Wildcat (UK)'s review of Poll Tax Rebellion by Danny Burns.
Poll Tax Rebellion by Danny Burns - reviewed by Wildcat (UK), 1993.
A critical but supportive review of a historical survey of the anti-Poll Tax struggle.
It has to be said that this is a very useful book. As well as reviving many happy memories for class struggle militants it provides a valuable record of the events which led to the defeat of the poll tax. I don't know of any other publication which does this with the same level of honesty and accuracy. It would be particularly useful for giving to comrades from other countries who want to know about this high point in the class struggle in Britain. In particular, Chap. 3 provides an excellent description of the self-organisation of anti-poll tax groups where people lived - this was the most important aspect of the struggle. Its politics are generally of the wishy-washy libertarian variety but I'm not going to condemn it just because it doesn't call for the dictatorship of the proletariat at the end of every paragraph. Its overall tone is very "reasonable" while at the same time making quite a few hard-hitting points about the need for the working class to organise outside the labour movement. It also calls for the extension of the non-payment tactic - something which is particularly relevant given the recent announcement of the imposition of VAT on fuel bills.
I was seriously involved in the anti-poll tax movement in London from late 1989 so much of the stuff about the development of the struggle in England was already familiar but even for me there is plenty of thought-provoking and encouraging information. For example, I'd never heard about attempts by Bristol city council to collect the tax through local shops. This failed after consumer boycotts and physical attacks on the premises (pg 65). I learnt a lot from the section about the origins of the movement in Scotland. This provided an interesting example of how people often act ahead of their ideas given that many of the first "Anti-Poll Tax Unions" (APTUs) were set up by people with pronounced Scottish nationalist sympathies. This didn't stop resistance to the poll tax in Scotland (particularly to the Sheriff's Officers, i.e. bailiffs) being an enormous inspiration to anti-poll tax activists in England and Wales. If anything the anti-poll tax struggle will have weakened Scottish and English nationalism (let's hope so!).
Danny Burns understands the difference between civil disobedience (the middle classes demanding to be arrested) and resistance (proles being determined to break the law and get away with it). He's also good at describing how the class struggle has lots of different elements to it: violent/non-violent; legal/illegal; "individual"/"mass", and that these are not mutually exclusive. This last point is argued explicitly in the concluding chapter ("After the Poll Tax") although, it has to be said, it isn't argued too well. He says "the actions of those who were not prepared to break the law were not undermined by the actions of the few who chose to throw fire bombs". This is true but it conveniently ignores the fact that the actions of people lobbing fire bombs into poll tax and bailiffs' offices certainly were undermined by the scumbags in local APTUs who went to the press "dissociating" the movement from these actions. He continues: "those who chose to leave Trafalgar Square peacefully, were not tarnished by those who chose to fight back against the police attack". Again, this is true but it ignores the fact that it would have been better for those of us fighting the police if more people had stayed around rather than heading for their coaches as the stewards directed. This is indicative of a central weakness of the book - the way it bends over backwards to be non-sectarian, taking the view that anyone involved in the anti-poll tax movement was basically OK. This obscures real conflicts that went on within the organised movement - between pro and anti-Labour Party forces, between those who really wanted the struggle to succeed and those who wanted to subordinate it to their political ambitions (notably Militant), between those who wanted to take the struggle into workplaces and the union hacks who didn't, between those who thought the Trafalgar Square uprising was "fucking brilliant" and those who thought it was an embarrassment. This weakness is expressed most clearly where he describes the comments made by Tommy Sheridan (Chair of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation) immediately after Trafalgar Square as "defensive" (pg 104). In this statement Sheridan denounced the rioters. The next day he and Steve Nally were to say that they intended to "name names" and "root out the trouble-makers". This was to earn them the well-deserved epithets of "Nally the Nark" and "Shop'Em Sheridan". There was nothing defensive about the remarks made by these gentlemen. They indicated a real desire go on the offensive... against the proletariat! In a similar vein he describes the All-Britain Federation's "People's March Against the Poll Tax" as an "inadequate response" (pg 116). This consisted of a few dozen Militant supporters (OK, one or two weren't) in expensive track suits marching to London from various parts of the country. It was Militant's response to widespread demands for more demos in London after Trafalgar Square. To call it "inadequate" is to mask the fact that it was an attempt to demobilise the movement.
