Poll Tax Thirty Years On

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This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph: 01/04/2019 [Online], Available: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/ewan-gurr-tory-mp-says-poll-tax-not-a-preconceived-vindictive-attack-on-scotland/  [Accessed: 2019, Apr 2]

Robert Key and Margaret Thatcher

It is exactly 30 years since the Poll Tax was introduced in Scotland and, last week, I spoke to one of the ministers responsible for its oversight. Robert Key (pictured right), the Member of Parliament for Salisbury from 1983 to 2010, served in the governments of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major and was a shadow minister under the respective leadership of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

In 1988, the then Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher (pictured left), delivered a speech to Conservatives in Perth where she announced: “We are replacing the old, outdated, arbitrary and unfair system of local rates.” She added that the socialist fads of hard left councils would “face the consequences at the next election.” However, less than a decade later, the Conservatives were reduced from 11 to zero MPs in Scotland.

The policy, which appeared in the 1974 and 1987 Conservative manifestos, was driven by Margaret Thatcher, according to Mr Key. He says: “It was her flagship policy. She knew there needed to be reform of local government taxation, the old system was just not working but none of us liked the alternatives.” Within months of its rollout, several ministers responsible for the first phase of implementation were sacked.

After being rolled out in England in 1990 and with demonstrations aplenty and mass non-payment, Robert Key was appointed the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government. He worked alongside Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo to, as he describes it, “clear up the mess”. He adds: “Rather than phase it in, they did it all at once and it was a catastrophic failure. Those on restricted incomes just could not afford it.” Mr Key says: “When Michael Heseltine assumed responsibility, he decided it needed to go and we were given three months to come up with something new.”

On its early rollout in Scotland, Mr Key says: “Looking back, I am amazed at the lack of consideration given to the civil unrest it would ferment by piloting it a year early in Scotland.” He adds: “I do believe, however, that we need to lay the ghost that the English had it in for the Scots. There has been a widespread belief that it was part of a preconceived and vindictive attack on Scotland but I do not believe that to be true.”

We discussed the present state of politics, his support for remaining in the EU and concern about poverty. On Universal Credit, he says: “The motivation was mainly saving money and bearing down on so-called ‘scroungers’. I am ashamed of the foodbank generation these policies helped create.” He concludes: “Ending poverty requires a re-balancing of the economy and a transformation of social attitudes.”