It is 20 years since the poll tax was introduced in Scotland, leading to riots, prison sentences and, eventually, the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Those on both sides of the confrontation – activists, a politician and a sheriff officer – remember what it was like in the heat of the battleground
ON April Fool's Day 1989, the community charge, or poll tax as it was known, was introduced in Scotland, one year ahead of the rest of the UK. It was met with fierce opposition right across the central belt and up into Tayside and Aberdeen, but particularly in Glasgow and the west.
• In pictures: The Poll Tax 20 years on
The poll tax was intended to replace the domestic rates with a new per-capita system that would result in an end to local government overspending. But it was seen in Scotland 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 stump up.
It was a convulsive year, 1989, with popular uprisings in Beijing, Berlin and across Eastern Europe. The poll tax rebellion happened in that context, and many of those who took part felt they were living through an important historic moment.
With the notable exception of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who tends to play down the drama, those interviewed for this article regard the rebellion – which resulted in the tax being abolished in 1991 – as a transformative time in their lives. Some regret the anger of those days, others feel they came out of it as better, stronger people. But what exactly was it like in the thick of it? The following people can say and will say.
ALAN McCOMBES, Keith Baldassara and George McNeilage are sitting in McNeilage's cosy home in Pollok, drinking coffee and talking football. The easy laughter might tell you these are old pals, but their friendship wasn't forged in the workplace or on the terraces. These men were activists together in the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation. McCombes, 53, was the chief strategist of the rebellion; Baldassara, 52, was a Militant organiser sent to Glasgow from London to work on the campaign – "I was a soldier in the struggle," he says; McNeilage, 45, has lived in Pollok all his life and was the first person in Britain to be sent to prison over the poll tax.
In the spring of 1988, McCombes wrote a pamphlet called How to Fight the Poll Tax. This was the blueprint on which the rebellion was built. "At the same time we decided to put Tommy Sheridan on this full-time," McCombes says. "We needed a figurehead." Sheridan was to become the Wizard of Oz, feared by his enemies and adored by his people; McCombes was the man behind the curtain.
The Federation grew from dozens of local groups based around community councils and tenants' associations. They had a presence in Edinburgh, Dundee, Stirling and right across Strathclyde, but the power base was Pollok, a large, working-class district in the south-west of Glasgow. "This was something new and revolutionary happening in my community," says McNeilage. As a youth, he had been involved with drugs and crime, and political engagement put him on a better path. His charisma and righteous anger made him a well-known local figure, and inspired many other young men to swap heroin for politics. Gang violence, burglary and car-theft were also much reduced during the period, the activists say. They funded the campaign by going round pubs and football matches with collecting buckets.
Pollok was a fortress: anti-poll tax posters in the windows, unemployed men and women watching out for sheriff officers. There wasn't much point attempting a poinding (when sheriff officers enter homes to value assets) there, so the real battles between enforcers and activists took place elsewhere. The Federation had an office in the city centre with a hotline number you could call if you were going to be poinded or if you wanted advice. There was also a system of 'phone trees' – if you spotted sheriff officers in your area, you called the five people on your list, and each of them called five on theirs. In this way, a large crowd would gather quickly at the threatened home.
But what about sheriff officers who felt frightened by these shows of strength? Were the activists justified in intimidating people who were just doing their jobs? "Aye, because they were intimidating our people," says McNeilage, still angry after all these years. "But none of them ever got hit. I remember an attempted poinding in Priesthill. This lassie in her 20s was broken-hearted because there was something wrong with her cervical smear and she had to see the doctor, and as she's going out the door these two bastards are wanting to get in. I got done for two assaults just because I stood between the two sheriff officers, put my hands on their shoulders and moved them away from the tenement. And I got 60 days in jail for that. But I feel we were very justified. In fact, I'm proud of the role we played, because those were dark, dark days."
There were also times when the Federation would go on the offensive. They occupied the offices of sheriff officers, posing as postmen, joiners, window-cleaners or forcing entry. They even gained access to Strathclyde Regional Council's finance office and destroyed documentation relating to poll tax arrears. "That was heavily illegal and we knew it," says McCombes. "But we saw it as legit because we were protecting people. We tore the files up and threw them out the window. The lane below looked like it was covered in snow."
For four years, this struggle dominated every waking moment of these three men, and they remember it as one of the best times of their lives, and although McCombes expresses some regret that he prioritised politics over his young family (he was on hunger strike in George Square when he learned his wife was pregnant with their first child), he too looks back fondly on this "civil war without bullets".
