Joyce McMillan: Time to shed the Thatcher shackles

David Cameron and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: PA
David Cameron and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: PA
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THE former Prime Minister’s ideology represents an unhappy past for Scottish Tories and they must move on, writes Joyce McMillan

Early on Wednesday morning, on his way to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, the former Telegraph editor and official Thatcher biographer Charles Moore gave an interview to BBC Radio 5 Live, about the former Prime Minister’s legacy as a leader who divided the nation. “There are certainly parts of the country that tend to be more anti-her than others,” he said, “but they tend to be the parts that have become relatively less important. It doesn’t mean their feelings are not to be respected, but it does mean that if you’re trying to lead a political party in the 21st century, you have to find the places that are rising, where opportunity is spreading.”

Moore’s warning was addressed, of course, to the Labour Party, lest it be tempted to shift its focus from the upwardly-mobile south-east; it seems that his idea of how to “respect” the views of the anti-Thatcher parts of Britain is to marginalise them from politics completely, by making sure that no mainstream party dares to represent them. And although his view of Britain’s political landscape doubtless makes perfect sense to a Thatcherite at Westminster, it does highlight some of the intense difficulties that face Scotland’s Conservatives, led by Ruth Davidson, as they try to find a way back into the mainstream of Scottish political debate.

Over the last week, as discussion has raged over Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, there has been a certain rustling in the undergrowth of Scottish politics, a huffing and puffing; it has been the sound of some Scottish Conservatives trying to regain control of the narrative of what happened in Scotland in the 1980s, and to suggest – as one Thatcher fan cheerfully explained to the BBC, on his way south for the funeral – that Scotland never really hated the lady at all. And Scotland’s Tories are right, of course, to argue that there is a long tradition of Conservatism in Scotland, that there are many Scots who would support the idea of a small state and low tax, and that Scottish Government – along with government throughout the UK – has long since absorbed into its DNA many elements of Thatcherite thought.

Yet for all that, the fact is that since the year of the miners’ strike in 1984, the Conservatives have never won more than a quarter of the vote in a Scottish parliamentary election. By the end of the 18 years of Tory government that began in 1979, their share of the vote in Scotland had plummeted to 17 per cent, a level from which it continues to decline; and the Scottish parliament, largely designed to protect us from any further domestic policy experiments imposed by Westminster, had become an inevitability.

And the reasons for that crashing loss of support are not hard to discern. In the first place, Thatcherism was not a conservative creed, but a militant, almost counter-revolutionary movement; and it was clear from the outset that many leading traditional Scottish Conservatives felt profoundly alienated by it. Secondly, many Scots who were forced to comply with Thatcherism in practice continued to reject it in principle. The visceral hatred and mistrust of the state implied in Thatcherism places it at the far neoliberal extreme of European politics; it is therefore at odds both with the practical experience of most ordinary Scots, and with classic Enlightenment views of the proper roles of market and government.

And thirdly, the views of Conservatives like Moore place Scottish Conservatives in an almost impossible position. In his view, successful parts of the country support Thatcherism, and those which do not are defined by their economic failure; for him, Thatcherism represents the triumphant ideology of the future, and all who oppose it represent a decaying past. And, of course, it is easy enough for a Conservative in Scotland to move mainly in circles where this view is widely held. I have attended some establishment dinners myself, where the main purpose of the evening has apparently been for wealthy Scots to get together and complain about how the place is a ghastly socialist backwater, which will never get anywhere until its dim-witted voters wake up to the joys of right-wing Conservatism.

Yet it should surely be obvious to every Conservative politician with any political instinct that to approach Scottish voters with an attitude so dismissive, and so patronising, is bound to be counter-productive; particularly so, at a moment when the ideology in question is visibly failing, producing first a massive global financial crash, and then a cruel failure of policy in dealing with the ensuing recession.

What most Scots of conservative mind need at the moment, in other words, is neither a Thatcherite party loudly demanding compliance with an ideology that has had its day, for all this week’s pomp; nor a desperate attempt to pretend that Scots disliked Thatcherism less than they did. What they need is a sensible Christian Democrat-style party of the centre-right, which can keep an eye out for the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises, resist what it sees as excessive taxation, stand up for essential freedoms, and act as an antidote to the kind of complacent, consensual statism that can develop all too easily in small countries. The emergence of that kind of Tory grouping would also force Scotland’s other mainstream parties to raise their game, and to define more precisely just how far they are prepared to go in defending and modernising social democracy in Scotland.

The profound paradox, though, for the most Unionist of Scotland’s parties, is that, in order to win the freedom to play that more creative and effective role in Scottish politics, they may finally have to make the break from a UK Conservative Party in its present form. For if Tories like Moore remain convinced that Thatcherism represents the future, for Conservatives in Scotland it clearly represents an unhappy past, which they now need to leave behind.

Margaret Thatcher liked to think the unthinkable, and to go around breaking up consensus. But, for the Tories in Scotland, 35 years of howling in the wilderness against the massive majority of Scots who have never been persuaded by her world-view is surely enough; time for them to accept the decision of the people, to seek new sources of inspiration, and to move on.