Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Maggie, the poll tax, and the danger of firmness

A benefit of the thirty-year rule for disclosure of British government papers is that it can provide a salutary reminder of just how unsavoury certain people were, at a time – three decades on – when there’s a tendency to canonise them.

For a while now, and never more than since her funeral, there has been a growing tendency to sing the praises of Maggie Thatcher. A strong woman, we’re told, a conviction politician, firm in her beliefs, determined to see them through.

That all sounds like praise indeed. So we sometimes have to remind ourselves of the irregular verb: I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pig-headed. What looks like firmness when you feel it’s in a good cause, is simply dogmatism bordering on fanaticism in a bad one.

Firm? Resolut? Or just inflexible?
The Guardian has done us a service by publishing details of the advice Thatcher received from Oliver Letwin, now a Minister but then a 29-year old special adviser, concerning the proposed move to funding local government based on a “residence charge”, later renamed the “community charge” and ultimately known to practically everyone as the “poll tax”.

This was pretty much an unmitigated disaster. Projections in 1985 showed that 44% of the population would be made worse off. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson – the minister responsible for Financial matters – declared the tax would mean that “a pensioner couple in inner London could find themselves paying 22% of their net income in poll tax, whereas a better off couple in the suburbs pay only 1%.” He described the scheme as “completely unworkable and politically catastrophic.”

Letwin maintained that it was the way to go, backed by Lord Victor Rothschild, now revealed to be the man who first had the idea. Letwin even supported the approach it has long been suspected Thatcher adopted, of using the Scots as guinea pigs and only introducing the poll tax in England and Wales after running it for a year north the border.

Despite the opposition of many of her most senior ministers, Thatcher made this an issue on which to prove her “firmness”. The poll tax was imposed on the rest of Britain after Scotland, amid increasing resentment and indeed resistance, culminating in widespread rioting in 1990. Her dogmatic attachment to a bad idea had lasted five years and done huge damage – not least, to herself. It was in 1990 that Tory Party grandees decided that they’d had enough of a good thing, or that Thatcher was no longer the good thing she had been, and dumped her.

She could never forgive them. Like all people who have her brand of “firmness’, she knew she could do no wrong. The poll tax hadn’t been her calamitous error, her utter failure of political sensitivity towards the real concerns of voters, it had been a policy that others hadn’t had the courage to see through, preferring instead to bring her down in an act that could only be qualified as treason.

That’s the kind of history we need to recall each time anyone speaks with nostalgia of the Thatcher period. Remember that her departure was the end of an error as well as the end of the era.

But we should also remember that the man who advised her down this destructive route was Oliver Letwin. Thatcher’s gone, but he’s still in government. The Guardian quotes Lord Rothschild expressing some reservations: “…I am nervous lest [the poll tax] is accidentally or deliberately misinterpreted, for example: ‘Tories hit the poor again’, ‘No compassion for the have-nots’.”

How ironic. Those are precisely the charges anyone with empathy for the poor makes of the government in which Letwin, architect of the poll tax, serves today.

Which demonstrates that this kind of story not only provides useful insight on the reputation Thatcher really deserves, it also reveals how balefully her legacy still affects us today.


Conrad Brunstrom said...


Thatcher's "strengths" just made her more destructive. I wish she had been prone to a few more petty disabling vices - she'd have been a lot less dangerous.

David Beeson said...

I couldn't agree more - the more strongly you pursue a wrong course of action, the more damaging your strength becomes. And Thatcher had a way of selecting appalling courses of action - and then deploying great resolve in chasing them.