There are few pieces of legislation that can still evoke such strong reactions as the innocuously titled Community Charge. More infamously known as the Poll Tax, this new form of taxation would prove to have profound and far reaching effects not anticipated during its formulation. It was brought in as a result of the Local Government Finance Act in 1988 to replace the Domestic Ratings System, and implemented a flat rate tax on everyone regardless of income. Whilst reductions were available for those on a low income, everyone had to pay at least 20%. In Scotland, the poll tax is also particularly remembered as being introduced a year earlier than in the rest of the UK.
In November 1987 when the proposal of the poll tax had become a reality, the Sentinel focused one of its Street Sentinel reports on whether people would pay the new tax. You can see the results here. The following year the paper again alerted its readers to the new tax on the horizon with information from Edinburgh District Council on how local residents would be affected and what everyone would have to pay. As in hundreds of communities, people in Wester Hailes held protests about the new tax but the following year, the first community charge bills landed on people’s doorsteps.
Those who could not afford to pay faced debt and anxiety with bills and reminder letters piling up. Local authorities took legal action in an effort to collect some of what was owed, leading in Scotland to a sharp rise in the number of warrant sales. The Sentinel had previously highlighted the plight of people facing warrant sales back in October 1988 prior to the poll tax’s implementation. Sometimes described as legal break-ins, warrant sales auctioned off a debtor’s possessions in order to recoup a debt. A local resident shared her story, describing vividly the humiliation and misery the warrant sale process created. With the arrival of the poll tax, there would have been many similar stories in the area.
As well as people being unable to pay, there was a growing anti poll tax movement with people able to pay but choosing not to as a form of protest. “Can Pay, Won’t Pay” quickly gathered momentum and politicians both local and national found themselves at the sharp end of the question Are you paying the Poll Tax, knowing that their answer would be of media interest. When new councillor Margaret McCulloch was interviewed by the Sentinel, she was asked if she was paying the poll tax. She stated that she was, saying that as the council was asking others to pay, she felt she had a responsibility to do the same. Meanwhile another local councillor John Mulvey argued that the only way to defeat the tax was through a mass campaign of agitation and he refused to pay.
By the end of 1990, more than 1 million Scots had refused to pay their community charge. Huge waves of protest swept across England and Wales as the tax was introduced that year. Whilst 50,000 people marched in Glasgow on March 31st 1990 relatively peacefully, the day will really be remembered for the 100,000 strong demonstration in London that led to the worst riots in the city of the 20th century. The poll tax is regarded by many as being a key factor in Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in November 1990. It also led to arguments within the Labour party with those on the left wing of the party challenging the official opposition response. A relatively short lived piece of legislation, it has managed to attain legendary status.
Perhaps the anti poll tax campaign’s biggest achievement was that it brought together a diverse range of protesters many of whom had never contemplated direct action before: pensioners, church congregations, local workers, high earners all felt strongly enough about the injustice of the tax to take a stand. And with it being a tax implemented on all, being able to withhold payment made protesting both simple and effective. The broad range and sheer volume of non payers made successful collection impossible. Whilst many people may feel a similar sense of injustice over the Welfare Benefit reforms, there are fewer options available to show their protest. And of course, the reforms divide rather than unite.