Part of a debate
- On Norman Geras’s ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution’, by Alan Johnson
- In defence of Ernest Erber, by Alan Johnson
- Morality, revolution, the Bolsheviks, and us, by Sean Matgamna (and as pdf, with appendices)
- Appendix: the Birmingham pub bombing, 1974
- What we said on the poll tax: Thatcher reaps what she sows
- How not to quote Lenin, by John Ryan
This article, describing the big anti-Poll Tax demonstration on 31 March 1990, appeared in Socialist Organiser, 5 April 1990
One of the most telling facts about the fighting between police and anti-poll tax demonstrators last Saturday 31 March, was pinpointed by the crime correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Neil Darbyshire, in an article outlining the thinking and observation of top policemen.
"A significant number of those involved in violence had joined the march apparently spontaneously after drinking in local public houses". The source for that was David Meynell, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
Despite all their hypocritical talk about conspiracies by anarchists and Trotskyists, the police and politicians know that much of the violence that spread through central London last Saturday was a spontaneous outburst of rebellion against the poll tax and other aspects of Thatcher’s Britain.
They know, too, that it was the police who started the violence when they charged down Whitehall into some hundreds of demonstrators who had sat down in peaceful protest opposite Downing Street.
Of course there are organisations of anarchists who believe that the only way and the best way to register their opposition to the poll tax, and maybe destroy it, is by violent demonstrations as near to outright insurrection as possible. But those anarchists cannot organise such things at will.
On Saturday it was the combination of outrage over the poll tax and the mounted police charge against the would-be sitdowners in Whitehall which ignited the demonstrators — not the anarchists.
The wonder of it is that such outbreaks have not happened before in a capital city where upwards of 75,000 people are homeless, and many of them sheltering in squats, hostels, or bed and breakfast places must now find the money to pay poll tax for the privilege of breathing London air.
Much of the violence by demonstrators on Saturday was blind, destructive and counter-productive — people climbing scaffolding then throwing rivets into the crowd of demonstrators, looting, destruction of cars in the streets, and so on. In so far as the anarchists had anything to do with such events, they proved once more that with such people it is not so much the rocks in their hands as the rocks in their heads that make them dangerous.
But — to repeat — the point about what happened on Saturday was not the anarchists, but the large "spontaneous" element in it. Most of those who went on the rampage through part of Mrs Thatcher's capital given over the conspicuous consumption were people driven to revolt by intolerable pressure. The pressure of the poll tax was merely the detonator. The police charge against the peaceful sit-down in Whitehall was the spark that set off the explosion.
Not to distinguish between foolish anarchists and people driven to spontaneous revolt is not to be able to understand what happened and why.
The main responsibility for what happened on Saturday lies with the leaders of the labour movement. No wonder people feel desperate and hopeless enough to lash out blindly when the leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC confine themselves to verbal fireworks and fencing displays with Mrs Thatcher and her ministers in the House of Commons.
As Tony Benn has said, had the Labour Party and the TUC backed Saturday’s demonstration, then it could have been a million or more strong. Proper stewarding could have controlled the unruly.
Even the police would perhaps have had to behave themselves better at a demonstration with Neil Kinnock and Norman Willis marching at its head.
Instead the leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC have eagerly joined in the Tory-conducted chorus against "violence". It is a long time since anything quite so odiously hypocritical has been seen in Britain.
People sitting in their homes saw on their TV screens a troop of perhaps 20 mounted police ride down a lone woman in the centre of the road, ride over her without faltering, and go on their way, leaving her on the ground where the horses' hooves had trampled her.
They saw a mounted policeman with a long baton leaning down to club a man who had fallen on the ground beating him repeatedly on his head. They saw policemen — sometimes mounted — charge wildly into crowds of bystanders, swinging batons indiscriminately.
They saw peaceful bystanders with their heads streaming blood as a result of such tactics by the police.
And the politicians — Labour and Tory alike — go one and one about violence, meaning violence by the poll tax demonstrators!
Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley vie with the Tories to demand exemplary punishment of those arrested, and call for police investigations into the "conspirators" behind it all. Roy Hattersley blames the Socialist Workers Party — though even the police have stated that known SWPers were seen trying to calm things down! So does George Galloway the well-off "left" MP (quoted in the Guardian 2 April).
