How the poll tax opened up violent divisions across the country

On paper, it was a reform that was long overdue.

Back in the late 1980s, local services were funded by an arcane rating system dating back to the 17th century. It was paid by less than half the population, and was considered grossly unfair by those that did.

But when Margaret Thatcher's government replaced domestic rates with the community charge – or poll tax as it quickly became known – it could never have envisaged the backlash it would create.

The community charge was only around for a few years, but during its brief existence it sparked violent unrest across the country, saw an MP go to jail, and probably played a role in ending Mr Thatcher's time in Downing Street. It also saw a surge in support for the Scottish National Party, the effects of which are still being felt today.

It is 30 years since it was announced that the controversial tax would finally be scrapped. By this time Thatcher had made way for John Major, and her arch-rival Michael Heseltine had been tasked by the new PM to draw up a replacement.

For a prime minister who had set so much stall on her ability to connect with the average man or woman in the street, the poll tax was a public-relations blunder of epic proportions.

That the old rating system had been in need of major reform was not in question, and getting rid of rates had been a key feature of every Conservative manifesto since 1974. The sticking point had always been what rates should be replaced with.

Rates were initially introduced as a tax on property owners in 1601, and were calculated on the basis of a theoretical rental income if a property was let on the open market. Due to its historic ties to the feudal system, rates were only ever imposed on property owners, and Mrs Thatcher felt this led to a lack of democratic accountability. If only a minority were contributing towards the cost of local government, the majority would vote for high-spending councils, as they wouldn't have to foot the bill. This wasn't quite true, as the cost of the rates were, at least in theory, passed on to the tenants through their rent, but you could see the logic.

The other problem with the rates was that it was seen as regressive, hitting certain groups disproportionately hard. Scenarios were painted where a family of five wage earners would pay the same as a widowed pensioner, and where large families in social housing would pay nothing, while an elderly widow who bought her council house would be forced to cough up.

In theory, the community charge, drafted in a 1986 Green Paper by William Waldegrave and Kenneth Baker, would iron out these anomalies by requiring every adult to pay a flat-rate charge to cover their use of council services. Eighty per cent discounts would be offered to ease the burden for those on low incomes. The theory was, that by requiring everyone to make at least a small contribution, people would have a greater stake in the democratic process. It would also spread the cost of local services more evenly, meaning that individual bills would be much smaller.

But while the flaws with the rates system were clear for all to see, it is amazing that a prime minister who won a hat-trick of elections never spotted the obvious pitfall. If you replace a tax that was paid by less than half the population by one that is paid by everybody, the majority who are paying the tax for the first time are probably not going to be too happy about it.

And sure enough, they weren't. Widespread rioting broke out after it was first introduced in Scotland in 1989, amid claims it was an unfair transfer of the tax burden from rich to poor.

It became known as the 'poll tax' after being likened to historic taxes on voting rights, such as one introduced by John of Gaunt in the 14th century. Strictly speaking it wasn't a true poll tax, as people were obliged to pay it whether they registered to vote or not, but the name stuck.

Introducing it first in Scotland proved to be a strategic error, and 30 years on the resentment is still evident north of the border. With a particularly high proportion of council tenants, Scotland was always going to be a hotbed of rebellion, and anti-poll tax movements sprang up across Scotland, offering advice on how to avoid the tax and helping people to fight the tax in the courts.

The Scottish National Party was quick to spot the discontent brewing, and began to challenge Labour's traditional hegemony by styling itself as the anti-poll tax party.

Opposition to the tax was in full swing by the time it was introduced in England and Wales the following year. Local councils were targeted by angry protests as they met to set the new tax rates. Members of Walsall Council had to run the gauntlet of Walsall Anti-Poll Tax Union when they met to set the charge, with council leader Geoff Edge being met with cries of 'traitor'. In Telford, the scenes were even more hostile as members of Wrekin Council were barracked, jeered and sworn at from the public gallery, stink bombs were let off and an egg – aimed at a councillor – instead hit a radio reporter. Chairman Phil Heighway finally abandoned the meeting after a bomb threat, having set the new tax at £383.

Eggs were also thrown from the public gallery at Dudley Council House, and there were angry scenes at Oswestry too.

Enforcing the tax was also proving impossible, as millions refused to pay. Some simply dropped off the electoral roll – it is thought that as many as a million people failed to register to vote in the hope of dodging the tax. Others were more recalcitrant, such as the MP Terry Fields who was eventually jailed for 60 days for refusing to pay the tax.

Martin Blatchford, a disabled father-of-three from Dudley, became the first person in the West Midlands to go to jail for non-payment. Mr Blatchford, who muttered 'victory' as he was led down to the cells, claimed he could not afford the tax, but Dudley magistrates ruled that he had shown 'wilful default'.

It is estimated that a total of four million people defaulted on the tax, costing local government £5 billion in lost revenue.

Cabinet papers reveal that Mrs Thatcher's cabinet had voiced concerns about the implementation of the tax, right form the beginning. In a 1986 Norman Tebbit, Mrs Thatcher's right-hand man, expressed reservations of making students pay the fee. He said he supported the principle that the community charge should be a universal obligation, but continued: "The pursuit of this principle should not blind us to the balance of argument in respect of particular groups.

"It will bear hard upon those who have complained bitterly already about the impact of means-testing and our student awards system," he added.

Environment secretary Nicholas Ridley, responsible for steering the legislation through parliament, also had misgivings.

"He showed some inclination to want to rethink quite major aspects of the community charge," a No. 10 official recorded in 1987. "The Prime Minister discouraged this firmly."

How much the community charge contributed to Margaret Thatcher's downfall is a matter for debate, but it certainly didn't help. As the protests grew over the summer of 1990, she asked her new chancellor, John Major, to come with ideas for mitigating its unpopularity.

Eventually, Major found a way of reducing poll tax bills by raising VAT and increasing central government grants, but it was too late for the Iron Lady. By the time the measure was announced, Major was not the chancellor, but prime minister.

Within eight months of the poll tax being introduced, Margaret Thatcher's remarkable time in power had come to an end.

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