30th Anniversary of The Poll Tax Riots:
An eye witness account of the clash.
London had seen riots before, but not like this, not right in the heart of the city. I have covered protests for 4 decades. The violent clashes in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990 were the worst I’d seen in central London.
Here’s how the riot started.
The 200,000 strong crowd marched up Whitehall, overflowing Trafalgar Square. During the speeches, clashes broke out between the rear marchers, still arriving, and police trying to keep them clear of the Downing Street Gates on Whitehall. The police then cleared Whitehall. But the now very angry demonstrators re-appeared, entering the square at the top of Whitehall by way of Northumberland Avenue.
A few protesters climbed the massive building, now home to Waterstones, on the corner of the avenue and the square.It was then a giant construction site surrounded by scaffolding.
A police officer arrested one of them and dragged him back down Whitehall. The protesters wheeled round after them, drawn as if by a magnet.
I was at the front. Whitehall ahead was deserted, save a thin blue line, a handful of police, facing the advancing mass.The police stood their ground.
But did not have to do so for long. Reinforcements rushed in, turning the whole area between Trafalgar Square and the top of Whitehall into one gigantic rugger scrum.
At which point thousands more protestors, no doubt thinking they were under attack, emerged from the square itself where the speakers were still addressing a very peaceful rally. Some began throwing missiles and soon flames began to shoot up the scaffolding.
So here’s how it ended. Repeated police charges pushed them back against exits they had blocked.
Once opened, they drove them on a guided tour of the glass plated west end shopfronts, with predictable results.
From start to finish: chaos, misadventure and incompetence.
Scores of arrests and injuries. And just months later, Prime Minister Thatcher was brought down. Though there were other causes besides, the Poll Tax Riots marked the beginning of her fall.