According to Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, he has “never witnessed, since the days of Margaret Thatcher, a political leader that was so divisive”.
Given the sheer volume of divisive leaders across these islands, that have arisen and fallen since the Thatcher years, Leonard could really have been talking about anyone.
Was he referring to Tony Blair, who divided the country over the Iraq War, a conflict in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were killed and over which many looming questions remain? Perhaps it was a nod to Gordon Brown’s patchy stewardship of the UK economy as Prime Minister, when he was undone by a lot of his own decisions in his previous role as Chancellor, including deregulation (and Brown-nosing) of the financial sector. Then again, he may have been talking about David Cameron, who gambled the farm to appease the nut-jobs in his own party, and lost it all spectacularly when Britain voted to leave the EU.
But no, Leonard did, in fact, describe First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as the most divisive leader since Thatcher during an appearance on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland show.
Granted, Sturgeon is not exactly flavour of the month. Her decline in popularity can be traced directly back to her decision to hitch a second referendum onto the omnishambles that is Brexit.
That political rush of blood to the head, in the chaotic aftermath of the referendum on EU membership, may yet go down as the moment the SNP – at that time the most powerful force in Scottish political history – began its slow, inevitable decline. Then again, it might not.
And if one thing is sure to raise questions over Leonard’s judgement, amid talk of a Scottish Labour revival, it’s an absurd comparison between the First Minister and the socially corrosive and altogether toxic legacy of the late Margaret Thatcher. What is such a ridiculous remark supposed to achieve, Richard? Such a comparison is obscene in its stupidity. In the next few weeks, I’ll be applying for a baby box for my daughter who is due in April. In that box, which also functions as a cot, I will find months’ worth of useful items, including clothes, muslin cloths, a travel changing mat, an ear thermometer and even a wee thing that helps me check the temperature of my new-born’s milk without having to touch it. The only thing that divided people when it came to baby boxes was the fact that every family expecting a baby was to receive one.
Now let’s rewind to the year I was born: 1984. With Thatcherism in full swing, my community became an incubator for crime, violence and alcohol and substance misuse. The dream of the housing scheme – an ambitious social programme designed to raise the quality of life for thousands of families – quickly turned into a living nightmare.
Thatcher’s radioactive social and fiscal policies, whether taking an axe to the only industries which provided a route out of poverty, guinea-pigging regressive taxation on the poor or, in 1971, snatching free school milk from the hands of working-class children revealed one thing: her entire posture towards the poor and vulnerable was cold, ill-considered and detached. Thatcherism led to a generation of children growing up in alcholic homes, in communities they were deeply ashamed of, in conditions of chronic psychosocial stress so severe that it morally deformed many of them.
Thatcher, her spineless, servile lackeys, and their collective social ineptitude, all but gutted these communities of their morale and dignity. Then, having ripped out every means by which people may lift themselves up, Thatcher turned around, with a grin on her face, and smugly told those same communities to take responsibility – to the rapturous delight of the very small cross-section of the population who stood to benefit from such lunacy.
Those were the years when being working class, rather than a mark of pride, became a source of shame. Something you’d happily get into debt attempting to conceal, while numbing yourself to the reality of social immobility by indulging the slew of toxic coping strategies now provided by the new, hyper-intuitive neoliberal cathedral lurking on the edge of your housing-scheme like a hungry monster.
American-style malls, which have come to replace youth clubs, churches and libraries as the heart of working-class communities, now function as social mobility simulators, where people can purchase the fleeting illusion of moving up the ladder, while fully submerged in economic quicksand.
The River Clyde, once a global symbol of industrial prowess and opportunity, is now most notable as the murky, watery grave many of the city’s inhabitants will choose to abbreviate their lives. A river lined by gated, trend-ridden housing, hypnotic 24-hour casinos and American diner food most people can’t afford to access.
Sturgeon is a lot of things, and nationalism (of all kinds) can certainly cause division, but this is surely a question of scale. Comparing the First Minister of Scotland to Thatcher is not only wrong and absurd, but also deeply offensive. Sturgeon gave us baby boxes, reversed the bedroom tax and has pledged to create a fairer social security system, in consultation with people who have experience of welfare. Thatcher gave us corpses with needles hanging out of their arms and a generation of traumatised children who had to be raised by grandparents. Get a grip.
Such a comparison could only be possible if you’ve abandoned all reason, in pursuit of a cheap political point. Therefore, I implore those of you who found yourself nodding in agreement when you read Leonard’s remarks, to reconsider their implications. And to all the Thatcherites out there, spitting teeth in your tea at the thought of the Iron Lady’s legacy being tarnished, I look forward to seeing you in hell.