Riots Are Poles Apart

Article excerpt

The anti-poll tax campaign is unlikely to maintain its momentum unless a working alternative can be found

By Charles Leadbeater

In the months before Christinas our television screens were brimming over with scenes of people protesting on the streets of east European capitals. The pictures were accompanied with glowing reports of the power of mass protest in freeing people from illegitimate power.

They varied enormously in character, from the peaceful mass movement in East Germany to the bloody events in Romania. But they had this common feature: that for the first time for many years, Europeans had taken to the streets in mass protest and wrought political change. The demonstrations were inspiring and impressive.

During the past few weeks in the UK we have also seen people demonstraring on the streets. They have been protesting against the poll tax. It is likely that the events in eastern Europe have played some role in prompting these protests. What lessons can we draw from the contrast between these popular protests?

The most obvious contrast is that the demonstrations in the UK are a pale shadow of their eastern precursors. They are probably smaller, less intense and less sustained. But then it is not the entire political system of the UK which is in doubt. At most it's the future of the Conservative government and possibly only the future of a single tax. The Conservatives have dominated British politics for more than a decade under a leader who has centralised control over the Cabinet and local government -- and dominated the civil service. But the UK is not a dictatorship. It is a society with deep democratic roots.

So it is inevitable that the demonstrations in the UK should have had less moment than the protests in the East. But it is interesting to speculate, given these constraints, what the demonstrations in the UK might have been like if they had picked up the spirit of the events in the East.

The poll tax demonstrations which have attracted most publicity --the violent ones--have mainly been confined to London. In fact the violence is more a reflection on London's politics, which provides a home for a fringe of anarchists and class war groups, than the poll tax itself. As the violence has grown, so the protests have become less representative of the great majority who resent the tax.

In contrast the movements in the East were genuinely representative of a great craving for freedom and change. They united people from diverse backgrounds. They centred on a few cities but they were national. The eastern demonstrators were by and large peaceful and the movements broad. The poll tax demonstrations have the potential to unite very broad sections of society, to create a more powerful opposition than the Government has faced from unions or left-wing councils. But the more violent they are, the less likely they are to achieve it.

The poll tax has this potential because it raises fundamental questions about society's values, about the principles on which taxes should be based. It touches on local government and democratic accountability. These issues combine with very immediate concerns about the charge at a time when people are facing higher mortgage payments and borrowing costs. …