The Spectator Covers the Battle Against Thatcher’s Poll Tax

The Spectator, a conservative-leaning magazine from the U.K., devoted a column inch or two to the struggle against Thatcher’s poll tax back in the day. Today, some excerpts.

First, from an article by Sandra Barwick, published on :

The poll-tax activist [in Scotland] has been working recently on projects which will not concern his southern counterpart for many months. Protestors in cars with CB radios have followed sheriff officers who are now trying to spot videos and microwaves which might be sold toward the tax, in the houses and tenements of defaulters. In Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, where two men, one a local councillor, have been charged with obstructing sheriff officers in the course of their duties, children excited by the unusual liveliness of their streets have taken up a new game of Scumbuster against Sheriff. Local authorities are now trying to collect the last of the year’s tax. Their final figures will not show precisely how much support the Scottish National Party’s non-payment campaign has had until the summer at the earliest. Meanwhile, supporters of the poll tax talk percentages, which are reasonably reassuring, and those against it speak in numbers, which are substantial. The Scottish Information Office says that across the board 85–95 per cent have paid something towards poll tax. Kenny MacAskill, the SNP’s poll-tax spokesman, estimates that between 500,000 and 750,000 of Scotland’s 3.9 million who are eligible to pay up have failed to do so. Certainly by half a million summary warrants had been issued as the first stage towards the arrival of the sheriff officer on Mrs McKay’s doormat. More are likely to be issued as authorities begin to move against those who had applied for rebates, or have more recently fallen into arrears.

…matters might not be so bad in England and Wales after all. But there is plenty of danger too. In the last year for which there are figures, , Westminster Council in London sent out 5,774 warrants to bailiffs under the rating system. That figure will be much higher under poll tax, and the thought of television pictures, which are bound to come, of grannies who fall just above the rebate level weeping as hard men carry away their television sets in about a year’s time, may send some Conservative supporters back to bed just as they may have thought it was safe to emerge. Worse, in England and Wales, unlike Scotland, defaulters may be sent to prison. In , 264 were sent there for non-payment of rates. In a year’s time there are likely to be many more, by no means all either reprobates or militants.

Some may well be as endearing as 89-year-old Mr Richard McMillan, whose tearful return of his OBE to Buckingham Palace made moving pictures last week, and they will be called Poll Tax Prisoners. This and Scumbusters: coming soon to a street near you.

Next, from an article by Paul Johnson in the same issue:

As we were digesting Scargill’s troubles, the hijacking of the poll-tax protest movement of Militant and Rentamob burst upon us. Here the credit for making the most of an important political story must go to the Times, giving its departing editor, Charles Wilson, a rousing send-off. Nothing could match the impact of the television pictures, often live, which brought home the full horror of vicious young thugs, often armed with weapons of one kind or another, deliberately assaulting the police, including WPC’s and trying to overthrow the constitutional process. But the broadsheet can do a job instant television cannot — getting the background into sharp, detailed focus. The Times was on to Militant on Wednesday with a front-page story, “How the disruption is organised”, describing the penetration of the so-called All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, which emerged as a Militant front body. The next day, despite having the Al Fayed-Harrods story to handle, it gave the Militant hijack extensive and fascinating coverage, naming the 13 men and women behind it, and listing too, a significant point, the 28 Labour MPs who have given backing to Militant’s campaign.

From a article by Noel Malcolm.

[R]iots matter in the political world more than they matter in, so to speak, real life. In the theatre of politics, riots are the noises and alarums off, which add to the tension on stage. Much of the violence in the West End of London last Saturday may have been “mindless”, as the ritual phrase has it. But if any of the brick-throwers and Jaguar-igniters were aiming simply to heighten the atmosphere of political alarm over the poll tax, then their actions were rationally calculated to achieve their ends. A riot, however spuriously attached to a political protest, contributes an aura of anger and desperation in the same way that mud-slinging contributes mud to a wall: some of it will always stick.

The immediate rewards of the riot are obvious: a spate of articles in the national newspapers (and, yes, the weekly magazines too) discussing protest movements, the principles of passive non-payment and active resistance, and above all the poll tax itself. All this helps create an atmosphere of pressure and crisis.

[T]he extremists have almost certainly underestimated the power of moderate illegality — the tactic of purely passive non-payment — on a large scale. The Socialist Workers’ Party (a staid and conventional lot in the eyes of the anarchist fringe) have argued in one of their pamphlets that Mr Kinnock should “call a massive law-defying campaign against the poll tax”. This is not an irrational plan. If half the population refused to pay, the system could not possibly cope.

From an article by Mark Palmer in the profile of / savaging of Tommy Sheridan, which leads off with the now notorious Tom Friedman-ish journalistic trope of a convenient quote from a cab driver:

“We have a name for people like him up here,” said the Glasgow taxi driver as we rounded the last corner on the way to the office of the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. “Wankers.”

