FROM TYLER TO THATCHER
Michael Trend predicts
the failure of the great `poll tax' protest
'REMEMBER 1381!', proclaimed a ban- ner gaily swung aloft a 'Stop the Poll Tax March' in Islington's Upper Street the week before last. I had happened upon the dissenting brothers and sisters of that borough by accident; but stayed to watch them troop by with some delight. The head of what I thought was going to be a lengthy serpent of revolt was colourful enough with a motley band of unkempt-looking youths dressed in peasant-like tatters. But, alas, all too soon there were the police vans and coaches bringing up the rear, with dozens of sleepy-looking constables peer- ing out of the windows.
'We had expected many more,' said one enforcer of law and order; and then shared with me his opinion that the general appearance of the marchers was not sup- posed to be, as I had thought, a subtle historical reference to the age of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw but was just 'their normal life-style, if you know what I mean'. But could there have been so few — a mere 50 souls — in the people's republic of Isling- ton who felt so strongly on the pressing subject of the oppression of the people by 'Thatcher's brutal poll tax'?
'Or, community charge — if you don't mind,' as Mr John Gummer, the minister in charge of its implementation, puts it when being interviewed on the subject. Noting how people refer to the new local tax that is going to replace domestic rates has been of great interest to me since I visited Scotland in the spring of last year. Many Conservatives there then and, as I have since found, many in England this year go on referring innocently.to the 'poll tax' unaware of the supposed tremendous power of the name.
The Government itself has conceded that there is a problem of nomenclature as its leaflet on the 'community charge or so-called "poll tax" ' shows. (Mr Paul Thomas in last week's Spectator caught this particularly well in a cartoon showing the Government's leaflet for the 'Community Charge or so-called effing poll tax'.) But I suspect that as with the march in Islington there is not a lot of mileage left in the game of the name. A recent leaflet from the Association of District Councils and Asso- ciation of Metropolitan Authorities adver- tised a one-day seminar on 'How Scotland is coping with the "so-called poll tax" '. When a so-called 'poll tax' becomes a 'so-called poll tax' we have reached a level of absurdity that shows we are probably ready to drop the whole business.
The historical connection with the dark days of the Middle Ages has also worn pretty thin. For all the university Left's attempt in the past 20 years or so to present the Peasants' Revolt as some glorious movement of early Chartism, that depress- ingly brutal episode in our history (in which the 14th-century poll tax played only a limited role) means next to nothing to our historically illiterate population these days.
So I say, 'Forget 1381!', and look back instead to 1988 — in Scotland. When, last year, I went to speak to Mr John MacKay, head of the Conservative organisation there, I could tell that the view put forward by Labour and the SNP that the poll tax would be a serious blow to the Govern- ment was treated with some respect by the Tories. By this spring, however, when I was back in Scotland, that view had changed and Mr MacKay was a much happier man. In particular, he pointed out, the standing of the Tories in the Scottish opinion polls had not been damaged at all by the introduction of the new tax. In contrast his party had recovered some- what; the slump had come during the re-rating exercise — the final straw that finally broke the back of the old rating system north of the border. I was in Edinburgh just as the collection of the new tax was beginning and saw that the SNP's 'Can pay, but won't pay' cam- paign was a flop. A promised list of 100,000 supporters never turned up. I noted a tiny crowd of protesters — fewer even than their Islington brothers gathering outside local municipal offices with SNP banners, 'Say No to the Poll Tax.' Twenty minutes later I passed that way again; a light drizzle had come and they had gone. In fact almost everybody in Scotland has registered for the community charge — the only dispute is over whether the official figure is 98 or 99 per cent. This, of course, is very much in the interests of the large local authorities (mostly Labour) who never wanted to see their finances and electoral rolls drop. Now, much to the satisfaction of the Conservatives, these same local authorities are having to work flat out explaining to their voters some- thing, curiously, that they had not men- tioned before — the rebate system for those who genuinely can't afford to pay. The 'Say No' campaign had a good year, but, like all good things, has come to an end.
There were many special reasons why this should have been so and why the English experience is, and will be, diffe- rent. Many Scots felt last year, with some justice, I think, that they were being used as guinea pigs. Scotland is a Labour stronghold (its only stronghold, some would add) and the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher are widely hated there; moreover the anti-poll tax campaign proved to be a useful focus of all the opposition forces. This pattern is not being repeated this year in England as the registration forms now begin to go out here. The great fear for the Conservatives about the community charge south of the border has been that it would become the mid-term nightmare of this parliament much as the abolition of the GLC was of the last. When the legislation was going through the House of Commons there were many Tory MP fainthearts who voiced anxieties about what they saw as the electoral damage that the charge would bring them in their several seats. When I asked John Gummer about this earlier this year I could tell that he was keenly aware of the GLC analogy and was absolutely determined not to become another Patrick Jenkin.
In recent weeks he has pressed ahead with great signs of confidence (although the public relations razzmatazz of his launch, when he opened himself to ridicule from Labour as 'Postman Pat', was a mistake). Many attempts have been made by the opposition to stir up the 'Scottish experience' in the introduction of the community charge in England but they have made little headway. In particular Greenwich's attempt to 'stop Gummer's leaflet' proved ineffective and very expen- sive (no doubt the good burghers of that borough will not mind paying for it). The public response to the community charge in England has been much more muted than in Scotland and it really does begin to look likely that the nightmare will not happen after all. The earlier careful thought that went into the planning of the charge at the Department of the Environ- ment — whose officials knew better than anyone else that the rates system was beyond redemption — is beginning to pay off.
Many local Conservative associations are reporting that, taken overall, the sim- plicity of the community charge (everyone pays the same) is a positive feature; the argument that local authorities will be made more accountable to their voters through the tax is beginning to be looked at more carefully — it was used as a cam- paigning point by the Tories who recently won control of Bradford. Mr Gummer's most pressing problem now is to persuade the press that they have been deprived of the 'story' they have become so used to writing on the new tax; maybe he should point them towards an alternative scare story for this mid-term Government (there are, surely, many to choose from).
That would leave him with only one further problem; for the surest sign that political opinions of the community charge have changed is the growing number of institutions and individuals who are lining up to take the credit for it. Among these have been the Adam Smith Institute well-known boasters — who have taken to claiming in their literature that they 'in- vented' the charge. More significant, however, have been the gentle noises coming from Mr Kenneth Baker (who ran the original working group that set out the terms of the new tax) that he would be quite happy to take the credit for this necessary reform done as painlessly as possible. Mr Gummer would do well to keep a closer watch henceforth on his political friends who have an eye to the future rather than his political opponents with their eye on the past.