(This blog post includes some great photos of the 1990 Poll Tax demo taken by an old friend of mine – mostly at the end)
I was 16 in 1979 when Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. I then experienced an eleven-year bad dream from which I woke up in 1990 as she departed. Her reign – and I think it deserves to be called that – seemed like a play in three acts.
There was the years of crisis in her first term from 1979 to 1983. In the steep economic recession from 79 to 81, even The Economist (not an enemy of Thatcher by any means) thought there could be a Labour government by 1983. Within her own party, disgruntled “wets” (the old aristocratic one-nation wing of the Tories) conspired feverishly to oust her.
Then along came the Falklands war with Argentina and an end to the recession – plus the Labour Party was in a mess with an unconvincing leader. Even though the Tories were losing local councils and didn’t enjoy majority support among the public, they won enough votes to sail to victory in 1983.
And so comes the middle act of the Thatcher play. Confident enough to provoke the miners into a year-long strike, which she won largely through divisions on the trade union side. Thatcher, it must be said, was lucky in her enemies.
The 1986 Westland Affair was a case in point. Westland Helicopters was the last UK manufacturer of helicopters. The Defence minister Michael Heseltine wanted to ensure its future by integrating the company into a European consortium. Thatcher, never very pro-European, was quite happy for it to be snapped up by an American rival, Sikorsky.
The ensuing bust-up between her and Heseltine nearly brought the government down. Again, luck intervened. Even though Heseltine resigned his post and stormed out of Number 10 (the prime minister’s residence), the Labour leader – Neil Kinnock – failed to deliver the killer blow in the House of Commons. And so on she went.
I remember her third election victory in 1987. Some pundits were predicting a slimmer majority. But I’d been canvassing for the Labour Party and knew she was set for a thumping majority. So – with a heavy heart – I placed a £3 bet at the bookies on her getting a 97 to 102 majority at odds of 22/1.
And sure enough, she got a 102 set majority and I picked up £66. I suppose that’s almost shorting your own side but I was thoroughly disillusioned by that stage. Any comfort was welcome!
The last act of this tragedy I saw as her descent into madness. Her language and appearance became so imperious that it was mocked on the very popular Spitting Image satire show. And then she decided to implement the Poll Tax – replacing a property based local tax with one on every citizen. Like all her tax changes – it redistributed wealth upwards – and was as popular as a lead balloon.
Many resisted paying the tax. I freelanced an article to The Guardian at the time about how people were being chased for the tax and the threat of back payments being taken from pension savings.
In March 1990, I went with a journalist friend on a poll tax demonstration in Trafalgar Square. There was a march feeding into the square from Whitehall but no sign of trouble. That was until the riot police and small groups of anarchists decided to do what they’d really set their hearts on doing all along – having a massive bust up.
While Labour Party and trade union speakers addressed the crowd, the first missiles soared overhead. And in a short period of time, we found ourselves in a scene of total chaos.
Police tactics involved kettling us into the square while the rioters set light to a nearby building being renovated and threw pieces of kerbstone. Then riot police on horseback charged past the South African embassy trampling somebody underfoot. We huddled on the steps of St Martin’s church wondering what the hell to do next. What became clear was that the many thousands of us were now regarded as de facto criminals.
Somehow, eventually, we ran into a restaurant where the customers were huddled against the back wall. An American women shrieked: “Sterling is ruined after this”. Not really a huge concern at the time, I must admit. And then a stroppy waiter insisted we buy a meal!!
And so – in one of the more surreal moments of my life – I ended up eating spaghetti bolognese at a first floor window of the restaurant watching rioters overturn an Aston Martin on St Martin’s Lane. And all the way up the road, looters smashed shop windows including Macari’s instruments.
I later heard somebody was arrested on Regent Street with a brand new saxophone!