Varsity immortalised the firebombing in a cartoonVarsity Archives

One of the themes which was drawn out sharply by Varsity in the 1990s is student protest and, in particular, the active and successful involvement of the Students’ Union in protests, the causes of which ranged from anti-apartheid to local transport policy. In this case, CUSU officers were on the front lines of action against the poll tax.

Thatcher’s proposed imposition of a flat tax rate ultimately resulted in her downfall as Prime Minister. Feelings ran high and in Cambridge, this resulted in protests, occupations, and even the firebombing of the local poll tax office. Interestingly, this was another campaign spearheaded by students.

“Student protest in the ’90s was a well-organised force to be reckoned with”

Students were reportedly asked to pay over £100 each (£256.50 today) for the flat-rate poll tax, taking approximately 5% of the student grant at the time, with some estimating that it could cost students as much as £455, or £1167.19 today.

A rally was held by around 250 students and townspeople at the City Council. They attempted to get Cambridge City Council to pass a motion against the poll tax. This protest was a success, despite the ludicrous claims by a conservative Councillor that protestors had been bussed in from Yorkshire.


Mountain View

Vintage Varsity: Cambridge goes to the polls

In a ratcheting up of tensions, in November 1989, a City Council office was fire-bombed in an apparent act of political violence against the poll tax. The conservative MP for Cambridge at the time said: “If people want to protest, they should do so in a quiet and orderly manner.” The police never identified a suspect.

Student protest in the ’90s was a well-organised force to be reckoned with, especially with the active support of the Student’s Union. The Poll Tax alongside Thatcher was ultimately brought down in part thanks to the large-scale protests against it. This column shouldn’t be simply a history of student protest, but again and again the power and effectiveness of long-gone and often-forgotten student protest dominates twentieth-century Varsity headlines. I hope that effective SU-led protest will return, though I suspect it will not.