By SHAUN MILNE & KARRIE GILLETT
THE hated Poll Tax united working class Scotland like no other issue in modern day British politics.
When it was first introduced north of the Border on April 1, 1989, it was quickly branded an illegal tax, a charge levied on Scotland a full year before it was to be introduced across the rest of the UK.
Few could have imagined the effect it would have on the nation’s psyche.
Even less, perhaps, the huge strength of feeling that was to lead to mass marches, violence, a wave of Pay No Poll Tax graffiti on every available wall and the eventual downfall of the Tory government.
For left wing firebrand Tommy Sheridan, who spearheaded the huge non-payment campaign in Scotland and lost his liberty as a result, today’s anniversary still clearly stirs bitter memories.
He said: “Thatcher and her Tory lapdogs were intent on replacing the rates based on property values with a tax on every adult in a household regardless of income.
“It represented the most graphic attempt to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. The average family in a tenement would pay considerably more while the rich in their mansions would pay less.
“The wealthy Duke in his castle would receive a windfall but the low paid dustman was to get a kick in the teeth.
“It was introduced as the ‘community charge’ but almost immediately was christened the ‘poll tax’ and became known as such thereafter.
“It had to be fought.”
And he said Scots had no option but to rise against the “immoral” tax and defeat it at the ballot box. He said: “The fact it was an ‘unfair, unjust and immoral’ tax was compounded by the decision to introduce it in Scotland a year before England and Wales.
“They ignored petitions, protest marches and rallies and the ballot box. All we had left was the right to defy.
“Civil disobedience through mass non-payment. The dreaded warrant sale threat was used to frighten families across Scotland. “
What the authorities didn’t reckon with was the size and determination of the grassroots movement to stand up and be counted.
“We refused to be cowered.”
Sheridan himself was sentenced to six months in jail for defying a court order to help prevent a warrant sale in October 1991.
He served four months in Edinburgh’s Saughton Prison between March and July 1992.
Remarkably, he was elected as a Scottish Militant Labour councillor for Glasgow Pollok in the May elections while still in jail.
He was also elected as chair of the all Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
Some would argue that the action from the masses helped pave the way for first Devolution and the rise of the Scottish National Party to prominence in Westminster and today’s Government at Holyrood.
SNP Business and Enterprise spokesperson, Mike Weir MP, said: “The Poll Tax was foisted on an unwilling Scottish population by a Tory Government with no democratic mandate in Scotland.
“The imposition of the Poll Tax transformed the case for a Scottish Parliament from a good idea into an absolutely necessary one, so that never again could such a democratic outrage be perpetrated on the people of Scotland.
“In the same way, being dragged into an illegal war in Iraq by a Labour Government in London, Westminster demonstrated the case for the Scottish Parliament to have the full powers of independence – as does the need for economic and financial powers now so that we can take action to recover from recession.”
Now in opposition, Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader Johann Lamont said Scots remained unforgiving and called on Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie to mark the 20th anniversary by apologising to the people of Scotland.
Lamont said: “Annabel Goldie should hang her head in shame at what the Tories did to Scotland.
“The poll tax is just the worst of a litany of sins that included mass unemployment and the destruction of our manufacturing industries.
“At that time, the Conservatives had just ten out of 72 Scottish MPs.
“Despite their lack of a democratic mandate, they used Scotland as a guinea pig to introduce the poll tax a year ahead of the rest of the UK.
“The Scottish people never forgave them. This is one of the reasons that the Tories lost every single seat in the 1997 general election and today they have just one.
“Frankly, we are better off without them.
“All of us in Scotland should be sobered by the memory of what a Conservative Government actually means. Annabel Goldie should mark this infamous anniversary with a public apology.”
20 Things You never new About The Poll Tax
1. Poll Tax was introduced in the 1980s to replace rates and its official name was The Community Charge.
2. It came about after the Local Government Finance Act was passed in 1988 and saw a fixed rate tax payable by every adult regardless of income.
3. It was brought into force in Scotland on April 1, 1989 and then in England and Wales one year later.
4. Margaret Thatcher implemented the unpopular system in order to fund local government.
5. The word “poll” is an old English word which means “head” and the term poll tax came about to reflect the fixed amount per individual nature of the system.
6. The unwelcome tax resulted in protests across the country, lead by the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation.
7. Also known as The Fed, the group was formed by the Militant tendency who instigated a mass non-payment campaign
8. Tommy Sheridan became a popular political figure during this time, emerging as the face of the non-payment drive in Scotland.
9. Sheridan was the first person in Britain to be jailed over the poll tax. He spent six months in Saughton prison in 1992 for attempting to stop a warrant sale – an auction of debtors’ property to raise money for unpaid poll tax.
10. The SNP’s Kenny MacAskill, now the Scottish Government’s Justice Minister, led the “Can Pay, Won’t Pay” campaign in Scotland during the 1980s.
11. By the end of 1990, more than one million Scots had refused to stump up the cash to pay for their poll tax.
12. On March 31, 1990, some 50,000 people gathered for a demonstration in Glasgow.
13. On the same date, an anti-poll tax rally of 100,000 people in central London erupted into the worst riot in the city in the 20th century with a total of 340 arrests.
14. The poll tax resulted in tens of thousands of voters disappearing from the 1991 electoral register – in an attempt to avoid stumping up the cash.
15. Many attribute the unpopular tax as the catalyst for Thatcher’s downfall and on November 22, 1990 she effectively resigned.
16. John Major, her successor, announced in his first speech as Prime Minister that he would replace the Community Charge with the Council Tax in 1993.
17. Ten years later, Former Scottish Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind called the poll tax “a great political mistake”.
18. When being elected as Conservative Party leader in 2003, Michael Howard apologised for his party’s role in introducing the unpopular tax on his first visit to Scotland as leader. He said: “”It was a bold and brave experiment but it didn’t work, it was a mistake, I’ve apologised for it before and I’m happy to do so again.”
19. Similarly, in 2006 the now-Tory leader David Cameron echoed the apology. He said: “The decision to treat Scotland as a laboratory for experimentation in new methods of local government finance was clumsy and unjust.”
20. In her autobiography, Thatcher said of the poll tax: “Most people were worried about the community charge…I intervened to say I could not pull rabbits out of a hat…I could not now credibly promise a radical overhaul of the community charge, no matter how convenient it seemed.”