Flashback to March 1990: The mass protests triggered by poll tax

Protesters chanted, they banged on the walls, they threw eggs...

In the firing line were local councillors charged with doing Margaret Thatcher's bidding, by introducing her community charge, as she called it. Everybody else called it the poll tax.

It was in March 1990 that the highly controversial tax became a reality, as councils up and down the country met to set the new levy for the first time. They of course included Labour councils who were opposed to the tax but had no choice.

The poll tax was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's replacement for the rates, which had previously been the way local government had largely been financed. The rates was basically a property tax. However, Mrs T reasoned that as everybody benefited from council services, every adult should pay individually. She thought it was fairer that way.

So suddenly adults were finding themselves landed with their own personal poll tax bill. And it wasn't a trifling amount either.

The aftermath of protests in central London.

Councillors at the Labour-led council at Walsall ran a gauntlet of members of Walsall Anti-Poll Tax Union when they sat to set the charge. Council leader Councillor Geoff Edge faced cries of "traitor" from the crowd.

Labour-run Wrekin Council, as it was then, met on March 7, 1990. Furious demonstrators tried to storm the meeting as the district’s poll tax was set amid scenes of mayhem.

Outside, hundreds of chanting, placard-waving protesters laid siege to the council’s Malinslee House headquarters in Telford town centre. Inside the packed council chamber proceedings were repeatedly disrupted by the public gallery. One man was ejected.

Shocked councillors were barracked, jeered, sworn at and abused, stink bombs were let off, and an egg was thrown at the Tory opposition – which missed and hit a radio reporter.

Bomb threat

Finally chairman Councillor Phil Heighway abandoned the meeting after a bomb threat – but not before councillors set a local poll tax of £383, although the exact amount depended on which parish people lived in.

A crowd of around 700 – some estimates put it as high as 1,200 – were demonstrating outside.

On the same day Labour rulers set a £418 poll tax for Wolverhampton people, although threats of disruption at the special council meeting there came to nothing. Police remained on standby at the Civic Centre and representatives of anti-poll tax organisations turned up, but pledged a non-violent protest.

Television camera crews and photographers vainly roamed the centre looking for protesters after Mayor Councillor Richard Reynolds banned them from the council chamber.

Security staff and councillors battle in vain to stop protesters storming the council meeting in Birmingham.

In the same week fists flew as screaming protesters stormed a meeting of Birmingham City Council. Police were eventually able to get them out after a fierce struggle.

The following day a struggling protester was dragged by police from the public gallery in the Council House at Dudley after eggs were thrown at councillors as they set the tax for the borough at £387.

There were angry and violent protests in Oswestry. One man was arrested and several people were slightly hurt.

Borough councillors were stranded inside their council chamber as a crowd of more than 500 people chanted threateningly outside.

Councillors from all across the political spectrum were yelled at, jostled and pelted with makeshift missiles as they stood at the chamber door.

Only 25 protesters were allowed into the small council chamber. Chants of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out” and “We won’t pay the poll tax” were shouted throughout the debate – even during the prayer given by the Mayor’s chaplain.

An hour later, with the tax set, members of the public, reporters and councillors spilled out on to the council steps to a reception of hostile jeers and a barrage of eggs.

Those leaving the Oswestry council meeting ran a gauntlet of thrown eggs and coins

The unpopularity of the poll tax was underlined on March 22 when Labour scored what was described as its most sensational by-election victory for 55 years, when the party's candidate Sylvia Heal captured the Conservative stronghold of Mid-Staffordshire.

Tory high command was shell-shocked. Ultimately the issue was clearly such a vote-loser that it was to play a major part in the downfall of Mrs Thatcher as a movement grew within her own party to ditch her.

While the protests made the headlines, it was mass disobedience which was the death knell of the poll tax. Large numbers of people simply did not pay and some went to jail.

Councils were soon owed many millions in unpaid poll tax, and chasing up individuals to get them to pay was itself expensive. Mrs Thatcher's successor, John Major, replaced it with the council tax, reverting to a property-based system.

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