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Poll tax

A poll tax is a tax of a uniform, fixed amount per individual (as opposed to a percentage of income). Such taxes were important sources of revenue for many countries into the 19th century, but this is no longer the case. There are several famous cases of poll taxes in history, notably a tax formerly required for voting in parts the United States that was often designed to disenfranchise African Americans, as well as two taxes levied by John of Gaunt and Margaret Thatcher in the fourteenth and twentieth centuries respectively.

The word poll is an English word that also means "head", hence the name poll tax for a per-person tax. However, in the United States, the term has come to be used almost exclusively for a fixed (poll) tax applied to voting (now illegal).

United States

In the United States, the poll tax was a tax to be paid before one could vote. Often it was included with a "grandfather clause" that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather voted to vote without paying the tax. This had the intended effect and result of disenfranchising African Americans.

The Twenty-fourth Amendment outlawed the use of this tax in Federal elections. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions voided the poll tax in state elections as a violation of the equal protection clause of United States Constitution.

United Kingdom

John of Gaunt, the regent of Richard II of England, levied his poll tax in 1380 to finance the war against France that was in progress. Each person aged over 15 was required to pay the amount of one shilling, which was a large amount then. This provoked the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, due in part to attempts to restore feudal conditions in rural areas.

In 1985, Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, decided to act upon a long standing aspiration to replace the rating system of local taxes (based on the notional rental value of a house). The proposed replacement that emerged from consultations within the Department of the Environment, primarily between Lord Rothschild, William Waldegrave and Kenneth Baker, and which secured Mrs Thatcher's strong support, was for a Community Charge. This was a fixed tax per adult resident, hence a poll tax, although there was an exemption for low-income people.

This proposal was contained in the Conservative Manifesto for the 1987 General Election. The legislation introducing the Community Charge was passed in 1988 and the new tax replaced the rates in Scotland from the start of the 1989/90 financial year and in England and Wales from the start of the 1990/91 financial year.

It was thought to be unfair as the tax burden shifted from the estimated price of a house to the number of people living in it, with the perceived effect of shifting the tax burden from the rich to the poor. It did not help that Margaret Thatcher chose to champion the Community Charge herself and apparently chose to be both ruthless in imposing it and adamant that there would be no "U-turns" (reversals in policy).

The charge was bitterly opposed and people sought to protest through mass protests and through not paying it so they would be prosecuted in a manner close to Gandhi's Passive Resistance.

However as the charges began to rise, and enforcement measures became increasingly draconian, unrest mounted and culminated in a number of riots. The most serious of these happened in London on March 31 1990, and started during a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, which 300,000 protestors had attended (see also Poll tax riot).

Politicians of the governing Conservative party came to the conclusion that their party was doomed to electoral defeat if the tax remained and that there was no prospect of its abandonment while Mrs Thatcher remained leader. This resulted in the success of a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine in demonstrating the untenability of her position (although in the actual vote of MPs Thatcher prevailed by a margin of 50 votes out of 370). On November 22 1990 Mrs Thatcher resigned and all three contenders to succeed her pledged to abandon the tax.

The successful candidate, John Major, appointed his defeated rival Michael Heseltine to the post of Environment Secretary responsible for replacing the Community Charge. By the time of the 1992 General Election, legislation had been passed replacing Community Charge with the Council Tax from the start of the 1993/94 financial year.

The Council Tax strongly resembled the rating system that the Poll Tax had replaced. The main differences were that it was levied on capital value rather than notional rental value of a property, and that a 25% discount for single occupancy dwellings was introduced.

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