The Poll Tax Riots


The peasants’ revolt of 1381 was caused by the same reasons. Mrs. Thatcher ignored the history’s precedent to impose a community charge, levied upon individuals rather than properties to increase accountability. Instead of 14 million who paid rates tax, the poll tax was to be levied upon 38 million citizens. It was the central policy of the Conservative Party’s winning 1987 general election manifesto, but it was met by fierce resistance. The working class felt they were under attack.

Twenty years ago today, the public opposition reached its climax in a riot that turned London’s Trafalgar Square into a pandemonium. On 31 March, 1990, 200,000 showed up for a demonstration while approximately 3,000 of them turned violent attacked the police; in a shocking echo of the Fall of the Berlin Wall mere four months before, they shouted “Stasi” at the police; 340 were arrested. Of 113 people injured, 45 were police; 20 police horses were also injured. Four tube stations were shut; central London was essentially cordoned off. Damages were estimated at £400,000. The riot was a fatal blow for not only the poll tax but also the prime minister. Before the end of the year, Mrs. Thatcher stepped down. Her successor, John Major scrapped the poll tax in favour of the council tax that continues today.

The riots also offered a controversial glimpse into how photographs can bely when taken out of context; I will let the participant present her case:

“Sir: In last week’s article about the poll-tax riot in Trafalgar Square (“The Mob’s brief Rule”, 7 April) there is a large photograph labelled “A West End shopper argues with a protester”. The woman in the photograph is me, and I thought you might like to know the true story behind the picture.

I was on my way to the theatre, with my husband. As we walked down Regent Street at about 6.30pm, the windows were intact and there was a large, cheerful, noisy group of poll-tax protesters walking up from Piccadilly Circus. We saw ordinary uniformed police walking alongside, on the pavement, keeping a low profile. The atmosphere was changed dramatically in moments when a fast-walking, threatening group of riot-squad police appeared.

We walked on to the top of Haymarket, where the atmosphere was more tense and more protesters were streaming up Haymarket from the Trafalgar Square end. Suddenly a group of mounted police charged at full gallop into the rear of the group of protesters, scattering them, passers-by and us and creating panic. People screamed and some fell. Next to me and my husband another group of riot-squad appeared, in a most intimidating manner.

The next thing that happened is what horrified me most. Four of the riot-squad police grabbed a young girl of 18 or 19 for no reason and forced her in a brutal manner on to the crowd-control railings, with her throat across the top of the railings. Her young male companion was frantically trying to reach her and was being held back by one riot-squad policeman. In your photograph I was urging the boy to calm down or he might be arrested; he was telling me that the person being held down across the railings was his girlfriend.

My husband remonstrated with the riot-squad policeman holding the boy, and I shouted at the four riot-squad men to let the girl go as they were obviously hurting her. To my surprise, they did let her go –it was almost as if they did not know what they were doing.

The riot-squad policemen involved in this incident were not wearing any form of identification. Their epaulettes were unbuttoned and flapping loose; I lifted them on two men and neither had any numbers on. There was a sergeant with them, who was numbered and my husband asked why his men wore no identifying numbers. The sergeant replied that it did not matter as he knew who the men were. We are a middle-aged suburban couple who now feel more intimidated by the Metropolitan police than by a mob. If we feel so angry, how onearth ddi the young hot-heads at the rally fell?

Mrs R.A. Sare, Northwood, Middlessex

The Independent Magazine, 14 April 1990″

A photograph like this can be framed in two manners to make either the police or the protestors sympathetic. In fact, it seems it is only the captions that mattered here. Caveat Emptor.

13 thoughts on “The Poll Tax Riots

  1. Mrs SA Sare and her husband were lucky not to have been slapped back-handed across the face or truncheoned a la G20 and aftermath.

    In a strange way it is reassuring to know that the police have been the thugs they are for a long time and that what we are enduring today with difficulty has been around us for a long time. We are waking up, and we don’t like what we see.

  2. The photo itself doesn’t distort the ‘truth’ (whatever that may be). The viewer is led to ‘read’ the image a certain way by a host of (misleading) factors, including the caption, the wider context of the the very one-sided Independent on Sunday coverage, the photographer’s position and ideological assumptions, and so on. The events depicted happened – so in that sense the photo is ‘true’. It’s the meaning of the depiction that is disputed, framed as it is in a very biased way to cover up the ‘fact’ that our beloved British Bobbies can and do act like fascist thugs. Not a story most Independent on Sunday readers want to read over breakfast. Interestingly it took a nice middle aged, middle class white woman to set the record straight in the letters pages. I wonder if they would have published a similar account from witnesses who might not fit their audience demographic so readily?

  3. I have been searching for that photograph, as I want to post a link to it to a debate on the current US riots on Reddit.

    I remember the original article and caption, and remember the letter a week later, too, so I was delighted to find not just the photograph but the letter as well, thank you for linking them. Though never a fan of the Poll Tax, I had been pretty upset by the violence as reported, and Mrs Sare’s letter taught me a lesson that has stuck with me ever since – that the official version and the media version of events may well not tell anything like the whole story.

    In fact, it was a fitting pair for the Independent to publish, given that their early TV ads showing a series of events that turned out to be different to the initial impression once you had been shown the full picture.

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