THE funeral of Baroness Thatcher was conducted with a degree of pomp and ceremony unseen – for a commoner – for almost 50 years. The sight of her flag-draped coffin on a gun carriage being pulled through the streets of London in an operation requiring 700 armed services personnel was truly a sight to behold.
Too much pomp and ceremony? Perhaps, when seen from a Scottish vantage point. This is, after all, the part of the UK that remained largely immune to the Iron Lady’s political charms – although the proportion of Scots who voted for her in three general elections is higher than the folk memory might suggest.
The relatively small numbers of people who used yesterday’s funeral as an excuse to demonstrate one final time their opposition to her economic and social policies when in power were entitled to their last hurrah. Twenty-three years after she left power, this is still a woman who divides opinion perhaps as no other, and the bitterness felt by many at the disproportionate impact her rule had on some sections of the public is very real.
This is a respectable position, and a sense of funereal propriety should not be employed to try to smother temperate criticism of the former prime minister.
And yet, when one stands back and considers the baroness’s place in history, the ceremonial display in London yesterday does not seem quite as over-the-top as it might at first glance.
Her status as the first female prime minister in British history is, alone, enough to warrant an out-of-the-ordinary send-off. There are some feminists who refuse to give full weight and significance to this achievement, pointing to the paucity of other women in Thatcher’s cabinets and the effect of her policies on women as a whole.
But over the past few days, in letters to this newspaper and elsewhere, women from all walks of life have made clear what an inspiration it was to have a woman in the highest office in the land. Her impact on the mindset of a generation of women should not be underestimated.
The role Thatcher played on the world stage, too, has to be taken into account – especially the effect of her double-act with US president Ronald Reagan in helping to roll back the influence of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe. Baroness Thatcher was also the longest-serving British prime minister for more than 150 years.
But it is the step-change she negotiated in British society that marks her out as a politician of particular note. Britain today is a country indelibly marked by her influence – and the underlying assumptions of the economic reforms she forced through continue to hold sway in Scotland today as much as anywhere else in the UK. One may disagree with the change she wrought, but it is hard to argue against the fact of that change. Margaret Thatcher was a remarkable force, who influenced the course of history. On that there can be little division.
At last some good news
FINALLY, the Scottish economy might just be looking up. That is the conclusion we can safely draw from the latest
figures on economic growth and unemployment.
What is also increasingly clear is that Scotland’s economic performance is outstripping that of the rest of the UK.
The new numbers show that Scotland’s gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by 0.5 per cent during the final three months of 2012, compared with a 0.3 per cent UK-wide contraction in the same period.
The jobless total fell below 200,000 for the first time in four years with a drop of 11,000, whereas in the rest of the UK the number of unemployed jumped 70,000 to 2.56 million.
There is understandable caution among economists about taking too much heart from this news, but it is hard not to be encouraged by growth in the power generation sector, for example, and evidence that Scotland’s renewables industry is making an increasingly significant contribution to the country’s economy.
Perhaps most heartening of all, the pain being experienced by Scotland’s young people is lessening – the youth unemployment rate in Scotland is now
16.1 per cent, significantly lower than the UK rate of 20.6 per cent. This is still far too high, and is still a worry, but the trend is very much in the right direction.
We may still be in a slump, with people working fewer hours than they might want, and for flatlining pay, and no-one is saying we are yet on the sunny uplands of anything that looks
remotely like prosperity, but after such a long time of nothing but unrelenting gloom and doom, this news is very much to be welcomed.