Lesley Riddoch: No disrespect, but debate goes on

Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
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IS IT a snub to Margaret Thatcher to debate her legacy at the same time as Wednesday’s funeral?

The five-member Green and Independent group at Holyrood prompted a salvo of (generally) hostile headlines by announcing they’ll debate “There is still such a thing as society” just after Mrs Thatcher’s coffin has been carried to St Paul’s Cathedral for a ceremonial funeral with military honours.

The group gets one debate a year. The date was chosen in January, long before the Iron Lady’s demise, but the topic was chosen after her death. The group could only ignore or tackle a momentous coincidence they did not create. With just one more debate in their gift before next year’s referendum they chose the latter option. Were they right?

Scots can’t pretend we liked Mrs Thatcher – the proof is in the voting. But nor do we generally feel comfortable with dissing the dead.

The Green debate is a game attempt to square these two realities, focus on the policies, not the woman, and give the Scottish Parliament a chance to revisit an important debate they couldn’t enter first time around.

This, of course, is not how most papers see it.

Under a headline, “MSPs opt for Guevara over Lady Thatcher” one title recollected that 25 MSPs backed a motion celebrating Che Guevara as a “hero” of the Cuban Revolution last year whilst only nine – all Tory – signed a Holyrood motion last week recognising the achievements of Mrs T.

Is this an accurate representation of real Scottish opinion, the paper asks, or empty leftist posturing? It’s an important question which the “society” debate might help us answer.

Of course anger so easily aroused so long after Margaret Thatcher’s “reign” does look synthetic. But how “should” everyone feel? Pushing Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead to 
No 2 in the charts may seem childish – but the BBC’s declared intention not to play the track looks heavy-handed when the gesture evidently conveys the feelings of tens of thousands of people.

Then there’s the exorbitant cost of the funeral itself. Few Presbyterian Scots would back a £10 million funeral for anyone. But pollsters ComRes found six out of ten Brits also object to the price tag – including one in three Tory voters. The bishop of Grantham has courted controversy to criticise the amount being spent and Lord Prescott has broken ranks to call the funeral a “political propaganda exercise”.

It takes two sides to give and take offence. The more the establishment have assumed they can sanctify Mrs T’s memory without opposition, the more they have fanned the flames.

David Cameron recalled MPs from their Easter recess to eulogise Thatcher’s memory but not to debate military intervention in Libya in 2011. Was that right?

Boris “Zipwire” Johnson lost contact with the planet again when he suggested a new Thames airport should be named Margaret Thatcher International. It was an idea only marginally less provocative than pronouncing: “You either accepted an Argentine victory or else you defeated Galtieri. You either took on the miners or else you surrendered to Marxist agitators.” In other words: “No Surrender”. If Boris doesn’t know he’s stoking up reaction, he truly is a buffoon.

Likewise the full page advertisement placed by Saatchi’s in a Sunday newspaper depicting Mrs T waving a union flag above the strapline: “The best client we ever had.” Just a teeny bit opportunistic?

Yet it seems we ain’t seen nothing yet.

According to the Cherish Freedom Trust, Cabinet ministers will back a massive fundraising exercise to be launched on Thursday honouring the former PM in the manner of a US president with a library and museum built in her memory.

London police are apparently warning protestors not to upset mourners. But isn’t there the slightest chance such gung-ho “mourners” are upsetting protestors too?

Can the Holyrood “society” debate possibly be constructive in such a fetid atmosphere?

Tim Knox, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, insists the Iron Lady’s apparently cold-hearted denial of commonality was taken out of context, so the CPS website has re-published her full statement.

The key part reads: “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

Well, do Scots agree with that sentiment, reject the idea state support induces dependency or want to approach welfare from a new perspective? It’s a question worth asking and worth Conservative involvement. But that seems very unlikely. No-one can resist the temptation to grandstand over the tastefulness of Maggie’s final farewell.

The CPS website itself carries an astonishing advert for “The Think Tank – founded by Margaret Thatcher” with a small tank sporting a union flag which rolls forward to “fire” the words “free markets, a small state, low taxes, individual liberty, national sovereignty” from a raised gun.

Distasteful? By comparison the Scottish Greens can hardly spell the word. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right.

So is the Green-Independent group making opportunistic use of Maggie’s funeral? Surprisingly, for politicians often dismissed as “earnest do-gooders” – they probably are. According to Green convenor Patrick Harvie: “I do want to attack Thatcher’s legacy. But I’d be happy if she was alive and Thatcherism was dead. This is the right time to re-evaluate her impact on our lives.”

Surely he’s right.

Mrs Thatcher’s admirers say “left of centre Scotland” is just a myth. If they’re right – we should know. If they’re wrong – we should expect MSPs to get on with a cross-party plan.

The Scottish public would be mightily impressed if MSPs could set aside bitter party rivalry for just one day to formulate a powerful, eloquent and dignified joint statement of Scottish values. Ironically Mrs T has created that opportunity.

The most divisive figure in recent history has given Scottish politicians she barely rated the chance to overcome division, show leadership and reassert the importance of “that thing called society”.

It’s probably the most honest tribute we can give.