Irate Scots lead the way in British tax resistance

August 16, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

GLASGOW, Scotland -- John Mullin wears the gloomy look of a man desperate to find the bright side of a dark situation.

He sits behind the gray stone walls of Strathclyde House in the center of Glasgow and wonders how he's going to deal with the consequences of the tax revolt outside.

It's happening all across Britain. But in Scotland it is more bitter because it is fueled by nationalistic sentiment.

Until recently, it had the open support of the Scottish National Party, which claims 20 percent of Scotland's voters. That's about the same percentage of people in Scotland who support the ruling Conservative Party.

The resistance is focused on the poll, or head, tax, Margaret Thatcher's fatal innovation of three years ago, which dumped the local-government property tax and set up a flat per-person levy. This gave the wealthy relief from high property taxes and sought to make up the revenue shortfall with increased taxes on the poor.

From the outset, resistance to the poll tax was intense throughout Britain. Collection rates and revenues fell drastically. The tax inspired Britain's largest protest rally ever last year and sparked a riot in the heart of London in which 417 people were injured.

The impact of the poll tax has been so damaging -- fiscally and politically -- that the Conservatives under Prime Minister John Major announced this year that it would be replaced by a property-based tax again.

But the poll tax won't be gone for another 1 1/2 years. And oddly, as it fades, resistance to it grows -- especially in Scotland, where it was imposed a full year ahead of the rest of Britain.

"Collection has not been so good," said Archie Gillespie -- with understatement.

Mr. Gillespie, a big man with a big voice, bald and red-faced, with cottony hair around his ears, is the director of finance of the Strathclyde Regional Council, which covers all western Scotland and includes 1.8 million taxpayers.

He and Mr. Mullin, chairman of the council's finance committee, are the people responsible for collecting local taxes.

Last year, 26 percent of their taxpayers paid no poll tax. The first year it was imposed -- 1988-1989 -- only 11 percent failed to pay.

The per-head amount for this year was set at $495 but was later reduced to $303. Nobody expects that to help.

The sheriffs are active throughout Scotland. Household goods have been seized for non-payment in about 21,000 cases. It's about all the authorities can do. Unlike in the rest of Britain, citizens cannot be jailed in Scotland for not paying the poll tax.

Mr. Gillespie says that poll tax resisters fall into four categories: those too poor to pay, a large group of economic opportunists (those who see others not paying and join in), those who decline to pay because they believe that the law is unjust and a group Mr. Gillespie describes as "basically revolutionaries."

The first two groups are by far the largest, the second two by far the most intense.

Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Mullin agree on the uniqueness of the Scottish resistance.

So does Tommy Sheridan, 27, who leads the storefront Anti-Poll Tax Federation.

"Scotland, as a country, has a sense of national oppression," Mr. Sheridan said. "This sense of nationalism adds an extra tinge of revolt to all this."

The newspapers describe him as a Trotskyist. His language at least suggests aims that go beyond resistance to the poll tax: "I believe that Britain is a country where the economic and political decisions are taken by an increasing minority for the benefit of that minority.

"And I believe the system cannot be reformed -- it must be changed. If that makes me a revolutionary, so be it."

Asked why the federation continues its efforts so zealously now that the poll tax is being phased out, he explained, "The living body created a stench we couldn't live with. The dead body is worse."

Mr. Gillespie believes in the law, but the poll tax has not been easy for him. He seems troubled by what he regards as the unfairness of it all -- not just the tax, but also the way it was imposed, the timing, its relationship to other events.

"The tax was introduced in 1988 right after they [the Thatcher government] made deep cuts in the income tax at the top end of the income scale," he recalled.

Thus the well-off were handed a double deal: a big cut in income tax and a major break on the property tax, a major source of local government funds until it was replaced by the poll tax.

"The man on the street has a gut feeling for what is reasonable," said Mr. Gillespie. "People saw it as unfair."

Mr. Mullin elaborated in a soft voice.

"There are two factors here," he said. "The fact that the poll tax was introduced into Scotland a year ahead of England and Wales created a lot of resentment in people's minds. Scottish people felt that the Conservative Party had very little mandate in Scotland, and we felt we were being used as guinea pigs.

"It was also the only place where non-payment was the policy of a major party, well, a party as big at least as the Conservatives [in Scotland], the Scottish National Party."

The SNP reversed its position against payment only after the Major government declared in March that it would phase the tax out.

"The situation is worsening," Mr. Mullin said. "It has a snowball effect. Non-payment prompts non-payment. If things continue like this, we could be faced with an increase [in the tax levy] of 30 [percent] to 35 percent" to make up for the lost revenue.

Asked whether he expected the tax revolt to continue, he nodded and said softly, "Yes."

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