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Millstone milestone — Frank McNally on the 225th anniversary of a ‘temporary’ tax

It was only in 1972 that Ireland finally made the ‘temporary’ income tax arrangement permanent

In Ireland, we have just finished marking the 225th anniversary of the Year of the French. But in Britain, they have this week embarked on a similar and related commemoration.

There, starting on Tuesday, it is the 225th anniversary of the year of the French tax, or income tax, as it is now better known.

Yes, it was on January 9th, 1799, that William Pitt the Younger imposed a “temporary” levy to aid “prosecution of the war” with revolutionary France. At a rate of one per cent on incomes above £60 and 10 per cent on those over £200, it raised much-needed millions. It was also much hated until its abolition after the Peace of Amiens in 1802.

Of course that peace was temporary too, while the fiscal idea lived on. When the (now Napoleonic) wars resumed, so did income tax, until the longer peace that followed 1815. The measure’s second abolition a year after Waterloo was greeted with “a thundering peal of applause” in parliament.


The spectre subsequently receded for a whole generation. Then came the 1840s, when bad harvests and the repeal of the corn laws created another budgetary shortfall. Suddenly, income tax was back, although still only in Britain. The logistical challenges of collecting it here spared Ireland from the scourge until 1853.

In 1899, this newspaper marked the first centenary of income tax in the UK via a piece reprinted from the Westminster Gazette, predicting that another penny would soon be added to the rate.

Meanwhile, the fiction that this was still a temporary measure continued into modern times.

According to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ A Brief History of Income Tax, it was only in 1972 that Ireland finally made the arrangement permanent: “Up until then, the Minister for Finance needed to renew the tax for next year in the provisions of the Finance Act at budget time.”

The relative lateness of its introduction this side of the Irish Sea may explain the apparent (to me anyway) shortage of 19th-century ballads about tax. By contrast, the Napoleonic Wars themselves inspired many songs, including (perhaps) the classic Arthur McBride.

Although its date of composition is uncertain, that ballad does include a sort of cost-benefit analysis for Irishmen joining English wars against France. The benefits – 10 guineas in gold, a crown’s worth of drinking money, and a free uniform – are balanced against the risks, then found wanting:

“And we have no desire to take your advance/All hazards and dangers we barter on chance/For you would have no scruples to send us to France/Where we would get shot without warning.”

But by 1857, there was at least one popular ballad on these islands devoted solely to “The Good-for-nothing Income Tax”, as the title put it. This updated the rates, and noted the latest military excuse for the measure, the Crimean War (1853–1856):

“Just one and fourpence in the pound/Clapt on for war but now we have peace/A stunning thing old England found/To pay for stinking Russian grease/They lay it on the snip and snob/the blazing goose the hemps and wax/And the labouring man that carries the hod/they make to pay the income tax.”

More than a century after that, the Beatles were expressing broadly similar sentiments. But by then the rates had risen – dramatically. Lyrics aside, George Harrison’s Taxman (1966) was a musical milestone, part of their great-leap-forward album Revolver, and with a riff so punk-friendly The Jam would borrow it whole in a 1980 single, Start.

But Harrison’s words were inspired, or provoked, by the victory of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party in 1966 and with it the prospect of the wealthy paying up to 95 per cent of their income in wealth tax. “Let me tell you how it will be,” says the taxman of the title; “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

Another verse cautioned: “Don’t ask me what I want it for/(Ah, ah, Mr Wilson)/If you don’t want to pay some more/(Ah, ah, Mr Heath.” But confirming that some things hadn’t changed since 1799, part of Harrison’s stated objection was that his taxes were being used to fund military spending, including in this case Britain’s contribution of weapons to the war in Vietnam.

As for the song’s reference to Edward Heath, leader of the Conservatives and subsequent prime minister, that was an acceptance that the once-temporary measure would not be going away anytime soon, even under the tax-hating Tories.

A further half century later, noting this week’s anniversary of the introduction of the levy “to fight Napoleon”, Wednesday’s London Times jokingly asked: “Are we getting any closer to beating him?”

A consolation for the British, as they continue to await victory, is that the French are now among Europe’s most taxed nations (mainly due to social security payments). But strange to say, income tax was a much later development there, introduced only in 1917.