History Painting is on permanent view in the recently relaunched modern galleries of the Museum of London. We went there a while ago and, while our child examined souvenirs of 50s children’s television, my wife and I couldn’t help exchanging ironic glances. The scene of mayhem it depicts is one historical event we were at.
Bartlett’s painting confers the dignity of the European tradition of history painting on the poll tax riot in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990. In the background is the National Gallery, where you can see paintings of historical battles. Here, in a style that consciously echoes those paintings, is a dramatic portrayal of a real battle that took place in the heart of London and brought crisis to the Thatcher administration. Today the riot against the tax’s successor, the hated council tax, is news again as critics of the government’s planned benefit reductions openly ask if we are headed for a new poll tax battle. Will the streets of London look like this next year when the cuts bite and the poor are provoked beyond endurance?
As an eyewitness and unwilling participant that day, I have to say it didn’t look much like Bartlett’s painting. In the picture, the battle of Trafalgar Square is a romantic struggle of a unified crowd against the forces of the state. It looks kind of fun if you are hungry to fight the power. In reality, it was terrifying.
We did not go for a fight but to express opposition through the time-honored tradition of a march. Somehow we ended up caught in a vast sea of people in Trafalgar Square, hemmed in by legions of riot police, infantry with plastic shields, cavalry with truncheons. At the edges of the square, vicious fighting was taking place – not minor skirmishes but real war, with fire, with individuals who looked ready to die and prepared to kill. But most of the crowd, especially us, did not want that. It was not a moment of liberation and uprising. It was a moment of rage, hate and panic, apocalyptic and ugly. We just wanted to escape but we couldn’t; we were part of a demonized crowd hemmed in on the square and scared we were going to be charged by the massed police. That was when I found out I was a coward in the class war.
When we finally managed to slip out of the battle, we made our way across London amazed and awed. Something big had happened. It seems entirely possible the coalition will provoke something equally big if it goes on bullying the vulnerable. But it will not look like Bartlett’s history painting. It will be much nastier – just as it was the first time round.