Scotland politics

Cabinet files: Ministers thought poll tax was 'proceeding smoothly'

Poll tax protest in Glasgow

UK ministers believed implementation of the poll tax in Scotland was "proceeding smoothly" in its early weeks, previously secret papers show.

Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind told the cabinet in April 1989 that the number of people who would refuse to pay would be "relatively small" north of the border.

Just 20 months later, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resigned.

Sir Malcolm now admits that non-payment UK-wide contributed to her downfall.

The cabinet papers also show that defence chiefs approved plans to shoot intruders at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde after activists broke into the control room of a nuclear submarine.

The security lapse left Mrs Thatcher "utterly horrified".

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Media captionPoll tax 'not unwelcome' at first in Scotland

And they detail a row in government over funding for Gaelic television.

Chancellor Nigel Lawson opposed extra public funding because he did not want to "inflict more on a largely unwilling audience", a letter from his department shows.

But Sir Malcolm lobbied successfully for government cash to increase Gaelic provision.

The files have been published at the National Archives in London under 30-year rules.

Final years

The poll tax - officially called the community charge - was introduced in Scotland a year before it was rolled out UK-wide.

It became one of the most controversial policies of Mrs Thatcher's final years as prime minister.

Millions are thought to have refused to pay across the UK. Protests included a riot in London's Trafalgar Square in March 1990.

Image caption The poll tax sparked demonstrations when it was introduced in the early 1990s

Confidential cabinet papers show Sir Malcolm briefed colleagues, including Mrs Thatcher, on 20 April 1989 - three weeks after its introduction in Scotland.

The record of the meeting does not include direct quotes, but it summarises Sir Malcolm's contribution.

"The implementation of the new arrangements was proceeding smoothly, and the issue had almost completely disappeared from the press," it says.

"It would not be possible until the summer to form a clear view of how many people would refuse to pay… but present signs were that the number would be relatively small, though they might include some prominent names."

Sir Malcolm added that the main source of complaint was the cost for second homeowners - who he noted were facing considerably higher charges than they had under the previous system.

Other papers show Sir Malcolm opposed a cap on the amount which could be charged, despite support for the move from Mrs Thatcher and John Major.

Speaking following the release of the papers, Sir Malcolm told BBC Scotland that his initial assessment was "entirely accurate, based on what we were seeing at that particular stage".

"The reason why it was all going reasonably smoothly is worth remembering," he said.

"The whole demand for abolition of the old rating system had really begun in Scotland.

"People found the old rating system very, very objectionable, and therefore it is perhaps not surprising that all those people who wanted rates abolished were very pleased in the first phase when the community charge was introduced to replace it."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister in November 1990

It was announced in 1991 - less than three years after its introduction - that the poll tax would itself be replaced.

Sir Malcolm now says its introduction was a political mistake.

He said the domestic rates system had been seen as "grossly unfair", which had created "great pressure" to reform local government finance.

"I have no hesitation in retrospect in saying that the whole reform was a mistake, certainly a political mistake - but it wasn't the end of civilised life as we know it."

Also included in the files is correspondence between Chancellor Nigel Lawson and cabinet colleagues, in which he made clear his opposition to extra government money to increase the amount of Gaelic-language broadcasting in Scotland.

Image caption Nigel Lawson opposed funding for Gaelic broadcasting

He approved a letter in October 1988 highlighting commercial views that Gaelic programming led to a reduction in average viewing figures.

The letter adds: "This suggests there is little demand for the 100 hours of Gaelic TV broadcast at present. I do not believe we ought to inflict more on a largely unwilling audience."

He argued the issue should be left to market forces and had the backing of Mrs Thatcher in his general opposition to government grants.

But Sir Malcolm argued that the level of Gaelic broadcasting at the time was "pathetic". In an exchange of letters with senior ministers, he said the service was "unsatisfactory" and said improvement was "essential".

Sir Malcolm was eventually successful in getting approval for public funding of Gaelic television, though the money came from the Scotland Office's budget rather than the Home Office, which at the time had responsibility for broadcasting.

Scotland's heritage

Sir Malcolm told BBC Scotland: "I took the view that Gaelic was an indigenous Scottish language.

"It might only be a tiny number of people who spoke it, but if it wasn't given the kind of support through broadcasting that was being suggested, the whole language could wither away and part of Scotland's heritage would disappear with it.

"The sums that were required were not substantial. We could afford them within the Scottish block which I had discretion to deal with, but I had to put it through my colleagues.

"At first there was resistance, but we overcame that."

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