The spectre of the Poll Tax Riots tends to shadow any civil disobedience that spills onto the streets of London to this day, but anyone old enough to have a good memory of events that took place in the capital 30 years ago will know few since have matched them in terms of anarchic ferocity. As ever, context counts for a great deal, and the riots that took place on 31 March 1990 were another chapter in a lengthy sequence that stretched back to the Grosvenor Square shindig of 1968. The ugly collision between police and protestors in the aftermath of an anti-Vietnam War march as demonstrators massed outside the US Embassy came as a shock to the general public at the time; although London in particular has quite a history when it comes to ‘the mob’ – encompassing everything from the Gordon Riots of 1780 to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – the immediate post-war period had been relatively quiet when it came to outbreaks of public disorder with a political or ideological bent.
Even though the phrase ‘reading the Riot Act’ refuses to go away, the actual Riot Act itself had been repealed in the UK just the year before the Grosvenor Square incident of 1968, presumably because it was felt society as a whole was less prone to erupt into spontaneous public violence than it had been at the time of the Act’s introduction in 1714. By and large, it was. Yes, there had been serious racial trouble in Notting Hill in 1958 as well as clashes between police and ‘ban the bomb’ demonstrators in Trafalgar Square in 1961, but the kind of widespread anarchy that led to troops shooting dead around 285 members of the public during the Gordon Riots was seen very much as past tense. The Riot Act hadn’t been literally read in England since 1919, and the need to issue a vocal warning to twelve or more who were ‘unlawfully assembled’ was deemed irrelevant to the modern age. Ironically, it was only after the repeal of the Riot Act in 1967 that the kind of civil disorder familiar to 18th century Britain resurfaced.
The upsurge in industrial disputes that came to characterise the 1970s often led to volatile picket-line incidents – with the worst being at the height of the Grunwick Strike in 1977; but there was also football hooliganism, National Front marches, the 1976 ‘race riot’ during the Notting Hill Carnival, and not forgetting the virtually daily battles between the British Army and the citizens of Belfast and Londonderry. Within a decade, the sight of battalions of Bobbies wading in with truncheons and then progressing onto full riot gear with shields became a commonplace image on news broadcasts; the 1980s merely continued the trend, with the inner-city riots of 1981 and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 being amongst the most memorably incendiary. Therefore, the Poll Tax Riots appear perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the times. As most of the more serious examples during this period were sparked by grievances centring on social, racial and financial inequality, it was no surprise that rioters spilling out of Trafalgar Square in 1990 smashed the windows of and set ablaze various symbols of the great divide such as car showrooms, wine bars and night-clubs. After all, the Poll Tax itself was seen as the legislative manifestation of this divide.
Even before she became Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher appeared in a party political broadcast during the October 1974 General Election and announced it was her intention to get rid of the rates. As a system of taxation for funding local government, the rates were a levy on property rather than people and were one of those obsessive subjects devoted Tory voters tend to fixate on with an almost autistic intensity. Mrs T took her time, though; the rates weren’t eventually superseded by the Community Charge until she’d been in power for a decade, and the new tax – which was no respecter of social circumstances, with the same fixed rate for everyone, regardless of income – proved to be the first nail in her coffin. Scotland was used as a guinea pig for what became colloquially known as ‘the Poll Tax’ the year before its introduction in England and Wales, further cementing the Tories as the enemies north of the border. There were widespread refusals to pay and by the time the Poll Tax was UK-wide in 1990, an opinion poll revealed 78% were opposed to it. Although the likes of the Miners’ Strike had been an early example of Government and media colluding to generate polarisation that would aid the desired outcome, there was a substantial consensus on the Poll Tax that placed its supporters very much in the minority. When most of a Prime Minister’s Cabinet are amongst the opposition to an unpopular policy, chances are it ain’t gonna work.
Mrs Thatcher was deposed by her own party within eight months of the Poll Tax Riots and her successor as PM John Major announced his intention to scrap the tax in his inaugural speech. Even if the riots of 31 March hadn’t happened, the tax was so universally reviled that it was destined to be put out of its misery, anyway. However, it was telling that, although many who took part in the riots were those that always turn up at a demo with aggro in mind (and continue to do so), the anger directed towards the police that day seemed fairly general amongst all present. The notorious Special Patrol Group had opened eyes at Grunwick in 1977, but when Thatcher had cynically bussed in Met reinforcements to bolster the local constabularies struggling on the picket-lines at Orgreave, it was a disastrous PR exercise for the police that considerably altered the way in which the wider public saw their law enforcers. The view of the police long held by the country’s immigrant communities – that of them being a de facto government private army, which was precisely the concern of Brits that delayed the introduction of a police force for centuries – now became the default setting for many; events this year appear to have solidified such a view of the boys in blue.
There were shades of the Poll Tax Riots back in the summer, which was ironic considering the humiliating and nauseating deference shown by the police towards the BLM protestors, creating an atmosphere that laid bare officers’ political leanings and gave the green light to Antifa to deface and desecrate their surroundings in a famously ‘peaceful protest’. But even if the BLM event couldn’t quite match the Poll Tax Riots in scale (as neither could Saturday’s anti-lockdown protest in the same location), the potential for something comparable is certainly in the air – and the police aren’t helping matters. Their blatant favouritism, taking the knee on one cause and putting the boot in on the other, is something they don’t even try and hide anymore. Along with the petty, Jobsworth elements that the pandemic has brought to the fore, and the ‘check your thinking’ cyber division, the image of the police as a Gestapo Woke militia actively avoiding fighting actual crime is stoking as much resentment as the Government’s latest hapless measures to combat Covid-19.
What distinguishes this year’s incidents from 1990 is the polarisation of opinion that owes more to the unholy marriage of media and Government characteristic of the Miners’ Strike than it does to the orthodoxy of opinion on the Poll Tax. Government can play on fears they deliberately engineered to ensure compliance, using crass and immoral threats of overwhelmed hospitals or dying grannies dropping like blue-rinsed bluebottles after a five-second hug from a grandchild; this divide-and-rule tactic is working along Remainer/Leaver lines in that the population is split, but the diminishing trust in our leaders to get us out of this almighty mess is undoubtedly on the rise, and another six months like the last will probably break the patience of even the most law-abiding saints. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy devotee of Piers Corbyn or David Icke to regard the brutal removal of civil liberties as an outrage that cannot be indefinitely tolerated; and when the people feel powerless, they will grab any semblance of power they can; history has shown us if that means rioting, they’ll do it. It’s probably safe to say we ain’t seen nothing yet.
© The Editor