Ross Martin: How Thatcher plays in the referendum

On a visit to the National Farmers Union HQ in Edinburgh in 1983. Picture: Jack Crombie
On a visit to the National Farmers Union HQ in Edinburgh in 1983. Picture: Jack Crombie
Share this article
Have your say

The passing of Margaret Thatcher will have a bearing on next year’s referendum, and her likely toxic epitaph in Scotland will work better for one side than the other, writes Ross Martin

LADY Thatcher didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country,” declared David Cameron on the news that the former prime minister had passed away. This direct reference to the stability and security of the United Kingdom raises an interesting question as Scotland prepares to decide its, and therefore Britain’s, constitutional future; what impact will the death of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham have on the independence referendum?

Well, every Scot of a certain generation certainly has a Thatcher story to tell, many of which talk of the negative impact she had on the lives of individuals, communities or the country as a whole. Whether it’s the milk she snatched from primary school pupils’ hands, the coal communities she ravaged in her desire to restructure Britain’s industrial (and labour) base, or the lasting political legacy of treating Scots as her poll tax guinea pigs, only to be turned back at the bloody battle of Trafalgar Square by the forces of the British society she refused to believe still existed.

While much of what will be said in the next few days will be based upon myth and legend, we all have cause to pause and reflect on the impact which this political giant had on our country. Perhaps the most contemplative will be the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party and its leader, Ruth Davidson. Torn between creating a distinctively pro-Scottish character and remaining true Tory blue, does the passing of the former PM present an opportunity to strengthen the brand in Scotland, or will it simply serve to remind people of why the party became unpopular in the first place? That’s a difficult one to judge.

For many others, too, this will be a confusing time, multi-dimensional in its meaning – as was Thatcher’s time in power. Although she became the hate figure of choice for a generation, she was also Britain’s first female prime minister, smashing through the political glass ceiling and demonstrating the fateful weakness of many of the men around her. Who can forget Spitting Image devastatingly depicting her control over her Cabinet, characterising them as an array of vegetables lined up with her blue steak? Tasty political satire.

But what impact will her death have on the independence referendum? Will it boost the Better Together campaign, making the Tory brand less toxic, removing the spectre of Thatcher from the cause of the Union? Or will the passing of a PM seen by many Scots as emblematic of (south-east) England’s interests help make the case for independence by breaking yet another link to the past? Let’s have a look at the evidence, such as it exists, to try to divine the true meaning of yesterday’s historic event.

As a self-styled conviction politician who didn’t do consensus, Thatcher was a prime minister suited to the confrontational nature of Westminster politics. She was ready, willing and able to deliver a firm hand-bagging, a description she herself enjoyed, to politicians of any hue including her own. Her style was lapped up by the press, with a well-organised media effort devising her famous sound-bites for the emerging 24-hour news cycle.

“U-turn if you want to, the Lady’s not for turning” was a particularly brilliant use of media-conscious language that often caught her opposition on the hop, perhaps most damagingly for Labour at the now-infamous Sheffield rally, with Kinnock’s “We’re all right” speech allowing himself to appear as if he was already accepting victory at the forthcoming 1992 general election.

Labour’s lack of media savvy played to the carefully crafted picture of Kinnock as a “Welsh windbag” and certainly contributed to the scale of the defeat which allowed John Major, rather than the leader of the Opposition, to succeed Mrs T, after she’d been knifed by her own party. Even in defeat, Thatcher taught other parties a valuable lesson: how to depose an unpopular leader before an election. Some learned, others didn’t.

Of course, this relentless focus on media strategy was eventually picked up by what became New Labour, with the very careful messaging which surrounded all activity up to, through and well beyond the 1997 general election. Campbell and Mandelson became masters of the message, helping to craft the creation, popularity and success of Blair before his ill-fated decision to support Bush’s war in Iraq.

Early in that journey we saw the rebirth of the Scottish Parliament, and even Donald Dewar, not someone known for media awareness, succumbed to the sound-bite with: “There shall be a Scottish Parliament, I like that!”

Many of the lessons learned from this period have been seen in the subsequent Scottish Parliament campaigns, including Labour’s “Divorce is an Expensive Business” in that devolution poll, and are also apparent in the campaigns for the constitutional future of the country.

The Yes Scotland campaign in particular is constructing a series of carefully crafted messages aimed at an atomised electorate, appealing to individual interests that it hopes will result in positive group behaviour of the herd. Building upon the successful messages of the SNP’s 2007 and 2012 Scottish election campaigns, the Yes pitch is being made in much the same way as those media-focused political messages were crafted during the Thatcher and Blair years.

The trick of using an individual’s desire for betterment and turning it into a message which chimes with the wider community, or even better, the country as a whole, is a difficult one to get right. Thatcher was ground-breaking with this direct political messaging technique, appealing to the more basic instincts of individuals, but cloaked in a strong message of collectivism. Council house sales and utilities share issues were classic examples of this political genre, where individual gain translated into family values and the good of the wider community.

We’ve yet to see whether the Better Together camp will follow with the deployment of its £2 million war chest, but it’s a fair bet that suitable sound-bites will be a core part of the campaign, as will an appeal to the wallet of hard-working families. A twin-pronged political approach to hearts and minds, with possible threats to pensions being wheeled in on the back of the emotion of a world-beating British Olympics, is starting to shape the tone and tenor of their message.

In a country where coalition with the Tories has already become “the acceptable face of the Union”, with council Labour groups and others working in political partnership on shared local objectives, will the passing of Thatcher help to further mature our politics? Or will the media blitz covering the death of this “Great British Prime Minister” simply highlight her likely toxic epitaph in Scotland, thereby pushing more people into the Yes camp? That would be ironic indeed.

• Ross Martin is a former Labour councillor.