Mass rebellion that killed tax and toppled Tory Prime Minister
Ronnie Stevenson, Secretary, Mount Florida Anti-Poll Tax Union, Glasgow
A Residential School setting in West Linton in Lothian outside Edinburgh seems weird place to start the story of the Poll Tax but given the history of it’s demise it is as good a place to start as any.
At a Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the International Socialists in Scotland.) conference there, called to discuss resistance to the Poll Tax Labour Councillor Chic Stevenson moved that we begin to organise for total defiance of the imposition of the Poll Tax from arguing for all Councillors to refuse to implement it and arguing for a mass non-payment campaign should it be implemented.
The decisions which were taken shaped the campaign over the next few years. The ideas of a mass campaign against the poll tax, for building anti-poll tax unions, for mass organised non-payment and non-compliance by local authorities and council trade unions, and for industrial action to defend those victimised for non-payment or non-implementation were brought together in a Militant pamphlet in April 1988.
Militant began to set up Ant-Poll Tax unions in the localities. These attracted thousand to meetings many to find out about its implications for them and their families but many about how to fight it. Federations of Poll Tax unions were set up with democratically elected delegates fro the Unions and Executive Committees for the Federations. The Strathclyde Federation was set up in July 1988. The words of Glasgow Labour Councillor Chic Stevenson, the vice Chair of the Strathclyde Federation became its watchword ‘I’m having nothing to do with Thatcher’s poll tax. I am voting against Glasgow district council setting its part of the tax at £92 per person, along with five other councillors. A mass non-payment campaign will still have to be organised. It has the support of local Labour Parties and the mass of people in the housing schemes. With that support, Labour councils could make the poll tax inoperable if they called on people to refuse to pay. It is not the job of Labour councils to do the Tories’ dirty work. I was elected to fight Thatcher, not to bow the knee to her poll tax.’
Against this background the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation was set up. Later in the struggle they promoted the successful creation of the All British Anti-Poll Tax Federation in November 1989.
The initial community meetings consisted of explaining the tax and the collection methods including the forcible methods which could be used and then moving on to how to defeat the tax. When it was explained the difficulties the state would face in collecting the tax if the mass of the people refused to pay then support for non-payment gathered apace. Unfortunately one by one the Councils in Scotland began to bow the knee and when people did not pay sent in the Sheriff’s Officers to get the debts paid. This was Labour at its worst – all talk and posing but no action other than sticking the boot into the poor.
To prepare for mass non-payment the Scottish Federation of anti-poll tax unions organised a demonstration in Glasgow on March 18th 1989. More than 10,000 people attended. The Can’t Pay Won’t Pay the poll tax movement was hear, and we were determined not to let it pass.
There were street stalls to inform and recruit to the non-payment army. A play by Peter Arnott and Peter Mullen, which caught the mood of the time, performed over all of Scotland in the community centres. Its theme of ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ reflected what was going on. There were marches and demonstrations – large and enormous. There were many innovative features of the campaign – Occupations of Council offices and Sheriff’s Officers’ offices – the terrorisers were being terrorised. One of the most famous involved a few days with food parcels being transferred from an adjacent building, much to the annoyance of the watching police. Sheriff’s Officers’ cars became well known and they were constantly hounded.
There was a week long hunger strike in George Square, Glasgow, to highlight the plight of the poor having to choose between paying the tax of feeding their bairns. There were mass demonstrations outside people threatened with ‘poindings’ (labelling of possessions for selling to pay the debt) by the Sheriff’s Officers. On of the first was outside the house of Jeanette McGinn (widow of Matt McGinn, the Calton folksinger and activist). The Sheriff’s Officers based in Lanarkshire made special efforts to carry out ‘poindings’ of possessions and there were regular mass demos outside peoples house over the years. There was one outside the home of George Galloway, then a Labour MP. Very few ‘poindings’ took place and the actual sale of the possessions became the scene of one of the most famous episodes in the Poll Tax Struggle.
