Poll tax papers show Margaret Thatcher ignored early rebellion

Newly released government files reveal ministers' fears over the 'most celebrated political disaster in post-war Britain'

Police and demonstrators clash in Trafalgar Square during the poll tax riots of 1990
(Image credit: Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Secret documents from Margaret Thatcher's time in power have shed new light on the political infighting surrounding the highly controversial poll tax legislation.

Newly released National Archives files from that time show how Thatcher, then prime minister, ignored repeated warnings from her own cabinet ministers over the law that eventually contributed to her political downfall.

What was the poll tax?

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Officially known as the community charge, the poll tax replaced domestic rates based on property values with a flat-rate levy. It was first introduced in Scotland in 1989 and a year later in England and Wales.

What was the response?

Thousands refused to pay, arguing the charge unfairly targeted those on lower incomes. The move sparked the worst riots in London for a century, with around 100 people injured and more than 400 arrested after demonstrators clashed with police in March 1990.

What was going on behind the scenes?

Dating from 1986 to 1988, the files show the tax was also unpopular in the corridors of power. Then chancellor Nigel Lawson warned it would be "completely unworkable and politically catastrophic".

Conservative Party chairman and Thatcher loyalist Norman Tebbit, meanwhile, raised concerns over the failure to exempt students from the deal, telling the prime minister he was "particularly concerned" that students' parents - "many of whom are our supporters" - would be forced to pay twice, says the Daily Telegraph.

The documents also reveal one cabinet minister's move to include homeless people in the tax. Peter Walker, then Welsh secretary, said exempting them would "encourage" people to sleep on the streets by creating "an enormous loophole into the system".

What is the poll tax's legacy?

"Amid a weakening economy and softening Tory poll numbers, [Thatcher's] vehement support for the tax struck many in her party as proof that she was out of touch with voters," says the Daily Telegraph. "Those doubts played a part in the Conservative assassination of their leader in November 1990."

A book published in 1992 - a year after the levy was scrapped by Thatcher's successor, John Major - dubbed the poll tax the most celebrated political disaster in post-war Britain.

The political ramifications are still being felt in the Conservative Party today – especially in Scotland, according to a 2014 editorial in The Guardian.

"The poll tax remains the locus classicus for domestic political miscalculation and the yardstick by which all other UK governmental policy ineptitudes are still judged," it says.

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