Thatcher 30 years on

THIRTY years on from her becoming Britain's first woman prime minister, the very mention of Margaret Thatcher's name seldom leaves people unmoved, one way or another.

This applies particularly in Scotland, where she has become virtually enshrined in folklore as a political bogeywoman – "Maggie Thatcher, milk-snatcher", as they used to chant.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, who became prime minister on 4 May, 1979, is seen by some as a powerful figure who revitalised the economy, necessarily took on the trade unions, and became a player on the world stage with her ideological soul-mate, the US president, Ronald Reagan.

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But she was also widely reviled for eroding social policy and public spending; for the demise of the Ravenscraig steel plant; for her intransigence during the miners' strike and subsequent dismantling of the coal industry and, of course, for what was perceived as the policy of using Scotland as a testing ground for the hated poll tax, amid scenes of protest that produced political martyrs such as Tommy Sheridan. Repealed in 1991, the unpopular community charge is now regarded as having given a significant boost to the advent of Scottish devolution.

The past few years have seen political reassessments, biographies, even TV dramas about the Iron Lady. On Monday, a new book by political journalist and author David Torrance is launched – We in Scotland: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate – which seeks to redress what he perceives as established myths about her relationship with the Scots – 30 years on, some people may be mellowing towards her, yet in many quarters she remains "that woman".

But popularity was never really an issue, suggests Michael Forsyth, a minister in the Thatcher government and later a Conservative secretary of state for Scotland. "The thing you have to understand about Margaret Thatcher is that she never cared about what people said about her, but she did care what people said about her country," says Forsyth, today Baron Forsyth of Drumlean. "She was not a focus-group politician.

"If you're saying did she do things that were unpopular – well, as whoever wins the next general election is going to discover, when the economy is going down the pan and you have to make tough and difficult decisions, you will not find popularity. But if you get them right, you might get respect."

Forsyth, who still sees Thatcher regularly, describes her as "a thoughtful, kindly person". He adds: "She loves an argument, but woe betide you if you turned up to have an argument with her and you hadn't marshalled your facts."

Forsyth recalls her formidable work ethic: "When I was a junior minister in her government, I was rushing across the central lobby and David Davis (the former Conservative Party chairman], who had just got in, said, 'Slow down Michael. Rome wasn't built in a day.' And I said, 'Yes, well, Margaret Thatcher wasn't the shop steward on that job.' She was relentless, and she's still like that today."

Someone else who recalls Thatcher as both charming and a formidably sharp operator is Bill Hughes, a London-based Scottish businessman and former treasurer of the Conservative Party in Scotland, who was Scottish chairman of the CBI in the late 1980s when he advised Thatcher on introducing the Scottish Enterprise network. "She was charming, with those intense blue eyes that absolutely concentrated on you when you were speaking with her. You might have been the only person on the planet."

Intimidating? "Initially perhaps, but she was just giving you all her attention, which was flattering, because many senior people just don't do that."

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He recalls himself and Malcolm Rifkind, then a Cabinet minister, meeting Thatcher at Chequers. "It was reasonably early – we'd gone down on the first shuttle, and the first question she asked us was something about crop yields in Scotland. And we just didn't know the answer. I remember asking Malcolm later, 'Where did she get that knowledge?' And he said, 'She listens to the farming programme (on the radio] in the morning.' Later on she quoted something from The Economist, and I asked Malcolm where she got time to read The Economist. And he said, 'Oh, she reads that before she listens to the farming programme.'"

Hughes believes, however, that Thatcher was never at ease with dealings north of the Border. "She wasn't over-comfortable in Scotland. It was a strong socialist pitch, and I think she was conscious that she hadn't a base of any size there."

So far as the despised poll tax was concerned, he reckons: "The very fact it eventually had to be aborted suggests it wasn't the best of moves. I think she saw some very positive aspects to it, but it just wasn't a runner. I don't think she ever got over that so far as Scotland was concerned."

However, the widely held view that Thatcher used the Scots as "guinea pigs" for what was officially titled the community charge is spurious, argues political writer David Torrance. "It would be foolish to claim that she wasn't widely disliked in Scotland," says Torrance, "although I don't think she was quite as widely disliked as some assume."

