Brian Wilson: Poll tax or council tax, the rich win

Protesters walk up the Mound in Edinburgh in one of the many rallies staged at the time. Picture: Hamish Campbell
Protesters walk up the Mound in Edinburgh in one of the many rallies staged at the time. Picture: Hamish Campbell
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Decades on from ‘experiment’, the best-off are still protected from contributing fairly to public services, writes Brian Wilson

There was one occasion when I could have made money from the bookies. The day before the 1987 general election, they offered odds in individual Scottish constituencies and made the extremely rare mistake of applying GB-wide poll predictions.

I was certain by then that I would take Cunninghame North from the Tories, but the odds were 5-1 against. The same applied in half a dozen other Scottish seats. Labour won them all, while, in the country as a whole, the Tories romped home with an overall majority of 100.

The difference between the election north and south of the Border could be summed up in three words – the poll tax. The Tory vote fell in Scotland by 5 per cent. They lost 11 of their 21 Scottish seats. It was the day of reckoning from which the Scottish Tories have never recovered.

Cabinet papers published this week cast new light on how the poll tax came to be introduced in Scotland. It was not inflicted from London, as myth would have it, but was begged for by the Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger, who saw it as an answer to his more immediate problem.

By 1985, the remaining Tory fiefdoms in Scotland were in a state of insurrection about the impending prospect of rating revaluation leading to huge increases for people in big houses. The Scottish Tories were not in great shape anyway, but this threatened to finish them off by striking at their heartlands. Something must be done.

The “something” was the poll tax, which had kicked around Tory circles since Lord Rothschild – you couldn’t make it up – recommended it in the mid-1970s and was promulgated by a right-wing group associated with St Andrews University. George Younger was an emollient figure and it confirms how dire the Scottish Tory plight seemed that he clutched at this.

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So the genesis of the poll tax, and all the political history which has flowed from it, lay less in a fiendish plot and more in a fairly mundane distinction between Scotland and England. Here, there was a statutory requirement to have rating revaluations every five years. There, the timing could be – and had been – delayed to minimise political inconvenience.

There were certainly poll tax enthusiasts in Whitehall. Showing the political judgment which now qualifies him to be David Cameron’s head of policy, the young Oliver Letwin urged Mrs Thatcher to adopt the poll tax everywhere. Her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, told her it would be “catastrophic” while Douglas Hurd accurately foresaw the complaint that “a duke would be paying the same as a dustman”.

It was apparently Letwin and David Willetts – another personification of “all brains and no common sense” – who saw an opportunity to keep the dream alive, by allowing George Younger to proceed in Scotland. They could all unite around that. But, thereafter, the progress of events remains truly baffling.

Though the 1987 election in Scotland focused largely on the poll tax, it did not take effect for almost two more years. It was the mere concept that had done the Tories so much damage in Scotland, without waiting for the execution. It remains utterly inexplicable in any rational terms that they should then have started down the same road in England and Wales, where the stakes were much higher.

This week’s disclosures prompted me to look back at my own maiden speech in July 1987, which, I vaguely remembered, dealt almost exclusively with the poll tax. This was not so much for literary inspiration as to get my bearings on the chronology, which confirms that this was the slowest-motion car crash in political history, with danger signs flashing for three years and ignored by the ideologically blinded.

The purpose of “experiments” is to test a concept before determining if it is to be rolled out more widely. Mere advance notice of the poll tax in Scotland had just about wiped out the Tory party. I suppose we must wait another couple of years to discover the devastating Letwinesque logic that was then applied to the question of extending it into England and Wales.

In Scotland, the poll tax had cost the Tories a critical part of the 28 per cent it was supposed to shore up, even though most of them would have benefited. As I helpfully pointed out at the time: “In England and Wales, the Conservative Party has to avoid seriously offending 50 per cent of the electorate… On the basis of the Scottish experience, I confidently predict that they cannot do it… that sooner or later they will have to retreat in bad order and that the poll tax will disappear.”

While I could understand Mrs Thatcher not taking my word for it, there were plenty within her own ranks who knew it to be true. The astonishing point of history is that she allowed it to proceed with the inevitable consequence that, in order for the poll tax to go, she would have to go with it. Which is exactly what happened.

Another poll tax myth is that it was destroyed either by non-payment (which inconvenienced only the beleaguered local authorities) or the Trafalgar Square riot, although that did contribute to the mood music. By then, the voters had started to have their say. Two by-elections in 1990 saw swings of more than 20 per cent to Labour (in Mid Staffs) and the Lib Dems (in Eastbourne). It finally dawned that the poll tax was an electoral suicide pill, in England and Wales as much as in Scotland.

The poll tax was morally obnoxious primarily because it was intended to protect the best-off people in society from making a contribution to local services which reflected their ability to pay.

Fast-forward more than two decades and what we have today in Scotland is a council tax freeze, the primary purpose of which is to protect the best-off people in society from making a contribution to local services which reflects their ability to pay.

Under its auspices, Scottish local authorities have lost £1.5 billion (above and beyond compensation) over the past seven years. Once again, it is the poor who pay as jobs and services are cut with the prospect of much worse to come. But, admittedly, the packaging is much cleverer.

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