The description proved to be one of the kinder comments I heard levelled at Tommy Sheridan, the 26-year-old Stirling University graduate, who founded the federation two years ago, shortly before being expelled from the Labour Party for his connections with the militant tendency. Indeed, the contempt for him crosses party lines in a manner that very little else in Glasgow can. Conservatives, what’s left of them north of the border, think him more dangerous than Arthur Scargill, while the top brass of Labour-held Strathclyde Regional Council have as much time for Sheridan as they do for Margaret Thatcher, who introduced the community charge in the first place. “I have spent 20 years in active politics and have never seen anybody whose skills as a speaker are so circumscribed by his own sense of self-importance,” said James Dunnachie, the Labour MP for Glasgow Pollok. But everyone I came across agreed that Tommy Sheridan is running a brilliant campaign. Effective, high-profile, orderly.

“We are making the poll tax unworkable and uncollectible,” Sheridan assured me, “and we are the only ones prepared to fight. Everyone else has left the battlefield.”

The telephone rang. It was BBC Scotland anxious for Sheridan’s reaction to claims that he and his colleagues have been harassing children of sheriff officers, Scotland’s equivalent of bailiffs. He had already spoken to four national newspaper reporters that morning, which is about normal. He gives three press conferences a week, has speaking engagements six nights a week and on Saturday afternoons, and finds time to turn out for his local football team.

Articulate, unfailingly polite, dedicated and alarmingly handsome, Tommy Sheridan is the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Without him there would be no protest movement. It was Sheridan who organised the Trafalgar Square rally , and has now set up more than 50 branches of the federation in England. His latest wheeze is a march from Glasgow to London , culminating in a mass rally on Clapham Common.

I expected a monster but found nothing other than a sincere young man with noble, unworkable ideals, whose school report might read, “If guided correctly, should go far.” Sheridan has no idea where he is going but intends to apply to rejoin the Labour Party in four years” time when his ban is up. The party would do well to let him back in, though Dunnachie promises, “I will never allow it.”

“I am a socialist not a Stalinist,” said Sheridan. “I have always spoken about the Soviet Union and its lack of democracy and have always believed that a strong economic system is essential in distributing wealth. But I know I have a burning anger inside me.”

Sheridan’s socialism, nurtured in part by his parents (his mother was an official in the Transport and General Workers’ Union, his father a shop steward), is rooted in his observation of the way people around him live.

“The 83-year-old man in the flat above me has been waiting four years for a hip replacement operation. Sometimes the pain is so awful he has to crawl up the stairs on all fours. And my uncle, who was blind, applied for a council house and was offered a 14th-storey flat in a high-rise.”

Observing his neighbours is also why he doesn’t smoke and will never drink (“I hate the effect alcohol has on working-class life”); why he prefers the Daily Telegraph to the Daily Mirror (“The Telegraph isn’t afraid to come out in favour of capitalism, while Mr Maxwell is a capitalist masquerading as a socialist”) and why he thinks Derek Hatton is not worth discussing.

Sheridan joined his local Labour Party at 17. His first campaign was for more street lighting in Glasgow’s depressed housing estates. At Stirling, where he graduated with a 2.1 in politics and economics, he was secretary of the Labour Club and campus picket organiser for the miners. After university, he worked briefly for Strathclyde Council, tracking down pensioners in danger of hypothermia. The Guardian has described him as “the missionary tendency”.

Financing the campaign is not easy. Running costs for the shop-front office alone are £500 a month. Support comes from several sources, including Dave Nellist, MP for Coventry South-East, who has a £10 a week standing order. Three weeks ago, Sheridan and ten colleagues held a seven-day fast in George Square. They ended up hungry but £2,000 the richer in donations. It’s hard to imagine Derek Hatton going without his grub for seven days.

Sheridan’s campaign may indeed be brilliant but is it helping those who need help most? It can’t be doing much for Thomas McGee, who mans the office three days a week. McGee, 24, married with two children, hasn’t worked for four years. He refused to pay poll tax in and failed even to register in . As a wanted man his chances of ever landing a job are slim. I suggested to Sheridan that McGee’s plight grows ever more hopeless with each day the campaign continues.

“It’s a pity and I would encourage him to register and apply for a rebate, but the real crime is that he should be asked to pay the same poll tax as the Duke of Roxburghe. And we genuinely believe that if we keep up the pressure Mrs Thatcher will be left with no alternative to repealing the tax.”

Certainly the degree of non-payment is impressive. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities estimates there are approximately 850,000 debtors in Scotland, or one in five of the poll tax-paying population. Threats of warrant sales, the process by which sheriff officers sell off non-payers’ household goods, are expected to reduce slightly the regional councils’ shortfall in revenue, but the eventual level of non-payment in Scotland will be at least 10 per cent, double the level for which most councils had budgeted. And the Chancellor has already admitted that non-payment of the tax, combined with higher public spending, is threatening the Government’s budget surplus.

Finally, from an article by Auberon Waugh in the edition:

[A]n estimated 1.8 million Britons had “disappeared” .

When one thinks of the excitement over the 10 or 20,000 Argentinians said to have disappeared in the days of the junta, it seems rather remiss not to enquire after the missing 1.8 million, who compose more than 3 per cent of the population. It was the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys which noticed them missing when it came to count the returns of census. Local authorities, according to Rosie Waterhouse who wrote the Independent on Sunday’s lead story on Britain’s desparecidos, are certain that many of these missing people deliberately avoided filling in the census form because they did not wish to pay poll tax. So now they have disappeared entirely from public records.