Meeting Margaret Thatcher was no laughing matter and this was partly the reason Scots were so hostile to her, writes Peter Jones
I have a piece of paper which I treasure – an anonymous handwritten note, delivered to me at The Scotsman offices on the day that Margaret Thatcher appointed Michael Forsyth as chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party.
Written on the headed notepaper of The New Club, the secretive den of the Edinburgh Establishment, it reads: “To the scalps of Galtieri and Scargill, Margaret Thatcher can now add that of the Scottish Conservative Party.”
I treasure it because it sums up an awful lot about her relationship with Scottish politics. Here was a political giant of foreign and domestic politics, who had seen off Argentinian dictator General Galtieri and his ill-fated invasion of the Falkland Islands and National Union of Mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill and his disastrous strike, and yet was doomed to failure and rejection in Scotland. The nature of the note said much about the Scottish Conservatives as well.
At conference after conference, Scottish Tories hailed her as a conquering hero, with a shining devotion that was almost frightening. And yet, below the surface, there were those who knew the path she was leading them on could only have one destination – oblivion.
They were senior people too, to whom “TBW” became a private codeword for her. They were all too familiar with the reaction – “that bloody woman” – they got when out canvassing.
I’m pretty sure the note was written by the late Sir Russell Fairgrieve, who had also been the Scottish Tory chairman. But to voice any doubt about the apparent brilliance of the leader was to face the certain wrath of the party and metaphorical defenestration.
So they kept quiet as the party struggled and dwindled. I often wondered how much debate she tolerated within her inner circle and whether she might have fared better in Scotland if she had allowed, and listened to, internal criticism. Very little of that ever happened, I suspect. Lord (Cecil) Parkinson once said that they only way to get her to change course was to say: “Prime Minister, you are absolutely correct/brilliant/wonderful, but you could be better still if …”
It was certainly the impression you got as a journalist. To meet any prime minister is always something you look forward to with anticipation, except with Thatcher there was also dread.
She intimidated and steam-rollered you. There was no debate or discussion. Your job was to listen and record as she spoke and then report it faithfully. I never knew what gimlet-eyed, a basilisk stare, or withering glare really meant until I met her. I still feel a slight shudder at the memory.
This certainty of her own correctness and the need to preach it was, I think, the key parting of the ways between her and Scotland. There was much in her own story that Scots might have admired – that she was a “lass o’pairts”, who came from a lower middle-class background, got an education, and rose to the very top.
She was also an outsider, who beat aside entrenched Tory male and class prejudice to become so formidable that those who had sneered she was a “mere woman” and a “grocer’s daughter” were forced to bend the knee to her.
And she was a great admirer of the Scottish Enlightenment which made those things possible, and its thinkers, particularly Adam Smith.
But these things did not count to the Scottish audience, because she preached and lectured. Scots hate that, but it was all the worse coming from, it has to be said, an Englishwoman.
To a few, such as current Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, that was a motivating inspiration, but to the many, it provoked a greater and opposite reaction.
Thus, her achievements as they impacted on Scotland were either ignored or were unintended consequences.
The biggest impact she made is generally regarded as unremittingly negative – the closure in the 1980s of most of Scotland’s once-mighty heavy industry and the mass unemployment that ensued and still blights west central Scotland.
Much of this, she maintained with some justice, was caused by global economic forces. I often wonder if Scotland had become independent in 1979, would we have poured oil revenues down mineshafts and into blast furnaces, only to delay the inevitable and waste the oil bounty? I suspect so.
Few also remember that as her premiership came to an end, thanks to the Conservative policy of subsidising inward investment and commercial development, Scottish per capita GDP rose above UK levels. Privatisation was similarly resisted and resented. Yet this policy has produced some great Scottish companies – Stagecoach, FirstGroup, and SSE and much better public services – does anyone remember the months you had to wait to get a phone when they were provided by the GPO?
Quite unintentionally, that also obliterated the word British from much of daily life. British Coal, British Rail, British Steel and many other such-named nationalised industries vanished, taking their British employment with them and eroding the value of a British identity.
Then there was the community charge, remembered more abhorrently as the poll tax. Quite apart from sowing the seeds of her downfall, it accelerated the arrival of devolution.
If Donald Dewar was the father of the Scottish Parliament, Margaret Thatcher was the midwife, as the impossibility of a Scottish administration introducing, or even imagining, a poll tax became an accepted fact.
That she strengthened Scottish identity at the expense of British loyalty and that she made possible something which she fervently believed was unworkably impossible, would she have found that funny in later mellower life?
Not a chance. She had no sense of humour. I recall during one party rally at Blackpool, she strayed from her text to say that during a recent visit to Glasgow, she had met a man called Winston Churchill.
The faithful waited in vain for the point of this. She just moved back to the text which was nothing to do with either Glasgow or Churchill. Puzzled by this, I later found out what had happened.
Apparently, while being driven between engagements, she ordered the car to stop at St Enoch’s Square and leapt out to meet people unpursued by microphones and lenses.
She stopped a man and said to him in that breathy, husky voice: “Hello, I’m Margaret Thatcher.” He looked at her in total astonishment, and said: “An’ Ah’m Winston Churchill.” Then he walked on, evidently convinced he had met a nutter. He must be the only Scot who ever saw the funny side of Margaret Thatcher.