31 March 1990: Central London trashed in anti-poll tax riots

On this day in 1990 a mass demonstration against Mrs Thatcher's controversial Poll Tax turned ugly when thousands went on the rampage in central London.

Under the old and flawed system of domestic rates, local taxes were levied on the value of your house. So an old-aged pensioner alone in a big house could end up paying more than a houseful of people who used more services and were possibly better able to pay. And so the Conservative government replaced it with the “Community Charge”. It was a flagship policy of Margaret Thatcher's government.

Opposition grew quickly – and even members of Thatcher's own party weren't keen. The main objections were the fact that the same amount was paid by everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, and that liability was determined by being on the electoral roll. Thus it was dubbed the “Poll Tax”. But Mrs T was famously stubborn, and refused to reconsider.

The Militant Tendency – a particularly humourless Trotskyist element of the Labour Party of the time – set up the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax League, and began organising a mass demonstration to be held on Saturday 31 March 1990. 70,000 people assembled in Kennington Park and marched on central London. Later in the afternoon, a group staged a sit in in Whitehall, dangerously close to Downing Street, and it was then that the trouble started. Police moved in to break them up, and things rapidly got out of hand.

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The trouble, centred on Trafalgar Square, spread to the surrounding area. In some of the worst rioting the country had seen for years, cars were attacked, windows smashed and shops looted. 400 people were arrested.

The unpopularity of the tax contributed to Thatcher's downfall. When the tax was introduced in England (it had been trialled a year before in Scotland), 17 million refused to pay. In opinion polls, 78% were opposed to the tax. Thatcher resigned in November that year and the tax was abolished in 1993 – some £2bn in arrears.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.