Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Wednesday, 1 April 2009 12:52 UK

The poll tax in Scotland 20 years on

BBC Scotland's Westminster reporter David Porter reflects on the impact of the poll tax in Scotland 20 years after it was first introduced and explores whether the policy hastened devolution.


Poll tax protestors
More than 1.5m people refused to pay in the first year.

'' We'll nae pay the poll tax'' was one of the unofficial anthems of those opposed to the Conservative party's radical plans to refinance local government.

The community charge, to give it its official title, was a political fix seized on by Scottish Conservatives to head off hefty rate rises, which the Tories feared would hit their core supporters.

Under the poll tax people were taxed, rather than the properties they lived in. Scottish Tories begged for it to be introduced north of the border first.

The result was massive non-payment, the downfall of a prime minister and arguably the reawakening of the devolution movement.

'Winners and losers'

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, was Scottish Secretary when the poll tax was introduced.

He said: "People who benefit from a tax change, they like it but they remain fairly silent.

"It's the people who are losing out, or think they are going to lose out, who, quite understandably, make tremendous opposition and we should have anticipated that. So it was a big mistake."

"Winners and losers" became the community charge's catchphrase.

A total of 700,000 summary warrants for non-payment of poll tax were issued by end of first year alone. More than 1.5m people refused to pay.

New political martyrs such as Tommy Sheridan were born as a result of the anti-poll tax movement in Scotland.

He said: "Her (Margaret Thatcher's) policies required opposition so people like me had to get involved in opposing her policies.

"We were fighting the Iron Lady, and those ordinary people melted down the Iron Lady and shifted her off to the political knacker's yard, where she belongs."

Constitutional change

There were also challenges for the established parties.

The SNP backed non-payment, but Labour's then Scottish leader, Donald Dewar had to walk a political tight rope - opposing the tax, but advocating payment.

He said at the time: "It is a serious step however, in my view, for a party committed to parliamentary government to urge defiance of the law."

Unlike England, there was no real violence in Scotland, there was no the equivalent of the Trafalgar Square riots.

And it was English unrest which eventually led to its abolition.

Tommy Sheridan
"Political martyrs" like Tommy Sheridan were born out of the protests.

But Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University believes anger at the poll tax hastened constitutional change in Scotland.

He said: "The main legacy of the poll tax has been the Scottish Parliament.

"Opposition to the poll tax became aligned with the case for a parliament.

"The perception grew in Scotland that the Conservative government, with limited support north of the border, was imposing policies on Scotland - and the poll tax symbolised that better than anything else."

And 20 years on there is further proof of how contentious local government finance can be. The SNP government at Holyrood has had to postpone its own plans for a local income tax to replace the council tax.



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SEE ALSO
Local income tax plan under fire
13 Mar 08 |  Scotland
'Poll tax' warning over SNP plan
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Poll tax write-off call rejected
05 Dec 07 |  Scotland
A taxing issue for politicians
06 Feb 04 |  Scotland

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