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Margaret Thatcher and Scotland: A Story of Mutual Incomprehension

8 April 2013

7:48 PM

8 April 2013

7:48 PM

There is a poignant passage in Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs during which she contemplates her failure in Scotland. She seemed puzzled by this, noting that, in her view, many of her ideas and principles had at least some Caledonian ancestry. And yet, despite her admiration for David Hume and, especially, Adam Smith, there was no Tartan Thatcherite revolution. Sure, there were some true believers – Teddy Taylor, Michael Forsyth – but Scotland never warmed to the Iron Lady. And she never quite knew or understood why.

Two issues, above all, led to her downfall. Europe and the Poll Tax. The former was a Westminster affair and a matter of internal internecine conflict within the cabinet; the latter lost her the country.

It was a policy conceived in Scotland. Not just delivered but actually conceived and first implemented north of the Tweed. The introduction of the Community Charge – that is, the Poll Tax – would likely have proved disastrous however it was done but it was implemented in ways that could scarcely have been better designed to destroy the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland. The Scottish Tories cut their own throats without even realising what they were doing.

The Prime Minister had thought it best to introduce the Community Charge in one go. The Scottish Tories persuaded her otherwise. A rates revaluation was looming in Scotland. This was bound to be unpopular and likely to provoke a backlash against the party in power. So please, please, please, Margaret, can you no speed these boats   and introduce the Community Charge in Scotland a year before it is levied elsewhere? As well-intentioned blunders go, this takes some beating.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Can Pay, Won’t Pay campaign for civil disobedience (enthusiastically backed by a number of Labour MPs) took a hold upon the public’s imagination. The idea that the Duke of Buccleuch should pay the same local taxes as his dustman proved a tough proposition to defend.

Worse than this, however, was the suspicion – mistaken but widespread – that Thatcher was using Scotland as an experimental policy guinea pig. The effrontery of it insulted us. Who did she think we were? Who did she think she was? How dare she.

The truth was more complicated but the legend proved irresistible. And that was that. More than any other single event, the Poll Tax galvanised support for Home Rule in Scotland. Civic Scotland – whatever that is, as the Lady might have put it – united in morally-superior opposition to Thatcherism and all its works. Though John Major won a reprieve for Toryism north of the border it was but a minor flickering of a once great party.  The Poll Tax plus the party’s principled but doomed opposition to devolution  destroyed Toryism in Scotland.

The biggest beneficiary proved, in time, to be the SNP. Alex Salmond first entered parliament in 1987 but he lives, like every other leading politician in Britain today, in Thatcher’s shadow. As he said today, Thatcherism helped conceive the Scottish parliament. More than that, the gathering sense that Conservatives were somehow profoundly, inescapably, “anti-Scottish” helped foster conditions in which the SNP could thrive.

The rise of the nationalists was not immediate but it is telling that the SNP’s first permanent breakthroughs were in Aberdeenshire, Angus and Perthshire. None of these were or are hotbeds of socialism. They were, and remain, small-c conservative places. As Toryism was tarnished, so there was an opportunity for the Conservatives to be supplanted by a different “patriotic party”.

Salmond understands this. He is, though he would not welcome the label, in some respects a very Thatcherite politician. Not only because he divides opinion almost as sharply as the Iron Lady did in her pomp but because he accepts large parts of her legacy. It was Salmond, after all, who suggested that Scots had relatively few quarrels with Thatcher’s economic policies but that they “didn’t like the social side at all”. Moreover, Salmond remains an economic liberal just like the Iron Lady.

The “social side” of course was, in some respects, a reaction against some of the consequences of Thatcherite economics. There is no point in denying the hardship these caused in some parts of the country. Change is always painful even when it is necessary. But Thatcher never managed to find a way to replace the heavy industry jobs that disappeared on her watch. More dreadfully still, the impression that she didn’t much care about replacing them became damagingly widespread. This was a political mistake but, worse, also a moral blunder.

The old ways could not continue forever and Thatcher’s ministries were sometimes more attuned to Scottish sensibilities than is commonly remembered. As David Torrance reminds us, she twice spared the Ravenscraig steelworks from closure, mindful that the plant had assumed a kind of totemic significance in Scottish political culture. It was a reminder of what we once were but would no longer be.

Ravenscraig’s closure marked the end of an era and, more than that, the end of an idea about a certain kind of Scotland. It was the passing of another generation of the last of the Old Scots Folk.

That being the case, I don’t blame some of those most closely affected by the 1980s’ winds of change for either their bitterness or their celebrations today. Even the greatest or most consequential leaders leave a divided legacy and not every boat was lifted by the great Thatcherite tide.

