Comment: Thatcher could not reverse Tories’ decline

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SHE may have reshaped the politics and economics of Britain, but in so doing came close to destroying her party in Scotland. That is the oft-told tale of Lady Thatcher’s legacy. In truth, it is rather unfair.

Lady Thatcher did not tear up the roots of a healthy, vibrant Scottish Conservative Party and leave it to die. Rather, she inherited a party whose heyday was already no more than a fond memory. In 1955, the party won half the vote in Scotland. In October 1974, shortly before Margaret Thatcher became Conservative leader, its tally was already down to just a quarter.

What, however, she did fail to do was to reverse her party’s decline. True, at the 1979 election that brought her to Downing Street, support north of the Border rose to 31 per cent. By 1987, Lady Thatcher’s third and last election victory, Conservative support was down to just 24 per cent.

Although the absolute level of support in Scotland did not diminish during her tenure, the party’s relative performance compared unfavourably with that in England. In October 1974, its support was 14 percentage points lower in Scotland than in England. By 1987, the gap had grown to 22 points. The party north of the Border was doing no more than treading water, when in the south of England it was predominant.

It became increasingly easy to paint the party as an alien English government determined to foist on Scotland policies, ranging from the destruction of heavy industry to the introduction of the poll tax, for which the country had not voted – even if the truth was often rather more complicated.

What certainly was not complicated was the party’s refusal to countenance any form of devolution for Scotland. That had two important consequences that became evident only after Lady Thatcher stood down as prime minister in 1990.

First, the Scottish party was in no fit state to withstand the bitter winds from the south. It was left with no Scottish MPs in 1997 and had its role as Labour’s principal opponents usurped by the SNP. The party has still to exhibit any evidence of significant recovery.

Second, by the time the Conservatives had lost power, a clear consensus had emerged in favour of a Scottish parliament, an attraction of which was that it could act as a bulwark against a similar imposition of English policies by an unwanted Conservative government.

Here, of course, things have moved on. The question Scotland is now being asked is whether it still thinks devolution is enough to keep Thatcherism at bay.

• John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University.