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Scotland Decides ’14: what does Alex Salmond owe the Poll Tax?

The poll tax was a key milestone on the road to the Scottish referendum. Stephen Fyfe, CC BY-SA

This week saw the 25th anniversary of one of the key events in recent Scottish political history. On 1 April 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced a new tax in Scotland to replace the old rates system. It was officially called the community charge, but soon came to be infamously known as the poll tax. The tax was being tested in Scotland a year before it was introduced to the rest of the UK.

Scots were furious at being made a guinea pig for a tax which was seen as highly regressive. The UK government was already deeply unpopular north of the border for allegedly being unsympathetic to Scottish needs and allowing it to bear the brunt of much of the UK’s industrial retrenchment.

Socialist Tommy Sheridan made his name in the poll tax battles. Chris Bacon, CC BY-SA

Soon Scots were refusing to pay the poll tax in their thousands, giving a national platform to ambitious young socialist Tommy Sheridan and setting the scene for the poll tax demonstrations and riots further south the following year. Though the tax was replaced by the council tax several years later, some say the journey to the Scottish independence referendum started here. We asked our panellists if they agreed.

Lesley Riddoch, PhD student at Strathclyde University, broadcaster and journalist

The poll tax is a classic example of the kind of UK government policy so obviously unfair you wouldn’t want to be any part of the club that created it. I was explaining it to a supporter of Norway’s new Conservative government today and she was aghast that anyone could introduce something so regressive.

But the poll tax wasn’t the tin lid on the Union for non-nationalists supporters of Scottish independence like myself. That came when Labour failed to dismantle the system Thatcher had created after 1997.

New Labour failed to tackle the thinking behind the politics that produced the poll tax – in some ways that subsequent failure was as important in creating a head of steam for independence as the tax itself. To counter something like the poll tax a different philosophy was needed. I don’t think we ever got that with New Labour. I’ll grant you that Labour definitely reduce inequality, but they did it by stealth, with Gordon Brown shifting money around through tax credits.

So here we are now with the same arguments Margaret Thatcher once used about the deserving and undeserving poor, about immigration – because the left never won those arguments or even dared have them robustly in public – in the south of England.

As you travel around other countries that weren’t infected by that Thatcher virus, you realise they have successfully built on different outlooks. I think that’s what Scots are calling for now, even if they are sometimes scared to embrace the enormity of the project ahead.

I know there’s sometimes a discussion about the Scots being the victims of Thatcherite politics, but as the second wealthiest region in the union I don’t think we can say we’ve been more fleeced than the north of England for example. Although Labour introduced devolution, they didn’t introduce an outlook for the whole of the UK that Scots could unreservedly subscribe to as the bedroom tax – “daughter of poll tax” – has demonstrated. Will the SNP or a post-independence government do any better? It’s a judgement call.

Chris Whatley, Professor of Scottish History, University of Dundee

There is no doubt the poll tax is a factor that has bolstered support for independence, albeit indirectly. The Tory government under Margaret Thatcher helped strengthen the view that Westminster and especially Westminster under the Tories failed to understand Scotland and its needs and was therefore losing the right to rule.

In other words, Westminster’s legitimacy was weakened at a time when support for the SNP was rising, along with demands for devolution. The Tories were also blamed for the demise of the steel industry and for failing to support other industries during the 1980s. That so many of Scotland’s formerly great industries were in long-term decline anyway, and unsustainable, was conveniently overlooked. What so often matters in politics isn’t the truth, but what appears to be true.

The same can be said of the poll tax. It was implemented first in Scotland as concern mounted among home owners about the prospect of a rates revaluation – the political and electoral consequences of which the Tories wanted to avoid.

Protests against the poll tax were actually more widespread and more violent in England than in Scotland, but the far left north of the border was still able to exploit the decision to introduce the tax first in Scotland as “evidence” that the Tories were anti-working class and anti-Scottish.

Similar rhetoric is used today: Scotland as part of the UK suffers from being governed by a Tory-led coalition at Westminster. The government continues – as it did during the 1980s - to promote policies and legislate in the interest of England, and in particular those parts of England and English society whose needs and values are very different from those of Scotland.

John McKendrick, Senior Lecturer, Glasgow Caledonian University

Back in the 1950s, marginally more Scots aligned with the Conservative Party than the Labour Party. People voted according to their family history and their religion, but that changed over time.

Although this vote held up well into the 1970s, attachments began to change in the 1960s. Cultural orientations changed for the younger generation as things like music became increasingly part of people’s identities. We developed a less localised outlook, were less bound to tradition and became more open to change.

Then in the 1980s, everything became very political. We had experienced a decade of losing shipyards and heavy industry in Scotland, and people blamed the Tories. The poll tax was a tipping point, a cause celebre. It provided a focus for much of the bad feeling and maybe even further impetus to change.

These wider changes transformed the poll tax into something a lot bigger than it probably should have been – it was a bit like the bedroom tax today, where some of the other welfare changes will have a far bigger adverse impact on people in Scotland, but have not captured the public imagination in the same way.

That’s not to say that the poll tax made the case for Scottish devolution inevitable (or that the bedroom tax is making the case for Scottish independence a done deal).

Although the Labour and Conservative votes in the Scottish elections have weakened slightly since they began 1999, it is the almost doubling of the SNP since 2003 that has been the specific catalyst for the referendum.

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