He adds: "There is no defence to offer (on the poll tax]. It was clearly a bad tax, but to say it was 'tested' on Scotland misunderstands the motives of the Conservative government and also how Scottish local government was legislated for. The motivation was to get rid of the rates, which were unpopular, and get in a new system before the next election because they thought this was a vote-winner. The idea that they were deliberately inflicting something seen as bad on the Scots is just political mythology."

Myths have accrued, too, Torrance would argue, around the controversial "Sermon on the Mound" episode, when Thatcher addressed the May 1988 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in a speech regarded by some as an attempt to hijack the gospel to justify her own political views. Thatcher told the General Assembly that the Old and New Testaments had given her "a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and the principles to shape economic and social life".

Several clergymen registered their objections – Torrance, however, believes the speech was simply "a highly personal take on the gospels". He says: "She is personally very interested in theology. If you actually read the speech, and I suspect few people have, it's hard to see what the fuss was about. One segment that caused upset was her analogy that the Good Samaritan wouldn't have been able to help someone out if he hadn't been rich. That's self-evidently true, but it touched a raw nerve."

Then the newly appointed convener of the Kirk's Church and Nation Committee at that Assembly, Reverend Norman Shanks is now retired. He recalls "a whole range of political issues" dealt with by that Assembly as being critical of the Thatcher government – "particularly on social and economic policies".

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He says: "The Assembly listened to her politely and courteously. But my own feeling and, I think, that of many people was that she just got the mood wrong. If she had made a prudently low-key semi-political speech, I think it would have gone down much better than the slightly preachy, hectoring sermon she delivered. And it was a bad sermon."

Some three decades on Baroness Thatcher, as she is now, is 83 and, according to her daughter Carol's memoir of last year, suffering from the onset of dementia. Recently, the BBC television drama Margaret depicted a more vulnerable, even tearful figure during her last days at Number 10 (played convincingly by Lindsay Duncan, an actress with a decidedly anti-Thatcherite pedigree, having supported the miners during their strike). Two years ago Thatcher became the first British prime minister to be honoured with a statue at Westminster within his or her their lifetime. There are even Che Guevara-style T-shirts sporting featuring her substantially coiffured image.

Are we learning to love Maggie in comfortable hindsight, or is the Iron Lady fixed firmly in our demonology? Torrance believes that perspectives are shifting in London, "although I'm not altogether convinced that they are in Scotland. Here you still get hit with the mantra of the poll tax, she didn't care about Scotland or its manufacturing, etc."

For his part, Hughes reckons any shift in the Scottish perspective on Thatcher will take much longer: "The history books might look at things differently, but within this generation it's going to be very difficult for people to see her in any other way."

And in Scotland's one-time mining communities, any softening of attitudes is simply not on the cards, suggests Nicky Wilson, president/secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland, who was on the NUM Scottish executive during the bitter miners' strike of 1984-85. The antipathy to Thatcher was quite personal, he says: "We realised that it wasn't wages or conditions we were fighting for, it was our very existence and our communities. She was the leader of the political party that was out to destroy the NUM – other unions too, but we were the chosen battlefield.

"We were fighting to protect the industry and we've been proved right, as 25 years on we've got a country that has to import 60 per cent of our coal for power stations."

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, out , out! was the soundtrack to many a demonstration during the 1980s, and when she finally went, in November 1990, there was widespread jubilation. This writer recalls, on the evening of her resignation, seeing a solitary figure, slightly the worse for wear, literally skipping down a street in Edinburgh New Town, chanting "Maggie's awayee, Maggie's awayee," like a delighted child.

He wasn't the only one: the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown recently recalled hearing the news of her departure announced over the Tannoy at Glasgow Airport: "The entire airport burst into spontaneous applause; it went on for about five minutes. There was real heart in this. It wasn't only clapping, but shouts of joy as well.

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People were hugging one another and shaking each other's hand. It was as if the city had collectively won the FA Cup."

David Torrance's book We in Scotland: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate (Birlinn, 20) is out on 31 May