The Betrayal of an Unwritten Covenant
By Malcolm Sharps
The introduction of a new tax in the UK in 1990 provoked a political crisis and suddenly called into question the limits of government to make demands on citizens and the obligation on citizens to comply with them.
The way I would describe what happened in Britain in 1990, is that something akin to a meteor from outer space, a piece of matter formed according to the principles of science of an altogether alien system, suddenly entered our humanly populated world and brought devastation with it. The poll tax it was popularly, or unpopularly, called, an injustice so great it struck the vast majority of the population in an instant as an outrage that had to be resisted and disarmed at all costs. Like some obscene and inflammatory graffiti that had appeared overnight on our walls, it needed to be expunged immediately before it had a chance to do damage to a civilised society.
No one likes taxes. So what was particularly heinous about this tax? And what was so appalling that virtually the whole of a society revolted against it or became sympathetic to the notion of others revolting? The poll tax was a local tax brought in to replace another local tax called the rates. The previous system was levied on property, varying according to the size, condition and personal and community amenities available to the occupant. A person who owned a shack on a tiny plot of land and was off the national power and sewage grid, paid a very low tax; the poorest paid nothing. A man who owned a mansion with orchards and a lake and had his own heli-pad paid proportionately more, a considerable amount more, in fact. Rather than property, the new poll tax was levied on individuals, and it provided a delightfully simple solution to the problem of calculating the amount due: it levied exactly the same tax on everyone, the man in the shack and the man in the mansion would now pay exactly the same amount, the millionaire and his valet now had more in common than had hitherto been the case.
As can be imagined, the new tax stirred up opposition from the first. The government tried to distract us from the iniquity of a flat rate tax by assuring us that the overall amount would be less, thus the result would be better for everyone; it convinced no one. It is axiomatic of flat rate charges, duties or taxes that where the rich and the poor pay the same amount, the poor effectively subsidise the rich; this is how the new tax struck every sound-minded person. It robbed poor Peter and Petra to pay rich Paul and Paula, and Peter and Petra were having none of it.
I was astonished by my own country; by the speed with which normally peaceful and passive citizens were radicalised, and by their willingness to take matters into their own hands if necessary. Reaction was swift and on three fronts. The first front was what I believe was the most important one: we simply talked to each other, there was not a living room or breakfast table throughout the country that wasn’t animated by talk of the tax. I don’t think the press or the academics played such a leading role; unlike Paris in 1968, the era produced no Daniel Cohn-Bendit, no charismatic leader or orator to whip up the crowds. Such leadership was not needed. Our stalwart tribunes of the people, like Tony Benn, were almost bystanders; this was a truly popular movement. We talked about it amongst ourselves, constantly and with ever rising anger, and eventually the second front grew out of our discussions: a series of demonstrations took place across the country in Britain’s major cities. The mood of the demonstrators was such that sooner or later the demonstrations transformed into open riots. Wikipedia tells us:
The most serious of those was on 31 March 1990 – a week before the implementation of the tax – when between 70,000 and 200,000 people demonstrated against the tax. The demonstration around Trafalgar Square left 113 people injured and 340 under arrest, with over 100 police officers needing treatment for injuries. There were further conflicts and protests, but none on the scale of the Trafalgar Square riot.
The rioting in London on that day was the worst of its kind seen in a century, buildings were not merely looted but set on fire, an attempt was made to torch the hated embassy of apartheid South Africa.
If it seemed like the imposition of the poll tax came from nowhere, that it had no history of any kind, that would not be entirely correct. It came after a period of political success for the Thatcher government, against a background of privatisation of public assets, of a military victory in the Falklands War, a distancing of her party from the more centrist policies of a predecessor, Ted Heath. But perhaps of even greater significance was the confidence Thatcher gained in breaking the miners’ strike, when the police were used as an arm of the state in preventing lawful picketing. Thatcher broke the laws of her own country in restricting the free movement of strikers and their supporters. The leadership began to think the politically unthinkable: it believed it could do no wrong; it began to believe all rights were its own to dictate; it forgot the unwritten covenant which exists between the governors and the governed in a democracy placing reasonable limits on both sides, and placing the law above all parties.
