NOW that the news of the Iron Lady’s death has sunk in, David Torrance weighs up both sides of the Thatcher myth
AH TO see, as Burns put it, oursels as ithers see us. “I’m still a little floored at the level of hostility following her death,” an American friend messaged me a few days after Baroness Thatcher passed away. “I mean, that level of demonstration for someone who has been out of office for what, 22 years?”
I was less surprised. Growing up in Scotland, hostility has always been pervasive. I remember university friends planning Thatcher death parties, while a decade later colleagues of mine at Scottish Television – the 1990 Broadcasting Act seared on their minds – were scarcely less antagonistic. That her (eventual) death would be celebrated in some form was generally accepted.
Of course anti-Thatcher hostility is not a specifically Scottish phenomenon, although here it has a curiously personal edge. Thatcher closed Ravenscraig; she shut down the coalmines, as if as Prime Minister she had personally – and by implication vindictively – directed the demise of heavy industry without reference to economic winds or management desire.
James Callaghan, by contrast, was avuncular and self-evidently well-meaning, and while his government had implemented real-terms cuts in public spending (which his successor never managed), he had done it humanely. It was easy to personalise, in those male-dominated times, decisions taken by the administration of a bossy English woman with a patronising accent.
Time has not dimmed how Mark Causer, now a 44-year-old social worker, perceives the former prime minister. The words “Linwood no more” aren’t just song lyrics to him, for his father – along with thousands of others – lost his job at the car plant when he was a child. “It devastated the local community and wider hinterland,” he recalls. “My father never worked again at the age of 52.”
In the House of Lords on Wednesday, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen recalled representing Hamilton during that period. “Beyond it are the towering industrial cathedrals of Ravenscraig, Gartcosh and Dalziel, the great steelworks of the west of Scotland,” he said. “They do not exist any more. Maybe they were going to go anyway.”
Causer doesn’t accept they were going to go anyway. “I don’t think there was any necessity to it,” he says. “Other countries managed to adapt and transform that commodity, just look at Germany and other European countries.”
Elaine Price, a 43-year-old from North Lanarkshire, takes a more sanguine view. “It would have been a different figure,” she speculates, “who would ultimately take the decision that was financially viable.”
Her father, uncles and grandfather were all steel erectors at Ravenscraig, and Price nods as I comment on the frequent assertion that Thatcher closed the totemic steelworks when in fact it shut two years after she left Downing Street. “The facts get smudgy,” she says. Despite his feelings, Causer acknowledges “chips and baggage”, but believes the mythology is acceptable: “It’s an inevitable consequence of strong feelings.”
And over time the hostility has subtly changed. “Heavy steel, engineering and the coal industry were perhaps in decline all across the western world,” observed Lord Robertson, “but it was, as some of her former ministers have said, the way it was done which left the lasting impression and which will cloud the memory of somebody who made such an impact on British life.”
Of course that’s not what he, previously George Robertson, said at the time; 30 years ago the loss of Scotland’s industrial muscle was fiercely resisted. Even now some critics give the perhaps unintentional impression that were it not for that woman Scots would still be digging coal, bashing steel and building more ships; a romantic, reassuring thought with little credibility.
“Her legacy is misinterpreted,” says Price. “I’m not saying she’s entirely blameless, but a lot of people are uninformed.” Her experience as a teenager in the mid-1980s also shapes her current perception of the Thatcher era. “At 16 I had a range of opportunities. I joined a Youth Training Scheme and got a job in the public sector; I got £27.50 a week – I was a rich woman!”
For others, young and old, there was no work, a situation that for many hadn’t improved even three decades on. “Poverty was massively exacerbated during that period,” says Causer, the consequences of which he witnessed first hand as a social worker in the west of Scotland. “It never receded. I worked in places like Saltcoats and Cumnock, where there were three or four generations of the same family who had never worked.”
For Nick McAllister, who grew up in Lochaber, it was the “lack of compassion around policy, the lack of interest in unintended consequences” that still colours his verdict on the Thatcher legacy. “Free up the markets and let it go was her view,” he says. “Where they work, opportunity and prosperity abound; where they didn’t, we still have misery, inter-generational poverty, to this day.”
He mentions North Sea oil, so essential to Thatcher’s, and indeed the country’s, survival in the early 1980s. “Had we used the revenue for a future skills fund or infrastructure programme,” he says, “we might have seen a more balanced prosperity.” Yet black gold made the Grampian region one of the wealthiest in the UK. “It’s Scotland’s Oil,” cried the SNP, and no matter how much of the revenue flowed back north via the Barnett Formula, there was a perception it was squandered, not put to the best use.
The energy industry also impacted on Edinburgh’s fund management sector, as did the so-called Big Bang of 1986. Eleven years later, Charles Heenan, who was born in Montreal, arrived in the Scottish capital conscious of hostility to Thatcher yet convinced she had been one of the “stepping stones” on the path to a UK economy he still views as strong, diverse and worth celebrating.
