Major Prepares to Scrap Poll Tax

Most Conservatives felt fee, introduced by Thatcher, was so unpopular that it had to go

IN another indication that the Thatcher era is drawing to a close, the ruling Conservative Party will announce later this week that the highly unpopular poll tax will be scrapped. The expected decision to scuttle one of Margaret Thatcher's flagship reforms will be John Major's first domestic political break with his predecessor.

Downing Street appears uncertain over what will replace the poll tax.

But critics of the new system of local government taxation, who now include a majority of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs), say nothing short of its total abolition will appease the anger of the country.

That anger, which has started to take its toll on the Conservative Party, has been building ever since 1987, when Mrs. Thatcher decided to replace a property tax with the poll tax in order to fund local government.

Based on the principle that every resident over the age of 18 should pay something toward street cleaning, libraries, and social services, the poll tax became the centerpiece of Thatcher's third term in office.

Unlike the old system of rates, where only those who owned property contributed to the running of local government, under the poll tax, everybody is obliged to pay the same fixed amount set by their local politicians.

This meant that a wealthy single person living in a country estate would pay the same amount as an unemployed father living in subsidized housing in the same district. His wife and any children over the age of 18 would also have to pay.

People were told when the community charge was introduced, their annual bill would be between 100 and 200 pounds ($185 and $365). Today the average poll tax is around 400 pounds ($730).

Mass protests against tax

When the tax was introduced, critics argued it was a politically motivated decision to discredit high-spending local governments, many of which are Labor Party controlled.

But some Conservative districts have also set poll tax bills of more than 400 pounds, and dissatisfaction has reached TORY voters.

As the day approached for introduction of the new tax in Scotland, where it was to be installed a year before England and Wales, there were mass demonstrations.

More trouble came when local governments attempted to force people to pay the new tax. Thousands of people were taken to court.

But nothing could have prepared the government for the violence that erupted in London a year ago. The anti-poll-tax demonstration in Trafalgar Square was the worst riot this century.

By last November, the tax was so discredited that all three of Thatcher's potential Conservative Party successors included a review of the poll tax as a major plank of their campaign.

For many Conservatives, the final straw for the poll tax came just over a week ago with the defeat of their party at a by-election in northwest England. The Liberal Democrats won what was the Conservative's 10th safest constituency in Britain in a contest dominated by the poll tax.

"Unless the poll tax goes, we are in dead trouble," a Conservative MP said shortly after the by-election defeat.

This Thursday's expected announcement about the future of the tax and its replacement comes after mounting pressure from Tory MPs for an early decision on the tax to leave open the possibility of a June election.

Details of its replacement are not expected to be ready on Thursday, but it is widely believed that the government will return to some form of a property tax.

As Mr. Major prepares to make his biggest break so far with the policies of his predecessor, Thatcher loyalists are alarmed.

For the Thatcherite right of the Conservative Party, the poll tax has become the touchstone of keeping faith with Thatcher's values.

There has even been talk around Westminster of back-bench protests and ministerial resignations if the basic principle is abolished.

Thatcherites fight back

This week's launch of Conservative Way Forward, a right-wing pressure group within the party, will strengthen efforts by the Tory right to resist replacing the tax.

The new group will work to keep the Thatcherite torch burning brightly by mobilizing support in the party for her ideas and values.

The group's six-page prospectus, to be read out at a House of Commons news conference on Thursday, will state: "Conservative Way Forward has been founded to keep alive her vision and build upon these ideals in the Conservative Party."

But restoring the Thatcher legacy won't be easy. Since taking office in November, Major has signaled a change in style and substance from his predecessor on a number of issues.

Many Tory MPs say Major's commitment to European integration, a socially responsible market economy, and above all to finding a substitute for the poll tax threatens to split the Conservative Party.

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