It was Margaret Thatcher’s one battle too many – her fatal mistake. In scenes of public outrage not witnessed since the days of the General Strike, the country rose up against the poll tax – and she was forced from office 

THE Torycontrolled council in Darlington was last night forced to call for the dissolution of Parliament and for a general election,” reported The Northern Echo of March 2, 1990, as riots erupted around the country over the introduction of what was to become Margaret Thatcher’s nemesis – the poll tax.

“Amid scenes of uproar, Conservatives had to make a decision: either accept the Labour motion setting the poll tax at £356 and call for Parliament’s dissolution, or set no tax and so have no money for services.”

Darlington Borough Council was not alone in its dilemma. The call for a general election and the scrapping of the poll tax was being made all over the country in council chambers, in churches, and on the streets.

The Northern Echo: thatcher

During the early months of 1990, people who had poured scorn on the flying pickets of the steel and coal strikes, and who had condemned the inner-city riots of the Eighties, took to the streets in the biggest demonstration of public outrage since the General Strike.

In what was described on the television news as a scene from the Romanian revolution, 1,000 people laid siege to Stroud’s leisure centre while inside the local council set the new community charge rate.

In Derbyshire, 1,000 people protested outside MP Edwina Curry’s surgery; in Chichester, 2,000 besieged Tory MP Anthony Nelson in his office; 500 people marched through the streets of Oldham, 500 through Bracknell, Berkshire; 15,500 marched through Plymouth behind a pipe and drum band; 2,000 protested outside Bristol’s council chamber as councillors set the poll tax rate and mounted police officers made arrests; 2,000 marched through Swindon; 5,000 demonstrated on Liverpool’s Pier Head; 2,000 held a torch-light procession through Leeds; 5,000 marched on the Shire Hall in Taunton; 1,000 protestors forced the abandonment of a council meeting in Norwich; 1,300 marched through Hillingdon, Middlesex; 1,000 marched through Loughborough; and police were forced to cordon off Sheffield town hall as 2,000 protestors marched through the city.

In Hackney, east London, a protest by 5,000 people turned into a riot after the crowd was charged by 300 police officers including reinforcements from the Territorial Support Group.

The poll tax, or community charge, to give it its official name, was one of the main planks of Margaret Thatcher’s policy at the 1987 General Election. It was designed to replace the domestic rates.

But where the rates were based on property values, ensuring the affluent paid more and the poorer paid less, the poll tax shifted the burden of community service finances onto the shoulders of those least-able to afford them.

It targeted individuals, instead of households. So three adults occupying a council house on a North- East estate could find themselves facing a total bill in excess of £1,200, where previously they had paid only a fraction of that on the rates.

The tax was widely perceived as brutal and iniquitous. It was forced through the Commons by the massive Tory majority, and was forced through the Lords by peers who stood to gain financially by the abolition of the rates – some of whom had never visited the Upper House before, and some of whom were flown in by helicopter on the orders of Mrs Thatcher.

The Northern Echo: thatcher

STANDING DEFIANT: Protestors gather outside Darlington Town Hall, March 1990

The poll tax was condemned by all sections of society, including the Church, and as councils began to set their levels for the new charge, the country rose up in anger.

In the North-East and North Yorkshire, people who had suffered the brunt of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies sensed the forthcoming upheaval.

One Darlington councillor, on the night the local Tories were forced to call for the dissolution of the Government, said prophetically: “The Conservatives are like the people on the Titanic staring across the ocean. They can hear the band playing but they can’t see the iceberg.”

On North Tyneside, hundreds of protestors gathered as their council set its poll tax rate of £399.

Trouble came when a protestor threw a tomato at police.

The council’s deputy leader, Stephen Byers, who went on to become a minister in Tony Blair’s Government, said: “This is a sad day for local democracy, for this council, and a sadder day for the thousands of people of North Tyneside because of the imposition on them of the poll tax.”

In Durham City, police were accused of brutality when they arrested a person who was part of a sit-in outside the town hall. A police spokesman denied the claim but said there had been complaints after the meeting, where councillors set a tax of £353.

More than 200 students at the College of Ripon and York St John walked out of lectures and held a rally opposing the Government’s student loan scheme and the introduction of the poll tax.

