Andrew McFadyen: Thatcher years make an unwelcome return

POLITICALLY, at least, Scotland and England are very different countries. David Cameron’s position as leader of a government with only minority support in Scotland is a throwback to the Thatcher years.

In each of the four general elections from 1979 to 1992, Labour won a large majority of seats in Scotland but was shut out of power because the Conservatives were more popular south of the Border.

The Iron Lady’s cold reception in Scotland did not convince her to compromise. Instead, she seemed to take the absolute sovereignty of parliament literally and largely ignored Scottish protests.

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Supporters of a Scottish Parliament picked up a phrase first used by eurosceptics to describe the lack of accountability in Brussels and began to talk about a “democratic deficit”.

The Scottish Constitutional Convention’s final report Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right shows how civic Scotland felt itself to be under attack: “Scotland approaches a new millennium facing a stark choice. It has a distinguished and distinctive structural heritage, evident in Scotland’s legal system, its educational system, its social, cultural and religious traditions. These things are the very fabric of Scottish society, yet Scotland has come to lack democratic control over them.”

As David Torrance noted in this newspaper on Wednesday, voting habits of voters across Britain in the immediate post-war years were much more closely aligned. However, this does not mean that the UK was regarded as a single political unit.

As the role of the state gradually grew throughout the 20th century, so did the responsibilities of the Scottish Office. The secretary of state controlled the machinery of government in Scotland and his ability to draw on support from the networks of civil society gave him a degree of independent authority in the Cabinet.

Tom Johnston, who served in the wartime coalition, was probably the greatest and most effective minister ever to take charge in St Andrew’s House.

When Winston Churchill appointed him to the job, Johnston demanded the right to form a council of state of all the living ex-Scottish secretaries. If they were unanimous on any one issue, he expected the Cabinet to back him. His greatest legacy was the Hydro-Electric (Scotland) Development Act, dubbed “power from the glens”, which led to the electrification of the Highlands and Islands.

Labour’s Willie Ross was the first Scottish secretary to face the challenges posed by surging support for the SNP. He turned the political threat to his advantage, urging Harold Wilson’s cabinet to bring industry and jobs to Scotland.

A Kirk elder given to quoting the bible in his speeches, Ross also ensured that the 1967 Sexual Offences (England and Wales) Act which decriminalised male homosexuality did not cover Scotland. He argued that socially conservative Presbyterian Scots would not stand for it.

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What this shows is that while in strict constitutional terms the UK may have been a unitary state, this was not how it worked in practice.

Successive Westminster governments were careful to limit their own power in the interests of harmony.

The idea of a specific “Scottish mandate” was first raised by Jim Sillars, then the Labour MP for South Ayrshire, in a parliamentary exchange with Edward Heath in 1970.

“When the prime minister goes to Scotland tomorrow, will he look up the election results for 1970 and understand that, because he issued a separate manifesto for Scotland and Scotland voted overwhelmingly for Labour, it is claptrap for him and his ministers to say that they have a mandate for cutting Scottish public expenditure and destroying the Labour government’s investment grants scheme,” he said.

Sillars was a prophet before his time. His charge did not gain its sharpness until the 1980s when it came to be seen through the prism of Thatcherism.

Her government tore up the rules of the game, pushing through controversial policies in a way that was perceived to be insensitive to Scottish concerns, despite the fact that it was operating with minority support in Scotland. When the way that people vote seems to make no difference to how they are governed it causes a crisis of legitimacy in the institutions of the state.

Opposition crystallised around the poll tax, which formed the central part of the legislative programme in the 1986 Queen’s speech and received royal assent in time for Margaret Thatcher to announce it at a pre-election Conservative conference.

The fact that the poll tax was introduced in Scotland a year before the rest of the UK also led to the perception that the Scots were being treated as guinea pigs for unpopular policies. The message that a Scottish Parliament would have stopped the poll tax was simple and powerful.

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Devolution was intended as the solution to Scotland’s democratic deficit, but it has only partly worked because Westminster still controls the purse strings.

David Cameron has made a conscious effort to use more respectful language towards Scotland than his predecessor, but his administration is pushing through the biggest cuts in public spending since the Second World War. The current debate over the so-called “bedroom tax” raises many of the same issues as the poll tax.

Almost 100,000 Scots households will be affected when the changes come into effect in April, penalising families with a spare room, and Citizens Advice Scotland fears that 10,000 people could face homelessness.

Depending on your political perspective, this may or may not be a necessary step to cut the welfare bill, but it is a fact that the coalition parties pushing the policy through are a small minority in Scotland with just 12 MPs between them out of 59.

In this context, the charge of “no mandate” reflects not only a constitutional injustice, but a real injustice for those families who could find themselves out on the street.

Whatever the outcome of next year’s independence referendum, there is a compelling democratic logic for key decisions about taxation and welfare to be taken by politicians at a level where they can be held accountable at the ballot box for their actions.

• Andrew McFadyen is a former Scottish Labour adviser. You can follow him on Twitter @apmcfadyen.