Published On: Thu, Apr 18th, 2013

Thatcher’s Poll Tax legacy

by Richard Jackson

An important issue regarding Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 – 1990 reign is the Poll Tax, particularly for Scottish readers, as its legacy is deeply etched into the Scottish consciousness and it remains a dirty word to many, seen as symbolic of a selfish Tory government and English indifference to Scotland.

It wasn’t just Scotland where there was opposition to it. In England, there were serious riots in anticipation of it, the most serious being at Trafalgar Square in London March 31 1990, where an estimated 200,000 people turned up to protest. 113 people were injured and 339 arrested.


A YouGov poll printed in the Sun newpaper April 10, 2013 revealed that 40 percent of respondents saw the poll tax as Thatcher’s biggest mistake. I spoke to Owen Jones, left wing polemicist and author of Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class last year; he spoke of the “bitter legacy” of the Poll Tax.

Technically called the Community Charge, the poll tax was brought in to fund local government. It was a flat rate based on the number of adults living in a household, with payees being identified through the electoral register (hence the name poll tax). It was replacing an older tax that was a fee based on property that varied according to the property’s value.

However, you have to humanize the legislation to understand the reasons for its implementation and the objection to it. Why should a little old lady living in property she worked all her life to buy have to pay the same amount as a family of five – that doesn’t seem fair, does it? So the Tories wanted to correct this and make every adult pay the same amount regardless of their income or property size. However, that seems fine in the abstract until you realise it was asking poor people to pay a significantly higher amount than they had been paying before – it could have been a very high percentage of their income.

Historically, the Poll Tax goes back a long way in Britain. It was first levied in 1222 to finance a crusade, but it became a regular tax in the 14th century. It helped provoke the Peasants’ Revolt lead by Wat Tyler in 1381 which almost lead to the abolishment of the monarchy. The protests led to a storming of the Tower of London where Simon of Sudbury the Lord Treasurer and Archbishop of Canterbury was hacked to death. The wound can still be seen in his severed head which is on display at his home town of Sudbury, Suffolk.

At the recall of Parliament last Wednesday Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP at Westminster, first offered his condolences before saying: “It would be wrong, however, not to put on record our profound disagreement with her socially and economically divisive policies, which were particularly opposed in Scotland and Wales. We will never forget, we will never forgive the poll tax being imposed on Scots a year before the rest of the UK. No country should have such policies imposed on it when they were rejected at the ballot box. The existence of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly follows this experience.”

Mr. Robertson is mentioning something that has developed in the national collective psyche that the Scottish people were used as guinea pigs to trail run the new tax as it was introduced to Scotland in 1989, before being introduced in Wales and England in 1990. It was thought that they were almost testing the water before it was rolled out for the English. However this is not true as the poll tax was actually implemented in Scotland first because they were instructed by law to have their rates revalued every five years, whereas England was not. Thatcher had actually not wanted to introduce the tax before England, but the Scottish Secretary George Younger actually requested that the tax be applied early in order to avoid an expensive review of the old rates, which the government was obligated to do.

The Tax largely contributed to Thatcher’s downfall, as opposition grew stronger among the British public. Tory MPs began to fear for their seats, while she
remained intransigent that it be implemented across the nation. MPs ended up circling round Michael Heseltine as he challenged her for leadership in 1990; although Thatcher technically won the vote, she didn’t win enough to stop a second challenge. Advised that she would lose, Margaret Thatcher opted to jump rather than be shoved unceremoniously out of office. She resigned as Prime Minister and Party Leader in November 1990.

The poisonous nature of the Poll Tax can probably best be illustrated by the fact that one of John Major’s first major decisions when he assumed the role of Prime Minister was to abolish it in and replace it in 1993 with the Council Tax.

Judged by Angus Robertson’s comments the poll tax is still an issue that rattles many. It has had a lasting impact on how Scotland views the Union with the United Kingdom – many have said the desire to secede stems from bitterness with the poll tax, that it lead originally to a desire for self-representation with the Scottish Assembly which in turn led to the desire for complete control through independence. When Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, she pledged “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”. It would be ironic if her decision with the Poll Tax brought about the United Kingdom’s separation.