David Torrance: Debunking the myths about Margaret Thatcher and Scotland
David Torrance is a former political reporter for Scottish Television who is now a freelance writer, journalist and broadcaster. Last year he wrote the biography of George Younger and next week sees the publication of his latest book, 'We in Scotland' - Thatcherism in a Cold Climate.
The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper once wrote that he believed ‘the whole history of Scotland to have been coloured by myth, and that myth is never driven out by reality, or by reason, but lingers on until another myth has been discovered, or elaborated, to replace it.’ In the 1980s I would contest that the Scots discovered such a myth, that of a Mrs Thatcher who did not understand Scotland, neglected it, hated it and even sought to use it as a ‘test bed’ so malicious was her vendetta against it.
Myth Number One - Margaret Thatcher hated Scotland
The first, that Mrs Thatcher hated Scotland simply doesn’t stack up, although the perception manifested itself fairly early on. Even in December 1979, just months after she became Prime Minister, a journalist put it to her that because Scotland had a majority of Labour MPs the Prime Minister ‘had not all that [much] sympathy on Scottish issues’. This provoked a rather sharp response. ‘Absolute nonsense,’ she snapped, ‘I spend a good deal of my time on them and I think possibly visit Scotland as a part of the UK more than anywhere else.’ This was true, yet it still became a standard exchange of the Thatcher era in Scotland: accusations that the Prime Minister did ‘not care’ rebutted with counter-accusations that Scots had simply failed to notice just how much she did.
It is true, however, that Mrs Thatcher knew little about Scotland, either personally or politically. The Scottish issue that had dominated her four years as Leader of the Opposition was that of devolution for Scotland, a Heathite policy commitment she had gradually eroded with substantial fallout at Shadow Cabinet level. This certainly gave rise to frustration when it came to Scotland, but not hatred. George Younger, for example, recorded a very telling remark in his diary in late 1978: ‘Mrs. T. said that if Scotland rejects the Assembly [in the referendum planned for March 1979] we would have to try to be as helpful as possible. But if Scotland chose an Assembly they would get nothing.’
Scotland, of course, did not quite reject the Assembly, and it certainly didn’t end up getting nothing from Mrs Thatcher. In terms of public expenditure, the disproportionate spending levels Scotland had enjoyed since the 1960s were at no point seriously disrupted by her governments, while her instinct when presented with Scottish Office advice to take the harsher edges off her policies north of the border was usually to acquiesce. In fact Mrs Thatcher was usually pragmatic, if not overly cautious, when it came to Scotland, and willingly accepted the need to appeal to the Scottish dimension, even if her attempts at doing so were not particularly effective.
It is truer to say that she ‘hated’ socialism and the socialist culture she saw in Scottish trade unions, Scottish local government and Scottish housing schemes. But then in this respect, Scotland was no different in her eyes from parts of England or, indeed, the nations of Eastern Europe. But if Mrs Thatcher had truly ‘hated’ Scotland, or at the very least not cared about it, then there were lots of obvious targets for those feelings which weren’t pursued.
Myth Number Two - Margaret Thatcher deliberately sought to destroy Scottish industry
A second myth relates to the decline of Scottish heavy manufacturing and, in particular, the steelworks at Ravenscraig. To suggest that Mrs Thatcher deliberately sought to destroy the symbolic trio at the heart of Scotland’s industrial sector – shipbuilding, coalmining and steelworks – is simply absurd. All three were in long-term decline long before she reached Downing Street, and all suffered more as a result of the global recession which coincided with the 1979 general election than anything Mrs Thatcher’s governments did (although it is important to note that most economists accept that the policy of ‘monetarism’ did make the impact of this recession much worse). What proponents of the argument conveniently ignore is the small detail of foreign imports undercutting shipbuilding, coalmining and steelmaking. As Pink Floyd memorably put it, although in a very un-PC way, ‘if it wasn’t for the Nips being so good at building ships, the yards would still be open on the Clyde’.
But, as the journalist and Thatcher biographer Hugo Young observed, ‘The refusal to prop up lame ducks with public money was one of the most aggressively stated of Tory policies, but large exceptions were made in practice’. So far from closing Ravenscraig, Mrs Thatcher formed a protective barrier around this small corner of industrial Scotland. But it would also be absurd to pretend that Thatcher envisaged a long-term future for the plant. Its workforce fell sharply under her premiership and critics consistently complained of deliberate under-investment, not to mention the closure of the Gartcosh finishing mill in 1986. Yet, considering that the British Steel Corporation was itching to close it down, both before and after its privatisation, Mrs Thatcher’s role was more positive than negative. Indeed, it was her voice which proved crucial in reprieving Ravenscraig at a Cabinet meeting in December 1982.
Myth Number Three - Margaret Thatcher set out to "test" the Poll Tax on Scotland
Another myth, that Mrs Thatcher ‘tested’ the Poll Tax on Scotland is perhaps the most corrosive and persistent of them all. The chronology of the Poll Tax, however, offers no evidence for this oft-quoted claim. Ministers were already working on alternatives to the Rates – not exactly the fairest form of local taxation itself – when Scotland endured a rather traumatic revaluation in early 1985. The resulting political outcry that generated did spur Mrs Thatcher on, but her intention was always to phase in the Poll Tax on a Great Britain-wide basis over several years. Crucially, those who had her ear on Scottish issues – George Younger, Jim Goold, the Scottish Tory Chairman, and Willie Whitelaw – all thought differently and persuaded her to let the Scottish Office legislate early and separately ahead of the 1987 general election. She only agreed to this reluctantly and her bitterness is clear from her memoirs. ‘If, as the Scots subsequently claimed, they were guinea pigs for a great experiment in local government finance’, she wrote in The Downing Street Years, ‘they were the most vociferous and influential guinea pigs which the world has ever seen.’
Indeed, therein lay an obvious retort to the ‘guinea pig’ argument: why, having ‘tested’ the Poll Tax unsuccessfully in Scotland was it then applied to England and Wales with no major changes? So, a badly thought out and unfair tax? Certainly; A tax maliciously ‘tested’ on Scotland? Certainly not.
Myth Number Four - Margaret Thatcher attacked the Church of Scotland
The fourth myth relates to perhaps one of Mrs Thatcher’s most famous speeches, and certainly the most famous in a Scottish context: her address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 1988, otherwise known as the ‘Sermon on the Mound’. This quickly became a standard reference point, if not the standard reference point, for the Thatcher era in Scotland and is always remembered as a wicked onslaught against not just the Church of Scotland and all right-thinking Christians, but by association against Scotland itself.
In fact, the speech could barely be termed ‘Scottish’ at all, beyond a few token references to Sir Walter Scott. Instead, if you actually read the speech – and I suspect few people actually have – its tone is remarkably emollient. Mrs Thatcher was genuinely interested in religion, indeed her bed-time reading was almost exclusively theological in bent, and she constantly emphasised that hers was a personal take on the gospel, rather than a dogmatic attempt to reinterpret it from a Conservative, or even Thatcherite, point of view. Several passages caused particular, and rather puzzling, offence. For example her suggestion that the Good Samaritan would not have been able to offer help to the man who fell among thieves if he had not himself been a rich man was ill received, even though the observation was self-evidently true.
But although it has long been assumed that this hostility manifested itself during, and indeed immediately after, Mrs Thatcher delivered her speech, the reality is more prosaic. I recently watched a film recording of the whole ‘Sermon’ and it is punctuated with polite, but often spontaneous clapping. Similarly, its conclusion is greeted with enthusiastic, and sustained, applause, far from the ‘stony silence’ described by some historians. In fact the hostility manifested itself some time after Mrs Thatcher’s speech, and it was on the airwaves and in newspaper columns, rather than in the hall itself, that Kirk ministers condemned the speech as ‘the most extraordinary reading of scripture’, a ‘travesty of the gospel’, and so on.
Myth Number Five - Margaret Thatcher destroyed the Scottish Conservative Party
My fifth and final myth is that Mrs Thatcher somehow ‘destroyed’ the Scottish Conservative Party. Although the party certainly had its problems in the 1980s, there has been a tendency to exaggerate her impact on its electoral prowess then and since. Initially, she actually had a positive impact on the party’s fortunes. At the 1979 general election the Scottish Tory Party increased its share of the vote and number of MPs to 31.3% and 22 MPs respectively, more than the SNP managed at its height in October 1974. And in the elections to the European Parliament which followed in June that year, the Conservatives in Scotland increased their share of the vote to almost a third, more than Labour, and won five out of eight seats.
This showing was not significantly eroded when Scots next went to the polls in 1983, with the party retaining a total of 21 MPs (one had been lost at the Glasgow Hillhead by-election in 1982) and just under 30% of the vote, quite a remarkable outcome considering the impact of the recession on Scotland in the previous four years. So it’s the 1987 result that sticks in people’s minds as evidence that Thatcher destroyed the Scottish party, when it lost all but ten of its MPs and polled just over 24% of the vote. But although bad, the party had fared even worse between the two general elections of 1974, held before Mrs Thatcher became Conservative leader, when its share of the vote fell by 8.2% to 24.7%. And when one looks at the 1992 general election in Scotland – held a year-and-a-half after Mrs Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister – the results show that the party increased its tally of MPs by two and also its share of the vote to more than it managed in October 1974. So, if anything, Mrs Thatcher’s impact on the Scottish Conservative Party was surprisingly neutral; the real decline came between 1992 and 1997, with only a marginal recovery since.
So the million-dollar question is why did all this mythology arise, and why was there such tension between Scotland, or more accurately the majority of Scots, and Thatcherism? It seems to me that hating Mrs Thatcher (who apparently hated Scotland) was simply a convenient excuse for not addressing some of the issues she legitimately raised in relation to the role of the state and the status of the individual. So instead of confronting head on long-term problems facing Scottish industry and society, we bundled up everything perceived to be bad and gave it the wicked-sounding name of ‘Thatcher’, while grouping all the supposed alternatives into something with the more positive-sounding tag of ‘devolution’.
But even after ten years of devolution, not to forget 12 years of Labour governments who have, at least until recently, followed Thatcherite economic orthodoxy, still an unthinking anti-Thatcherism persists north of the border. Ironically, having succeeded in breaking up one consensus – that of the post-war era – Mrs Thatcher inadvertently gave rise to another, the widespread belief that she hated, and indeed sought to destroy, Scotland’s society and political culture. And that, I think, is the biggest myth of all.