The Sheriff’s Officers had given up even trying to arrange the sales in their normal salerooms and they set up a sale in the courtyard of the St Andrew’s District Court where there was always a police presence. A young Tommy Sheridan, who was secretary of the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation and had built up a very strong base in Pollok, was served by court papers, an interdict, banning him from doing anything to stop the sale. In defiance he organised hundreds to be there and ripped up the interdict as he led them into the Courtyard. The police read the writing on the wall and instructed the Sheriff’s Officers to cancel the sale.
That way of recovering the debt became unworkable and arresting bank accounts, wages and benefits became the weapon of choice of the state. It was much easier to carry those actions out from the computers and phones in their warm offices rather than facing the direct wrath of the people. Funnily enough that led to files disappearing and computers stopping working after a visit from the Anti-Poll Tax occupiers.
There was a consequence of Tommy’s action on that day. He was brought to court for breaching the interdict and jailed for six months which he spent in Saughton Prison in Edinburgh. From there he stood for the Council and parliament. He achieved a fantastic vote in the Parliamentary election and was elected as Glasgow’s first Scottish Militant Labour Councillor. This was another first for the campaign, the first Councillor elected from jail.
The mass defiance spread to England and Wales where Militant spearheaded the mass non-payment campaign. Many others were jailed including the late Terry Fields, the member of Militant who was the Labour MP for Liverpool Broadgreen. As defiance spread the Tories realised that the Poll Tax was finished. There was mass demo after mass demo and on 31st March 1990 the biggest of all the demos took place. 50,000 marched in Glasgow and after speaking in Glasgow Tommy flew down to London to address the 200,000 strong demo there. Much was made of the violence in London but the size and composition of the demo and the growing mass defiance was the real reason for the backing down by the Tories.
There were further demonstrations directed at defending those jailed for non-paying and those jailed for ‘violence’ on the 31st March. The 40,000 strong demo in London in October 1990 greeted many young marchers who had marched from all over Britain spreading the message. In November 1990 Thatcher was forced to resign as Prime Minister, a victim of the campaign to abolish the tax she had introduced. The fight to defend the non-payers continued for many years after that. The last two large demos in March 1991 in Glasgow (15,000) and in London a few weeks later (50,000) were an indication of that determination to continue. The Tories brought forward plans for a new local government tax.
Labour’s response to this victory was to attack those who resisted. Having worked hard to implement the Poll Tax even though it was hated they began to expel those in Militant who had led the fight to get rid of it. When the question was posed ‘Whose side are you on?’ they made it clear – the bosses and the Tories.
The struggle against the Poll Tax is a landmark in the long history of working class activity in Britain. It is full of stores of innovative actions, heroism and solidarity which makes one proud to have been part of a working class capable of such a mass act of defiance. It brought down a Prime Minister and we in the International Socialists are proud of the part we played in leading such a resistance.
Poll Tax Rebillion – 20 years on
Secretary of Pollok Anti-Poll Tax Union, Chair of Scottish and All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for defying a court order to help prevent a warrant sale in October 1991. Served 4 months in Saughton Prison between March and July 1992 were he was elected as a Scottish Militant Labour councillor for Glasgow Pollok in the May elections of that year and secured 20% of the vote and came 2nd in the Westminster election of April 1992. Now co-convenor of Soldarity.
“Ye cannae beat her son, she’s faced doon Galtieri and beat the miners. She’s the iron lady”.
This was a common response at the early anti-poll tax meetings organised in housing schemes across Scotland in 1988. A battered and bruised working class had witnessed a rampant and brutal Prime Minister, in the shape of Margaret Thatcher, cruelly and callously despatch troops to recapture the tiny Falklands Islands and sink ships in retreat from the battle in 1982 and tool up the ‘polis’ in paramilitary gear and tactics to crush the aspirations of miners in 1984. Their only crime was a desire to defend their jobs and communities for future generations.
With less than 40% of the popular vote a deeply divided Britain returned her to office for a record third term in office at the 1987 general election. Her victories over the Argentinian conscripts and the proud National Union of Mineworkers emboldened her to implement even more assaults on the welfare state, trade union rights and the very concept of ‘society’. ‘There’s no such thing’ she declared at a Royal Geographical dinner to the applause of the rich and powerful throughout the land who welcomed her determination to destroy socialism, human solidarity and the collectivist spirit which renders a society worthy of the description.
