The Riot

Chapter Thirty-Nine


SCOTLAND’S DEMONSTRATION passed off peacefully, which was not the case in London. The responsibility for this has to be placed firmly on the shoulders of the government and the police. This demonstration had attracted all of those who felt victimised by Thatcher’s rule. 

The homeless, unemployed youth, the oppressed and destitute, miners, as well as printers and others who had felt Thatcher’s boot in their back – all were thirsting for revenge against the government and this was an occasion to take it.

However, the march was completely peaceful, like a carnival at the outset. By the time the head of the march had reached Trafalgar Square, there had only been one arrest. The Square was soon full to its capacity of 70,000. 

This was at a time when the bulk of the march had not yet left Kennington Park. In Whitehall, a group had gathered around the barriers opposite Downing Street. About 150 to 200 of what stewards believed were anarchists and Socialist Workers’ Party members were hurling abuse at the police and also at the stewards. Some of the anarchists were drunk and abusive. Many of the stewards believed that the march had been infiltrated by a handful of agent provocateurs as well as unorganised youth who were just looking to take their revenge on the nearest symbol of authority.

Downing Street

For almost an hour, the stewards had attempted to make sure that the rest of the march just passed by the 100 or so who had sat down opposite Downing Street. Some people, especially those with children, decided to sit on the grass and have a rest. One of the stewards, Colin Fox, reported that as the stewards got to Downing Street, about 40 anarchists were sitting in the road and

as their numbers grew they were obviously intent on causing trouble. They began throwing placards, cans of lager and even crowd barriers about. They were aimed at the police but most fell short, on people on the march. I shouted at them to stop throwing but it had no effect. By this time they considered the stewards fair game. 

As some idiot shouted: “Get the stewards first!” I was hit on the head by a full can of lager, causing me to drop my megaphone. As I bent down to pick it up I was kicked three times in the back and legs. Just then, a hail of missiles rained down, the police burst through and started flailing out at anyone they could hit, even though they had stood idly by for a good 40 minutes and watched… 

What on earth were the police commanders thinking of, charging the 300-400 trouble makers in Whitehall up into the crowd gathered in the Square? It was like throwing a lighted match into a petrol tank. (1)

Chief Steward

In effect, this was the beginning of a police riot. Steve Glennon, the Federation’s chief steward, takes up the story:

We diverted the march at Parliament Square along Bridge Street and down the Embankment then up along Northumberland Avenue, as pre-arranged with Scotland Yard. But while this was happening, snatch squads had come in opposite Downing Street. 

It was bystanders who took the brunt. Then police horses followed going up onto the grass outside the Ministry of Defence where families were sitting down watching the demonstration… Stewards were coming under organised physical attack. People with loud hailers were calling on marchers to attack them as ‘police collaborators’… 

The police had stopped the march entering Trafalgar Square, despite the sheer pressure of marchers still coming in at the bottom of Northumberland Avenue. The scuffles started at the top. This turned into a battle… The riot police then made charges and police vehicles drove at speed into peaceful sections of the crowd… Running battles took place… 

I appealed to a very senior police officer who was on the [Trafalgar Square] plinth at the time to get through to control and withdraw the horses and riot police. I even said that my stewards would go in and try to restore order. This would have been at great risk to ourselves. By this time, nutters up in the scaffolding were dropping objects down indiscriminately. (2)

There was no doubt that small groups were acting as provocateurs, whether consciously or unconsciously it was not possible to say. But the overwhelming majority wanted to have a peaceful demonstration, as is indicated by the account of Martin Davis, a steward who was sent into Whitehall when the demonstration was diverted:

We managed to organise a few small meetings in Whitehall, trying to get the demonstrators together and appealed to them to move on, keep the march moving and rejoin the main march on the Embankment. 

We said that although people were angry, they should save their anger for the bailiffs. The majority agreed with me. We took a vote on it in several meetings and moved on. Obviously the sectarians were very annoyed with what I’d done but weren’t prepared to listen to people and take part in a debate. (3)

Following the demonstration and the scenes of chaos and “disorder” which flashed around the world, a colossal propaganda campaign was launched by the Tories and their kept press. The purpose was to smear the organisers of the magnificent demonstration. Yet 99.9 per cent of those who had participated in the march accepted the decision of the Federation for a huge, but peaceful and democratic demonstration of support for mass non-payment. 

