Monday, 8 April 2013

Maybe the Poll Tax was a good idea after all!

When I was a kid I used to leave the tap running while I brushed my teeth. Living in London in the 1960s, ecology was mere frogspawn struggling to hatch in the raging river of Cold War paranoia.
Nowadays I’d find impossible to concentrate on brushing my Hampsteads if the tap was gushing good clean water down the drain. Even if it’s flushing fluoridated dodgy water, it’s still a waste.

At that same young age, I complained about having to eat my greens. In return, I received lectures from Dad about the starving people of Africa that made no sense to me at all. Yes, Dad, but they’re not going to get this cabbage if I don’t eat it, are they?

Then I travelled and saw women carrying huge containers of water for miles across baked scrubland. It made me feel incredibly lucky to have water on tap at home, but even that didn’t really change my behaviours.

When you fly low over Ireland you look down on an almighty puddle, out of which occasionally rise green bits, so it’s absurd that while living here I’ve started to feel conscious of wasting water. Maybe 
 I’m just such a contrary sod that I had to find a flooded country to begin to value and care about water.

Soon enough we’ll all be thinking about water, because we’ll be paying for our usage. The outrage the Irish are feeling about all these new taxes reminds me of Thatcher’s Community Charge, or Poll Tax as it was known by everyone but herself.

The British are used to paying taxes for the common good. When Aneurin Bevan introduced the world’s first health service, the Brits were happy and proud to pay their collective contributions. However, they found something inherently offensive about the Poll Tax. It appeared to be a tax on life itself.

Then, just like Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Thatcher went and spoilt it all by trying it out on Scotland first. It was a stupid decision on many levels. The Tories’ electoral presence north of Hadrian’s Wall has never been more significant than a grouse’s poop on a highland moor. Aside from that, it’s no secret that the Scots have never felt affectionate to their southern neighbours, and have built a justice system of their own that dwarfs the English in its compassion and understanding. You cannot go to jail in Scotland for non-payment of a fine.

So naturally the Scots refused to pay this Poll Tax, imposed upon them from distant Westminster (ringing any Irish bells?), and inspired the English to respond similarly. Campaigns of non-cooperation sprouted up all over the England. One of the most effective was a nationwide effort that created tens of thousands of false identities, for whom Community Charge registration forms were submitted. We were all at it, filing on behalf of Mr. Bun the baker, Mr. Banky Fatcat, Maria Julie-Andrews and good old Elsie Boadicea.

It screwed up the government database and made the tax unworkable.

In many ways the fight brought out the best in us. Before the bailiffs came to a house on my street in Bradford, all the neighbours carried our TVs and Hi-Fis outside, leaving them in a great big pile in the middle of the road, so that there was no way ‘the boys’ could identify who owned what, leaving them unable to take away anyone’s gear.

Then came a game-changer, in the form of what’s now known as the Poll Tax Riot. In many ways the English middle-classes are as conservative with a small C as the Irish middle classes, but we differ from you in one significant manner. Possibly it’s the legacy of Empire that gives the English the courage and will to fight back, while the Irish are still loathe to lift their heads above the parapets (unless Tony Blair is coming to Dublin for a book signing, when you all go completely mental).

My oh my, it was an incredible and wonderful sight to see. Daily Mail readers marched alongside the SWP and the Anarchists, trashing Trafalgar Square. The world looked on as witness to Thatcher’s greatest error of judgment: don’t go taxing life itself.
Successive Irish governments have broken our lives down into taxable chunks, and come up with the Household Charge, the Water Tax, the Property Tax, the Universal Social Charge and the Bank Levy. 

Then, in the dead of night, like a hot poker stabbed in eye of every penniless pensioner, they somehow managed to get away with raising each item on a prescription from 50c to €1.50. Considering the size of the increase, there was barely an audible whisper of protest.

They’ve chopped life up into more taxes than you could throw a Molotov cocktail at, so what are we going to do?

Are we going to use less water? Live in smaller houses? Should we even have to consider such things, given the crushing inequities that exist in these new taxes? Unfairness breeds in universal payments like cholera in a sewer.

Clearly, if we want to enjoy the benefits of modern life, we have to pay for it. So what is the cost of our civilisation, and are we right to resist the idea of paying for it?

We have some serious questions to ask ourselves. Taking money from the weakest cannot be right. Such injustice has to stop. But if we want water to come out of the tap, roads to drive on, hospitals to care for us, we have to pay for it.

What if the government was completely honest, and introduced a single Life Tax, that incorporated every single charge. With a sliding scale based on ability to pay, from those completely exempt to the super-rich, we’d know where we stood, and even if that was up to the top of our wellies in dung, we’d know what we were paying for.

Uh-ho, looks like a Poll Tax isn’t such a bad idea, but don’t tell anyone I said so.

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