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civic unrest thatcherTORONTO, Ont./Troy Media/ – By 1990, there’d been almost 600 years of experience with riots over taxes in England, so you’d think the poll tax might have been handled differently by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In 1381, a poll tax resulted in the Peasants’ Revolt. That was just the start.

In 1990, the Thatcher government replaced rates based on the value of property with a per capita, flat-rate Community Charge that didn’t take ability to pay into account.

Local protests used the slogan Can’t pay, won’t pay. The All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation was set up by the Trotskyist Militant tendency, which later became known as the Socialist Party. They planned a demonstration against the tax on March 31, 1990. One part of the plan was to have politicians address the crowd in Trafalgar Square.

By this time in the history of demonstrations, there was reasonable communication among police, other authorities and protesters. Organizers asked the Metropolitan Police Service and the Department of the Environment for permission to move the event to Hyde Park. They thought they might get more than 70,000 people – the capacity of Trafalgar Square. Permission was denied because there was no time to plan for a new venue.

Police closed off some nearby streets to increase the capacity of the square. But, 200,000 people showed up to march, beginning at Kennington Park. On their way to Trafalgar Square, the crowd passed a sit-down protest near the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. The smaller group wanted to hand in a petition. Police arrested a demonstrator who was in a wheelchair, which enraged many. An analysis after noted that the police decision to confront the small group resulted in a number of events that police couldn’t control.

It may be 20/20 hindsight – not very fair from the other side of the ocean, either. But what’s wrong with handing in a petition? Why would this get out of control? Moreover, can police only handle events if given adequate notice? What would happen if the military or hospital emergency rooms operated this way?

Police tried to split the big group – sending half to Trafalgar Square and the other half in the opposite direction to Parliament Square. The move to the new venue of Parliament Square was noteworthy because there couldn’t have been a plan for that square anymore than there was a plan for Hyde Park. Fighting broke out, police withdrew, returned with horses and riot gear and on events went.

After the Trafalgar Square event ended, 3,000 people remained and battled police. Because police had cordoned off exits to the square, demonstrators were penned in – now called kettling. Mounted police charged the crowd. Riot vans were driven at protesters. After 6 p.m., some exits of Trafalgar Square were opened by police, which allowed some demonstrators to use public transport and leave. Many who didn’t leave vandalized, looted and fought. There was about $1 million in damages, 113 citizens injured, 502 major crimes, 1,336 other crimes, 408 arrests and 542 police officers injured. Later, there were 123 more arrests.

Not to diminish the lawlessness by protesters, but closing off exits on public streets and impeding pedestrian access to public transit sounds like involuntary confinement – a chargeable offence.

Anarchists were blamed. They blamed police. The courts acquitted many who were charged.

Later analysis indicated senior police officers weren’t in control of subordinates. Police vehicles sped around with sirens blaring despite officers being asked not to by superior officers. The chain of command was breached with the wrong level making certain decisions. Some police communication devices didn’t work well.

This riot may have played a role in the Conservative Party later being defeated in a byelection, dropping the tax and dropping their leader, Thatcher.

Ultimately, it appears public policy was established by riot.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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