David Torrance: Modern myth of a poll tax test-bed lives on

EVERY schoolboy of a certain generation knows about the Peasants' Revolt sparked by the imposition of the first "poll tax" in 14th-century England, and it seems likely that future generations of pupils will be told of the outcry that greeted the imposition of another flat-rate tax, this time in Scotland, in the closing decades of the 20th century.

Indeed, the belief that the community charge – as it was formally known – was somehow "tested" upon Scotland a year ahead of its introduction in England and Wales is now embedded in popular mythology. Even the Conservative leader, David Cameron, accepts it, saying the "decision to treat Scotland as a laboratory for experimentation in new methods of local government finance" was "clumsy and unjust".

Thus it remains conventional wisdom two decades after the poll tax was introduced in Scotland on 1 April 1989. The trouble is that it isn't true. A badly thought-out and unfair tax? Certainly. A tax maliciously "tested" on Scotland? Certainly not. On the contrary, Margaret Thatcher's decision to allow the Scottish Office to legislate before England and Wales was a pragmatic reaction to perceived Scottish demands.

The chronology was this: In spring 1985, Scotland's ratepayers (domestic rates were paid directly by homeowners and indirectly by those in rented housing stock) endured a particularly punitive revaluation. In Morningside, for example, hundreds of single, elderly ladies were hit with bills of more than 2,000. These "little old ladies", be they in Troon, Bearsden or Morningside, became the impetus behind what became known colloquially as the poll tax.

There was uproar in Scotland's remaining Tory heartlands, a reaction which convinced Mrs Thatcher that a review of local government finance – which had begun the previous autumn – should swiftly reach a conclusion. There was little doubt as to what that conclusion might be. "The burden should fall, not heavily on the few," she informed the Scottish Tory conference in May 1985, "but fairly on the many."

The prime minister's intention, however, was to introduce the reform simultaneously across Great Britain (Northern Ireland was to retain, as it still does, a rates system). What changed her mind was persistent pressure from a trio of Scottish advisers: George Younger (the Scottish Secretary), Sir James Goold (Scottish Tory chairman) and Willie Whitelaw (deputy prime minister, born in Nairn).

Anything less than abolition, they warned Mrs Thatcher, would be disastrous for the Scottish Conservatives ahead of a general election expected in 1987. "On the strong advice of Scottish ministers, who reminded us continually and forcefully how much the Scottish people loathed the rates," wrote Mrs Thatcher in her memoirs, "we… accepted that we should legislate to bring in the community charge in Scotland in advance of England and Wales."

Implementation day, however, remained relatively distant. In the interim, a combination of clever opposition spin, skewed media commentary and reckless Tory backbenchers fuelled the impression that Scotland was being used as a test bed. Timothy Raison said he could not help "being relieved that Scotland (was] to be the legislative pacemaker or guinea pig", while Sir George Young indulged in a cricketing metaphor: "I, for one, am glad that the Scots are taking the shine off the new ball before the English go in to bat."

The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, hoped that early (and presumably unsuccessful) implementation in Scotland would prevent England and Wales from joining the game. "I can understand why the fact that the poll tax was introduced first in Scotland may have led some to suppose the Cabinet in London was deliberately using Scotland as a test-bed for the tax," Lawson told me, "but nothing could be further from the truth."

Indeed, therein lay an obvious retort to the "guinea pig" charge: why, having "tested" the poll tax unsuccessfully in Scotland, was it then applied south of the Border virtually unaltered? "Despite the obvious signs that the Scottish guinea pig was suffering," observed Sir Ian Gilmour "the poll tax was then extended to England and Wales."

The guinea pig charge obviously rankled with Mrs Thatcher. "If, as the Scots subsequently claimed, they were guinea pigs for a great experiment in local government finance", she reflected in her memoirs, "(then] they were the most vociferous and influential guinea pigs which the world has ever seen."

If, as Mrs Thatcher intended, the poll tax had been rolled out across Great Britain, instead of in Scotland first, the end result would have been much the same. For many, however, a one-year delay turned the poll tax into a malicious act. Perhaps, after a decade of Thatcherism, Scots were willing to believe that everything the government did was ill-intentioned.

But no matter how misguided the poll tax was, the popular image of it having been "tested" on Scotland a year ahead of England and Wales is a grotesque caricature.

It is undeniable, however, that the poll tax was a bad tax: regressive, difficult to administer and even harder to collect. Mrs Thatcher would have done well to follow the advice of her favourite Scottish economist, Adam Smith, writing in The Wealth of Nations. "The subjects of every state ought to contribute to the support of the government," he wrote, "as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities."