Declassified government papers reveal Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind faced hostility from cabinet colleagues over efforts to secure additional support for Gaelic broadcasting.
During discussions ahead of the Broadcasting Bill in 1989, Mr Rifkind argued Gaelic programming should be subsidised on the same basis as Welsh channel S4C, which received support worth £50 million a year to produce 1,300 hours of programming.
The Scottish Secretary said that while there were far more Welsh than Gaelic speakers, he warned: “I cannot see a difference of principle and the Scottish population as a whole will not be able to see one”.
But Chancellor Nigel Lawson refused to sign off on any additional funding from broadcasters or central government, saying there was “little demand for the 100 hours of Gaelic TV broadcast at present.”
Mr Lawson added: “I do not believe we ought to inflict more on a largely unwilling audience.”
He was joined by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Nicholas Ridley, who said: “It is one thing for the Scottish Office to promote Gaelic culture, even to the extent of giving it financial support, but quite another to impose that culture on a population, 98% of which cannot speak the language”.
The Prime Minister’s advisers warned the “danger” of funding Gaelic programming was that “it opens the door to other minority languages - which on grounds of numbers have a far better claim that Gaelic”.
They claimed calls for more programmes had not come from Gaelic speakers, but from “prominent members of the Scottish television industry who see their budget being augmented in this way”.
Papers reveal Mr Rifkind was “taken aback” by his colleagues’ opposition. Asked to weigh in on the dispute between her ministers, Margaret Thatcher wrote that she “strongly” supported the Chancellor.
Funding worth £8 million was eventually found from the Scottish Office budget, increasing Gaelic TV spending by almost nine times and raising output to 300 hours a year. Average viewership of Gaelic channel BBC Alba alone now exceeds 600,000 a week.