Great Britain first had an income tax in 1799, but then abolished it in 1816. In honor of US federal tax returns being due tomorrow, April 17, here\’s a quick synopsis of the story.
Great Britain was in an on-and-off war with France for much of the 1790s. The British government borrowed heavily and was short of funds. When Napoleon came to power in 1799, the government under Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a temporary income tax. Here\’s a description from the website of the British National Archives:
‘Certain duties upon income’ as outlined in the Act of 1799 were to be the (temporary) solution. It was a tax to beat Napoleon. Income tax was to be applied in Great Britain (but not Ireland) at a rate of 10% on the total income of the taxpayer from all sources above £60, with reductions on income up to £200. It was to be paid in six equal instalments from June 1799, with an expected return of £10 million in its first year. It actually realised less than £6 million, but the money was vital and a precedent had been set.
In 1802 Pitt resigned as Prime Minister over the question of the emancipation of Irish catholics, and was replaced by Henry Addington. A short-lived peace treaty with Napoleon allowed Addington to repeal income tax. However, renewed fighting led to Addington’s 1803 Act which set the pattern for income tax today. …
Addington’s Act for a ‘contribution of the profits arising from property, professions, trades and offices’ (the words ‘income tax’ were deliberately avoided) introduced two significant changes:
- Taxation at source – the Bank of England deducting income tax when paying interest to holders of gilts, for example
- The division of income taxes into five ‘Schedules’ – A (income from land and buildings), B (farming profits), C (public annuities), D (self-employment and other items not covered by A, B, C or E) and E (salaries, annuities and pensions).
Although Addington’s rate of tax was half that of Pitt’s, the changes ensured that revenue to the Exchequer rose by half and the number of taxpayers doubled. In 1806 the rate returned to the original 10%.
Pitt in opposition had argued against Addington’s innovations: he adopted them almost unchanged, however, on his return to office in 1805. Income tax changed little under various Chancellors, contributing to the war effort up to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Britain\’s government was not enthusiastic about repealing the income tax even after the defeat of Napoleon. But there was an uprising of taxpayers. The website of the UK Parliament described it this way:
\”The centrepiece of the campaign was a petition from the City of London Corporation. In a piece of parliamentary theatre, the Sheriffs of London exercised their privilege to present the petition from the City of London Corporation in person. They entered the Commons chamber wearing their official robes holding the petition.
\”The petition reflected the broad nature of the opposition to renewing the tax. Radicals had long complained that ordinary Britons (represented by John Bull in caricatures) had borne the brunt of wartime taxation. Radicals argued that the taxes were used to fund \’Old Corruption\’, the parasitic network of state officials who exploited an unrepresentative political system for their own interests.
\”However, the petitions in 1816 came from very different groups, including farmers, businessmen and landowners, who were difficult for the government to dismiss. Petitioners, such as Durham farmers, claimed they had patriotically paid the tax during wartime with \’patience and cheerfulness\’, distancing themselves from radical critics of the government.
\”In barely six weeks, 379 petitions against renewing the tax were sent to the House of Commons. MPs took the opportunity when presenting these petitions, to highlight the unpopularity of the tax with their constituents and the wider public. … Ministers were accused of breaking the promise made in 1799 when the tax was introduced as a temporary, wartime measure and not as a permanent tax. The depressed state of industry and agriculture was blamed on heavy taxation.
\”The tax was also presented as a foreign and un-British measure that allowed the state to snoop into people\’s finances. As the City of London petition complained, it was an \’odious, arbitrary, and detestable inquisition into the most private concerns and circumstances of individuals\’.\”
\”Income tax records were then supposedly incinerated in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. Whether this bonfire really took place we can\’t say. Several historians who have studied the period refer to the event as a story or legend that may have been true. Perhaps the most convincing evidence are reports that, in 1842, when Peel re-introduced income tax, albeit in a less contentious form, the records were no longer available. Another story is that those burning the records were unaware of the fact that duplicates had been sent for safe-keeping to the King\’s Remembrancer. They were then put into sacks and eventually surfaced in the Public Records Office.\”