In general DB puts forward the need to organise outside the labour movement but not against it. In practice this doesn't matter too much in community based struggles - in many cases it is possible to simply avoid leftist manipulators (e.g. by setting up alternative local groups to the Militant-dominated ones). Even here, though, important political choices must be made. For example, do we lobby a council meeting (as, of course, Labour Party types want to do) or do we disrupt it? In workplace struggles this is a much more important issue. Workplaces where there is a tradition of militancy will tend to have strong unions which cannot be ignored, they must be fought. This did happen to some extent, albeit on a completely informal level. I remember hearing about a union rep. telling a group of nurses that they couldn't hold an anti-poll tax meeting in their hostel without permission from the union (COHSE). He was told to get stuffed and that the meeting was "nothing to do with the union anyway". DB certainly understands that the unions hindered the anti-poll tax struggle - pg 164 contains an important piece of information about how the UCW (Union of Communication Workers) tried to suppress the group "Postal Workers Against the Poll Tax". For DB, though, this was just an "organisational problem".
"If you tell people to break the law by not paying the tax, you're not far off telling them to break other laws as well".
Norman Tebbit, Tory Party Chairman, 2.6.90
I feel I must object strongly to DB's insulting characterisation of poll tax non-payers as honest law abiding citizens (pg 50). It's probably true that most regarded themselves as such. Whether they actually were is another matter. According to the Home Office, a third of men in Britain will have been convicted of a "serious" criminal offence by the age of thirty. On pg 183 DB says "millions of people broke the law for the first time" - I very much doubt it! As we all know, millions of proletarians supplement their incomes by illegal or semi-illegal means, whether it's non-payment of various bills, TV license evasion, theft from work, fiddling the dole or whatever. The prevailing attitude to these activities, however, is one of individualism - if I do it and get caught it's my problem; if you get caught it's your problem; "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime". Many people will do these things without even telling their closest friends or relatives that they're doing it. One of the positive things about the anti-poll tax movement is that non-payment was a typical form of working class law-breaking which became socially acceptable and was seen as completely legitimate. People were prepared to say "I'm proud to be a poll tax non-payer" whereas they wouldn't (yet) say "I'm proud to be a shoplifter". The bosses' austerity measures will, without any doubt, drive millions of people (deeper) into crime. The anti-poll tax movement could be the beginning of the politicisation of the criminals. It's become normal for bourgeois commentators to talk about a "culture of non-payment" which will undermine any form of local taxation. In particular, I think that bailiffs threatening to come to your house is a nerve-wracking experience for most people. But when it's happened once and you've successfully kept them out, or they've never turned up as frequently happens, it's a very confidence building experience. This is particularly true in Scotland where there was mass resistance to bailiffs in the form of large crowds gathering outside threatened houses. We'll see what happens when they start harassing Council Tax non-payers.
As revolutionaries we know that it's pointless to try to use the law to serve the interests of the proletariat. We also know that a good lefty lawyer can often keep you out of prison. The price you pay for not going to prison is that of legitimising the legal system - the right of the police to make arrests and the right of the courts to jail "guilty" people. Given the present level of class struggle it's hard to imagine what it would mean for there to be a large-scale refusal to play the game of capitalist legality. The anti-poll tax movement did, however, give us an inkling of what can happen. One strategy used by almost all anti-poll tax groups was to encourage people to turn up for their Liability Order hearings in order to "clog up the courts". This strategy worked for a few months. Eventually, though, the councils got most of the liability orders they needed. But it didn't do them any good! The courts generated a mountain of liability orders (millions of the things!) but these pieces of paper had no practical meaning. There were too few bailiffs and they didn't know how to operate in conditions of widespread hostility. With the Committal (potential imprisonment) hearings it was obvious to almost everyone involved in the anti-poll tax movement that the best advice was not to go to court. Most of those summonsed to these hearings didn't go. Warrants were issued for their arrest and... nothing much happened in most cases. At the present time there must be tens of thousands of these "fugitives from justice" at large in Britain. "Legal advice" was an important part of the struggle but as things progressed the nature of the advice given was less and less legalistic and more just along the lines of "millions of us are getting away with it, why shouldn't you?". With the benefit of hindsight the whole "have your day in court" strategy can be seen to have been a waste of time. In the end the argy bargy over whether the state would allow "McKenzie Friends" (informal legal advisers with no right to address the court) proved irrelevant to the class struggle. Magistrate's courts were sometimes disrupted, rather than being used as a tribune for denouncing the poll tax, but this was almost never a declared aim of anti-poll tax groups. In the end the instinctive policy of complete non-participation in the bourgeois courts proved to be the right one.
