Monday 8 September 2008

Principles and opportunism

Michael Portillo was not the architect of the poll tax fiasco, although he caught a lot of the blame. Thatcher was the architect; Portillo merely had the misfortune to accept the job of local government minister just after the tax was introduced into England. It was the poll tax which ultimately did so much to damage its architect; and it didn't help Portillo himself a great deal either, despite the fact that he did much of the work on replacing it.

At the time, Portillo told us all how wonderful the tax was, but reading between the lines of his article in the Sunday Times yesterday, I suspect that he knew all along how foolish it was; he just wasn't allowed to say so. It's probably a lot more common that we might think for government ministers to be fully aware that they're doing the wrong thing, whilst saying the opposite in public - what's unusual is the hint of an admission.

In any event, Portillo actually makes it quite clear ("I am convinced that an income tax supplement must be part of any equitable local tax system") that he thinks that a local income tax should be an essential part of the way in which we pay for local government. It's nice to see that he's come round to what Plaid have been saying for many years, which is that a tax based on ability to pay will always be fairer than a tax based on the value of the property in which someone lives.

He makes the statement in the context of the story last week about the SNP's determination to push ahead with scrapping council tax and replacing it with a local income tax. Now I'm not going to argue that the SNP plan as it stands is perfect; proposing to replace locally set council tax with a nationally set income tax supplement is not what I would argue for, since it isn't 'local' in any meaningful sense. But it's certainly a step forward from the council tax, and is probably about the best that the SNP can do within the current framework of powers which the Scottish Parliament has.

I am convinced that local income tax in some form is the way forward, and the SNP have obviously come to the same conclusion. So, it seems, has Portillo. It is a pity that, on that basis, Portillo based his article on the suggestion that the SNP move is a cynical ploy to provoke a row with London. Why is support for the idea a sincere statement of belief when Portillo (a man who seemingly admits to telling us the council tax was wonderful when he knew it to be a disaster) expresses it, but 'opportunistic' if it comes from a Scottish nationalist?

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