There was a sense of unrepentant triumphalism from the proponents of neoliberalism as the Berlin Wall came down. Capitalism had won, Communism was dead – and it was the particularly rapacious Capitalism of Thatcher and Reagan ‘wot won it’.
Francis Fukuyama – political historian and establishment toady – pronounced ‘The End of History’. The future had arrived, and it was one world, united, in the pursuit of profit.
Unfortunately for Thatcher – and the entire establishment – trouble was brewing on the home front. Trouble that would eventually see the ugly demise of the most notorious Prime Minister of the post war era.
This Is Just The Beginning
The Anti Poll Tax campaign started in 1987, from the very humble beginnings of a few people sitting in a room. By 1992 it had toppled the most notorious post war Prime Minister, organised the largest demonstration ever seen, and ultimately reversed the hated law.
There were riots, imprisonment and a lot of organising along the way. Yet when it started no one could have seen it coming…
When the first meetings were held in Scotland in ‘87, in preparation for the roll out of the tax in ‘89 , people immediately moved the discussion onto non-payment.
“We didn’t vote for them in ’87. We wiped them out. How dare they impose this unwanted policy on us first?”
This is the sentiment expressed by Tommy Sheridan, which seemed to be widely held amongst Scots.
“The fact it was an ‘unfair, unjust and immoral’ tax, the most common description at the time, was compounded by the decision to introduce it in Scotland a year before England and Wales.”
The Poll Tax (or Community charge as Thatcher dubbed it) was an attempt by the Tory government to impose an equal rate of council tax for all people everywhere.
‘Why should a Duke pay more than a dustman,’ was the poorly thought out slogan for the policy. This immediately stirred the ire of the majority of the populace, as the logic was surely self evident.
The left as it had been was not up to the task of stopping it though. The collapse of the Unions after the miner’s strike (and the Wapping press worker’s strike), three terms of Thatcher and failure of the Soviet system had put the left in a sort of malaise.
When the Scotland campaign for non-payment took off the Labour Party and the TUC opposed it, and any action that broke the law.
There were active groups in the UK, however, ready to start organising around the Poll Tax and boy, did they get a reception.
Paying no heed to the Labour Party or TUC, Scots formed barricades and chased bailiffs off estates. The Militant (later the ‘Socialist Party’- a party of trotskyist Socialists who entered the Labour party, only to later be kicked out by Blair and Co) supported the formation of the Federation of Poll Tax Unions in 1988.
This federation was democratically organised from the bottom up, with the members in total control. The decision to trial the hated tax in Scotland, was not only a cruel thing to do, but was also incredibly stupid.
“By the end of 1989 the non-payment army approached the one million mark. Marches and rallies involved tens of thousands. Council chambers were occupied. Sheriff officers were barred entry to non-payers’ homes and often returned to find their own offices under siege. The Tax was fatally wounded and when we spread the campaign to England and Wales the 13 million new recruits to the non-payment army rendered the poll tax a dead duck.”
Haringey was one such place where people had been organising to make links with Scottish campaigners and prepare for the coming of the Poll Tax.
A few local independent groups organised for it, including the Direct Action Movement (later Solidarity Federation, who had a key role supporting the federation across the UK), before the Labour Party, Communist Party and Trades Council organised a public debate in 1988.
“In 1988, few people were aware of the impending Poll Tax”. (They) told us how bad it was going to be and then told us there was nothing we could do about it”.
The idea of non-payment was far too popular though – and after the Scots had shown the way, the rest of the UK quickly followed suit.
“We were chasing down bailiffs the road naked, throwing piss at them – stopping bailiffs together. 50,000 people in Haringey alone would refuse to pay”
At first communities tried to fill up courts, making it impossible to try cases because of the sheer volume of people. This did lead to some sentences though, and soon the Poll Tax Federation realised that it was easier and more effective to simply not show up to court.
It was impossible to get people to attend court, as communities organised watches for bailiffs and either chased them off, or hid from them. In the end, bailiffs gave up the ghost, there was too few of them, and too many people who didn’t want them there.
The Labour party cravenly tried to enforce these cuts, with a few notable exceptions. In Liverpool – a Militant dominated council, the local MP and Militant activist Terry Fields refused to pay and spent sixty days in prison.
Outside of these exceptions, it was ordinary working people mostly, who organised themselves into the Poll Tax Federation.
By the beginning of 1990 the Federation decided to call a demonstration. It was clear that the campaign was winning, but the chance to come together and feel the power of the united movement was seen as important.
As with many days that got out of hand, the police made several statements about being ‘up for it.’
Class War – the Anarchist insurrectionists famous for such stunts as ‘Bash the Rich’ where they famously they beat up the rich denizens of the Henley regatta and other such stunts – managed to take control of the front of the march.
250,000 people had turned out. There had never been a demonstration so large in England. Local demonstrations went on in almost every locality in the UK. As the march paraded around London, council buildings, town halls and other symbols of power were being occupied and attacked all round the country.
Class War managed to lead the march in a different direction than expected, and as it split in two, one part of the demonstration began to rally in Trafalgar Square.
With no provocation, and for no seeming reason (other than maybe feeling overwhelmed by the size of the demonstration) the police charged the families and working people in Trafalgar Square.
The footage of them driving cars and horses into the, originally peaceful, demonstration, quashed any claims of Anarchists and trouble makers being to blame for what happened next.
The crowd reacted to the horses charging by defending themselves with whatever was available. A nearby building site was ransacked, and as the Police broke in panic, the City of London, and central London in general, became a target for the demonstrators ire.
In the aftermath, Class War was blamed for inciting a riot. Whilst it did not claim responsibility, it was clearly the police’s fault, a member of Class War called everyone on the march ‘working class heroes’, including the rioters.
This made them scapegoats, as the rest of the movement – including the Militant, the Labour Party, and the TUC – turned on the rioters across the country for their lawlessness.
As it turned out, all the arrests for violence got overturned thanks to the new technology of hand held video cameras catching the true culprits – the police. Undoubtedly though, there was huge amounts of property damage, and not just in London, but across the country. In some places the damage continued for days.
Here is some grainy footage from Class War’s own documentary on the subject:
The campaign became even stronger from this point, and more popular. The attempts to divide people had failed, and the Militant’s Tommy Sheridan even retracted his condemnation of the demonstrators.
Activity was now focused on prisoner and court support, as the Conservative Party realised it was rapidly losing complete control of the country. Very few people (less than 100) nationwide went to jail for non payment, or for the Trafalgar Square riots. What sentences there were, were mostly short – though a small number of people went to prison for over a year.
In October another 50,000 person demonstration escalated into a riot, the lower turn out mostly explainable by the fact that it was clear that the campaign was being won. The Tory party was on the brink of caving, and the local Poll Tax Federations were stronger than ever.
In November, several Tories challenged Thatcher for leadership of the party. She didn’t even make it through the first round of voting.
John Major was elected. He continued to try and enforce the policy until the Spring of 1991 when he finally capitulated, reversing the policy, though attempts were made to collect the unpaid taxes to date.
They are still waiting for hundreds of millions back – including at least £15 million from Liverpool.
The incredible thing about the whole campaign was it showed that when people just decided not to pay their tax, en masse, there was simply no way for the state to collect it. The government had to write off millions in lost revenues.
Taxes are fundamental to the functioning of the modern state (by which I mean the repressive elements of the state – the police, the army, the government). If people suggested a campaign of non-payment of tax now, you may be looked at as in insane.
But it was only 1990 when the British people last decided to withhold their money, and look what happened.
Was this the End Of History? No, it was just the Beginning.