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Poll Tax at a Glance

Poll Tax at a Glance

Poll Tax at a Glance

In 1989, the British Conservative government introduced the poll tax, also known as the community charge, which had an immediate impact on household finances. The tax replaced the previous system where local government levies were based on the value of properties in the area. The poll tax was based on the number of people in a household, which meant that everyone in a household, including students and children, had to pay the same amount, regardless of their income or assets. This article takes a closer look at the poll tax and its impact on British society.


The poll tax had been designed to be fairer, as it reduced the burden on homeowners, who had previously been paying a higher proportion of the local government levies, in comparison to renters or people living in social housing. Whereas it was intended to make taxation more equitable, by the time it was abolished in 1993, it had resulted in widespread protests and civil unrest.

Origins of the poll tax

The origins of the poll tax go back to the Middle Ages when the government used it to raise money for wars. At that time, it was levied on adults who were not clergy or nobility. It was based on the concept that everyone had something to contribute towards the welfare of the country, regardless of their social class. By the seventeenth century, the poll tax began to fall out of favour, as it was perceived as being too regressive. It was replaced by property-based taxes, which were seen to be fairer to those who owned less.

The return of the poll tax

The concept of a poll tax was resurrected by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s. In her view, the property-based system meant that renters or people living in high value homes were not paying their fair share of taxation. She believed that a flat rate poll tax would solve this issue by making everyone pay the same amount, regardless of their income or assets. It would also reduce the number of households which were claiming for rebates; therefore, making the system simpler and fairer.

The implementation of the poll tax

The implementation of the poll tax began in April 1990. The tax replaced the previous system, which had been in place for almost two decades. The amount of tax that each household had to pay was based on a figure equal to 20% of the average charge in their local area. This meant that in some areas, the poll tax was higher than the previous local government levies, and in some areas, it was lower. The poll tax replaced a previous system that linked taxes to the value of people’s homes, which made the tax system more complex and unfair. The intention of the poll tax was to be a simpler and fairer system, which would reduce tax evasion.

The impact of the poll tax on different groups of people

The poll tax turned out to be a highly regressive system, with those on low incomes paying a higher proportion of their income on tax than those on higher incomes. The new system also resulted in a significant increase in the number of people who were exempt from paying any tax at all. The poll tax had a significant impact on women, who were often the primary caregivers in a household. Women who were in low-paid or part-time work were disproportionately affected by the tax, as they were more likely to be living in households where there were more than one adult paying the poll tax.

The poll tax also penalised those with large families, as they had to pay more than a single person living alone, or a couple without children. This resulted in people re-arranging their living arrangements, with students deciding to live in separate apartments, rather than sharing a house in order to reduce their tax burden. Families with teenage children were similarly impacted, with the children now requiring their own poll tax contribution, even if they were earning only part-time wages.

The Poll Tax Riots

The poll tax was a fundamentally unpopular tax, and from the moment it was implemented, opposition to it grew rapidly. The first protests were reported in Scotland, which had been one of the first regions to implement the tax. The protests grew in scale and intensity when the tax was introduced in England and Wales in 1990. These protests culminated in the Poll Tax Riots, which took place on March 31, 1990, in central London.

The violence was initiated by a relatively small group of people, who began throwing bricks, paving stones, and bottles at the police. The police responded with batons and horse charges, which only escalated the violence. As the day progressed, the situation became more chaotic, with shops being looted, cars set on fire, and public buildings attacked. The police were overwhelmed, and it took several hours for order to be restored, with over a thousand people being arrested.

The aftermath of the poll tax

The Poll Tax Riots were a turning point in the opposition to the poll tax. The government had initially anticipated that the tax would be broadly accepted, as it reduced the financial burden on homeowners. However, the tax became so unpopular that it was abolished in 1993. In its place, a new system called council tax was introduced, which relied on property values to calculate the amount of tax payable. This was seen as a fairer system, as it recognised the link between property value and people’s ability to pay tax.


The poll tax was a failed experiment in taxation policy. It was implemented with the best of intentions, to reduce the complexity of the tax system and make it fairer. But its regressive nature, and the impact it had on vulnerable groups in society, meant that it became deeply unpopular. Although it only lasted for four years, it had a profound and lasting legacy. It demonstrated that tax policy cannot be purely based on concepts of fairness or simplicity. It also needs to take into account the complex and varied nature of British society, and the political realities it faces.

The legacy of the poll tax can be seen in the continuing debates around taxation policy in Britain. The poll tax riots demonstrated that people would take to the streets if they felt that tax policy was unfair. The council tax system, which replaced the poll tax, has itself come under increasing criticism, as it is based on property values, and therefore, is affected by regional variations in the housing market. Taxation policy, like all policy issues, is an ongoing process of debate and compromise, of balancing competing interests and values. The poll tax was a failure, but it has also provided lessons that we can learn from as we continue to shape our society and economy.

The poll tax was imposed on a per head basis, sometimes at differing amounts for different people, for those that wished to vote. The poll tax was considered very discriminatory, as it imposed higher taxes on certain groups of people. In addition, the wealthy often had an easy time affording the poll tax, whereas the poor were often unable to pay it all.

In the United States, the poll tax would be applied, even when individuals could not afford it. Those that were unable to pay the tax were often forced into hard labor to pay the tax. However, in locations where the poll tax is still in use, the rules which regulate the poll tax may differ and in most cases, it is simply imposed on a per head basis.

The Jim Crow laws which allowed for the poll tax, were implemented in the late nineteenth century. The creation of the poll tax may have been imposed in order to prevent non whites from voting, after they had just been granted the legal right to vote.

In addition, to make even it harder for non whites to vote, many states enacted an exemption to those that had voted previous to the law going into effect or those that had parents that voted previous to the law. In this way, only non whites and Native Americans were subjected to the poll tax, often making it impossible for them to vote.