David Torrance: Margaret Thatcher and the Scots

Margaret Thatcher at a Scottish Conservative Party Conference in Perth in 1986. Picture: TSPL
Margaret Thatcher at a Scottish Conservative Party Conference in Perth in 1986. Picture: TSPL
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IN retrospect, it could be that Margaret Thatcher’s own assessment of her Scottish legacy was also the most accurate.

Acknowledging in her memoirs that there had been “no Tartan Thatcherite revolution”, she went on to observe that the “balance sheet of Thatcherism in Scotland” was “a lopsided one”, “economically positive but politically negative”.

The positive aspect of Lady Thatcher’s balance sheet was undoubtedly true. At the beginning of her premiership, the Scottish economy lagged behind that of England, but 11 years later it was in harmony with its southern neighbour, and even a little ahead.

The post-Thatcher recession of the early 1990s barely impacted on Scotland.

Yet it didn’t seem that way at the time. Her Chancellor Geoffrey Howe’s experiment with monetarism and the deindustrialisation that followed hit Scotland hard, indeed disproportionately hard. Unemployment increased dramatically, while a grievous blow was dealt to Scotland’s image as a nation that made things. Change would have come anyway, but Thatcher made it feel personal.

But there were also seldom-acknowledged success stories. North Sea oil boomed in Aberdeen, financial services swelled in Edinburgh and Silicon Glen filled up with a thriving electronics sector. Remarkably, overall employment levels remained relatively stable, while the labour market diversified, to the benefit of part-time, self-employed and female workers.

With hindsight, there were failures, as there are with any government. The privatisation agenda could have acknowledged a Scottish dimension; North Sea revenue could have been invested in an oil fund, while the strident rhetoric deployed against striking miners could have been toned down in recognition of hard-working families trying to protect a way of life.

Mrs Thatcher, however, did not act as insensitively as she often appeared to. Although mythology dictates she “closed” the Ravenscraig steelworks, it was actually bailed out – twice – at the Prime Minister’s behest.

“In a way, it is more than Scottish jobs; it is [important to] Scottish morale,” she acknowledged in a 1986 interview. “There is a Scottish dimension as well as a steel dimension.”

WHAT of the other side of Lady Thatcher’s balance sheet, the political aspect? Her judgment that it was mostly negative only really became apparent long after her departure from Downing Street.

Curiously, her effect on the Scottish Conservative Party’s share of the vote – 25 per cent before she became leader and the same after – was neutral. Only in 1997 did the electoral damage become more obvious.

But Thatcherism in Scotland did produce a more tangible, and more impressive, legacy. Although every other party spent most of the 1980s, and ever since, condemning virtually everything she said and did, by the end of a turbulent decade most had acknowledged that she had changed the political landscape beyond recognition.

Labour ditched its loony left elements and professionalised its organisation, the Liberals merged with the SDP having failed to break the mould, while most striking of all was the transformation of the Scottish National Party, which even in the late 1980s began praising Ireland’s low-tax, business-friendly economy as a blueprint for an independent Scotland.

Fast-forward two decades and Alex Salmond told an interviewer that in terms of Thatcherism Scots “didn’t mind the economic side so much”, but “didn’t like the social side at all”.

By the “economic side”, the SNP leader meant market liberalisation, low taxation and a mixed economy which, after all, Thatcherism implicitly accepted.

Neoconservative economics had attracted even Scottish Nationalists.

Mr Salmond also made the telling observation that Mrs Thatcher had unintentionally “politicised” the campaign for a devolved Scottish parliament, which appeared to be languishing at the beginning of her premiership, but which, by its end, was alive and kicking via the Scottish Constitutional Convention and “civic Scotland”.

IN AN ironic twist, she was the unwitting midwife at the birth of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

It met, initially, at the Church of Scotland’s home on the Mound. A decade before, Mrs Thatcher had addressed (some said lectured) Kirk representatives at their 1988 General Assembly, in a famous defence of free-market economics from a theological perspective. The speech, which Thatcher later recalled had been worked more thoroughly than any other, was politically ill-judged.

It propagated an image of Mrs Thatcher as imperious and out of touch with mainstream Scottish opinion. That was undoubtedly the case, but it owed more to a failure in political strategy and presentation than any innate objection to policies like council house sales, greater flexibility in state schooling and, of course, a less rigid economy.

The biggest failure was the Community Charge, otherwise known as the poll tax. If anything captured the problem Mrs Thatcher had in Scotland, it was this debacle. But however unfair this reform of local government fin­ance turned out to be, it was never her intention to “test” it in Scotland.Again, it convinced many Scots that Margaret Thatcher viewed Scotland as little more than a socialist desert fit only for trying out right-wing ideology.

She was genuinely mystified by her political failure north of the Border. It probably didn’t bother her personally, but as a Conservative imbued with Disraelian notions of “One Nation”, it concerned her politically.

Yet her legacy, however lopsided, persists, in the language, policy and most importantly the assumptions of a devolved nation, a legacy that will – most ironically – likely persist even in an independent Scotland.

lDavid Torrance is the author of ‘We in Scotland’ – Thatcherism in a Cold Climate (Birlinn 2009).