Book Review:Misbegotten brainchild of an odd alliance

Failure in British Government: The Politics of the Poll Tax David Butler, Andrew Adonis and Tony Travers OUP, £7.99
Click to follow
This is the story of how an over-mighty prime minister and a pusillanimous cabinet combined to inflict the most foolish reform in recent times. It is well told but, as the title suggests, the book is also a polemic, and the weaker for it.

The horrors are well chronicled: the introduction of a new tax to 18 million people, many without an income; the administrative nightmare; the low yield to collection cost, the crass decision to drop dual running (the plan to phase in the poll tax while keeping the rates for a period), and much more.

Like much "history" the book ascribes too great an inevitability to the poll tax story. In fact the tax could have been pulled at any time (and, of course, a decision to scrap it was taken only months after its introduction, administratively the most difficult moment of all).

William Waldegrave could have thrown grit in the works had he voiced doubts early; but he was too wedded to the intellectual purity of the idea. Kenneth Baker could probably have halted the juggernaut in 1985-86. He certainly had early misgivings, refle c ted in his strong advocacy of a low initial charge and dual running. Nicholas Ridley in 1987 certainly could, had he not undergone an almost Pauline conversion to the idea soon after becoming Secretary of State for the Environment. And Chris Patten, appo inted in 1989, could probably have scotched it and given his leadership chances a fillip at the same time.

By then Mrs Thatcher was less dominant, and opposition to the tax was mounting on the back benches. Chris Patten's commitment to implement the poll tax in 1989 is curious in the light of his letter to the authors stating that the tax was "fundamentally

flawed and politically incredible", and it sits oddly with his defence that the Treasury wrecked the tax's chances by refusing him the massive cheques he demanded.

The trouble with this book is that the authors are a bit too eager to take a swipe at the Conservative Party, to support "plucky little" local government (whose ill-disciplined spending forced yet another review of local government finances in the first place), and to use the poll tax farrago to put their case for constitutional reform.

They are wrong to suggest that the Conservative Party had an "a priori hostility to local autonomy". Things were more complicated than that. Support for the poll tax was formed from an odd alliance of constitutionalists - whose aim was to reduce centralisation, restore a measure of local accountability and through it the credibility of local government and democracy - careerists, often wets seeking to dry out their CVs; and those such as Nick Ridley and possibly Mrs Thatcher, who probably did come to have the emasculation of local government as an objective.

The authors' support for constitutional reform goes beyond the desire to see an extension of local autonomy to the creation of "a local state". They tell us that the system of government itself, "system failure", was to blame for the poll tax monster in the beginning and imply that reform of the system could spare us another similar blunder.

This is nonsense. No doubt the present system could benefit from some reform (not least the Commons committee system) but no twiddling of the constitutional dials, neither "checks and balances" systems, nor PR, nor any other wheeze can protect countries from monumental blunders. Of course a system can be devised that generates so much immobilism that almost any radical reform is difficult. But such a constitution would have denied us privatisation, council house sales, the reform of the unions, and manymore good reforms besides. Doing nothing can also be a disaster, as can paralysing constitutions.

Nor did "the system" completely fail. British democracy relies heavily on the party system and at least party democracy functioned. The party political system ditched the poll tax along with its principal architect, who is now relegated to writing memoirs. True, only Mrs Thatcher went, while her poll tax lieutenants mostly rose to higher things: it is a quirk of British politics that peccadilloes rather than policy blunders seem more likely to bring down ministers. It was the neglect of concerns of hundreds of Conservative MPs, responding to cries of anguish in their constituencies, that created the conditions in which Sir Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech could light the leadership contest touch-paper. That the Tory party itself did not also pay the price with electoral defeat is partly a reflection of the vacuity of Labour's ideas in the Eighties and Nineties.

The cost of the poll-tax saga has been very high: an unsung success of John Major's is that it was not much higher. One of the most important reforming governments of this century lost its momentum, confidence and an aura of competence; it is still struggling to regain it. The sheer cost of the bail-outs put the public finances out of kilter; the switch from rates to the poll tax put a point on headline inflation. All this contributed to the need for rises in taxation in the early Nineties, made runningthe economy more difficult, and deepened and prolonged the recession, casting a shadow over the free-enterprise, low-tax revolution for which the Conservatives have argued over the last 20 years. Perhaps the greatest casualty of the poll tax was not MrsThatcher but Thatcherism itself.

Comments