“She had a belief in unleashing human ingenuity,” he says. “Edinburgh has always had a financial sector but it grew hugely during that period. We have to be wary of blaming someone like Thatcher for problems that are the world’s. Yes, she made tough decisions, but that probably made it less painful than it might have been. She’s a symbol of many things – as we can see from the reactions – but I still have a huge amount of respect for someone who knew their mind and was willing to fight for it.”
Thatcher’s economic legacy has been one of the elephants in the room over the past week. In the House of Commons Angus Robertson, SNP MP for Moray (once a Tory constituency), recorded his party’s “profound disagreement with her socially and economically divisive policies”, which he noted were “particularly opposed in Scotland and Wales”.
Of course, that was true in terms of deindustrialisation, but what Robertson did not acknowledge was the influence of Thatcherite economics – low tax, business-friendly policies and the language of entrepreneurialism – on not only his own party, but also – more profoundly – on (New) Labour. Neoliberal orthodoxy was at first opposed, gradually acknowledged, and finally absorbed.
Paying tribute last week, Labour leader Ed Miliband approvingly quoted Thatcher in 1982: “How absurd it will seem in a few years’ time that the state ran Pickfords removals and the Gleneagles Hotel.” “She was right,” added Miliband, and few in the Commons demurred. “It’s still here,” Causer says of the Thatcher legacy, and when asked if he believed it would ever depart he replies, a little wearily, “strangely, no”.
Yet a view persists that not only did Scotland as a whole reject Thatcherite economics, but somehow even now they are not part of Scottish public life. Writing in The Scotsman a few days ago, the commentator Joyce McMillan struggled to acknowledge that Scots too had accepted aspects of a “belief-system” she clearly found distasteful, referring to “Britain’s ruling class” as if Scotland had not been self-governing (most recently by an SNP administration) for the past 14 years.
Angus Robertson also indulged in this reassuring story of a Scotland untouched by an alien ideology. “She helped remind us that we have a national consensus that values society, values solidarity and values community,” he told MPs. Causer agrees this was a positive aspect of the 1980s. “It brought people to the streets; it united a whole generation in Scotland against those values. It politicised me.”
As Alex Salmond observed last week in Washington: “I don’t think it would be unfair to say her legacy in Scotland was to vastly increase support for a Scottish Parliament.” Otherwise the First Minister was revealingly cautious in his remarks, saying little while officials made it known he would “represent the people of Scotland” at Baroness Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday.
But then the SNP leader is as much a product of the 1980s as Tony Blair, beholden to a neoliberal orthodoxy that even a global economic crisis has not shaken. Even independence, the “radical” break with the British state once pitched as the ultimate rejection of distant rule by English Tories like the Iron Lady, is now envisaged along Thatcherite lines.
Salmond made a name for himself disrupting Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget in order to register “Scotland’s opposition” to the Poll Tax, and it is here that the mythology is particularly intense. Even the historian (and Labour MP) Tristram Hunt argued on Tuesday that the Community Charge, “was first tried in Scotland”, reinforcing the Scotland-as-guinea-pig theory that still dominates the collective consciousness.
“The Poll Tax was hugely unfair,” recalls Price, “but what I was expected to pay then didn’t seem very unrealistic – although I was working by that point.” Ironically, the earlier introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland actually demonstrated Thatcher’s pragmatism, her ability, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind put it, to “not only listen but to change her mind”. Scotland, claimed Scottish party grandees, wanted the Poll Tax. She listened (against her better instincts) and provided her blessing.
Thatcher’s acolytes, of course, indulge in mythology of their own, overstating the extent to which she truly transformed the UK economy and “saved” (to quote David Cameron) the country following the division and strife of the 1970s. Scottish Tories trod carefully last Monday, conscious that gushing tributes might backfire. For them Mrs Thatcher is not an easy asset.
On Monday afternoon a few hundred people gathered in George Square to, as George Galloway put it on Twitter, “tramp the dirt down”. Television pictures captured a Communist Party banner; while Rita Connolly (61) told a tabloid newspaper she was “down to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher. She ruined communities and will not be forgiven”.
McMillan, meanwhile, generously conceded it would not be her “personal choice” to “celebrate the death of a frail old lady”, but nor did she condemn those who did. “She was just an elderly woman from London who I didn’t know,” says McAllister. “I felt elated when she left power, but neutral when I heard the news on Monday.”
“I don’t feel any badness towards her,” reflects Price, adding that the scenes in George Square were “just wrong”. “Scots definitely have a love/hate relationship with her,” she adds, “but often perception and reality don’t go together.” Such a nuanced view is rare, for most Scots made up their minds decades ago. The Iron Lady is dead; long live the Thatcher myth.