It has hard to imagine anything more disgusting, or more scandalous, than the Labour leaders… appealing to the Tories not to blame them but instead to form a common front against “the enemies of democracy”. To unite with Thatcher against the enemies of democracy is to unite with the Devil to fight sin!
The ramming through of the poll tax by Thatcher’s minority-elected government against the manifest opposition of a big majority of the electorate — and maybe even of a majority of Tory voters — is the very opposite of democracy. If Thatcher's attempt to brand Labour with responsibility for last Saturday's semi-uprising has failed, that is not because Labour's leaders have played little sir echo to Mrs Thatcher but because people in Britain know where the violence comes from.
Vast numbers of desperate people in Britain probably sympathise, half-sympathise, or can anyway understand those who ran amok last Saturday.
If Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley are interested in democracy then they should cut the cackle and the cant about the democratic nature of Mrs Thatcher’s tyranny and fight for the democratic rights of the British people now but campaigning for an immediate general election.
It is still not too late for the leaders of the labour movement to take their proper place at the head of a powerful labour-movement based movement against the poll tax and Mrs Thatcher. If they believe their own talk about democracy, that is what they will do. Probably they won't.
The months ahead may well see other explosions of anger like last Saturday's, essentially spontaneous. If the leaders of the labour movement won't lead an organised fight back, then the rank and file must.
Not only Labour MPs like Hattersley and Galloway have gone in for “fingering” sections of the left and acting, or promising to act, as “felon-setters” for the police by trying to identify left-wingers as being responsible.
The officers of the All-Britain Anti-Poll-Tax Federation — [Militant members] Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan — have promised to hold their own “investigation” and then “go public naming names” (Nally). To whom?
To the police? To go public is to go to the police.
The left has a right to defend itself against anarchist disorganisers and against outbreaks of wild hooliganism, including the right to throw disrupters off marches. Nally and Sheridan had a right to dissociate themselves from the violence last Saturday.
But nobody on the left has the right to felon-set people on our side who act against Thatcher and her poll tax according to their best lights.
Nally and Sheridan are Militant people, and the All-Britain Anti-Poll-Tax Federation is completely (and very bureaucratically) controlled by Militant. Those who run Militant should call them to order at once; if they don’t, the activists in the anti-poll-tax movement should.
The Militant-controlled All-Britain Anti-Poll-Tax Federation also bears responsibility for the chaos which engulfed the demonstration last Saturday, a responsibility second only to that of the leaders of the labour and trade union movement.
They have a one-sided, exclusively “direct action” strategy for beating the poll tax — don’t pay.
They talk for the record about not collecting, and call for a general election now to “bring down the Government”, but in practice they pay no attention at all to the fight to line up Labour councils to refuse to implement the poll tax, or trade unions to refuse to cooperate.
This is surprising, but true. Militant burned its fingers too much in Liverpool.
And Militant is in considerable disarray politically. People in Scotland like Tommy Sheridan looked set early this year to stand as candidates against Labour in the local government elections. They seem to have been dissuaded.
It is right to advocate non-payment, and Socialist Organiser does advocate it. But Militant makes it into a one-sided panacea and foolishly ignores its limitations and difficulties while at the same time channeling the anti-poll-tax movement away from concern with the trade unions or with local government, which is the interface between the Tories, the labour movement, and the working class.
These politics — or lack of politics — help push young people new to politics and not part of the labour movement into anarchist attitudes.
More than that. Militant was in charge last Saturday. The Anti-Poll-Tax Federation is tightly controlled by them and patrolled in their usual ultra-sectarian spirit. Most of the stewards on Saturday were Militant (many of them full-time) or controlled and selected by Militant, and Militant had an airtight grip on the overall organisation.
There can be no certainty that better stewarding would have made a decisive difference, but it is a matter of fact that the stewarding failed completely at the end. Since Militant has a jealously-guarded near monopoly on the Anti-Poll-Tax Federation, the responsibility is Militant’s when things go wrong.
To cap this inept performance with a public promise to investigate and publish a list of names of allegedly violent people there on Saturday — that is, in effect, to hand them over to the police — is to reduce things to a nasty and unpleasant farce.