British Riot over the Poll Tax Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Honoring a 1987 campaign pledge to raise local taxes by changing the outdated tax on property, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher instituted a highly unpopular poll tax on individuals. A campaign was launched to protest the tax, culminating in a massive protest in central London.

Summary of Event

Although it had less than enthusiastic support from many members of the Conservative Party, the poll tax was the flagship policy of Margaret Thatcher’s third term (1987-1990) as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Thatcher’s first two terms were dedicated to privatizing many aspects of the British welfare state brought into being by the Labor Party after World War II. This so-called Thatcher Revolution set off strong working-class opposition outside of southeastern England. Even within prospering cities such as London, gentrification brought rapidly rising living costs, resulting in increased hardship for the working poor. Bitterness was building through the years, and the poll tax lit the fuse that caused riots in London, particularly in Trafalgar Square, the likes of which the United Kingdom had not seen in more than a century. Poll taxes Trafalgar, Second Battle of (1987) Riots;London [kw]British Riot Over the Poll Tax (Mar. 31, 1990) [kw]Riot Over the Poll Tax, British (Mar. 31, 1990) [kw]Poll Tax, British Riot Over the (Mar. 31, 1990) [kw]Tax, British Riot Over the Poll (Mar. 31, 1990) Poll taxes Trafalgar, Second Battle of (1987) Riots;London [g]Europe;Mar. 31, 1990: British Riot Over the Poll Tax[07690] [g]United Kingdom;Mar. 31, 1990: British Riot Over the Poll Tax[07690] [g]England;Mar. 31, 1990: British Riot Over the Poll Tax[07690] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 31, 1990: British Riot Over the Poll Tax[07690] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 31, 1990: British Riot Over the Poll Tax[07690] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 31, 1990: British Riot Over the Poll Tax[07690] Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;poll tax Sheridan, Tommy Heseltine, Michael Howe, Geoffrey Major, John

The poll tax was meant to be a more efficient and simpler means of raising revenues for local authorities to spend on municipal needs. The previous tax had been based on highly imprecise measurements on the worth of an individual’s property holdings. Property taxes The new poll tax would be based on the individual, with each adult paying the same rate. Those with extremely low incomes and individuals who were disabled would pay no taxes.

On the surface, the new poll tax appeared to be fair. However, the old property tax, with all its complexities and imprecision, was nevertheless a progressive tax, whereas the poll tax was a regressive tax. That is, a wealthy landlord and a poor renter would pay the same amount. Although Thatcher claimed that the poll tax would cut down on overspending and make local government more accountable to locals, others saw the tax as a glaring example of another Thatcher policy that favored the wealthy. The fact that the tax was instituted at a time when inflation hovered near 11 percent presented another example of Thatcher’s seeming insensitivity to the everyday struggles of the working poor. Announcement of the poll tax caused Thatcher’s popularity to take a steep plunge, a warning sign that the Conservative Party might have serious problems in the next general election.

Police drag resisting demonstrators to police vehicles after an anti-poll tax march turned violent at Trafalgar Square in London on March 31, 1990. Nearly five hundred people were arrested and more than one hundred were injured, including forty-five police officers.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The new local tax system was first introduced in Scotland in 1989, where it received bitter denunciation. Anti-tax unions sprouted in Scotland, Wales, and England. The multitude of citizen action groups produced a vast array of plans for resistance. One steering group, the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABF), was formed under the direction of Tommy Sheridan. A policy of nonpayment was decided on for Scotland and even as an official slogan: “Pay no poll tax.” Ultimately, the ABF had more than two thousand anti-poll tax unions, trade unions, and community groups working with it. Resistance in Scotland took the form of refusal to pay, followed by arrests and court battles by ABF-supported individuals in an increasingly clogged Scottish court system. Events in Scotland in 1989 were early indicators that the tax would face serious resistance in Wales and England the following year.

As the new tax law was introduced into England, the ABF advocated mass demonstration in London. More than one thousand buses from around England arrived, bringing about 100,000 protesters to join approximately the same number of protesters from London who gathered in Kensington Park to hear anti-poll tax speeches. After the speeches, a protest march was planned to proceed from Kensington Square and terminate in Trafalgar Square. At Kensington Square, beginning at about 11:30 a.m., the crowd listened to speeches by ABF leaders pledging to fight the tax and to give legal support to those who refused to pay the tax. Speeches of support were also given by several members of Parliament during the televised rally.

The march to Trafalgar Square proceeded calmly at first. Because the square could hold only a fraction of the crowd, the overflow moved to Whitehall and Westminster. At about 4:00 p.m., the massive crowd started chanting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” Some demonstrators began rioting. As the British public watched in amazement, riot police were soon battling demonstrators; buildings were set on fire, cars overturned, and shops looted, particularly in London’s opulent West End. A cloud of black smoke hung over Trafalgar Square.

The riot, which became known as the Second Battle of Trafalgar, was not contained until about 3:00 a.m. the next morning. In all, 491 people were arrested and 113 were injured, including forty-five police officers. At the time of the riot, Prime Minister Thatcher was attending a Conservative Party conference held in Cheltenham, at which the poll tax was a primary concern. By the end of the conference, Thatcher’s continued leadership of the party was called into question.

Significance

The poll tax riot of March 31 was a major factor in Thatcher’s resignation in November. Between the riot and Thatcher’s resistance to full participation in the European Union (EU), Conservative leaders feared disaster in the next election. Thatcher’s longest-serving cabinet member, Sir Geoffrey Howe, had resigned over the EU issue, and Michael Heseltine, a Conservative leader opposed to the poll tax, soon challenged Thatcher for party leadership. Preferring to see her protégé John Major emerge as party leader, Thatcher did not run in the second balloting for party leadership and subsequently resigned as prime minister. She was replaced on November 28, 1990, by Major, who represented a more consensus-based and less aggressive brand of conservatism.

One of the first acts of the new prime minister was to promise a comprehensive review of the poll tax. Heseltine was appointed to the post of environment secretary and given responsibility for dismantling the poll tax. In 1992, it was replaced by the council tax, which was levied on the capital value of property.

The police response to the riot came under official investigation. The official police report, issued in March, 1991, admitted that inadequate initial deployment of police personnel, lack of riot shields, and poor communication and coordination contributed to the mass demonstration becoming a riot. For the British public, the riot became a national embarrassment equal in extent to the shame felt in the United States over police handling of demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Of the 491 defendants brought to trial for participating in a riot, most were acquitted. Poll taxes Trafalgar, Second Battle of (1987) Riots;London

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butler, David, et al. Failure in British Government: The Politics of the Poll Tax. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Study of the inner workings of the British political system through an examination of how a bad idea became a disastrous policy. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reitan, Earl A. The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Scholarly examination of the effects of Thatcher’s policies and their modification by succeeding prime ministers. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sergeant, John. Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy. New York: Macmillan, 2005. Intriguing “insider’s” view of Thatcher’s political career by the chief political correspondent at the BBC. Illustrations and index.

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