Thatcher was forced to resign 28 years ago this month – Celebrate the Anti-Poll Tax Warriors Who Melted The Iron Lady

It would be improper and disrespectful to let November pass without mention of the likes of Betty Curry from Cambuslang, Mary McQuaid from Birkenshaw and Betty McEachin from Govan. Those women and millions like them across Scotland, England and Wales deserve special attention around 22nd November every year. For that was the day in 1990 that the most brutal and heartless Prime Minister in Britain since the 2nd World War was forced to resign.

Margaret Thatcher used to be called The ‘Iron Lady’ but after doing battle with anti-poll tax organisers like the two Bettys and Mary she was melted down to size and shunted off to the political knackers’ yard where she belonged.

The anti-poll tax struggle is a David versus Goliath story, an ever constant reminder of the potential power of the people when they are enraged and organised. Margaret Thatcher was the epitome of evil in its human form. A woman who consciously set out to destroy industries, impoverish communities and set neighbour against neighbour and worker against worker in her quest to obliterate any semblance of a thing called society. In a 1987 Woman’s Own interview she stated explicitly her belief that there was indeed “no such thing as society”  just collections of individuals who should prioritise looking after themselves first. She consciously sought to foster a ‘dog eat dog’,’ me myself I’ philosophy and sneered at the idea of human solidarity and social welfare.

Even out of office in 1991 she declared at the Royal Geographical Society Dinner “our job is to glory in inequality” . Let that quote sink in for a moment. “Glory in inequality”. She certainly covered herself in such ‘glory’. During her periods of office poverty across the UK trebled from around 5 million people in 1979 to over 14 million in 1990. Of those cast aside and thrown into poverty four million of them were children.

Thatcher stole the UK’s assets through privatisation programmes that amounted to get rich quick schemes for her spiv pals in the city of London. Greed became fashionable and individualism was promoted at every opportunity. She engineered industrial disputes to try and destroy trades unions and the social solidarity they embody.

This woman took on steel workers, health workers and the miners. She introduced the necessary anti-strike laws to enable bullying print bosses to sack and isolate printers and journalists in titles like the Stockport Messenger and the Times and Sunday Times. Her callous disregard for human life was illustrated by her order to sink the General Belgrano navy cruiser in 1982 as it sailed away from the Falklands conflict zone. Her breech of international law in relation to the conduct of conflicts saw 323 lives lost aboard that ship, the majority of them young sea cadets and conscripts to the Argentine army. She should have been tried as a war criminal .

Thatcher ‘The Iron Lady’ was not a term of endearment but an apt description of a woman bereft of a heart or soul and unrepentant about the suffering and misery she caused in households and communities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

By the time of her 3rd General Election victory in 1987 she had grown weary of Scotland’s rejection of her policies. We never supported her brand of callous conservatism and her 22 Scottish MPs elected in 1979 were reduced to a rump of only 10 by 1987. Scotland was punished with reduced public spending, welfare cuts and industrial vandalism wiping out steel plants, coalmines, shipyards and factories. Her malice did not stop there though. Consumed with power and complacent in office she devised a flagship policy for her third term and called it the Community Charge. Scotland would be the guinea pig for it and have it imposed on April 1st 1989, one year before England and Wales.

This Community Charge was a replacement for the rateable value charged on homes. The annual rates bill for ordinary homes was not a big deal and those in local authority council houses paid the bill alongside their rents without much fuss. However those in big homes with increasing values had bigger rates bills and most of them were strong Tory supporters. They wanted to pay less for the refuse collection, street lights, roads maintenance and police and fire services they all benefited from. Thatcher’s bright idea was a new charge which taxed each individual living in a house not the property. It quickly became known as the poll tax and it would represent a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The wealthy in their big houses would pay less than they formerly paid in rates while the poor and ordinary families would face increased bills.

The Duke in his Castle would pay less in poll tax than the Dustbin man in his small council flat. Every individual over the age of 18 would be charged the poll tax. A manageable household rates bill would become a penalising community charge bill affecting the poorest areas of cities like Glasgow to the tune of hundreds of pounds .

Anger was palpable across Scotland’s working class communities. Not only was the poll tax unfair and unjust it was also undemocratic. With a lousy 10 of the 72 Westminster seats from Scotland at the time how dare the Tories impose this tax on us first?

Literally hundreds of meetings were organised by ordinary folk sick to the back teeth of Tory cuts and policies designed for the rich. New forms of community organisations were formed. They were called anti-poll tax unions. The common concern at all these meetings was the ability to fight Thatcher. She seemed invincible. Not to the Betty Currys, Mary McQuaids and Betty McEachans of the world she wasn’t. If we unite in a mass campaign of civil disobedience and refuse to pay the unfair, unjust and undemocratic tax we can defeat Thatcher and her flagship policy we declared at packed meetings, rallies and marches across Scotland.

Shamefully the Labour Party in control of councils in every part of Scotland displayed a lack of backbone and although opposed the new poll tax in words still set up the machinery to implement the tax and employed bullies in suits, known as sheriff officers, to hound non-payers with threats of wage arrestments, bank account seizures and raiding homes to remove furniture for auction at humiliating warrant sales to pay off the debts. They should hang their heads in shame.

