Brian Wilson: Poll tax was political suicide pill

Mrs Thatcher's 12 years in office is a mixed picture. Picture: Getty
Mrs Thatcher's 12 years in office is a mixed picture. Picture: Getty
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I RECALL exactly where I learned that Margaret Thatcher had been elected as leader of the Conservative Party – a news stand at the railway station in Oslo, since you ask.

The reason I remember it so clearly is that it became a self-reference point over the years for the fallibility of my political judgment. My first reaction was to think how great that was – the Tories had gone mad, this woman would never win an election.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (later Baroness Thatcher) arrives in Greenock, to be met by a demonstration in March 1988.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (later Baroness Thatcher) arrives in Greenock, to be met by a demonstration in March 1988.

To be fair, most people thought the same. The far safer choice would have been Willie Whitelaw, a gent, a safe pair of hands, a one-nation Tory. The fact that the shrill outsider had taken him on and won should have pointed, even then, to the great danger of under-estimating her.

Events played into her hands. Harold Wilson was in decline, the Lib-Lab pact hung by a thread, some unions had become oblivious to the political consequences of their actions. Then Jim Callaghan made the disastrous decision not to go to the country in the autumn of 1978, paving the way for a winter in which everything just got worse.

Labour would probably have won an earlier election and its necessary catharsis would have been delayed. It is doubtful if Mrs Thatcher would have survived defeat. How different the 1980s might then have been. How much more humanely change might have evolved.

By the time I went to the Commons in 1987, she was well on the way to becoming a self-caricature. With the authority that comes from three general election victories and a successful war, she was at the height of her powers. Yet within the lifetime of that parliament, she was gone.

It might have happened anyway, but the poll tax played an extraordinarily important role in her downfall. By this time, the wiser counsels had been dispensed with and she was over-influenced by sycophants and disciples who declined to bring her the bad news that the poll tax would be her political suicide pill.

The Scottish entrants into the Commons in 1987 arrived as veterans well-versed in the arguments which surrounded the community charge, as they liked to call it. We certainly knew enough to understand that the decision to extend it to the rest of the UK was reckless folly which could, and ultimately did, bring down Mrs Thatcher.

A lot of mythology attaches to the poll tax and why it was introduced in Scotland first. The idea that we were used as a laboratory for some fiendish social experiment is rubbish. More prosaically, the poll tax arose out of the fact that Scotland was obliged by law to have a rates revaluation every five years whereas England was not.

When I became a candidate in the mid-80s, Tory voters in places like Largs and West Kilbride were in a state of insurrection. Revaluation would have led to huge increases in their rates bills. Something had to be done. And that is why the flat rate poll tax was taken out of a long-closed cupboard, dusted down and presented as a solution which made revaluation redundant. In future, the tax would be on people, not properties.

The whole thing was so riddled with injustices and anomalies as to be completely crazy. But more importantly from the political perspective, it was electoral suicide, because it had the near-unique ability to offend those who were to benefit just as much as those who were penalised.

All of this happened before the 1987 election, which was fought in Scotland very largely on that issue, but not at all in England. The Tories lost ten of their Scottish seats as a result. It was then quite astonishing that the astute Mrs Thatcher decided, immediately after the election, to legislate for the same thing to apply to the whole of Britain.

While there was plenty else going on in the late 1980s to raise doubts about her judgment, the poll tax was the one that her own MPs feared – with very good reason. It was not riots or non-payment that killed the poll tax, but the realisation that it was going to cost them their seats. And ultimately, the only way to get rid of the poll tax was to get rid of Thatcher.

The timing of her departure was, in at least one respect, unfortunate and therein lies an anecdote. In 2001, I represented the government at celebrations in Kuwait to mark the tenth anniversary of liberation from invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

I was well aware that it was a courtesy to be there, but that the real interest for the Kuwaitis lay in what I called the political wing of Saga Holidays – George Bush senior, Colin Powell, Margaret Thatcher et al. Above all, it was Thatcher whom they adored and to whose force of will they attributed their liberation.

We travelled on the same plane and she quickly advised me that “we should have finished the job” – ie by carrying on to Baghdad and getting rid of the murderous aggressor. Since that was entirely my own view at the time, I was able to concur. She responded with a bitterness that the intervening decade had only sharpened: “But I was gone by then.”

And it was true. The Tories got rid of her at a moment when eyes were on Paris but the hand of history was in Kuwait. “Dear George Bush,” she damned with faint praise. “But such a weak man.” It was an interesting flight.

I am sure that if she had stayed in office a little longer, Bush’s backbone would have been strengthened, Saddam Hussein would have been deposed and a lot of trouble saved.

No matter how it is looked at, the balance-sheet on Mrs Thatcher’s 12 years in office is mixed, rather than the black and white which some would prefer. I think, for instance, that one of her greatest achievements was to take us deeper and deeper into the European Union while maintaining the rhetoric of hostility towards it. For that was the reality.

David Torrance made the significant point that Tory support in Scotland was the same when she departed as when she arrived. Fortunately, it was a minority – just as it was in huge areas of England and Wales. Mrs Thatcher divided people by class rather than by nationality, however the myth-makers might wish to rewrite history.

That is one lesson we might usefully re-learn.