather more openly and publicly than they usually do. But anyone who knows London will guess that a lot of the trouble came from the place itself. Trafalgar Square is close to the centres of power, and an ideal place to feel alienated in. Hyde Park is much better for quietly dispersing a crowd – trees and lawns tend to calm people down, and there is Speakers Corner for those who still need to let off steam.

The organisers had asked for the march to be redirected to Hyde Park, and this was refused. This point was made in the parliamentary debate, but received less attention than it deserved.

One might have expected Norman Tebbit to say:

“It is inconceivable that violence on such a scale was spontaneous. On Saturday, I called for exemplary sentences for those who were convicted of committing criminal acts. May I today emphasise the importance – perhaps the greater importance – of prosecuting those who planned and organised the mayhem?”

Unfortunately, it was actually Roy Hattersley, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, who said the worlds I’ve quoted. He let the government off the hook, more or less going into alliance with them against the march organisers. He didn’t raise the matter of the refusal to allow the march to go to Hyde Park, and when it was raised he made too little of it

It was left to others in the debate to make the points that Hattersley should have made. Thus Dick Douglas asked the Home Secretary

“Will he compare the events in London with the peaceful rally that was held in Glasgow and remember that we in Scotland have been demonstrating peacefully against the poll tax for three years?”

He added that

“I have fought against violence all my life but I have also fought against injustice to the poorer sections of the population.”

And Tony Banks said

“Is it not a fact that the vast majority of people on that demonstration were there to demonstrate peacefully… Is it not also a fact that extremists on the street need extremists in Government and that with the Prime Minister, who is sitting next to the Home Secretary, the extremists in our society have all the cause and justification that they need?”

For the march to end in a fight with the police was, of course, totally lunatic. The poll tax is actually fairly unpopular among police officers. According to the independent magazine Police Review, police would sympathise with the aims of the demonstration, since “every officer will lose money as a result of the poll tax.” (The Independent, April 6th.) It’s stupid to treat the police as the enemy on an issue where there could be a large degree of sympathy. But, as I said, it was a fairly lumpen crowd, full of the sort of people who see the police as natural enemies.

A bunch of anarchist poseurs called Class War have claimed credit for the violence. Actually, they can’t have had all that much to do with it. They are not an organisation with hundreds of reliable street-fighters who can be turned loose at a moment’s notice. A lot of their previous efforts have flopped – notably Stop the City, which didn’t.  It will be interesting to see if anything happens to them after this latest bust-up. They seem to enjoy a strange immunity, rather as if someone very highly placed thinks that they are rather useful to the Thatcherite cause.

It has been left to Hackney Council, controlled by the Labour Left, to take effective action – they suspended 28-year-old Town Hall clerk and ‘Class Warmonger’ Andy Murphy, after he’d given an interview full of stupid remarks that Thatcher could conveniently denounce. Actually, I can’t really support Hackney Council for punishing him for something that has nothing to do with his work. But it’s interesting that they look for ways to get at Class War, whereas the police have somehow failed to take action against people who are blatantly doing their best to cause riots and sundry mayhem.

Class War could only flourish in the conditions that Thatcher has created. And it took the Poll Tax, and its widespread rejection by the whole society, including a large part of the Tory Party, to create the conditions for a riot. Laws that the leader of the governing party has imposed on an unwilling society just do not have the same standing as laws that the whole society has agreed to and accepted. In pushing ahead with poll tax, and various other measures, Thatcher has gone against the unwritten laws of political life – unwritten laws that have given Britain political continuity since 1688.

As I said, the rioters were not particularly nice people. Most of them would have been on the fringes of society in almost any possible social set-up. But it has taken Thatcher, with her enthusiasm for all things American, to create something like the American underclass.

An underclass is not a nice thing. The best thing to be done with it is to abolish it, reabsorb it back into the working class. But that would mean reasonable jobs, cheap accommodation, a general attitude of social concern. The very opposite of Thatcherism, in fact

If that does not happen, the future could be very nasty. We on the left are often tempted to idealise the victims of oppression. The fact is, while the occasional individual will be ennobled by suffering and misfortune, most people are degraded by it. As W. H. Auden put it:

“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return”.

Auden actually said this in 1939, after fleeing to America to escape World War Two. He recognised that Germany had produced Nazism because it had been brutally treated in the Versailles peace treaty. He also recognised that just protests against an unjust treaty had turned into something decidedly evil. He had no solution – it was left to others to first destroy Nazism, and then create a Europe in which Germany could fit in as a positive force. But the observation was a shrewd one – much shrewder than anything T. S. Eliot ever came up with.

In the late 20th century, we have the means to provide a good life for everyone. People like Thatcher are determined to tum everything into a nasty rat-race instead. A rat-race will usually be won by rats. And the hopeless losers in the same race can sometimes be even more vicious, having little to lose and a lot to be angry about. So the next time Waddington or one of the other Tories starts talking about wickedness, agree with them, and then point out where the original wickedness came from.


This article appeared in May 1990, in Issue 17 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at