Douglas Mason

Local councillor known as the 'father of the poll tax'

Douglas Mason was one of the backroom intellectual dynamos of the Thatcher revolution. Although best known as the "father of the poll tax", he was a prolific innovator of free- market, libertarian policy ideas, and an energetic writer of articles, speeches and reports on a wide range of economic and social policy issues.

Douglas Calder Mason, writer, speechwriter and antiquarian bookseller: born Dunfermline, Fife 30 September 1941; died Kirkcaldy, Fife 13 December 2004.

Douglas Mason was one of the backroom intellectual dynamos of the Thatcher revolution. Although best known as the "father of the poll tax", he was a prolific innovator of free- market, libertarian policy ideas, and an energetic writer of articles, speeches and reports on a wide range of economic and social policy issues.

Mason was born in Dunfermline, Fife, in 1941, but brought up in Bradford, and educated at Bradford Grammar School. On leaving school, he returned to Scotland, taking a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology at St Andrews University. He made Fife his home for the rest of his life.

At St Andrews, however, Mason was not a very willing science student. He found the worlds of debating and politics much more absorbing. He became one of the leading lights of the student Conservative Association, helping to infuse it with a robust anti-interventionism and belief in thoroughgoing personal and economic freedom. During the time he was involved, the association published pamphlets calling for the sale of the Post Office; for the legalisation of the offshore "pirate" broadcasting stations; abolishing exchange controls; and ending council-house subsidies.

Though these ideas were thought shocking by the centrist Tory leaders such as Edward Heath, the St Andrews Conservatives soon established themselves as a formidably coherent intellectual force; and eventually, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, its ideas came to dominate.

Some part of this turn-around is due to Douglas Mason's persuasive skill as a debater, his keen interest in argument and ideas, and his enormous output of well-argued, principled letters and articles to the newspapers and in magazines. He helped convince generations of students and politicians about the merits of the free market and the free society. Indeed, an unusual number of the St Andrews students that he debated his ideas with would end up as MPs and ministers - including Michael Fallon, Michael Forsyth and Allan Stewart.

On leaving St Andrews, Mason settled just a short distance away in Kirkcaldy, appropriately the birthplace of one of his heroes, the pioneering free-market economist Adam Smith. Never one to value the high life, he set up a modest business dealing in antiquarian books and prints, and became a Conservative Party secretary, and then agent, in Fife.

At this time, Mason put to work a number of (at the time) innovative electioneering techniques designed to identify one's own supporters and get them all to vote. Mason himself was elected to the Fife County Council, serving from 1967 to 1970, and later to the Kirkcaldy District Council, 1974-88. In 1983, he contested the safe Labour seat of Central Fife for the Conservatives, though without any real desire or expectation of getting into Parliament. For him, politicians were just a vehicle to promote libertarian ideas: his own skill was as a backroom fixer and thinker.

Indeed, this part of his career was blooming. In 1982-83, he led the Adam Smith Institute's "Omega Project" report on Local Government Policy, arguing for the compulsory contracting-out of most local services such as refuse collection. It also proposed scrapping the existing local-government tax (the "rates") in favour of a per-capita charge - dubbed the "poll tax".

The anomalies of the old rates system were causing unrest. Assessed on property values, the rates caused particular distress to pensioners, whose families had grown up and left, but who could not face the upheaval of moving out of their family home. The problem was particularly acute in Scotland, where valuation changes had landed some people with very large increases in their bills. And, since a minority actually paid the rates, the majority had every incentive to vote for high-spending local authorities, like Derek Hatton's radical Labour group in Liverpool.

Mason reflected on various alternatives, including a local sales tax and a local income tax. But he concluded that an equal charge on all residents was the fairest method. After all, people consumed local services roughly equally; we all pay the same price for milk, so why should we pay differently for refuse collection? If some people could not afford the charge, then the national welfare system should help them pay it, just as it helps people pay for groceries.

Following the 1985 publication of Mason's report Revising the Rating System, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, made the policy her own. However, Mason was distressed at how the politicians introduced it. For example, many local authorities saw the change in local tax systems as an opportunity to increase local revenues by setting the Community Charge (as it was now called) very high. A revaluation, postponed for many years, made bills even bigger for some. The Thatcher government was blamed for the increases and its eventual U-turn was seen as fatally weakening the Iron Lady.

Distress at how they had misconceived his policy simply confirmed Mason's views on politicians, and he continued to pour out ideas on other fronts. His 1986 report Time to Call Time charted the success of Scotland's newly liberalised alcohol licensing regime, and called for the same in England - a policy adopted a few years later. His pointing up of the absurdities of regulation in Licensed to Live (1988) - such as the fact that artists' models needed a licence to pose nude in England but not in Scotland - made the Conservatives, and now Labour, set up reviews to reduce the proliferation of red tape.

Less successfully, his paper The Last Post (1991) called for the privatisation of the Royal Mail, and Ex Libris (1986) made the case that public libraries would be better in private hands too. Another paper argued for the privatisation of the Forestry Commission.

Apart from cider - he kept a barrel of it at home - and ideas, Mason's other passions were traditional jazz and science fiction. He put together one of the world's biggest collections of science fiction, including rare runs of Astounding and other magazines. Every corner of his small house was stacked with books.

After collapsing in 1989 at the gates of the House of Commons, where he was an adviser to the ministers Michael (now Lord) Forsyth and Allan Stewart, Mason struggled to match his output of the 1980s. He died at home in Kirkcaldy after a long struggle with a cerebral tumour.

Eamonn Butler



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