Show Hide image

8. Defining moments of the Thatcher years | The Battle of Trafalgar | 31 March 1990

Can’t pay! Won’t pay!

The largest of the poll tax riots, known as the Battle of Trafalgar, occurred on 31 March 1990. From 11am until 3am the following day, flames sent smoke billowing into the sky above central London. Tube stations were closed, police vans were torched, shops were ransacked, and officers were pelted with detritus ranging from bricks to bottles to broken placards, as angry protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against the tax.

John Andrew of the Guardian recalled that the "scene resembled a revolutionary tableau". Dozens of people were injured in the rioting, including 45 police officers. Significant sections of the city had to be cordoned off in order to control the public disorder, which was said to be the catalyst for Thatcher's descent into political disfavour and eventual resignation.

A flagship policy of the Thatcher government, the Community Charge replaced rates based on the value of a property with a fixed charge per adult resident in each property. Critics pointed out that a single person living alone in a million-pound house would pay less tax than a family of four living in a far less valuable property.

John Major later scrapped the poll tax and substituted the socially preferential council tax, which was based partly on ability to pay.

Next: 9. Gulf war advice to Bush | 3 August 1990

Previous: 7. Heseltine resigns | 9 January 1986

Back to list