About 2,000 people marched through Hartlepool, in a demonstration backed by Parliamentary hopeful Peter Mandelson, before halting traffic in Victoria Road and congregating on the steps of the civic centre. The demonstrators chanted their opposition while at least one payment book went up in flames.

Then on March 31, 1990, an estimated 200,000 people from all over the country marched from London’s Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square in a rally that ended in unparalleled scenes of civil unrest.

A demonstration in Consett, County Durham, planned to take place a few days later, was hastily abandoned while politicians, police and anti-poll tax union leaders condemned the London rioters.

MEANWHILE, protestors across the region vowed not to pay Mrs Thatcher’s tax, some preparing to go to court – and even prison – in the fight to have it scrapped.

The Darlington Anti-Poll Tax Union, at a rally in Stanhope Park, urged people to break the law and not pay their community charge.

Demonstrators in York displayed their contempt at the poll tax by burning their bills in a brazier.

South Tyneside Council became the first local authority in the region to be granted liability orders against residents for nonpayment of the tax, amid angry scenes at South Shields Magistrates’ Court where 950 people were put through the legal system.

The Northern Echo reported: “The courts’ decision gives South Tyneside the power to arrest residents’ wages, income support or household goods in order to recover the £309 tax. Cases against a further 117 people, who had turned up to oppose the council’s application, were adjourned until September.”

In Blaydon, near Gateshead, two men were arrested when violence erupted outside the magistrates’ court where 1,500 people were being prosecuted for not paying their poll tax.

In Whitby, 644 people were summonsed to appear before magistrates, along with a further 406 people from the nearby Esk Valley. At the first hearings in August, magistrates faced angry scenes before they issued more than 1,500 liability orders against people who refused to pay.

As the public disorder and the court action escalated, people organised defences against bailiffs sent out by local authorities to seize goods and furniture belonging to those who could not pay or would not pay.

In Stockton, residents with walkie-talkies, CB radios, information exchanges, barricades and a register of bailiffs’ car numbers were ready for what The Northern Echo called “outright war”.

THE Government, after sustaining heavy defeats in a series of by-elections, came under incredible pressure.

In October, Britain stood alone at the EC summit on the single currency issue – negative and isolated.

Then, in a damaging attack on the Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned as Deputy Prime Minister, attacking Mrs Thatcher’s leadership style and her stance on Europe.

The cracks began to appear as the chants of the poll tax protestors grew louder by the day: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – out, out, out.”

Headlines in the national press screamed: A third of poll tax bills unpaid; Mass prosecution for poll tax collapses; Half of Birmingham’s adults fail to pay their poll tax; Magistrates order 400 troops to pay their poll tax; Liverpool heads poll tax resistance; and “What a poll tax Charlie” after it was revealed that Prince Charles had failed to pay his £560 poll tax on a bungalow in the Scilly Isles, despite receiving two reminders.

In November, the cracks in the Government opened into chasms when Michael Heseltine – who resigned from the Cabinet over the Westland helicopter affair several years earlier – made a bid for the leadership.

He challenged Margaret Thatcher’s policies on Europe and the poll tax, stating the Government’s stance on both would change radically if he was elected to lead the Conservative Party and the country.

On November 20, Margaret Thatcher emerged the victor after Tory MPs were balloted – though her margin over Michael Heseltine was not sufficient to give her outright victory and the contest went to a second round.

Despite vowing “I fight on, I fight to win,” it was clear she would have no chance of winning a second ballot after Douglas Hurd and John Major entered the fight.

On Thursday, November 22, 1990, after more than ten years in power, Margaret Hilda Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister.

Thatcherism was over.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, was out, out, out.

Wat’s causing the fuss

THE poll tax took its name from the tax levied on 14th- Century peasants during the reign of Richard II, and was imposed to finance a war with France. The poll tax was responsible for a  Peasants’ Revolt, a major uprising led by former soldier Wat Tyler. 

The insurgents stormed London on June 13, 1381, and forced King Richard to make concessions,
including abolition of the poll tax. The Peasants’ Revolt was the first great popular rebellion in English history. Chosen as captain by the Kentish rebels, Tyler led them in the capture of Canterbury, the Savoy palace belonging to John of Gaunt, the King’s uncle, London Bridge and the Tower of London.

The major part of the rebellion was crushed after Tyler was struck down during negotiations on June 15. Tyler’s followers carried him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from where he was later dragged and beheaded.