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Margaret Thatcher dead: The Prime Minister behind poll tax

By AlexColman  |  Posted: April 08, 2013

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When John of Gaunt had a similar idea at the end of the 14th century, it had culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt and the execution of its leader Wat Tyler.

But undeterred by the lessons of history, Mrs Thatcher had always been adamant about replacing the old style rates with a poll-based system of taxation.

The suggestion had first been mooted in the Conservative party manifesto of 1979, which had led to Mrs Thatcher’s election.

Replacement of the rates was first set out as a realistic system of proposals in Paying for Local Government, a Green Paper of 1986 and based on ideas developed by Dr, Madsen Pirie and Douglas Mason of the Adam Smith Institute.

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Poll tax became one of the main planks of the manifesto for the 1987 General Election and the new tax was eventually brought in for the 1989/90 financial year in Scotland, and for the following year in England and Wales.

From the outset, poll tax had many critics, who argued that it seemed to shift the burden for tax from the rich to the poor.

But once it was in operation any intrinsic unfairness was enhanced rather than masked.

The negative aspects of poll tax were compounded by the facts that the rates set by many local councils were much higher than the earlier predictions and because the tax varied dramatically from borough to borough.

There was no discount for people living alone (this only came in when Poll Tax was replaced by the Community Charge).

And it seemed too easy for tenants who shifted their ‘digs’ frequently to dodge payment altogether.

With all these factors in the background, the cost of collecting the tax rose steeply, while the revenue itself fell.

Cumulatively, the effect of all this was to lead to mass protests, which were co-ordinated by the militant All-Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation.

In some areas up to 30 per cent of former law-abiding rate-payers defaulted and in parallel with this enforcement measures gradually became more and more draconian.

Unrest grew in grew, with hundreds of piecemeal protests and demonstrations, culminating in the infamous Poll Tax Riots in Trafalgar Square on March 31, 1990.

An estimated 200,000 people gathered in London to voice their anger at the hated tax and as police and demonstrators scuffled, 113 people and 20 police horses were injured and 340 people arrested.

Demonstrators attacked police with bricks, cars were overturned and set alight and at one point a pall of black smoke hung visibly over Trafalgar Square.

Four tube stations had to be shut for security purposes and and the repair bill for damages incurred was estimated at £400,000.

On the same day, a further 50,000 people marched in Glasgow, 10,000 protested in Hastings and the scenes on the day were compared to the great Chartist protests of the nineteenth century.

All this turmoil played a great part in the eventual unseating of Mrs Thatcher and her successor John Major oversaw the replacement of the ill-fated Poll Tax with the Community Charge system, levied on the property’s capital rather than rental value.

But even though it quickly became apparent that changes would have to be made, the fall-out from Poll Tax debt and default was immense.

On June 1 1990, more than 2000 people attended the very first Poll Tax courts to round up and fine non-payers.

The proceedings were a shambles and more than 1800 cases dismissed, in scenes which were to be repeated in courts throughout England and Wales.

In Lincoln the first 100 defaulters were brought to book on June 26 1990, with bailiffs being brought in to try to force payment from August.

There was an anti-poll tax demonstration outside Lincoln prison in September, where 80 demonstrators picketed for four hours.

And an astonishing 10 years later it was still being reported that Lincoln businesses still owed more than £400,000 in uncollected Poll Tax.

The issue of the reviled Poll Tax crystallised most cogently what the extreme left thought about Mrs Thatcher.

In his book The Rise of Militant, Peter Taaffe said “The final victory came on Thursday 22 November as Margaret Thatcher ran crying from the steps of 10 Downing Street to a waiting car – a fitting end to an individual whose policies had caused working class people and their families to shed an ocean of tears.”

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