They had actually voted in favour of this before the march left Kennington Park. We pointed out that “a tiny handful of anarchists, egged on, usually from the back, by members of fringe groups… tried to provoke a conflict with the police in Downing Street. These groups had done nothing to build the anti-poll tax movement.”4 The main responsibility for the violence lay on the shoulders of Thatcher and her government.

70,000 homeless in London

There were at that time 70,000 homeless in London alone. There was burning resentment at the systematic harassment of youth by the police in London. “The violence witnessed on Saturday,” we said, “is rooted in capitalist society and the brutal class measures of the Tory government over the last decade.” We went on to say:

Does this then justify unprovoked attacks on the police and looting, as the anarchists and some quasi-Marxist sects truly believe? No! It is one thing to understand the causes of… violent behaviour of a big layer of youth and it is another thing to justify it as some of these irresponsible groupings believe. (5)

The 31 March demonstration and “riot” was one of the most important events in labour movement history this century. By itself it did not finish off the poll tax or Thatcher. The honour for fulfilling this belongs to the eventual 18 million-strong army of non-payers and those who welded them into an unbeatable force. 

But these mighty demonstrations were a visible and dramatic expression both to the British ruling class and to the world of the scale of opposition to the poll tax and the burning hatred of the Thatcher government and the system upon which it rested. It marked the begining of the end of Thatcher. She herself testifies to this in her memoirs:

… the most public opposition to the community charge came not from the respectable Tory lower-middle classes for whom I felt so deeply, but rather from the Left… They found little sympathy from the law-abiding mass of Labour supporters. 

But there were enough people ready to take the lead in organizing violent resistance. On Saturday 31 March, the day before the introduction of the community charge in England and Wales, a demonstration against the charge degenerated into rioting in and around Trafalgar Square. 

There was good evidence that a group of troublemakers had deliberately fomented the violence. Scaffolding on a building site in the square was dismantled and used as missiles; fires were started and cars destroyed. Almost 400 policemen were injured and 339 people were arrested. It was a mercy that no one was killed. I was appalled at such wickedness.

For the first time a government had declared that anyone who could reasonably afford to do so should at least pay something towards the upkeep of facilities and the provision of the services from which they benefitted. 

A whole class of people – an ‘underclass’ if you will – had been dragged back into the ranks of responsible society and asked to become not just dependants but citizens.

 The violent riots of 31 March in and around Trafalgar Square was their and the Left’s response. And the eventual abandonment of the charge represented one of the greatest victories for these people ever conceded by a Conservative Government. (6)

Real threats to democracy

Thatcher had pictured the organisers of the campaign as a “threat to democracy”. This was from a government which had sought to emasculate the trade unions, including eliminating the right to belong to a union for GCHQ workers, attacking journalists in the press and the media, and driving 17 million people into poverty. The Labour leaders had reacted to the poll tax demonstration and riot with a call, in the words of Roy Hattersley, for “exemplary punishment” for those tried and convicted for participating in disorders. We replied:

In the light of the frame-up of the Guildford Four, of the Birmingham Six and many others… we do not share Hattersley’s touching faith in capitalist justice. 

…It is impermissible to collaborate with the capitalist state, even against those whose methods and actions we implacably disagree with. Disrupters and disorganisers of Saturday’s demonstration should be dealt with by the forces of the labour movement and not by the capitalist state. (7)

It was necessary to make this statement because, quite shamefully, Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan had been accused after the demonstration by the some small groups of threatening to ‘name names’ of those who deliberately set out to disrupt the demonstration. The implication, repeated ad nauseum in the months that followed, was that Militant supporters would collaborate with the police and supply to the state names of their opponents who they believed were involved in ‘violence’.” This was totally false. Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan were both overwhelmingly re-elected as national officers of the Fed despite these unscrupulous allegations.

In a separate demonstration in Cheltenham, formerly a sleepy backwater, 48 demonstrators were arrested at the same time as the events in London.