This was the political background to the mighty anti-poll tax struggle. Thatcher and her Tory lapdogs were intent on replacing the rates based on property values with a tax on every adult in a household regardless of income. It represented the most graphic attempt to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. The average family in a tenement would pay considerably more while the rich in their mansions would pay less. The wealthy Duke in his catle would receive a windfall but the low paid dustman was to get a kick in the teeth. It was introduced as the ‘communiy charge’ but almost immediately was christened the ‘poll tax’ and became known as such thereafter. It had to be fought. But how?
Those of us involved in devising the mass non-payment campaign in defiance of the Thatcher poll tax drew inspiration from several sources. The racist ‘pass laws’ in Apartheid South Africa were defied by a courageous black population who refused to obey unjust laws any longer despite the brutal repression they faced. Rosa Parkes in America was simply tired of being abused and discriminated against so refused to give up her bus seat and broke the unjust segregation laws of Montgomery, Alabama? The 47 Liverpool councillors, and before them those of Poplar, voted to break the law and set an illegal budget rather than attack the poor and slash services anymore in their city. Civil disobedience in defiance of bad and unjust laws had a rich and proud history and the anti-poll tax campaign was about to be added to that history.
Sure the odds seemed stacked against us at first but Thatcher’s arrogance and intoxication with power led her to make a crucial mistake. Up until the poll tax the ruling class tactic of ‘divide and rule’ had been applied with distinction. The steelworkers, nurses, printers and then the miners were all taken on separately. To their shame the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress leaders never united the movement in opposition to her assaults. But the poll tax was different. Here the whole of the working class were being attacked at once. Sure Scotland was chosen as the live guinea pig for this shameful wealth transfer to her rich friends but that actually served to sharpen the sense of grievance against the Tax in our Nation. We didn’t vote for them in ’87. We wiped them out. How dare they impose this unwanted policy on us first?
The fact it was an ‘unfair, unjust and immoral’ tax, the most common description at the time, was compounded by the decision to introduce it in Scotland a year before England and Wales. They ignored petitions, protest marches and rallies and the ballot box. All we had left was the right to defy. Civil disobedience through mass non-payment.
People were understandably worried, even scared. Disgracefully Labour Councils voted to implement this ‘immoral’ tax and thus despatched sheriff officers to harass and intimidate non-payers. The dreaded warrant sale threat was used to frighten families across Scotland. What the authorities didn’t reckon with was the size and determination of the grassroots movement to stand up and be counted. We refused to be cowered. We would not allow non-payers to stand alone. Poverty was undoubtedly the most demanding recruiting sergeant to our cause but through the network of housing scheme anti-poll tax unions and the regional and all-Scotland federation we gave strength and solidarity to those under threat.
News of attempted poindings by parasitical sheriff officers despatched by spineless councillors brought hundreds onto the streets in defence of threatened households. Not a single warrant sale was allowed. Scotland was in revolt against the Tax and the grass roots nature of the uprising left the politicians out of step and the authorities in despair. By the end of 1989 the non-payment army approached the one million mark. Marches and rallies involved tens of thousands. Council chambers were occupied. Sheriff officers were barred entry to non-payers homes and often returned to find their own offices under siege. The Tax was fatally wounded and when we spread the campaign to England and Wales the 13 million new recruits to the non-payment army rendered the poll tax a dead duck. Or as John Major was forced to admit in Parliament in 1991 it was being repealed because it had become “uncollectable”.
The anti-poll tax campaign made it “uncollectable” and its unbreakable spirit rested in its grass roots character. The thousands of ‘ordinary’ people who became extra-ordinary campaigners, particularly, it has to be said, the many women who led from the front. The names of Betty Currie, Mary McQuade, Betty McEachran, Jean from Cambuslang, Agnes from Pollok, Margaret from Easterhouse and hundreds of others too numerous to mention were the lifeblood of the campaign and they more than anyone put the “uncollectable” into the poll tax and helped melt down the iron lady and despatch her to the political knackers yard were she belongs. Well done to each and every one of the anti-poll tax campaigners on the 20th anniversary of our almighty struggle.