Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A poll tax, head tax, or capitation is a tax of a uniform, fixed amount per individual (as opposed to a percentage of income). Such taxes were important sources of revenue for many countries into the 19th century, but this is no longer the case. There are several famous cases of poll taxes in history, notably a tax formerly required for voting in parts of the United States that was often designed to disenfranchise African Americans, Native Americans, and whites of non-British descent, as well as two taxes levied by John of Gaunt and Margaret Thatcher in the fourteenth and twentieth centuries respectively.
The word poll is an English word that once meant "head", hence the name poll tax for a per-person tax. However, in the United States, the term has come to be used almost exclusively for a fixed tax applied to voting. Since "going to the polls" is a common idiom for voting (deriving, of course, from the fact that early voting involved head-counts), a new folk etymology has supplanted any knowledge of the phrase's true origins in America.
However, states sometimes made payment of a poll tax a pre-condition of the exercise of the right to vote. After the right to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern states enacted poll tax laws which often included a grandfather clause that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted to vote without paying the tax. These laws achieved the desired effect of disenfranchising African and Native Americans, as well as whites of non-British descent.
The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, outlawed the use of this tax (or any other tax) as a pre-condition in voting in Federal elections. A 1966 Supreme Court decision held that the poll tax as applied to state elections violated the equal protection clause of United States Constitution. Currently no state imposes a poll tax.
John of Gaunt, the regent of Richard II of England, levied his poll tax in 1380 to finance the war against France that was in progress. Each person aged over 15 was required to pay the amount of one shilling, which was a large amount then. This provoked the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, due in part to attempts to restore feudal conditions in rural areas.
The Community Charge was introduced by the government of Margaret Thatcher. In 1985, Thatcher decided to act upon a long standing aspiration to replace the rating system of local taxes (based on the notional rental value of a house). The proposed replacement that emerged from consultations within the Department of the Environment, primarily between Lord Rothschild, William Waldegrave and Kenneth Baker, and which secured Mrs Thatcher's strong support, was for a Community Charge. This was a fixed tax per adult resident, hence a poll tax, although there was a reduction for low-income people. This charged each person for the services they received in their community. Due to the amount of local taxes paid by businesses varying, and the amount of grant provided by central government to individual local authorities sometimes varying capriciously, there were dramatic differences in the amount charged between boroughs, with Conservative boroughs often charging less.
This proposal was contained in the Conservative Manifesto for the 1987 General Election. The legislation introducing the Community Charge was passed in 1988 and the new tax replaced the rates in Scotland from the start of the 1989/90 financial year and in England and Wales from the start of the 1990/91 financial year. The tax was not implemented in Northern Ireland, which continued, as it still does, to levy the rating system, despite some unionists calling for the province to have the same taxation system as the rest of the United Kingdom. That the tax was introduced in Scotland a year before England and Wales was another fatal political mistake for Thatcher - the already low support of her policies north of the border turned into even greater animosity, and planted seeds of distrust towards the Conservatives within the Scottish people which continues to haunt the Conservative Party to the present day.
It was thought to be unfair as the tax burden shifted from the estimated price of a house to the number of people living in it, with the perceived effect of shifting the tax burden from the rich to the poor. It did not help that Margaret Thatcher chose to champion the Community Charge herself and apparently chose to be both ruthless in imposing it and adamant that there would be no "U-turns" (reversals in policy).
Additional problems emerged when many of the tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than many earlier predictions. Some have argued that local councils saw the introduction of the new system of taxation as the opportunity to make significant increases in the amount taken, assuming (correctly) that it would be the originators of the new tax system and not its local operators who would be blamed.
The charge was bitterly opposed and people sought to protest through mass protests and autonomous local Anti Poll Tax Unions, often initiated by the Militant Tendency. In Scotland, where the tax was implemented first, the APTU's and the Militant Tendency called for mass non-payment. These calls rapidly gathered widespread support in Scotland and then in England and Wales, even though non-payment meant that people could be prosecuted.
As the charges began to rise up to 18 million people refused to pay and enforcement measures became increasingly draconian, unrest mounted and culminated in a number of riots. The most serious of these happened in London on March 31 1990, during a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, which more than 200,000 protesters attended (see also Poll tax riot).
Politicians of the governing Conservative Party came to the conclusion that their party was doomed to electoral defeat if the tax remained and that there was no prospect of its abandonment while Mrs Thatcher remained leader. This resulted in the success of a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine in demonstrating the untenability of her position (although in the actual vote of MPs Thatcher prevailed by a margin of 50 votes out of 370). On November 22 1990 Mrs Thatcher resigned and all three contenders to succeed her pledged to abandon the tax.
The successful candidate, John Major, appointed his defeated rival Michael Heseltine to the post of Environment Secretary responsible for replacing the Community Charge. In 1991 the Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont announced a raise in Value Added Tax from 15% to 17.5% to pay for giving everybody a £140 reduction in their bills. By the time of the 1992 General Election, legislation had been passed replacing Community Charge with the Council Tax from the start of the 1993/94 financial year.
The Council Tax strongly resembled the rating system that the Poll Tax had replaced. The main differences were that it was levied on capital value rather than notional rental value of a property, and that a 25% discount for single occupancy dwellings was introduced.
- Pictures by Paul Ross who witnessed the riot.
- The Battle that brought down Thatcher - a far-left perspective by the Trotskyite Militant Tendency.
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