Thatcher and the Poll Tax Riots

Thatcher’s Children

The reaction of Thatcher and her cabinet to the violence at anti-Poll Tax demonstrations has been predictable. They sound like Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have sounded for the last 20 years, looking for ever more condemnatory words and getting more and more hollow. They begin to sound like broken records, and are quite as annoying.

The same is happening about the anti-poll tax violence. And the Labour front bench has joined the chorus. After the Trafalgar Square riot it was like an auction in humbug between Waddington and Hattersley with the latter excelling himself in calling for exemplary sentences. Both he and Kinnock seem to have forgotten that there is cause and effect in social behaviour.

The cause of the riots is Thatcher’s poll tax. That in turn is the product of her philosophy, which she summed up last year as meaning that there is no such thing as society.

That philosophy by a Prime Minister is a recipe and a provocation for riots. She is morally culpable for such riots and that is what the Labour front bench should be telling her in no uncertain terms. Instead they are crawling to appear well behaved and have allowed her to be the judge and jury of what constitutes good behaviour. The Parliamentary discussion on Trafalgar Square was a disgrace for Labour. The

same organisers held a totally peaceful march in Glasgow on the same day. They asked for the London march to be allowed to end in Hyde Park, and were refused. Hattersley did not know this. It is difficult to imagine that a shadow Home Secretary would have to be told this by his own back benchers in Parliament, but that is· what happened.

Why was the march not allowed to end in Hyde Park? Why was there an attempt to clear everyone out of Trafalgar Square, just because a few anarchists sat down in front of Downing Street? These questions needed asking. The government should have been asked them again and again. But Hattersley was too cowed to do so.

The march in Glasgow was peaceful because there is no political vacuum in Scotland. Opposition to Thatcherism is comprehensive and varied The same cannot be said of the England at the moment There is a growing political and moral vacuum caused by Labour’s inability to come to terms with Thatcherism. That vacuum is being filled by anarchy.

It needs to be pointed out that Thatcher has a lot in common with the anarchists – both see the state as a perversity. Anarchists at least accept society and enjoy it. Their error is to see the state as a distortion in the development of society – and anarchism tends to flourish in societies where the state is making a mess of regulating society’s development.

Thatcher is at war with society. She regards it as one undifferentiated mass, a collection of atoms – a mob, in fact. And since society is seen as an undifferentiated mass, it is to be taxed and treated accordingly. The only acceptable bonds are those of greed, money and the market.

For Thatcher, public life and the public service is by its very nature parasitical. The public purse is there to be looted by ‘entrepreneurial’ individuals. Nothing else can describe the privatisation of water, electricity and other public utilities. MacMillan put it more diplomatically when he said it was selling off the family silver. But it is looting – equivalent to unlocking the doors and letting anyone who likes walk off with the family silver. A Prime Minister who has organised and encouraged such multi-million pound looting has no moral grounds for condemning the small-scale looting that some of the rioters engaged in.

In a Brecht play, one of the characters says ‘why rob a bank when you can take it over?’ Why loot a few shops, when you can loot large numbers of privatized utilities?

Thatcherism attempts to reduce society down to its base and basic elements. And because that is such a horrible prospect, people will fight it. People do not want the simplicity of the jungle . They want the complexity and variety of society – the hallmarks of civilization. And they want a government that caters for that.

In England, of all places in the world, government is conditional on relating to the diversity of society. The English are very law abiding – as long as they agree with the law. In the same way they love their monarchy – that is why they have bumped off more monarchs than any other people. Maybe we ain’t seen nothing yet!


This article appeared in May 1990, in Issue 17 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at