I spent half the period of the General Election in my Linlithgow constituency and other Scottish seats, and half campaigning in some thirty English marginal seats. So much has been written on the North-South divide, and the fact that great cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow have no representative of the governing party, that I need not dwell on what is since 11 June familiar ground. I wonder, however, whether everyone in England understands the extent to which the result in Scotland was determined by the immediate prospect of the community charge, or as it is now known even in the most fastidious financial circles, the ‘poll tax’. It is one thing to have sentences about a rather obscure ‘community charge’ buried in the Manifesto. It is quite another to be an early guinea-pig on whom an experiment is about to be conducted. The Scottish poll-tax legislation was actually through Parliament, and on the statute book. What in England was perceived as scaremongering when I spoke about the poll-tax was received in Scotland – rightly – as an all-too-imminent reality.
Those who wonder why I attach such weight to it should ponder the Conservative defeat in genteel South Edinburgh, a seat they had held since the 19th-century Reform Bills, and the loss of its MP, one of the ministerial architects of the poll tax, Michael Ancram; or the fact that they came within the narrowest shave of losing their Defence Secretary George Younger, in Ayr – by general consent a good constituency MP, and a very possible successor to Mrs Thatcher. In crude terms, the Scots found the redistribution of wealth from the have-nots to the haves about as palatable as Wat Tyler and his followers did in 1380.
I don’t think this idea originated in the wicked will of the Conservative Party to gain financial advantage for its supporters – though that might be the effect. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed made a rash promise to ‘do away with the rates’. Stuck with this promise, and hoist on the petard of rates abolition. Mrs Thatcher found that the arguments in the Layfield Committee against a local income tax were overwhelming. So, in desperation, Henry II-like, she exploded: ‘Who will do away with the rates?’ The result was that career-conscious Ministers, eager to please, came up with this barmy poll tax. So what should the Labour Party do?
I don’t think much will be achieved by endless economic argument, and an invoking of economists from Keynes to the present day. Rather we should invoke the memory of Sir Gerald Nabarro, who used ribaldry, anomalies and anachronisms to make people laugh – and once a measure has become the subject of laughter its days are numbered; How many canvassers will be required to keep the poll-tax register up to date? Answer: 70 in Lothian region alone. How many households will discover that even if the head of the household is present and register, his wife, son and two grown-up daughters have mysteriously gone elsewhere? As Jimmy Wray, the new MP for Glasgow’s Easterhouse Estate put it to the pre-session meeting of 50 Scottish Labour MPs: ‘At present, I have 43,000 constituents. If the poll tax comes into operation, in 1991 I’ll be lucky to have 10,000 constituents.’ The taxing of people rather than property gives endless scope for ribaldry. People are mobile. Property is static.