War and income tax
For most of the period between 1793 and 1815 Britain was at war with France. In the 1790s the British government made extensive use of loans to fund the war. The great increase in the national debt, however, led the prime minister William Pitt to introduce and increase a range of taxes.
In 1799, the government introduced, for the first time, an income tax. Also known as the property tax, the tax was a graduated levy on incomes over £60. After the wars with France ended with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, public debate quickly turned to the tax and whether it should be renewed for a further period. In February 1816, the government proposed continuing the income tax, which provoked a storm of petitions.
The petitioning campaign in 1816
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.
The City of London petition expressed many of the typical arguments against renewing the income tax. 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'.
The Impact of the Petitions
When the government motion to renew the tax was defeated by 37 votes on 18 March 1816, 'loud cheering took place' in the Commons chamber 'which continued for several minutes'. Enough government loyalists joined with opposition Whig MPs to produce an unexpected defeat and blow a large hole in the government's financial plans. In demonstrating widespread opposition from groups like farmers and businessmen normally considered loyal and patriotic, the petitions had carried great weight with MPs, particularly government supporters.
The income tax was reintroduced in 1842, to make up the revenue lost from tariffs as Britain shifted towards a free trade policy. This time the petitioning campaign against the tax was unsuccessful.
Dr Henry Milleris Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century British History at the University of Manchester.
Image: National Bankruptcy or John Bull taking the Benefit of the Insolvent Act, Print by an Unknown artist.
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 7023