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Ratepayers movements, such as the National Association of Ratepayers' Action Groups (NARAG), were an important part of the UK political scene in the mid 1970s. Broadly Thatcherite even before Margaret Thatcher came to power, they were part of the dismantling of the welfare state consensus of the 1950s and 1960s and the rise of a new right wing (inventively named the "New Right"), socially authoritarian and economically liberal. Born in part out of controversial rises in domestic rates (property taxes levied by local authority), their campaigning for lower taxes mingled with a hatred of the permissive society inaugurated in the late 1960s and a desire to return to traditional values and authoritarianism (akin to Nixon's Silent Majority). The Guardian summed up the split personality of the NARAG as a group which "combined demands for rate relief and, more controversially, a 'strong leader'".
Ratepayers' candidates have a long history in British politics, often winning seats on local councils. The brief rise and fall of a more organised movement in the 1970s can be seen as an intensification of their normal middle-class, right-of-centre values, though not all candidates have authoritarian or extreme-right beliefs.
After World War 2 and the Attlee government, British politics settled on a consensus often known as Butskellism after Conservative Rab Butler and Labour party leader Hugh Gaitskell and committed to a welfare state that provided basic services for all. In the 1970s this benevolent vision began to deteriorate, to be replaced by a new political settlement which would be low-tax, opposed to the socialist welfare state and liberal public sector, and socially conservative or authoritarian but economically liberal. This shift led to Thatcherism and is still at the core of the UK Conservative Party. But in the short term it spawned a number of radical right-wing groups: working-class organisations such as the National Front are well known, but they had more genteel middle class counterparts, less obviously racist but still focused on a perceived need to shake up a declining Britain.
This arose out of complaints that the Tories were too concerned with trade unions and the working classes and weren't listening to their natural supporters in the middle classes and business world. Inklings of change came when Edward Heath formulated an almost Thatcherite program of government at Selsdon in 1970, but he soon caved to union demands and moved back to the centre. Within the Conservative Party there was a war between Heathite moderates and radical figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph (key Thatcher ideologue and promotor of monetarism), Rhodes Boyson (Thatcher's pro-corporal punishment deputy as education secretary); and Angus Maude (sacked by Heath and a major figure in Thatcher's leadership campaign). Thatcher eventually won, of course, but in the Heath years many Tories left for the Liberal Party or other groups like those described in this article.
Stuart Hall and others have spoken of a growth of a middle-class radical right movement focused on "social discipline". Members were typically opposed to "equality", the welfare state, single parents, the permissive society, comprehensive schools, and leftist educational ideas, but in favour of elitism, grammar schools, low taxation, economic competition, entrepreneurship, patriotism, and the traditional family. This involved bodies such as National Association of Ratepayers' Action Groups, Freedom Association, National Federation of the Self-Employed, National Union of Small Shopkeepers, and Voice of the Independent Centre. Associated with that were campaigns over rates relief, to clean up television (most famously by Mary Whitehouse), and against abortion.
The obvious cause was the industrial disputes of the early 1970s and wider fears of communism. Union militancy at home coincided with the threat of the Cold War and worries about communist infiltration and the decline of the British Empire. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were intensified by the left-wing Provisional IRA, who could be seen as Marxist guerrillas at home. Press and political outrage over William Tyndall school in Islington, London crystalised fears over progressive educational ideas and child-centred learning. But a more immediate force was the impact on middle-class wallets of 1974 local authority rate rises, which steeply increased local taxation, followed by changes to the tax system by Harold Wilson later in 1974 which particularly impacted on the self-employed and small business owners.
National Association of Ratepayers' Action Groups
NARAG was one of the most important right-wing middle-class organisations which sprung up in the mid 1970s. It "combined demands for rate relief and, more controversially, a 'strong leader'". 1974 saw large rises in local authority rates (taxes levied on the estimated value of property), with an average increase of 30% in England and Wales. This was the catalyst for the growth of NARAG, which gained 350,000 members, particularly in Yorkshire and NE England which saw the highest increases, with 50% rises in rates bills typical.
The attitude of the Conservative Party varied. William Waldegrave was dismissive, complaining in his memoirs how David Petri in 1974 "more or less camped in Heath's outer office" until Heath promised a manifesto commitment to abolish the rates and replace them with a fairer system (Heath lost the election; Margaret Thatcher eventually provided the Community Charge, aka poll tax). In contrast, they received support from Nicholas Winterton, a right-wing Tory associated with the Monday Club, Western Goals Institute, and Freedom Association.