Undeterred people like the two Bettys and Mary formed the backbone of local anti-poll tax unions and a Scottish wide Federation to coordinate activities and campaigns including human blockades outside home threatened with warrant sales, mass rallies and occupations of the offices of sheriff officers and councils to disrupt their poll tax work. Many of us were arrested several times for our activities but our anger at the injustice of the poll tax and our hatred of Thatcher drove us on.

Mass non-payment of the tax was our tactic. It was an illegal action but in Scotland it was a civil crime and we adopted the slogan from the London Borough Councillors of Poplar in 1921 who were prepared to be jailed rather than pass on punitive rates bills to their poor constituents, ‘Better To Break The Law Than Break The Poor’. All 30 Poplar councillors were jailed in that historic struggle .

I was greatly honoured to be elected to lead the anti-poll tax struggle in Scotland. To have the trust of fine working class women like the two Bettys and Mary, and thousands like them, was a tremendous accolade. After the first six months of the poll tax official non-payment figures were approaching 50%. I was despatched to conduct a tour of England and Wales to enlist their support for this growing people’s rebellion. For months on end I travelled to town halls and village halls advocating mass civil disobedience. People were worried about the intransigence of Thatcher as we were but they took great encouragement from our on-going resistance and although imprisonment was one of the penalties for non-payment in England and Wales still tens of thousands pledged to join the non-payment army.

Although many new community leaders were thrust into the struggle in the heat of the anti-poll tax battle and their oratorical skills were honed by necessity it is important to acknowledge that the biggest recruiting sergeant to the anti-poll tax army was not me or any other elected leader but poverty and desperation. After so many years of Thatcher’s poverty inducing policies people were fed up. They had reached breaking point. Struggle was now their only choice.

By the time the poll tax was introduced to England and Wales in April 1990 the Scottish army of non-payers had swelled to a million strong. The Scots had rebelled and our rebellion was spreading South with a vengeance.

On 31st March 1990 some 40,000 marched from George Square in Glasgow to Queens Park in the biggest event in Glasgow since the 1971 march to support the ‘work-in’ to save Govan shipyard. After addressing the enthusiastic crowd and assuring everyone that the one million non-payers would never stand alone I was whisked away to Trafalgar Square in London to address the mass rally organised by the All-Britain anti-poll tax Federation. I had been elected the chair of that body and was looking forward to bringing Scottish solidarity to the event. The place was absolutely heaving with supporters of the anti-poll tax rebellion. Tony Benn was speaking from the plinth on the square and I was up next. Then all hell broke loose. Riot police on horses emerged from the South African Embassy and charged the crowd. Mayhem ensued and a riot took place. London was out of control.

The grassroots story of the anti-poll tax campaign can be read in detail in a book I wrote with the assistance of a female journalist at the time, now an SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament. The book is called A Time To Rage and was published by Polygon. Those of you interested in the nature and dynamic of the anti-poll tax rebellion should read it. The two Bettys and Mary feature in it alongside hundreds of other ordinary women who did extraordinary things in that titanic battle against Thatcher and her poll tax.

Margaret Thatcher had hitherto always chosen her battles carefully and prepared the ground to allow her to divide and rule. She took on one section of workers at a time seeking to prevent a united universal struggle. The shame of the Trades Union Congress in 1984 is their failure to unite the mighty trade union movement at the time behind the striking miners. On their own they came within a whisker of defeating Thatcher and the National Coal Board but with a General Strike in support of them they would have been assured of victory. Their year long battle was a civil war without bullets.

The strategic mistake in the poll tax war was attacking all of the working class of Scotland at once. We united and rebelled as one against the tax, the Tories and their lackeys in the council chambers and sheriff officer offices. It was a grassroots rebellion that faced up to the fear of sanctions and punishments but faced them down. Sure some of us were imprisoned, including my mum Alice twice. I was sentenced to 6 months in Saughton jail in Edinburgh for helping to physically prevent a poll tax warrant sale in October of 1991. While inside I was elected to Glasgow District Council. My council allowance was then arrested to pay off arrears. So were the wages and banks accounts of thousands of others. But we collectively broke the poll tax and Thatcher.

Key in why Thatcher resigned on your search engine and the poll tax will be reason number one She was forced to step down by her own party on 22nd November 1990 precisely because her poll tax flagship was sunk by the mass non-payment campaign. She was the captain of that ship and had to go down with it. Read this excerpt from a private handwritten letter to Thatcher from John Major of March 19th 1991, two days before he announced in Parliament that the poll tax was to be abolished:

“The decision to abolish the community charge was not taken lightly. But, having consulted widely throughout the party, I am convinced that it would never be accepted as equitable and that it would never be properly collectable either. I do not think we could long defend a situation in which some people were paying more in community charge than in income tax.”


John Major was compelled to announce the repeal of the poll tax two years after it was introduced in Scotland and only 12 months after it was introduced in England and Wales. Using similar language to that contained in his private letter to Thatcher two days earlier he said the poll tax had become “uncollectable”. The question is who made it “uncollectable”? The answer is the working class heroines like the two Bettys and Mary made it ‘uncollectible’. They had the guts and commitment to stand up for their communities and their class and show Thatcher that she was not just wrong about the poll tax she was also wrong about there being no such thing as society.

People don’t exist in splendid isolation and life is not just about looking after you. Life is about caring for your family, your friends, your community and your class. It’s called human solidarity and as long as it can be organised any scheme of the rich and powerful can be defeated. Always remember that fact.

Tommy Sheridan

Posted in Tommy Sheridan's Columns.

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