There was a third front on which the British people acted, and some will see that as the most important in the end. In a world where people may complain and howl as much as they like, money finally speaks the loudest: the taxpayers refused to pay the new tax. By the millions, they paid nothing or paid a reduced amount. Sometimes this avoidance went undetected, but even detected defaulting was on such a scale it wasn’t economically practical to prosecute even a fraction of the defaulters. The old system of rates had the advantage that property was fixed and easily accountable, this new head tax was scuttled by the fact that heads could move about and even disappear completely; it was difficult to assess who was assessable. Margaret Thatcher had developed a monster even in her own terms: a tax that was not only wildly unpopular, it was uncollectable. It proved uncollectable even to the extent that a large proportion of it has not been collected to this day in 2022 as I write.
The ruling party found itself with a tax on its hands that made it unpopular and likely to be voted out of government at the next election; in addition, it caused civil unrest and put even less money into the hands of local government. Something had to give – but Thatcher decided it wasn’t going to be her will that flexed. Here is where the greatness of the English party system came into play. An English prime minister is only ‘first among equals’, the head of a cabinet but not its President. There can come a time when the fellow members of her party want to exert their equality with her. Collectively they can do it and the most orderly way they have is in taking a vote of confidence, a balloting of members to see who still remains for, who against, the PM. A loss of, or even a near-defeat in, a vote of confidence, pronounces the ‘Shah-mat’ for any British PM, the game is over. Events seemed to run on with terrible urgency, a vote of no confidence in the government was taken which threw up the competing figures of Heseltine and Major challenging Thatcher’s position. A win by a margin of only 50 votes was interpreted as a humiliating defeat for a formerly powerful Prime Minister; Thatcher chose to resign.
It was more than a miscalculation in money terms which brought Thatcher down, it was a miscalculation of the way a modern democracy works; against the run of hundreds of years of taxation history and more equitable sharing of the tax burden, Thatcher tried to humiliate us, to treat us as serfs, ignorant rabble who wouldn’t notice the main gainers in the new system were those who already had the most in society. It would provide them with a gift of low taxes and I suppose the rest of us wouldn’t notice it was at our expense?
The government did not have its way, as governments cannot have their way against the united opposition of a sufficient number of people. No democratic government can ever believe it has its citizens captive between elections and there is nothing that the citizens can do. This is the important thing to learn from all of this. Governments need to be disabused of such beliefs – but sometimes only the public acting together can make that happen. After all, there are a few hundred of them only and millions of us. It was a historic moment for testing the point. No wonder one protester looking back in the Guardian wrote this:
How do I feel, 25 years on? I’m glad I was there that day to observe the carnage. The protest, and finally Tory MPs themselves, put paid to the tax and to Mrs T – so the thousands of us in Trafalgar Square did play our part. And while the super-rich are now richer beyond our 1990 imaginings it still looks politically impossible to introduce a similar flat tax.
I share that feeling, playing a part in the scrapping of a bad tax, playing a part in the downfall of an unpopular Prime Minister. How good that must have tasted. Fortunately, no disgruntled poll tax faction intent on reimposing the tax at a later date coalesced within the Conservative Party to poison the political waters for years to come. It was generally seen by everyone as a catastrophic political mistake. If there was no hardening of a political position on the new government side, the electorate proved equally willing to let this black period pass and become history. The British public’s sans-culotte moment had passed; fantastic as it may seem, there was no punitive vote against the Tories at the next general election, and they were voted in once again. Which might make some of my readers wonder at the mentality of the English, that with the Wicked Witch banished the Wicked Witch’s party wasn’t to be swept into oblivion too. Call it justice satisfied, call it clemency, call it laxness, call it sheer indifference. There are some things about the English that none of us will ever understand, not even an Englishman like myself.