As with the rest of the book, DB's account of the Trafalgar Square uprising and the police repression which followed it provides much valuable information. The main problem with it is that it is very much oriented towards the events in Trafalgar Square itself - there is almost nothing about the widespread trashing of bourgeois property throughout the West End which followed. Partly this is just because Trafalgar Square is where Danny was most of the time, as is obvious from his account. Partly, I suspect, it's ideological as well. By concentrating on the Square itself he can emphasise the defensive aspects of the struggle. It's true that the police attacked us first and that most of our activity in the Square was defensive... and very inspiring. It's certainly the only demo I've ever been on where I've seen police snatch squads try to break up a crowd and totally fail to do so! But even here we did many things that were more offensive, like collectively deciding to attack the South African embassy and then doing so (not very successfully, it's very well fortified!), like wrecking an army recruiting office and looting an off-license (this did have the unfortunate effect of many demonstrators being the worse for drink when a clear head was required to fight the pigs). None of these events are mentioned in the book. Nor does he say that the main reason so many so many rioters were arrested after the demo is that so few of them covered their faces during the uprising. This is a vital lesson which I am sure DB must be aware of. It's downright irresponsible not to mention it.
DB repeats the well-worn liberal cliché that the police deliberately set out to provoke a riot (pg 100). Perhaps they did but they were obviously completely unprepared for the scale of our response. It's more likely that they were expecting a peaceful middle class stroll like the CND demos of the early 1980's but then realised (too late) that without a massive police presence and effective stewarding from pig-loving lefties it's impossible to assemble 200,000 proletarians in central London without a major confrontation with bourgeois property relations ensuing. For a more balanced view of events I would direct the reader to the pamphlet Poll Tax Riot - 10 Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square (Acab Press, BM 8884, London WC1N 3XX) which contains several first-hand accounts.
On pg 116 DB says:
"Often attack is the only effective form of defence and, as a movement, we should not be ashamed or defensive about these actions, we should be proud of those who did fight back."
Fair enough, Danny, but shouldn't we be doing more than just feeling proud of these people...? Like organising effective measures in advance for next time the pigs attack us? The anti-poll tax movement certainly organised legal support for arrested demonstrators, mostly through the TSDC (Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, described in the book), but there was almost no attempt made to organise physical defence of demos. Any suggestions at "official" Federation-run meetings that this should be done were very quickly sat on by Militant hacks (in particular one Mr. Wally Kennedy) who quite openly stated that march stewards should "protect" demonstrators by handing trouble-makers over to the police! More subtly, the TSDC tended to function as a means of turning class struggle militants into "legal liaison volunteers" rather than rioters.
One final point about Trafalgar Square. Am I the only revolutionary to be irritated by the description of the targets of our anger on that fateful day in March 1990 as "symbols of wealth"? There's nothing symbolic about a car showroom filled with top of the range BMWs. This is capitalist wealth (even if it's not "means of production").
In DB's conclusion on the last page of the book he says that the community "will remain, for some time, the strongest base for political action". I can certainly imagine "community" based struggles (mass non-payment and resistance to evictions, for example) being very important in Britain in the next few years. Part of the reason for the success of the anti-poll tax movement was the complete absence of any community equivalent of a trade union bureaucracy, but this doesn't mean that leftists (such as Militant) won't try to create one. DB's book is useful in pointing out many positive aspects of the anti-poll tax movement and how it achieved its immediate aim but to really "learn the lessons" we need to look more closely at the forces that stopped it from going further.
I'll leave you with one final thought. Just what did we win in fighting the poll tax? I would suggest that the main concession made by the state was not the formal abolition of the tax itself but the fact that the state effectively gave up trying to collect it without, of course, ever admitting to such a thing. There was (and is) a de facto amnesty for non-payers in most of the country. This may have cost the state about a billion pounds or so in lost arrears. This is not so serious when you consider that the overall cost to the bourgeoisie's economic plans was more like £10 billion, mostly in the costs of administrative reorganisation involved in abolishing the poll tax and introducing yet another completely new one. The advantage of this unannounced concession is that the mass of non-payers carried on not paying but didn't become organised or politicised, the mass of idiots who were paying carried on paying and the activists didn't have much to be active about. Once it was realised that working class homes were not going to be besieged by SAS-style squads of bailiffs and the police were not going to kick pensioners doors in and drag them off to prison the local groups gradually disintegrated. What this shows is that although the poll tax represented a major break with the post war social democratic consensus (which is part of the reason it aroused such widespread opposition, even from sections of the middle classes who benefited from it financially), in retreat the state was still able to make use of a social democratic type of strategic concession designed to preempt any proletarian class formation.
George Gordon 31 March 1993