Poll tax protest 1990: When Strathclyde council issued 250,000 warrants

Malcolm Rifkind meets Poll Tax protesters

Malcolm Rifkind meets Poll Tax protesters

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January 15, 1990 saw Strathclyde Regional Council ask for a quarter of a million summary warrants against those who refused to pay the Community Charge, or “Poll Tax”

After mass demonstrations and non-payments followed the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland in April 1989, the Conservatives faced a very public decline in popularity north of the border which arguably played a role in Thatcher’s fall a year later.

Edinburgh nurses (not identified) bin their poll tax books in a demonstration under the banner of the Federation of Edinburgh Anti Poll Tax Groups in June 1989. Image: Crauford Tait

Edinburgh nurses (not identified) bin their poll tax books in a demonstration under the banner of the Federation of Edinburgh Anti Poll Tax Groups in June 1989. Image: Crauford Tait

The idea behind the Poll Tax was to replace the ageing Scottish domestic rates system with a scheme that would see a universal charge applied to all adults in a local authority, with the charge set by each local council. Students, the unemployed and poor people were to pay less, but ultimately all citizens would be charged for the services provided in their community.

Following its Scottish introduction on April Fools’ Day 1989, the tax was implemented in England and Wales for the 1990/91 financial year.

Resentment within sectors of Scottish society built up due to large discrepancies in taxation charges between local councils. This was fuelled by holes in the funding budget, caused by differing grant amounts between Scottish councils and the numbers of people not paying the charge in different areas.

Poll Tax was seen as an attack on a country already hostile to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, and by the end of 1990, over a million Scots had refused to pay up.

A girl demonstrates with a placard during an anti-poll tax march in Glasgow. Image: Stephen Mansfield

A girl demonstrates with a placard during an anti-poll tax march in Glasgow. Image: Stephen Mansfield

Strathclyde Council was one of the first in the country to issue summary warrants for non-payment. Sheriff officers would attempt a poinding (where homes are entered so that their assets can be valued) across Scotland until organised demonstrators halted them.

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Areas such as Pollok were a veritable no-go for sheriff officers, who often faced intimidation and harassment from angry locals. Local man George McNeilage made the headlines during the crisis by becoming the first person in the UK to be jailed for avoidance of poll tax.

An organisation named the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation even gained access to the offices of Strathclyde Regional Council’s finance department, where they tore up records on citizens in the area who had and hadn’t paid the levy.

Sally Dredge from Currie and Dawn McDiarmid play with their anti-poll tax banners ('SNP Say No to the Poll-Tax) during a demonstration at Sighthill in Edinburgh, October 1989. Image: TSPL

Sally Dredge from Currie and Dawn McDiarmid play with their anti-poll tax banners ('SNP Say No to the Poll-Tax) during a demonstration at Sighthill in Edinburgh, October 1989. Image: TSPL

Speaking to The Scotsman in 2009, ex-Secretary of State for Scotland Malcolm Rifkind said: ““I don’t pretend for a moment that the poll tax was anything other than a mistake.

“The government had not anticipated how problematic the tax would be to collect, and it allowed its opponents to present it as a grossly unfair levy in which the dustman and duke paid the same. That was actually complete rubbish.”

Refuting claims that the decision to make Scotland the first recipient of the new tax system was out of hostility, Rifkind said it was instead enacted to “help those who found domestic rates too high”.

In 1992, following the election of a John Major-led government, the Poll Tax or Community Charge was replaced by Council Tax. The current system remains to this day, with historians often attributing the decline in Scottish Conservative support during the 1990s to the after-effects of the tax.

Leith MP Ron Brown (kneeleing, right) and other Labour party members (including Malcolm Chisholm, middle) stage an anti-Poll Tax demonstration at The Mound in Edinburgh, April 1988. Image: TSPL

Leith MP Ron Brown (kneeleing, right) and other Labour party members (including Malcolm Chisholm, middle) stage an anti-Poll Tax demonstration at The Mound in Edinburgh, April 1988. Image: TSPL

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