The Old Year: II.
Personally, I never met a guinea pig I didn't like. They're lovely creatures. Not a patch on a Chinchilla, but the next best thing you'll meet to a human being. Warm, cuddlesome, docile, and hardly ever given to biting the hand that feeds...
Of course, when a guinea pig turns savage, egged on by the usual Commies, who knows what might ensue? Some might object to being treated like experimental lab rodents. That, obviously, wouldn't do.
We always knew, more or less. The decades of denials piled up, but we knew. You had a choice: either you were a theorem for the fun boys at the Adam Smith Institute, or you were a lab rat. In either event, a poll tax was due. Per skull.
As we reported yesterday, a Conservative government performed that ancient constitutional trick and lied through its shining teeth over the community charge. Everything said back then – everything – was just a description of the facts. Scotland was used as a proving ground. The life of a lab rat is no kind of life.
Still, that was a while ago. I must have “moved on” since then. Self-evidently, I must have forgotten the stout British Tories who would use the realm of Scotland for such a purpose. If I put my mind to it, I could even bring to memory some Labour boy from Kirkcaldy who argued – to my face – that to oppose the poll tax was to hurt the elderly. What became of him?
Oh, that: a pledge. An act of conspicuous arrogance from the person who told me that opposing the community charge was arrogant. What's worse, his friends still don't see it. Treat a nation as a bunch of lab rats and hope to maintain this Britain. If you say so.
I still owe money. Some folk who did well in the Labour Party spent months trying to hunt me down. I was one of those “Can Pay, Won't Pay” characters. They used to attempt to make charges against papers I didn't in fact work for. They used to use means I found unpleasant. What stilled my heart, and still does, was that the Labour Party did those things.
There is a distinguished BBC presenter who worked out the poll tax for himself. Once he had grasped that his cleaner was paying more tax from a working woman's wage than Mr Famous, he got the point. The poll tax was an obscenity, an offence against basic decency. And wrong.
What comes down through all the years is rhetoric. Rhetoric like, “Seriously? You can't see the problem?” Rhetoric like, “You do know what happens when a dominant power treats a minor possession as lab rats?”
What matters most about Kate Devine's story yesterday is that they couldn't admit it. In fact, it was fantastically important that assumptions be denied. British Tories; Scottish Tories; British Labour and Westminster power: “Would we treat you in such a fashion? The very idea.” No such thing happened. But it did, though.
It was easy for me. When the shifty guys turned up, I didn't have to fret much. I knew my little bit of law. I even said to one fat kid that I was glad he was wasting his time on my door instead of persecuting those who'd fear more. The boy, to his enormous credit, said: “I know Mr Bell. I'm glad, too.”
To be reminded of the poll tax is to be reminded of how we dealt with that kind of stuff, once upon a time. It's not so long ago. It was wrong, unfair and unjust. So we – and you can pick your preposition – opposed. This is not bad habit.
The past is past and dead, however. It was a council tax then, it's a spare room surcharge now. How do you respond? The poll tax was a moral issue. Some search their pockets and came up short on morality. And still do. They did, however, understand the meaning of a question.
But here's the thing. In all of those three decades, governments of Britain assured me, solemnly, that no one lied to me over the poll tax. My country was not used as a bottle of lab rats. The Lady Thatcher did not regard me, this voter, in such a fashion. The British state was never so careless with my rights. My bit of UK plc would never be used with such reckless abandon.
Until it was. I place my own interpretation on our reports. Personally, I'm hanging back for an apology. Realistically, I'm waiting to see what befalls. You just ran that poll tax thing on the Jocks because, in essence, you don't care? You ran that one in Jockland before – in essence - “the real thing”?
OK. I consider that fair, considering. It amounts to a version of Britain that I suspected was in the works. A bunch of lab rats: nice. In my memoir, Diary of a Running Dog, I'll be sure to put it down under “Tough but fair, huzzah.” But if you keep this up, you lose.
Why so? In essence, it's what we told you in all those old poll tax fights. If you must go on treating the people as peasants, you will have a some mean-spirited peasants on your hands. It's not complicated, or new. Lying to us is stupid; bullying us is witless. You have more?
I suspect you don't. Those old poll tax tales say to me that the British state is a hollow shell. This isn't my problem. Back then, you persecuted a lot of people I cared about. But you – all of you usual suspects – didn't wish to know of that. You invented a “spare room subsidy” instead.
You're not fantastically bright, friend. That's OK. On this side, we have to puzzle things out. “Another poll tax?” Course not. “Those horrors will try to impose a tax on letting a disabled child sleep secure.” “They wouldn't do that.” “Yeah, they would.”
So those of us – of a certain age – wonder about the poll tax, and why we fought it into the muck from which it sprang. Quaintly, it was a point of principle. It was wrong. We fought it, all those years ago, because of the people who thought it a jolly good idea. We fought it because the fight was honourable. A footnote: we won.
And something more. We knew – I knew – that the poll tax was an experiment conducted upon the realm of Scotland. It seemed to me then a bad idea for a United Kingdom. It seemed like a profoundly stupid thing for a good British patriot, like Margaret Thatcher, to attempt. But she did it. That old, shabby poll tax taught this recalcitrant hooligan more about the name on his passport than anything else ever would.
I still owe some tax. Will they give me a start in a foot race? I'm not so swift, these days. Or will they just ask instead who's in the spare room? Once upon a time, you knew who could trust. With the poll tax, it changed for good.