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.

The Falklands War

Above, during the Falklands war, HMS Antelope was under attack from Argentinean fighters but the ship fended them off. After the attack, an attempt to remove unexploded bombs from the hull of the ship was blotched and the ship’s magazines exploded and she sank. The above photo taken in this moment of her magazines exploding was one of the most memorable of the original Falklands conflict. The Ministry of Defense’s tight control over the press photos backfired as the above photo was splashed on the front pages by the world press which was starved of any genuine war images.

I have written a lot about the Falklands already (here, here). War clouds are gathering over the Falkland Islands again. From the viewpoint of the Civil Service, these are policy actions Mr. Brown can take:

Doing Nothing: Although it is predicted that the Falklands sit over 3.5 billion barrels of oil, the odds of finding oil in the Falklands are slim. The terrain there is similar to the North Sea, but the independent studies put the chances of finding oil there at 17%.

Take it to the polls: The islanders don’t want Argentinean rule. Britain should stage a referendum there and the results will be the same as they were in Gibraltar, which shut the mouths of the Spanish.

Ignore Americans: Barack Obama doesn’t really believe in the special relationship with Britain. It is not important, but what is important that Gordon Brown wants to believe in such a relationship. Instead of wobbling, Mr. Brown should convey to Washington that if the US does not support the British claims in the Falklands, he can also say goodbye to the British troops in Afghanistan.

Diplomacy: Britain needs its EU business partners (Royal Dutch Shell, Total of France) to lobby for its claims internationally. With Russian gas always unpredictable, a simple British pledge to make Europe its primary buyer (if oil is ever found in the Falklands) would immediately unite the 27-member EU behind it. The EU is Argentina’s second-largest trading partner (after Brazil, with which Argentina runs a deficit) and Argentina will easily yield to pressure with its current debt problem.

Gunboat Diplomacy: Britain still has four nuclear submarines sitting idle at the naval base in Clyde. The Ministry of Defense should mobilize at least two of them to the South Atlantic. Assembling an expeditionary force will send a strong signal while simultaneously deterring a war.

Electioneering War: Mr. Brown is a lameduck premier. This Falklands crisis is god-send to him. Tories will unite behind him if he choose a drastic course, and a war can lead to an election victory in still jingoistic Britain. It is imperative that the civil service should convey this information to its representatives in the United Nations. The international community must be convinced not to push the British government so far as to force Mr. Brown to send a naval task force.

The Yomper

On 2 April 1982, after a period of rising tension, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Although Argentina viewed the islands as theirs, the islanders, almost all of British descent, did not want to be ruled by a junta from Argentina. In a decision supported by the both sides of the aisle, Britain sent a naval task force that would ultimately consist of  38 warships, 77 merchant and auxiliary vessels, 11,000 military personal, and 261 aircraft. The Argentineans were already numerically superior and the United States believed that the British were attempting ‘mission impossible’, a view shared by many in the British Ministry of Defence.

The British public was overwhelming behind the deployment, but the government had learnt from the lessons of Vietnam War and worried that the support would wither away if some bad news from the front reached home. Thus, all the significant news, good or bad, were censored or at least delayed; in those days before internet, the reporters had to use the Royal Navy carriers to send their reports back home, which make the task easier. Only two photographers were onboard the task force too — one from Press Association and one from the right-wing Daily Express. Don McCullin was refused accreditation, and there were no pictures for 54 of the 74 days the conflict lasted.

In their place were jingoistic headlines: Yomp, Rejoice, I Counted Them All Out, I Counted Them All Back, Invasion, In We Go, Stick It Up Your Junta and the worst of all, Gotcha. The memorable images of the conflict included the departure of the fleet, a file photo of the Belgrano, the camouflaged Max Hastings, the reconstructed face of Simon Weston, burial of the dead at Goose Green, and Argentinian prisoners with P&O cruise labels around their necks.

The iconic image of the conflict was reprinted above: the original photograph taken by Petty Officer Peter Holdgate, Commando Forces Photographer, showed 24 year old Corporal Peter Robinson ‘yomping’, the Royal Marine slang for a long distance march carrying full kit. Taken in June 1982 as the Royal Marines proceeded along the Moody Brook track towards Port Stanley, Robinson took out Union Flag from his pack and attached it to the aerial of his radio with masking tape when he heard the news of the Argentine surrender. It was used by every British national newspaper, including The Sun which used its as its Falklands War logo. On the 10th anniversary of the occasion, Mrs. Thatcher unveiled a statue in front of the Royal Marines Museum honoring this iconic moment.

Ted Heath Inked

It had been the life’s goal of Edward Heath, Britain’s Tory prime minister, to get his country into Europe. In 1972, he fulfilled this goal which had eluded his two predecessors through a personal friendship with French president Pompidou (the only smooth one between a British prime minister and a French president since the Fifth Republic began). Then he had to fight an uphill battle in the Parliament, and won the Commons vote by a majority of 112, with the votes of 69 Labour MPs, who defied a three-line whip.

However, when Heath arrived at the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels to sign the Treaty of Accession on 22nd January 1972, he was splattered with ink thrown by a tourist. The 31-year-old psychologist named Karen Cooper, was not protesting the treaty but Heath government’s handling of an urban renewal project in London’s historic Covent Garden market. The leaders of Ireland, Denmark and Norway who were there to sign the treaty also had to wait an hour for Heath to return to his hotel and change clothes.

It wasn’t the first time ink had been thrown upon Heath. On his very first day as Prime Minister, Heath–who surprisingly turned a Labour majority of nearly 100 into a Tory one of 30–was attacked with ink by a Labour supporter. A man of sharp contradictions, Heath left behind a divisive legacy: while he was able to count on bipartisan support for Europe, Heath had a tumultuous rule at home. His Irish policy was disastrous and his bitter relations with the unions led to a wage freeze, a deranged Prices and Incomes policy and eventually a three-day energy-saving week.

By the time an early General Election had to be called in February 1974, Heath was finished. He was replaced by Margaret Thatcher, under whom he refused to serve. Ted Heath never forgave Mrs Thatcher and the bitterness over his loss of the leadership was deep, reflected in almost ceaseless, and sometimes savage, attacks on her policies. In probably the most vicious and insulting blast of all, he suggested in a television interview in April 1992 that she would be no more than a footnote in history.

Heath was a former schoolmaster and Britain’s only bachelor prime minister to date. A keen yachtsman, in 1971, while Prime Minister, he captained Britain’s winning Admiral’s Cup team. Heath later also became the only prime minister to be summoned before an official tribunal and made to account for his actions when he was in office. It was the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday in Londonderry a week after Egmont signing (but unrelated).