They were also supported by Walter Walker, a retired general of extreme anti-communist sympathies who devoted his spare time to organising scabs for an expected apocalyptic general strike (which never came).
Ratepayers' electoral record
The label of "ratepayers", and related titles like "residents" and "tenants and ratepayers", were used by a large number of political candidates, particularly in local elections, in the 1970s and at other times.
Epsom and Ewell in Surrey had always been governed not by the major parties but by independents under the banner of Epsom and Ewell Residents Association; they saw large majorities in the 1973 and 1976 elections. In 1973, there were 11 ratepayers' councillors in Fareham, forming a coalition administration with the Conservative Party. 1973 also saw 14 councillors elected in Elmbridge and 12 in Havant (which ended up with no overall control). In 1976 they got 29 seats in Swansea; Barnsley 11; Braintree 10; Eden 10; Hartlepool 13; Havant 12; Macclesfield (combined Ratepayers and Independents) 17; Mole Valley 9; Neath 9; Ogwr 10.
Similar groups enjoy success more recently: the Independent Ratepayers in Stockport won 3 seats in 2015, where they governed in coalition with the Lib Dems.
National Federation of the Self-Employed
Led by Norman Small, a former officer in the National Union of Small Shopkeepers, it rapidly proved a success: the NFSE had 10000 members by end of 1974, and 30000 by mid 1975. It opposed changes in VAT and National Insurance tax, which had sharply increased the tax burden on self-employed workers, and was formed as a federation of local branches with its head office far from the metropolitan centre of Britain at Lytham St Anne's near Blackpool, Lancashire. It became the Federation of Small Businesses, a respectable lobbying group, in 1991, and is even more than the Freedom Association the most successful organisation to evolve from this movement.
Association of Self-employed People
A rival to the NFSE with a firmer focus on the free market, for a while known as the Alliance of Small Firms & Self-Employed People. It was founded by Teresa Gorman, a Thatcherite and Freedom Association member, who enjoyed a long career with the Conservative Party, being MP for Billericay, Essex, from 1987 to 2001.
Middle Class Association
launched November 1974 by Tory MP John Gorst and former Ulster Unionist Party member Captain Lawrence Orr; it had a strong presence in Northern Ireland. Proto-Thatcherite, it campaigned for lower taxes and "individual liberty"; however it proved a failure with 4000 recruits. In Summer 1975, Gorst was deposed and replaced by John Martyn-Martin, another Ulsterman, but the party vanished.
Gorst had a curious background for someone associated with English middle-class patriotism. His father was Irish and his maternal grandfather a colonel in the Russian Tsar's Imperial Guard who fled at the time of the Russian Revolution. He was a youthful socialist with libertarian tendencies who claimed to have signed up as a Conservative candidate while drunk. Once in parliament, he tried to establish support by fighting for the "persecuted, vilified and sneered-at ... minority of managers and the self-employed", although this wasn't a success. He backed Thatcher in her leadership challenge and then supported the employers against their female Asian workforce during the divisive Grunwick industrial dispute in the late 70s. He enjoyed 24 years as a never very successful MP, before embarrassing himself in a lobbying scandal.
Formed as National Association for Freedom; they changed their name to the Freedom Association, and enjoy continued popularity on the right-wing fringes.
- Walter Walker obituary, The Guardian, 14 Aug 2001
- See the Wikipedia article on Selsdon Group.
- Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, Brian Roberts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
- God and Mrs Thatcher: The Battle For Britain's Soul, Eliza Filby, Biteback, 2015
- See the Wikipedia article on William Tyndale affair.
- Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, Dominic Sandbrook, Penguin, 2012
- A Different Kind of Weather, William Waldegrave
- Hansard, 28 Jul 1974
- See the Wikipedia article on United Kingdom local elections, 1973.
- See the Wikipedia article on United Kingdom local elections, 1976.
- Stockport local election results, Manchester Evening News, 2015
- Capital and Politics Routledge Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 44, edited by Roger King
- Federation of Small Businesses, Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations
- See the Wikipedia article on Teresa Gorman.
- Sir John Gorst obituary, The Guardian, 12 Aug 2010