Some years ago I had the privilege with many other colleagues to attend the last public lecture before his death given by Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar.
It was held in Trinity College, Dublin, and warmly appreciated with considerable acclaim by the audience of Ireland’s great and good.
At that time, I was the convener of the Irish Scottish Academic Initiative, which brought together leading universities from both nations. It was, therefore, my duty to act as host to Mr Dewar in the dinner that followed his memorable performance.
He was quiet and seemed tired. In order to engage him, I brought up the old adage of him being the Father of the Scottish Parliament. His reply was immediate and robust: “Tom, you know as well as I do that the only parent of the Scottish Parliament is Margaret Thatcher.”
We then discussed and agreed that if the decade of the 1980s could be removed from Scottish history, then there would be no parliament in Holyrood.
There can be little doubt, therefore, that the Thatcher years were critical to the constitutional history of the Scottish nation.
In 1979, the people of Scotland had given only tepid approval for devolution. There was a modest majority in favour, but this did not reach the level for approval set by the Westminster parliament. Not only that, the nation was divided. Only the Central Belt voted overwhelmingly for a Scottish assembly. In the immediate aftermath of the failed devolution proposal, those who favoured greater powers for Scotland were in a condition of semi-nervous breakdown.
This was also the beginning of the long era of Margaret Thatcher’s governments. A new coinage entered the political dictionary. “Thatcherism” implied rigorous financial control, an energetic attack on inflation (“the British disease” that had plagued earlier governments), and ideological opposition to trade unionism and state intervention in economic activity. The market was now to rule. The post-war consensus on commitment to full employment was destroyed.
Undeniably, Margaret Thatcher became in those years an ogre for the Scottish population, an unenviable reputation which has been maintained. Her clipped southern English upper-middle-class accent jarred. The apparent remorselessness of her economic policies was perceived to have been the basis of rapid and painful Scottish deindustrialisation.
However, some historians have rightly argued that the historical forces making for the collapse of the old Scottish economy were much more important than the whims of a single politician.
By 1980, the great industries of Scotland had become historical dinosaurs. They were wiped away not only by significant increases in interest rates by the first Thatcherite government, but by the upward swing in world oil prices and the fact that several industries, including shipbuilding and heavy engineering, had been on a life-support system since the end of the Second World War.
Where then stands the relationship between Margaret Thatcher, the Thatcher years and the rise of devolution? The connection was profound. First, the Tory governments of that period changed the Union relationship which had been in place since after the Jacobite risings of the mid-18th century. Over many generations, the Westminster government had kept out of Scottish politics in a condition known as “semi-independence”. Now there was to be full-scale intervention which conflicted deeply with Scottish political and social values. One of the reasons why devolution became more favoured was that a Scottish parliament was seen to be a potential protective shield against such alien policies.
Second, the heavy industries were not only part of Scotland’s economy, but of its national identity. The Thatcher governments, therefore, were seen to be bent on nothing less than an anti-Scottish crusade, not least when the hated poll tax was first imposed north of the Border. All this led to a resurgence of the movement for more Scottish powers in Scotland.
Third, the Thatcher years led to the immolation of the Conservative Party in Scotland – and hence weakened the Union. To this day, the Tory party has not recovered from the memories of those years of the 1980s.
Fourth, a number of other factors were loosening the Union connection in the later years of the 20th century. They included the rise of new nation states after the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the end of the British empire and an increased sense of Scottish identity as the nation was pressed to search for its own intrinsic values. But there can be little doubt that the combination of policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher’s governments in those years was central to the emergence of a powerful movement for more self-government in Scotland.
• Tom Devine is senior personal research professor of history, University of Edinburgh.