1381 was the historic year when the peasantry rose up against the imposition of the Poll Tax in a revolt that speeded up the process of the complete undermining of feudal society.
This began when the Black Death of 1348 wiped out one third of the population, and led to an acute labour shortage, which ushered in one of the few periods in British history when real wages rose, alongside the spread of the money economy.
The monarchy replied with a wage freeze, causing universal discontent, which erupted into revolution after the introduction of the Tax– the last straw – and saw the peasant masses march on London where they seized the Tower of London, beheaded the Chancellor, before laying siege to John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace.
It was over 600 years before the British ruling class felt strong or desperate enough to seek to impose another Poll Tax. This was what Margaret Thatcher did in 1989, after the year-long battles with the miners and the printers, which saw massive clashes between workers and the forces of the capitalist state, on horse and foot.
In fact, the Iron Lady was reduced to straw and the Met police, which had fought the miners and the printers for a year, could not deal with the massive mobilisation that Thatcher’s Poll Tax produced from Lands End to John o’Groats.
She was brought down in 1990 by the massive anti-Poll Tax movement, and Michael Heseltine was brought in to undo the Poll Tax legislation.
After these two historic experiences one would think that the ruling class would hesitate before ever again raising the spectre of a Poll Tax. However, in these times of massive capitalist crisis nothing can be ruled out as far as the British ruling class is concerned.
Yesterday the UCU trade union leader Sally Hunt spoke out to say that any further increases in student fees will be ‘about as popular as the Poll Tax’. She issued the warning that students starting degrees next year should expect to owe as much as £23,000 by the time they graduate.
The government is due to publish its fees review next year and is already pledged to lift the current cap on fees, and may well allow universities to charge whatever fees they like, throwing the cap away.
The UCU is warning that such a move will ‘destroy the aspirations of thousands of future students and their families.’ At six universities the figure for student debt has has already broken the £25,000 barrier.
Hunt, said: ‘For all the talk of widening participation the sad reality is that students and their families are facing ever higher financial barriers to going to university. . . Any further increase in university fees will be about as popular as the Poll Tax with hard working families and their children.’
It is clear that over a million students and their families are going to come under the most vicious attack, completely comparable with the Poll Tax. History, both ancient and modern, has shown how such an attack can and must be beaten, by the mobilisation of millions of people.
Students must move into action, and first of all sack those NUS leaders who do not stand for the abolition of student fees and the restoration of living maintenance grants. The student movement must turn to the trade unions and organise a million strong march in London to the House of Commons to demand the abolition of all student fees.
They must also demand that the education and all TUC trade unions take strike action to demand the abolition of fees, and make it clear that they are prepared to bring down the government to smash the fees.