Noon, Saturday October 2nd 2004, Whitehall Place, London. Be there. We are marching, us oldies, against the iniquities of the council tax and I have decided to go along and see what a protest march is like. I have a mild regret that it is unlikely to turn violent (nothing like a good riot to make you feel horny, they say). The idea of a few thousand pensioners being bombarded with rubber bullets, or beaten up from horseback by the cavalry of the Metropolitan Police, is appealing from the point of view of its publicity value for our cause but not realistic. We are, after all, the mostly silent, law-abiding, soft touch majority who are the fall guys of New Labour politics. We pay our television licences even if we never watch BBC programmes, tax and insure our cars and keep them roadworthy, we accept the lottery of the National Health Service (chance of getting MRSA one in twenty and rising), accept that pensions are linked to prices not earnings, put up with the culture of yoof, accept the rule and ubiquitous influence of the Scots - we will surely pay for their boondoggle new parliament building as well - but we draw the line at paying the wealth tax.
Long ago local taxes were called rates. ‘What do we pay the rates for?’ was the familiar cry from anyone who found that council services did not deliver what they thought they should. Rates were based, for no good reason that anyone could ever discover, on the notional value of your house expressed as what you could let it for, should you for some again unexplained reason not need to live in it. It was clear to everyone that this was a tax on wealth, notional wealth at that, theoretical wealth until you had paid off your mortgage, wealth that was unrealisable unless you sold up and emigrated, and that it bore no relation to ability to pay or to the number of people in a household who might contribute. Given that a Tory government had ruled for most of the time since World War 2, one had to ask: since when did the Conservatives favour a wealth tax?
The only politician who could see sense on the issue was Margaret Thatcher, who introduced the Community Charge, payable by everyone on the electoral roll. You could dodge it only by disenfranchising yourself, so it became known as the poll tax. Sadly, it was the one reform she failed to make stick. Her mistake was to try it out on the Scots, long over-represented at Westminster and subsidised by England, at a time of resurgent Scottish nationalism. The result was some of the most violent riots seen in Britain for many years and the replacement of the poll tax with the council tax. This differs from rates only in name and in the more formal valuation of your house, and it has been going up recently at an average nine percent a year, more in the more profligate councils. Unless something is done the council tax will, within some people’s lifetimes, absorb their entire state pension.
Noon, Saturday October 2nd 2004, Whitehall Place, London. Be there.