Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Poll Tax and the Battle of Trafalgar Square - 20 years on

Wednesday April 14th 2010 - 7.30pm
At the North London Community House. 22 Moorefield Road, London N17 [The old Postal Sorting Office]. All welcome.

*  Come along to hear about one of the largest and most successful grass-roots opposition movements of the 20th century in the UK
*  Exhibition of material/posters etc from the time
*  Film of the battle of Trafalgar Square
*  Rub shoulders with activists from all over London who were there!
*  Bring food to share..

What was it all about?  How was the campaign won?  What we can we learn from what was achieved?

An unfair and hated tax    
The Tory Government had decided to implement a new tax on April 1st 1990 to replace local government taxation systems. They described as their most important, 'flagship' legislation. It was to be a tax on each person rather than on property (as before). The government named it the 'Community Charge', but protestors dubbed it 'the  Poll Tax', drawing parallels with the legendary Poll Tax mass uprisings in 1381 which successfully defeated the idea for 600 years!

It was immediately seen as a tax on the poor (who lived in more crowded conditions than the rich, obviously) and an extension of government powers over the population due to the need for registration of every
individual. It had been introduced into Scotland the previous year to uproar, with massive defiance and popular independent local campaigns in  every neighbourhood encouraging non-cooperation and non-payment. They were mostly up against Labour Party administrations (which dominated local government, including almost all working class communities). A majority of people refused to pay.

Mass opposition and protests   Inspired by hatred of the government, of the tax, and by the inspirational grass-roots movement in Scotland, a mass movement of thousands of local Anti-Poll Tax groups grew up in every community in England in the build up to the implementation date, April 1st 1990. Local and regional Anti-Poll Tax Federations were formed. As each local government authority set the poll tax level they hoped to collect from the local population there were huge and angry protest mobilisations at Town Halls all over the country, sometimes involving thousands of local residents.

The battle of Trafalgar (Square)  A countrywide demonstration was planned for Central London. On March 31st 1990 over 250,000 people participated in the demo, calling for mass non-payment and resistance to the tax. There was a carnival atmosphere. As the demonstration passed Thatcher's headquarters (Downing St) there was a confrontation with police, which soon turned into a battle with mounted police and riot units. Eventually, Trafalgar Sq nearby became a battleground as thousands of people fought police for control of the square. As the police became more desperate and brutal the battle spread to nearby streets and throughout the main commercial streets in the West End. It went on for hours.

The media and politicians went hysterical, trying to deflect public anger (at the tax and at the repressive policing) against the 'irresponsible' anti-poll tax movement and the 'extremists' who fought the police. Some
thought that the battle had been planned by the State to discredit the radical nature of the struggle (mass non-payment and street protests) and split the movement.

Up to 500 were arrested during and after the demo, and many charged with heavy charges. There were raids on dozens of activists' homes over the next few weeks in a policing operation that was called 'Operation
Carnaby'.  In April, defendants and supporters set up the Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign which supported all those arrested and helped them fight their case, as well as campaigning for the whole anti-poll tax movement to back those arrested (including the hundreds jailed for non-payment of the tax). And to demonstrate again in Trafalgar Sq in defiance of police calls to ban certain types of demos in Central London.
All this was achieved.

18 million refuse to pay, and Thatcher resigns   The stakes were very high. The repression was countered. The movement stayed united and defiant. Public support increased after the demo. By the following year
18 million people were refusing to pay the tax. Thatcher resigned, largely as a result of the damage to her credibility and strategy over the poll tax fiasco. And a few days before an anniversary demo at
Trafalgar Sq the next March, PM John Major announced that the tax was uncollectable and would be scrapped.

A historic victory    This movement showed that:

-   the right to public services shouldn't depend on systematic robbery of working class people of their income
-   any oppressive law or measure can be defied and defeated by mass non-cooperation
-   grass roots self-organisation with mass public support can be inspirational and an unstoppable force for change
-   the right to protest can be defended
-   radical ideas and ways of working do not need to be marginal, but can be mainstream and a real alternative to electoral politics

There is also the power of collective folk-memory, even across 6 centuries, that an unjust measure can be beaten. That demonstrates the importance of celebrating our radical history.

No comments:

Post a Comment