But many were. Scotland rejected Thatcherism and Conservatism despite the fact that much of Scotland prospered on her watch. Transformation does not happen overnight; policy choices often take years to bear fruit. The fact remains that Scotland, relative to the rest of the United Kingdom, saw its lot improve as a result of the Thatcher years.

Alex Salmond and the SNP argue, not necessarily incorrectly, that Scotland contributes more in tax receipts now than it receives in public spending. This would have seemed utterly improbable as recently as 1979. (Recently being “within my lifetime”.) Resisted as it may have been, Thatcher’s economic revolution helped more Scots than it hurt (even if those hurt were wounded terribly).

It is, if you will, an oblique tribute to Thatcher that most sensible observers agree that Scotland, sensibly managed, could thrive as an independent country. Certainly many more Scots are persuaded of this than was the case when she first entered Downing Street. She might have disputed that she had anything to do with this economic revitalisation (a renaissance that is both absolute and relative, in UK terms), insisting that all she helped do was help get the state out of the way. Nevertheless and taken as a whole Scotland has prospered these past thirty years and at least some of that success might sensibly be attributed to the consequences of some of the decisions made by Margaret Thatcher. After London and the south-east of England, Scotland is the wealthiest part of the United Kingdom.

That this is true will not be enough to persuade everyone. So be it. Nevertheless, the fact that an independent Scotland is perfectly feasible is – for reasons good and bad – part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.

Her success, of course, also contributed to the ossification of the Scottish Labour party. Resistant to change and all too often in thrall to ancient shibboleths, Labour insisted that the Scottish Parliament become a bulwark against reform no matter whether those reforms were suggested by Conservatives or, even, a Labour government in London. The slow learners in the Scottish Labour party are still coming to terms with the consequences of their own intellectual decay.

But, hey, at least Scottish Labour could take their cue from the complacency made manifest by John Smith’s suggestion that, aye, the Scots are a more moral people than the English. There’s always been a market for Caledonian smugness.

Of course, Thatcher saw herself as a very moral politician too.  She thought her values were also Scottish values. The people, in the end, disagreed. But she had a point. Her problem was that her values were more in tune with the Scotland of the 1950s than the Scotland of the 1980s. She believed in hard work and thrift, considering these the keys to self-improvement and, just as importantly, self-belief. A lass of pairts herself, she was a product of a small town, god-fearing, provincial England that was not so very different from small town, god-fearing, provincial Scotland. Though a Methodist, she had more in common with comparable children raised in the bosom of the Kirk than she did with Londoners or other metropolitan swells.

But her Englishness proved a problem. In the end, she lacked empathy for the other parts of the United Kingdom and this contributed to her problems and her party’s eventual eclipse. I fancy that, in her heart, she fancied England and Britain synonyms.

Then there was her voice. And her tone. These too grated on many Scottish ears. There was something hectoring about her; something nagging that brought the worst out of some of her opponents. Even if she had an appealing message, the tone and accent in which it was delivered hampered her ability to connect with Scots.

Her sex did not help her either. There was then – and, frankly, still is – a thick streak  of often unacknowledged misogynism in Scottish politics. We won’t be lectured and we especially won’t be lectured by a bloody woman. (I think Wendy Alexander discovered this too.) Again, who did she think she was?

Well, she was the Prime Minister and, to borrow from Trollope, She Knew She Was Right. That too did not enamour her to Scots. Her policies were controversial enough but I fancy they might have enjoyed a better hearing had they been suggested by a male rather than a female Prime Minister. In this at least, Scotland was perhaps less “progressive” than it likes to think itself.

I don’t wish to make too much of this. Gender and nationality were not the only reasons Margaret Thatcher failed in Scotland. She did not understand the place as well as she thought she did.

Even so, her failure should nto be exaggerated. In the October 1974 election the Tories won 25% of the vote in Scotland. That rose to 31% in 1979 before falling to 28% in 1983 and 24% in 1987. A decline, certainly, but not a calamitous one if measured in terms of the share of the vote rather than seats. (In 1992 the Tory vote “surged” to 25%.) In other words, Scots voted for Margaret Thatcher in rather greater numbers than is sometimes assumed. It was her legacy and the folk memory of her ministry that proved fatal.

So her legacy north of the Tweed and Solway is complicated. The Thatcherite revolution may have had relatively few Scottish conscripts but it made its impact – in ways both good and bad – on Scotland nonetheless. One of the reasons Alex Salmond has been so successful is that the SNP, in ways that might surprise some people, has reacted to Thatcher’s failures and her successes rather more nimbly than has the Scottish Labour party. He too is in her debt. It is an irony that I am not sure the Iron Lady would have appreciated far less relished. Nevertheless, there it is.


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