Couldn’t pay, wouldn’t pay, didn’t pay

by Christopher James Stone

The battle to defeat the poll tax

I’m reading an interesting book at the moment. It’s called Couldn’t Pay, Wouldn’t Pay, Didn’t Pay. It’s about the anti-poll tax campaign in Kent in the early 90s.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the most crucial year of the campaign, which included the famous poll tax riot which took place in London in March 1990.

Several prominent organisers were imprisoned for non-payment of the tax. It was called the Community Charge by Margaret Thatcher, but universally referred to as the poll tax by everyone else.

It was one of the most successful examples of political rebranding in modern British history.

The book is compiled and edited by Eric Segal, secretary of the South East Kent Trade Union Council. Eric was one of the principle organisers of the campaign, being the secretary of the Kent Anti-Poll Tax Federation at the time.

He was also imprisoned for his stance, spending a month in jail in August 1991. All elected officials of the Anti-Poll Unions, which had sprung up throughout the country, took their positions on the understanding that it could result in jail time.

Indeed this was the principle tactic of the campaign, the refusal to pay the tax.

We had our own little anti-tax group here in Whitstable. It was called Whitstable Against the Tax, which afforded the wonderful acronym WAT, a reference to Wat Tyler who had led the Peasants Revolt against the original poll tax in 1381.

He was killed by officers loyal to King Richard II on June 15th of that year.

We had our own newspaper. Called Wat Times, it was my own personal foray into the world of political journalism, and marks the first time I effectively put pen to paper.

Sadly all copies of the paper have long since disappeared.

The very unique thing that the Whitstable group did was to organise a march from Canterbury to London, following in the footsteps of Wat Tyler.

This led to a little straggling band of punks, hippies, socialists and assorted ne’er-do-wells, traipsing through the Kent Countryside for several days shouting pointless slogans to a string of sleepy villages.

What none of us had realised at the time was that, actually, most of Kent serves as a dormitory for London, and that large parts of the county are empty in the day time.

To mark the release of the book there will be an event at the Labour Club on Thursday March 12th. It will feature talks by Eric Segal and Nick Dent. It was Nick who organised the march to London.

There will also be songs by Nigel Hobbins, who was on the march with us, and who has written a song commemorating the event. Signed copies of the book will be available.

What the book reminds us is that you don’t have to rely on Parliament to oppose a government. It was the anti-poll tax campaign which brought down Margaret Thatcher. Full of maniacal confidence previously, she resigned in a welter of tearful self-pity in November 1990.

It was the end of an era.


Anti-Poll Tax March, by Nigel Hobbins:-

From The Whitstable Gazette 20/02/20

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