The aftermath

In the aftermath of the demonstration, Militant was full of letters from those who overwhelmingly blamed the police. One account showed that in the Strand, two policemen, when they saw the police vehicles and mounted police being deployed, stated: “Oh, no. They’re sending the tanks in!” (8)

One vehicle reversed at 50 miles per hour down the road as people scattered and as a woman with a toddler in a pushchair came running into Charing Cross Station declaring that she had never been so frightened in her life. 

In Trafalgar Square the organisers had appealed to the crowd to disperse. However, many people, particularly young people had gathered outside South Africa House. But instead of waiting for them to disperse, as they were beginning to, a police commander must have given the order for vans to be driven into the crowd. Dispossessed youth with nothing to lose, many of them homeless, weren’t prepared to take this. 

The decision was then taken to send in the mounted police, many of whom had smiles on their faces as they charged the crowd. The crowd fought back and forced the horses into retreat. But then the police called up the reserves. The overwhelming conclusion was that the police deliberately provoked the confrontation, seizing on the actions of an irresponsible unrepresentative group who were just looking for trouble.

Viva the Fed!

However, none of this dampened the mood of elation and the sense of impending victory as the great majority of anti-poll tax marchers left to prepare to continue the battle. Ironically, a South African draft-dodger who was temporarily settled in Britain, was at the Trafalgar Square demonstration and claimed that he had

learnt an important lesson. I was under the rather naive impression that British policemen are somehow different from their South African counterparts. How wrong I was. It seems that policemen the world over are the tools (in most cases willing) of the ruling class. Certainly, in my part of the crowd the police were incredibly provocative. 

They sped through the crowd in their riot control vehicles with no regard for those less agile or for those simply unable to move because of the sheer size of the crowd

… As the speaker from Romania [Radu Stephanescu, who had been brought over from Romania by Militant] pointed out, and as we have learned from countries the world over, people power is a reality which can be obtained by mass united action even when the ruling class and their bully-boys attack the working-class movements. Viva the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation! Viva! (9)

Expressing the awe at the size of the demonstration, were those like a 19-year-old who had gone on a demonstration for the first time on 31 March:

I hope that in 20 years time I can look back and be proud to have been the child of world revolution and tell my children: ‘I was there, I saw it all happen, I saw Thatcher fall!’ The tail-end of my childhood, my entire teenage years have been intimidated by Thatcherism. I hope that the 1990s and my 20s are free of Thatcherism, as so many in this country do. Then maybe it would be fair. I don’t know what the next ten years hold but I do know it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees. (10)

Meanwhile at the TUC

This was not, however, the view of the right-wing group dominating the general council of the TUC. They had spent so much time on their knees they did not know the difference. Four days after this epic mass demonstration, outside Central Hall, Westminster, an old worker commented to those who had participated:

You people should be proud of yourselves, organising a march of a quarter of a million. What these people have organised today is pathetic. (11)

“These people” were the TUC, whose rally against the poll tax was about to start. In a hall holding 3,000 people, 800 were admitted, mostly union officials. 

This was the long-awaited TUC protest which was supposed to have started at 10.30am that day with a march from Euston organised by the Camden trades council and backed by the Greater London Association of trades councils. The police were worried. 

If the unofficial Federation’s march could pull 200,000 on to the streets, how many would turn out on this “official” occasion? 

The answer soon became clear – about ten: Tony Benn (the speaker), a few union officials and four from the Federation. The march was therefore called off. This fiasco was a product of the puerile, quietist attitude of the TUC towards struggle. At the Central Hall rally, Norman Willis argued that the best way to fight the poll tax was to wait for 1992 and the general election. 

He then attacked the “violent scenes” in Trafalgar Square. This was too much for postal workers who came to their feet denouncing the violence by the police. One said: “I can’t afford to pay my poll tax,” to which Norman Willis shrieked: “You are the best allies the government has got!” He ended his contribution with a ranting denunciation of non-payment. An USDAW official tried the same tack, attempting to frighten workers with dire warnings of what would happen to them if they didn’t pay. (12)

Campbell Christie, Scottish TUC leader, contrasted the violence in London with the peaceful march in Glasgow on the same day – forgetting to mention that the Federation had organised both. The difference between the two demonstrations was that the police had run riot in London, whereas they had not in Glasgow. 

