Gerry Hassan: The Iron Lady takes centre stage once more
History calls for reflection; leaders’ standings rise and fall and then rise again, and a sense of perspective eventually emerges which tells a fuller picture.
Harold Wilson’s stock rose in the 1980s as Labour lost election after election, while some observers tried to make the case for Ted Heath’s apparently doomed premiership; in time, some will even attempt to make the case for Tony Blair.
This political stock taking moment has now come for Margaret Thatcher, aided by the release of the film The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep in the title role, along with the recent controversy over whether or not she should be honoured with a state funeral (which would make her the first former PM to have one since Winston Churchill. Gladstone, Palmerston and the Duke of Wellington previously had this honour).
One place in the world so far immune to the Thatcher reappraisal is, unsurprisingly, Scotland. Thatcher may have won three successive elections, changed Britain and reshaped our politics, but she never won a popular vote in Scotland, and rather than being a vote magnet here, she drove away popular support.
The Scottish tale of Thatcher is a potent stew which sounds like a Proclaimers record of the time, of unemployment, blight, hardship and closed industry, of the loss of coalmining, steel, shipbuilding, and other “big” things which we made and which made us.
She was, some say “anti-Scottish”, unempathetic to the Scottish values of collectivism and solidarity, seen at its worst when she had the temerity as PM to come and lecture the Church of Scotland in “the Sermon on The Mound”.
She was out to “destroy” Scotland, others say, as a nation and society, waging war on our autonomous institutions with the aim of reducing us to a postal address.
She had “no mandate” many claim, as her support dwindled at each election; her government was seen as lacking legitimacy and then committed the ultimate crime, the “imposition” of the poll tax.
Everything about Thatcher rubbed Scots up the wrong way: her voice, Englishness, and the fact she was a woman. Thatcher grated on large sections of Scottish society, with its sense of place, hierarchy and not speaking out of turn.
Scotland reacted badly to Thatcher with politicians, writers, church leaders, playwrights and musicians taking a stand against her personally and the values she represented.
Some of these interventions define us to this day. Canon Kenyon Wright’s “We are the People” address is one such example. Another is writer William McIlvanney who, in a celebrated lecture to the SNP conference in 1987, “Stands Where Scotland Did?” gave succour to the view that Thatcher was out to “destroy” Scotland as a nation and its values.
Looking back now it all seems a little over the top, highfalutin’, and defending a Scotland of the mind which didn’t exist then or now.
McIlvanney believed as many of us did then that, “We have never, in my lifetime, until now had a government whose basic principles were so utterly against the most essential traditions and aspirations of Scottish life.”
Then he went further and created a mythical Scotland stating, “I know nowhere less defined by materialism than Scotland” and then reflected on an exchange with a French friend in Paris. “The friend said: ‘I like to meet you, Willie’, and went on, ‘But you are so Scottish. Always the moral issue. The demand for justice. The world is not like that’.” McIlvanney replied: “Many Scots have always felt that it should be.”
This encapsulates the Scottish opposition to Thatcherism and our problem, the pursuit of morals. Many Scots have a love of abstract thinking and belief in first principles. This can be seen in the Scots tradition of collective utopias and redemption, whether from Kirk, socialism or independence.
That’s fine and well, but what McIlvanney’s Scotland, or this tradition, doesn’t deal in is practicalities and reality. Some Scots might like morals and justice, but how has this related to the conformist society which has run many of our institutions, or the disfiguring inequality much of which predates Thatcher?
Thatcher’s impact on Scotland was a very complex one that we are still coming to terms with. Firstly, her government did lots of negative things and their promotion of inequality and deregulation is one we are still living with. Secondly, she did aid the creation of a Scottish Parliament through her abrasive, unapologetic unionism, and her undermining of Labour municipalism, paved the way for an SNP administration and where we currently find ourselves.
There is something more we need to talk about. The unintended consequences of her revolution on society. Scotland was a very male place in 1979, dominated by big industries and “big men”.
Those livelihoods and crafts were lost by the tsunami of change which she presided over. I can’t help thinking that part of our reaction to Thatcherism is a yearning for a lost society and way of life, where men were heroes, work was masculinised and society heavily gendered. It is a lot fuzzier today.
I am not making the case for Thatcher, merely arguing that in our search for heroes and villains that we are not doing ourselves any favours. She was not a great leader as some claim, but nor was she the most disastrous we have ever seen.
She neither transformed Britain or reduced it to rubble; change was already coming by 1979; it could have been nurtured in a different, more humane way. And nor was she, as some lefties still claim, a one-dimensional class warrior.
Alex Salmond said a couple of years ago that we “didn’t mind the economic side” of Thatcherism, “but we didn’t like the social side”, and then this week claimed a prize seat in the beginning of her downfall.
Twenty-one years after her fall, can’t we Scots at least begin to understand the complex nature of the revolution she heralded here and globally? Because the Scotland we live in today has been shaped and influenced by her legacy for good and bad.