One of the great victories, from their perspective, was the resignation of Margaret Thatcher. "The poll tax was her Titanic," says McNeilage, "and we were the iceberg."
"BEING a lion tamer was an easier job," says Ronnie Murison, 42, who worked as a sheriff officer at the time of the poll tax rebellion. He's now director of enforcement services at Stirling Park, the same firm he worked for when, as a young man trying to build a career, he spent his days travelling around the west of Scotland collecting debts in the teeth of hostile opposition. "Without a doubt, the poll tax put a stigma on our profession," he says. "Before that, very few people knew what a sheriff officer was."
On August 5, 1990, Murison was working in Bellshill. He and a colleague stopped for lunch, parking up and nipping into the baker's. Murison had left his ID on the dashboard and someone must have noticed it.
"When I came back there were people sitting on my car," he says, "and one of them was wearing a Poll-Tax Busters T-shirt. So I approached them, had a bit of an altercation, then a big crowd spilled out of the pub right beside me and the car was surrounded by about 40 guys. My colleague was trying to get the door open when he was hit on the face. We managed to get into the car and locked it. Chips were smeared all over the windscreen, the tyres were let down, the aerials were broken off, and it was rocked back and forward. It was extremely frightening. I thought the car was going to be tipped over.
"I managed to phone the police from the car to say we were being attacked. Then Tommy Sheridan appeared and I had a conversation with him with the window wound down slightly. He was telling me I should be ashamed of myself. Then, as he was talking, his sidekick took a key right along the side of the car. The Anti-Poll Tax Federation always tried to make out that it was a peaceful protest but it was volatile."
Later that day, Federation protestors occupied Stirling Park's offices in Glasgow's Bath Street. "They just walked in," Murison recalls. "There were verbal exchanges with the staff, and a lot of administrators were put into a real state of fear and alarm. You can imagine 40 people piling into an office on a mission. Eventually, our staff got out, but the office ended up like something out of Beirut. It was wrecked. Every piece of furniture and equipment had to be replaced. They even vandalised the family photographs of one of the partners in the firm.
"They barricaded themselves in with filing cabinets and were in the office from early afternoon until two in the morning, when the police managed to get in."
Murison was one of around 200 sheriff officers working in Scotland at the time, a tiny force faced with determined opposition. "There was so much pressure and quite a few people left the profession," he says. "But if I had to go out and enforce a warrant, it was my job. It was nothing personal between me and the debtor.
"You need to be assertive, control the situation, explain what you are there for and give the debtor the advice they need. Too many people listened to Tommy Sheridan telling them not to pay, and further down the line they ended up in a more difficult situation because they had held back payment for so long."
He admits that poindings – when a sheriff officer enters a home and identifies assets that could be sold to recoup debt – were intrusive, but insists he and his colleagues never wanted it to come to that. They preferred the debtor to arrange payment. The popular image of a sheriff officer as a gorilla in a suit chuckling as he removes a telly wasn't a true picture, he insists. Murison says they prioritised debtors who could afford to pay and that they were never heavy-handed. Personally, he believed in the tax and didn't see why people shouldn't pay it. "But we weren't interested in going into the house of an old woman who didn't have two pennies to rub together."
On a number of occasions, Murison feared he was going to be attacked by hostile crowds. He learned to blank out the abuse, the women who said: "If I was your mother, I'd have drowned you at birth." He says he was followed from time to time, and worried the Federation would learn where he lived. Mostly, if there were protestors in a house or garden he did an about-turn. But there were times when the police had to be called in to disperse a crowd, and a locksmith to get the front door open.
He was determined not to be put off doing well at the job he had chosen. "Experiencing all that hostility early in my career made me harder," he says. "It helped shape me as an individual and made me more prepared for my job. It was a real experience, but I wouldn't like to go through it again."
JANETTE McGINN from Rutherglen is 78 and has been left-wing all her days. Once, she saw Margaret Thatcher from afar and suffered a panic attack, so strong was her hatred. McGinn's mother was a communist and she was raised in that political faith, making her stand out at the local Catholic school. She left the Party at a young age, though, and has never joined another. She's not the sort to toe a particular line.
She made her own mind up quickly about the poll tax. "I was quite determined I wasn't going to pay," she says. "I wouldn't have been the woman I thought I was if I didn't stand up to it. I had previously supported people who had been poinded for debt, so I knew what to expect if the sheriff officers came, but I told myself, 'Take your courage in your hands.'"
