The poll tax protests 1990
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THE POLL TAX PROTESTS 1990. What was the poll tax?. For example, the richest man in Britain was the Duke of Westminster. In the old system he had to pay £10,255. Now his tax was only £417 and his servants had to pay exactly the same amount.

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The poll tax protests 1990

What was the poll tax?

For example, the richest man in Britain was the Duke of Westminster. In the old system he had to pay £10,255. Now his tax was only £417 and his servants had to pay exactly the same amount.

Surveys showed that 70% of people would be worse off. Even those on income support had to pay 20% of the tax.

People living in rented properties came out very badly. Under the old system landlords had to pay the rates so they added to the rents to cover the charge. But with the new system most landlords didn’t reduce the rents even though their tenants now had to pay the community charge.

Between April and December 1989 Scottish landlords made about £40 million profit.

People soon began calling the community charge the poll tax. They were remembering what happened in 1381 when a government tried to tax everyone the same amount and the people rose up in a rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt.

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government wanted to change the way local councils got their money.

The old system (rates): people paid according to the value of their house. People in expensive houses paid more than people in cheap houses. But the rate was the same however many people lived in a house. The government said this was unfair because it meant many people were paying nothing for the services they got.

The new idea (community charge): every adult in the country would pay the same amount, whatever kind of house they lived in. That meant poor people would pay as much as rich people.

The law for the new tax was passed by Parliament in 1987. The plan was to start it in Scotland in April 1989 and then in the rest of Britain in April 1990.

Everyone over 18 was told they had to pay the new tax.

The poll tax protests 19901

Protest or resistance?

4 main types of resistance

non-registration : not registering for the tax and then taking no notice of the fines they were told to pay

non-payment: not paying and staying linked to organised local groups that would defend everyone taken to court

Non-implementation: calling on councils to refuse to carry out the tax

Non-collection: asking all union members responsible for collecting the tax to refuse to do it


Which method was likely to be the most effective?

The new tax was very unpopular. Protests started in Scotland in 1989.

There were different ways of protesting. The Labour party and trades unions wanted protest marches and campaigns to persuade the government to drop the tax. They did not agree with breaking the law.

They organised a ‘Scottish Campaign Against the Poll Tax’ with leaflets, stickers and posters.

But many grassroots organisations wanted to do more. They set up a network of groups against the tax. They decided to resist, to refuse to pay.

There was a divide between 2 ways of opposing the tax:

  • Protest within the law to get the government ton change its mind or get people to vote against the Conservatives in the next election

  • Resistance to the law – people ready to refuse to pay and take the consequences.

The poll tax protests 19902

Grass-roots organisation and tactics

The government couldn’t negotiate because the protest wasn’t organised by political parties or trades unions but by local groups.

These groups were called Anti-Poll Tax Unions (APTUs). They started in Scotland and spread to England and Wales where there were eventually over 1,000 APTUs.

The APTUs gave out information and supported people not paying. They gave out information leaflets about non-payment and how to avoid bailiffs coming to take goods.They spray painted walls and stuck posters to publicise the movement. They made T-shirts, badges and mugs with slogans against the poll tax.

When councils sent bailiffs to the houses of non-payers to take their goods, APTU groups often organised protests to stop them entering.

If people went to court the APTUs organised demonstrations and gave legal advice.

In spite of the large numbers refusing to pay only 120 people were ever imprisoned.


Why was it hard for the authorities to act against the resisters?

The main form of resistance was non-payment.

By September 1989 at least 15% of people in Scotland were refusing to pay. By April 1990 1 million people had not paid a penny.

The tax became law in England in April 1990. By July there were 14 million non-payers.

By January 1991 in England non-payment in inner London was 34% and even in rural areas it was 18%. The resistance had spread to all parts of the country and all kinds of people. By March over 18 million people were refusing to pay.

By the time the poll tax was abolished non-payment reached over 50% in some parts of London. In the end £2.5 billion of tax was never paid.

This caused huge problems for the government. They couldn't arrest 18 million people! They couldn’t accuse the protesters of being criminals.

When people went to court for refusing to pay the tax, the court told them to pay fines: they then refused to pay the fines as well. Only 28% of those taken to court paid up and some even went to prison.

The poll tax protests 19903

The Battle of Trafalgar Square 31 March 1990

The organisers, realising the march was so big, asked the police to change the venue. The police refused.

The march started peacefully with people of all ages from all walks of life.

20 protesters staged a sit-in outside Downing Street after the police told them they could not hand in a petition. Protesters said the police deliberately provoked them. Some tried to get over the Downing Street barricades.

300 more people decided to sit down in protest and some fighting began between demonstrators and police and the fighting spread to Trafalgar Square itself.

Police on horses baton-charged the crowd and people threw bottles, sticks and stones back at them.

Many of the demonstrators left but about 3,00 stayed to face the police and there were pitched battles in the square and rioting and looting in the surrounding streets.

542 police officers and thousands of demonstrators and passers-by were injured. There were 341 arrests

As the movement grew the APTUs started linking together and an All-Britain Anti-:Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) was set up.

It started by organising demonstrations in different regions. Every time local councils met to set the poll tax rates, there were protests. Some were peaceful but others saw violent clashes between protesters and police, for example in Bristol.

The ABAPTF decided to hold a national demonstration in London on 31 March 1990.

Who were the leaders?

This was a grassroots movement of the people with no prominent leaders. Lots of different groups were involved including left-wing parties (Socialist Workers Party, Militant Tendency etc) , anarchists (Class War) and members of APTU federations. The Chair of the ABAPTF was the Scottish Socialist Tommy Sullivan.

What happened on the day of the London march?

The plan was for the march to finish at Trafalgar Square. The square can hold 60,000 people and the organisers expected about 20,000. In fact 200,000 came.

The poll tax protests 19904

The end of the poll tax

The role of the media

At first the media just reported the refusal of people to pay the tax.

But in March 1990 there were clashes between protesters and police outside town halls. Newspapers started attacking left groups and calling them ‘extremists’.

Most newspapers were against the protests and on the side of council officers and bailiffs. The Su and The People even printed police photos of demonstrators and told readers to hand them over to police.

On the other hand, TV footage of the demonstrators showed people being deliberately hit by police vans or trampled by horses.


Mass non-payment of the poll tax was successful.

The tax was abolished and Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign.

Was it an organised campaign or a spontaneous movement?

The mass non-payments and the riot in Trafalgar Square made it seem that the Government was not in control. Police were blamed for being ‘heavy-handed’ and violent.

Organisers of the resistance feared that the riot might cause public support to go down, but in fact the campaign got stronger and protests carried on all over the country.

In May 1990 the Conservatives did very badly in local elections. MPs worried about how unpopular they were becoming. Leaders of the party decided that they could not win the next General Election with Thatcher as leader. In November 1990 she was forced by her own ministers to resign.

The next Prime Minister was John Major. In April 1991 he announced that the poll tax would be replaced by a new Council Tax in 1993. But the Poll Tax would continue until then, so protests carried on.