Watching the excellent BBC series The Thatcher Revolution brought back memories for those of us who lived through that turbulent period in British politics. As a Young Conservative in the late 1980s, I knew many of the key players in the latter stages of Margaret Thatcher’s period in office.
I can recall making a rather precocious speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 1989 on the risks of poll tax implementation, and being cornered that night at the YC dance by the Leaderene herself, who sought me out to discuss my views. She did enjoy a good argument, as did I. We parted on good terms, but history would prove me right.
By that point in her leadership, as this excellent documentary series made clear, Maggie was starting to lose her grip. In office for ten years, after three unprecedented general election victories, she had started to believe that she was invincible and had a monopoly on wisdom. Whilst others might see that it was time for her to move on, there was, in her view, simply no one else capable of doing the job.
She was increasingly disengaged from her backbenchers, seen as aloof, out of touch and unprepared to listen. When challenged for the leadership by Michael Heseltine, her team assumed that Conservative MPs would rally to her support. But they were wrong – by this stage it was too late to make up ground, and the Iron Lady was toppled. It is a salutary lesson to all leaders not to lose touch with their footsoldiers.
I wonder if Nicola Sturgeon had time to watch the series, and saw any parallels with her own position. It is becoming a common complaint amongst SNP backbenchers at Holyrood that the First Minister is out of touch. Some are positively salivating at the prospect of the upcoming Alex Salmond trial which, they believe, might prove to be a career-ending moment for her. There is open debate about who might replace her as First Minister in that event.
There are disagreements within the SNP about tactics for a second independence referendum, with some feeling that the First Minister is simply too cautious in her approach. But the issue which has done most to expose the disconnect between her leadership and her backbenchers has been the debate around reform of the Gender Recognition Act. This seemingly uncontroversial move to simplify the process of gender change has become heated and highly politicised.
A number of women’s group have raised concerns about the conflation of the quite different concepts of biological sex and gender identity, which potentially leads to fully male-bodied individuals accessing women-only spaces. There has been a furious debate, not just on social media, around these issues, with misogynistic slurs such as ‘TERF’ and “cisgender” being thrown around, the feminist icon Germaine Greer being no-platformed from universities, women’s meetings picketed, and even allegations that those opposing GRA reforms have been physically assaulted by trans activists.
These broader concerns are reflected on the SNP benches at Holyrood, with the MSP Joan McAlpine being a courageous, and outspoken, critic of the pace of reform. She is by no means alone. A significant group of SNP backbenchers feel that their worries about these issues are being ignored by a First Minister whose strong personal commitment to GRA reform means that she is simply not listening to other voices.
In last week’s statement made to Parliament on the way forward in this area, there were some signs of softening in the Scottish Government’s stance, with a promise of further consultation and consideration of the way forward, in an effort to build wider consensus.
But the feeling remains that if concerned SNP MSPs had not gone public with their criticisms, in some cases risking their careers to do so, then they would have been ignored by an out-of-touch First Minister. It is still not impossible that we could see ministerial resignations on the issue, such is the strength of opinion in some quarters.
The Alex Salmond situation, the referendum strategy, and the gender identity issue, are all areas where there is serious discontent within the SNP with the First Minister’s approach.
Despite all her successes, Margaret Thatcher found that losing touch with her backbenchers was eventually fatal to her leadership. Will Nicola Sturgeon end up going the same way?