In the aftermath of the demonstration police swooped on the headquarters of Islington Against the Poll Tax “and harassment took place of anti-poll tax campaigners in Norwich and other areas”. An Old Bailey judge actually ordered 25 newspapers and TV companies to hand over film and photographs of the demonstration to help the police “investigation” into the riot. This was just a legal go-ahead for a police rampage over the next few weeks.

The local elections in May represented a severe defeat for the Tories. They attempted to cover this up, with the aid of their kept press, highlighting the “victories” achieved in Wandsworth and Westminster. We revealed that: “In Wandsworth and Westminster there was open, legal buying of votes.” (13)

A few years later, the District Auditor came to the same conclusion. But at the time of writing he has not been able to act with the same “vigour” that his counterpart in Liverpool and Lambeth did in debarring the councillors in these areas. Nationwide, there was an eleven per cent swing against the Tories, enough if a general election had been called at that stage for a parliamentary majority of 80 for Labour. 

Bradford, the northern “jewel” in Thatcher’s municipal crown, was won back to Labour. In Liverpool, entirely due to the magnificent struggle in the 1980s and the legacy of the 49, the Tories were virtually reduced to a political sect, with just seven per cent of the vote and two councillors. In Scotland, they came third behind Labour and the SNP and there was a massive swing to Labour in the Midlands. Their only crumb of comfort was in London, and even here there was a 6.5 per cent swing to Labour. 

It was undoubtedly the poll tax and the mass opposition which had been built up that benefited Labour. Despite the disquiet, and the outright hatred felt by many workers at the shameful position of the leadership on the issue of fighting the poll tax, the party was nevertheless seen by the mass of working people as the only viable alternative on the electoral front.

Significantly, outstanding anti-poll tax fighters, like Anne Hollifield in Lambeth and Wally Kennedy in Hillingdon, were elected to local councils.

In Tower Hamlets, on the other hand, the Liberals were helped back into power by stepping into the gutter and openly resorting to racist propaganda. Only later on, when he could no longer avoid it, did Paddy Ashdown and the Liberals at national level ineffectually distance themselves from the racists who had infested the Tower Hamlets party. In the aftermath of these elections, the right staged a coup in Liverpool against Keva Coombes, the leader of the Labour group and a non-Militant left-winger. They were only able to do this because Labour’s national executive committee had suspended 15 left-wing councillors who had voted against implementing the poll tax. This was just two weeks after Labour had taken a further ten seats from the Liberals.

The events of February and March had shaken the Tory government, particularly the 31 March demonstration. But Thatcher was determined that there would be no turning back. In May she even misquoted Heseltine and declared he was: “right when he said this morning that this Conservative government will fight and win the next general election with the Community Charge in place.” (14)

It was clear that Thatcher had retreated into her bunker and was determined not to give an inch. Chris Patten, the Environment Minister had actually charge-capped 21 local authorities – all Labour. Buoyed up by the massive response of the previous two months, the non-payment army was, however, realistic enough to understand that it would take further action, possibly the removal of Thatcher herself, before the tax would be broken. 

Therefore, a strategy and programme was mapped out for the following months. A number of new initiatives were launched in May, including a meeting of Labour councillors in June, which would pledge not to pay the poll tax. They would plan how to put pressure on local councils not to implement the tax. It was also agreed to hold a trade union conference on 23 June to build support for non-payment in the workplaces. It was also proposed to organise a “long march” from Glasgow to London in early September in order to publicise the non-payment campaign.

In May, Tommy Sheridan travelled to London to address a hushed press conference at the House of Commons. He gave the figures for non-payment in England and Wales which had risen dramatically. Even the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) had said there was “a massive non-payment rate of around 50 per cent”.15 On the other hand, mass summonses were being prepared of non-payers by some councils. First in line was likely to be Medina Council on the Isle of Wight. Militant gave, together with the Federation, very effective advice, both of a legal and non-legal character, on how to fight the poll tax.