Her late husband was the iconic Scottish folk-singer Matt McGinn, who died in 1977. On her widow's pension, McGinn couldn't afford to pay the tax and she wouldn't even register for it, which led to a fine of 59. She refused to pay this, and so on July 4, 1989, McGinn became the first person in Scotland, and thus the whole of Britain, to have a poinding attempted against her. She rang the Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
"A couple of busloads of people turned up," she recalls. "It was a beautiful sunny day and the atmosphere was tremendous. There was a real air of defiance and comradeship. Someone stuck a banner up outside my bedroom window saying, 'God Help the Sheriff Officers Who Enter Here', which was what the Govan women had done during the First World War when the landlords were trying to increase the rents. There was singing and speeches. A friend of mine was suffering from terminal cancer and he had an appointment at the hospital but he came round with his accordion instead. In the end, the sheriff officers didn't come near."
Women were integral to the resistance campaign. No one knew better the impact the tax bill would have on how much they could spend on food and clothes for the children. And right from the early days of the rebellion, a number of older women got involved, some of them re-engaging with the politics of their youth. McGinn was present at the so-called Battle of Turnbull Street on October 1, 1991, when around 500 protesters in Glasgow stood up to the police and prevented a warrant sale from taking place. "Some women were quite prepared to chain themselves to the gate," she says. "There was real anger."
McGinn, who remains politically engaged, is proud of what she did in those days. "I have always believed that people should protest against things they don't believe in," she says. "They don't do it enough now. Too many people have just sat back."
IT'S St Patrick's Day and Pat Kane, singer with Hue and Cry, is reminiscing in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park. The late 1980s were the imperial phase of his pop stardom, a time when he was part of Rock Against The Poll Tax. On April 1, 1989, the day the tax was introduced in Scotland, Hue and Cry joined Deacon Blue, Wet Wet Wet and Texas for a concert of resistance at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh under the banner of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.
"Every band was caught up in the idea of representing Scotland," he recalls. "It seemed logical that you could stand on a stage and urge people to be radical. But at the same time we were all pampered pop stars. So who was going to begin the concert and who was going to end it and how many songs everybody was going to get were the subject of hardball negotiations. It was in no way a coherent time. We were all incredibly full of ourselves and incredibly 1980s and flash, and yet somehow connecting that with the struggles of people in Easterhouse trying to make sure the warrant officers didn't come and pull their stuff out into the streets.
"There was an element of guilt as well. Half of our lives were spent getting lots of adulation. But we were all ex-working class enough to know that the communities we came from were having a hard time, so it seemed the least we could do to associate our glamour with these struggles."
He raises an eyebrow. "I wrote and performed a Madonna-esque version of 'We Shall Overcome'. My brother Gregory looked over at me mid-song with the deadest of eyes and I remember thinking, 'I might have crossed the line here.' After that point I kept Hue and Cry separate from my political engagements.
"But the one single moment I remember vividly from that time is joining in with Tommy Sheridan's week-long fast and encampment in George Square. We were sitting outside the tent in two deckchairs and there was this procession of beautiful women coming up to say hello to him. 'Who are these women?' I asked, but he would never tell me. After one particularly stunning and leggy blonde came up, Tommy turned to me and said, 'Now, Pat, isn't that worth fighting the revolution for?'"
SIR Malcolm Rifkind laughs when asked what it was like being Secretary of State for Scotland at the time of the poll tax, and, really, the laugh says it all.
"I don't pretend for a moment that the poll tax was anything other than a mistake," he says, meaning a costly political error. 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," says Rifkind, 62, now MP for Kensington and Chelsea, "was actually complete rubbish." And he insists the only reason the tax was introduced first in Scotland was to help those who found domestic rates too high; it was nothing to do with the PM's perceived hostility towards the Scots.
Rifkind believes the significance of the rebellion has been overstated. "The conventional wisdom is that the poll tax contributed to us losing every single seat in Scotland in 1997. I find that profoundly unconvincing; the first election after the tax was introduced was in 1992, when we actually held all our seats and won Aberdeen South. I think in historical terms it's probably been more damaging than it was at the time. It's complete rubbish that Scotland was used as a guinea pig, but a lot of people believe it."
Two decades have not mellowed his feelings towards the Scottish rebels. "There weren't that many marching against the poll tax," he says, dismissively. "Fifty thousand people is small beer when it comes to mass demonstrations." What about those who refused to pay? "The campaign for non-payment was not very successful. There are myths that grow up about these things."
Rifkind thinks he was in Scotland on March 31, 1990, the day on which the poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square led to 113 injuries and 340 arrests. His reaction when he saw the violence? "I thought it was a pity the English couldn't be as law-abiding as the Scots." r