Twenty years ago Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax polarised political opinion and led to violent riots around the country. MARY HAMILTON takes a look back at the day an angry crowd stormed Norwich city hall.
When violence erupted over the poll tax in London 20 years ago, the sheer scale of it took the capital’s police and the political elite by surprise.
But the mass riots in Trafalgar Square on March 31 1990 were the culmination of months of growing anger over the imposition of what was widely regarded as an unfair and unjust tax.
In the month leading up to the London riots, smaller demonstrations around the country were beginning to come to a head – and Norwich was no exception.
The impending imposition of a flat rate tax on every adult over 18 caused massive outrage, as it meant pensioners and those earning subsistence wages would pay the same amount as millionaires.
Norwich Anti-Poll Tax Union, headed by Martin Smith, handed out flyers calling the tax “a policy of Robin Hood in reverse”, held increasingly well-attended talks and ran demonstrations where protestors burned their registration forms.
The growing public anger in Norwich came to a head when a riot broke out at the city council meeting on March 6, where the poll tax level for the city was due to be set.
More than 1,000 people stormed City Hall, breaking windows with dustbins and traffic cones, and overwhelming the 30 police officers on duty.
Reinforcements were rushed to the scene as 100 protestors inside the council chambers shouted and chanted at councillors and threw ripped-up agenda papers from the public gallery.
The meeting was adjourned within 10 minutes and a planned restart at 9pm was abandoned after a skirmish broke out at the back of the hall.
In total the protest, which will be featured on Inside Out on BBC1 on Monday, cost the city council £19,500 to repair smashed windows and vandalised computers, and four women were arrested in the aftermath of the demonstration.
Even so, Gillian London, 59, remembers the day as a positive expression of solidarity, with people coming together to protest injustice.
“Originally I went along because of the unfairness,” said Mrs London, of Hall Road, Tuckswood. “It taxed the poor and didn’t take anything into consideration as to people’s income.
“I believed that we had to stand up for people who were worse off than ourselves – it wasn’t to do with my personal circumstances.
“I genuinely thought people were not just there for themselves – it wasn’t just about what we were going to gain.”
Mrs London said she enjoyed being among likeminded people, and despite coming close to the violence she said she was never worried she would be hurt or arrested.
“I stood outside City Hall when some of the violence broke out,” she said. “I was there with my sisters and we felt the ruckus was being orchestrated by a group of people.
“I had someone come running up to me and say we needed to move because we were going to be arrested. I told her I wasn’t causing any trouble, and I wasn’t going anywhere.
“I didn’t think anybody in the town hall was threatened by us outside, though there were stories that the councillors were scared of what we were going to do.”
Eamonn Burgess, now a DJ for Future Radio, said he arrived at the demonstration after the violence was over.
“After we left we heard that a few people had been arrested,” he said. “The late Ken Bradley, who was a law lecturer at City College, went and got them all out of the cells.
“There was an absolute polarisation in society – rich versus poor, left versus right, us versus them. Everyone knew what side they were on.”
The second meeting to set the tax rate on March 11 went much more smoothly, despite an 800-strong protest throwing eggs at City Hall and chanting so loudly that the bells of nearby St Peter Mancroft church were almost drowned out.
The council fixed a poll tax of £365 per adult for Norwich in 1990 – more than £50 higher than government predictions.
Council leader Jane Sillett said many ordinary people were angry at the imposition of a tax that was “outrageous, unjust, universally hated and probably unworkable”, and finance chairman Patricia Hollis – now Baroness Hollis of Heigham – admitted some people would be unable to pay the £1-a-day levy.
Her words proved prophetic as many people in Norwich either refused to pay or were unable to find the cash for the first year’s poll tax, leading to court appearances and further protests.
The riots and the imposition of the hugely unpopular tax were instrumental in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, who resigned in November 1990.
Her replacement John Major immediately repealed the poll tax, replacing it with the current council tax system – effectively reinstating the rates system that existed before 1990 – a course of action that many people credit to the strength of feeling shown across the country.