Why I'm proud, and glad, that I broke the law

Click to follow
'WE CAN stop them]' That was the motto of the anti-poll tax campaigners. And they did stop them. A great deal has been said and written, especially after the anti-climax of the April general election, about public apathy and the weakness of the democratic nerve. But I am interested in that recent battle which the people did win.

Last week, I was sent a booklet called Cause to Be Proud (Gecko Press, Edinburgh, pounds 3.50). It is the story of the Broughton/Inverleith Anti-Poll Tax Group in Edinburgh. It describes a rather typical local group, judging by my own experience: no Militant cell topped up by rent-a-mob, but a spontaneous coalition of old and young, Labour, Nationalist, Communist, Trot (lapsed), and Green. Those were the sort of people who came to my own rescue when the Sheriff's officers came to 'poind' my belongings for compulsory sale because I was refusing to pay the tax. At the top levels of the Anti-Poll Tax Federation there was certainly faction and ideology. But down at the base, where it mattered, action was spontaneous.

The Broughton campaigners preface their booklet with something written by the Scottish journalist Ian Bell. He wrote it in March 1991, on the eve of abolition: 'If the poll tax is dead, it was killed by non-payment, a tactic which each of the main parties insisted was pointless and wrong . . . This weekend, each and every one of those non-payers should feel proud of themselves. Whether or not they were capable of paying hardly matters now. The alliance between the poor and the prosperous in the effort to sabotage an immoral law proved, first, that such a thing could be done, and, second, that Westminster has no monopoly over the people's voice . . . It was left to a ragtag army of ordinary people to destroy a bad law.'

Yes, that is how it was. And that is why this episode has already been buried under a layer of disinformation and historical lying. It is still a rather thin layer, for the briefest survey demonstrates the injustice and cruelty of this tax's operation today - eight months before it disappears for ever. Cause to be Proud remarks that pounds 538m of tax remained unpaid in Scotland alone at the end of May. Local authorities - some Labour-governed - are targeting the poor in their desperate efforts to find the missing cash. Strathclyde Region has applied for 60,000 'attachments' to income support: in other words, has demanded the right in 60,000 cases to subtract the poll tax from those whose incomes are already so low that they are subsidised by the state. Many of these applications, it's fair to say, will be refused by the Department of Social Security, but 23,000 are already in force.

The big lie is that the decision to withdraw the tax had nothing to do with what happened in the streets. The big lie is that seasoned politicians and their economic advisers weighed the evidence and reached an independent conclusion that the Community Charge was 'fatally flawed', as the phrase was. 'No, no,' they say with a condescending little laugh, 'the marching and demonstrating and rioting in Trafalgar Square had nothing to do with it. Quite the contrary.'

But it was not the political class that killed the tax. It was the combination of spontaneous active resistance with mass refusal to pay which did the trick. Indeed, it achieved something even larger. Public resistance collided with the apparently immovable object of Margaret Thatcher, who was not prepared to abandon her tax. This condemned her party to pay the political bill at the next elections - unless they could find a new leader. It was that rather than the final crisis over her attitude to Europe which made Mrs Thatcher's assassination necessary.

The British system, which remains an authoritarian oligarchy, cannot admit that extra-parliamentary pressure can move it. I have seen this several times in my life. We are taught that a combination of American pressure and Harold Macmillan's opportunism stopped the Suez operation in 1956, but the truth is that half the population was so outraged that Britain would have become ungovernable within days if the war had gone on. British, and indeed American, defence policy in the early 1960s was modified by fear (exaggerated, perhaps) of what the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament could do. Nearer our own day, we are asked to believe that Gorbachev invented perestroika because Nato deployed Cruise and Pershing II in western Europe. The truth is that the scale and passion of protests against deployment in Britain and Germany unnerved governments in both London and Bonn, and that the Soviet Union had a shrewd idea that the West would jump at a chance to negotiate those missiles away again. The people do count, even between elections.

We are limping towards the 20th year of Thatcherism, now visible in the distance. The lady was right to say that 'Majorism' is a nothing. The essentials of her regime (as she used to call it) remain in place, and central to them is the idea of a two-thirds/one-third society stabilised - as the ball-and-chain used to stabilise the convict - by mass unemployment. In J K Galbraith's new book, The Culture of Contentment, he shows the importance to this project of persuading the 'contented' majority that the discontented have only themselves to blame for their poverty and exclusion. That is the significance of the term 'underclass' which is being wished on us. It replaces the notion of social victims with the notion of wilful parasites financing their drugs and burglaries on welfare payments. Cut the support, and the long-term unemployed, the rioters and the jobless single mothers will fade away.

The wickedness and blindness of this analysis, still pursued by our neo-Thatcherite Government, is not my point. The recession will go on eating society away for a long time yet, an epidemic in which the death of one economic particle fatally infects three more particles next to it. (This, by the way, is that 'Poisoned Chalice' theory which economic journalists started talking about in the mid-Eighties: the terrible inheritance awaiting whichever party won power in the early 1990s). My question is what the bottom third is going to do about it.

In her 1991 essay, The Poll Tax: Flagship or Folly?, Susanne MacGregor wrote that the tax's operation was intended to be seen as arbitrary, chaotic and unjust. 'Those adversely affected by it, especially the swathe of new young voters, were to be completely turned away from the idea that it is possible to have fair, decent, well-organised responsible public services, and from the idea that it is possible to influence government through following the normal procedures of discussion and complaint.'

In other words, the poll tax was part of an invitation to stay out of politics and riot instead - as an 'underclass' should. The invitation still stands, and this summer there have been some acceptances. But it must be rejected. Ian Bell saw this when he wrote about 'an alliance between the poor and the prosperous' against a bad law. The fight to make subjects into citizens goes on, and democracy makes no exclusions.