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Imagine a Scotland where Thatcherism never happened

The past of Thatcherism tells us one potential vision of the future to avoid: both in terms of savaging public spending and a mindset of bunkerism.
Gerry Hassan
22 November 2010

‘It was twenty years ago today ….’ No, not the latest anniversary of the never-ending sixties nostalgia and the Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album.  Instead, on Monday November 22nd it is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

Mrs. Thatcher and Thatcherism have for so long cast a deep, dark shadow over our lives, that the twentieth anniversary of the fall and Tory regicide are an appropriate time to assess what her real impact was on Scotland. What would Scotland be really like if Thatcher had never become PM and Thatcherism had never happened?

The assumption of much of chattering Scotland is that without Thatcher and Thatcherism Scotland would be a very different place: one more warm, insulated, comfortable and kind – the sort of Scotland we imagine in our conversations with friends, family and acquaintances.

Therefore what if Thatcherism hadn’t happened and Scotland was broadly the same place as it is today? This would tell us something uncomfortable, disorientating and perplexing about the official story of Scotland.

This isn't a pro-Thatcherite argument; it is a perspective about trying to understand what happened to Scotland, economically, socially, culturally and politically these last thirty years, and make sense of who we are and what happened from 1979 onward.

It is rather easy as a counter-factual history to imagine a world in which Mrs. Thatcher never became PM and Thatcherism remained a right-wing fantasy. Thatcher was not that popular or sure-footed as Tory leader of the opposition, and she only won the convincing mandate she did in May 1979 because Labour imploded in ‘the winter of discontent’ giving her the fertile popular territory to build Thatcherism – a term invented by some of her more intellectual left-wing critics.

The Scotland of 1979 now seems a distant and foreign land. This was a society which still had significant traditional and manufacturing industries, a macho masculine culture in much of public and private life, and a politics based on deference, order and preferment which spilled over into systematic corruption.

For all the dew-eyed sense that the Scotland of the past was this caring, egalitarian land where we looked after the weakest, this was a society deeply conservative, authoritarian and unpleasant in lots of ways. If you stood out as being different, as gay, from an ethnic minority, young, an outsider or rebel, the conformist culture squashed, oppressed or ridiculed you.

It is true that the Scotland of that past was already undergoing significant change even before Mrs. Thatcher got the keys to Downing Street. The totems of much of this near-Scotland: shipbuilding, mining and steel – were already in significant decline by 1979. All of these had suffered huge declines from their golden ages, and were hanging on perilously by 1979.

What was still prevalent at this point was a disproportionate concentration on the industries of the past, and an over-romanticisation, which it has taken decades to decline, and which has not completely evaporated. Part of this is wrapped up in the idea of real work involving making things, physical effort and men being men.

Most of the economic and social changes we associate with Thatcherism would have happened. Scotland would have become a place in which industry, work and society were more individualised and less collective. We would still have become a more unequal, less secure society, one with more children, households and pensioners living in poverty, but less so. And controversially, we would still have council house sales, a policy which began nationally from the late 1960s onward; it would have been much smaller scale and the monies used for investment in public housing.

What Scottish critics seldom take onboard with Thatcherism is two fold: first, that Thatcherism was significantly mitigated in Scotland by the buffer of the Scottish Office; I know it didn’t feel like that to most of us at the time but many of the harsher effects of Thatcherism were held in check at the border. Second, many of the changes associated with Thatcher were economic and social changes where she went with the grain of society; that’s what all successful political projects from Attlee to New Labour do: they offer an explanation of society and identify and champion various groups who are already emerging.

The one clear cut example of Thatcherite dogma is of course the infamous poll tax, and we can concede that without Thatcher as PM one of the most disastrous post-war domestic British government policies would never have seen the light of day outside of the right-wing think tanks.

Arguably without the experience of Thatcherism Scotland might not have come around to the Parliament in such a relatively short time historically from the indecision of 1979. It was Thatcherism which convinced institutional Scotland – which had been suspicious of or anti-devolution in the seventies – that devolution was better than Tory Westminster rule. Institutional Scotland chose devolution to perpetuate the self-preservation society which characterises so much of Scots public life.

Without Thatcherism – Scotland’s story of itself – would be very different. There would be no Proclaimers songs of such potent economic and political loss which speak to us in the here and now.

There would be less a sense of a past country lost which people openly lament for. And the embittered chip on the shoulder black and white thinking brigade would have less of a case to rest their anger on.

How often do you still hear: Thatcherism shut down Scotland, closed our industries, and hated us? It was and is wrong, delusional and harmful. One version of Thatcherism is an emotional and political crutch to tell us a comforting story of what happened in recent times. It is helpful sometimes to have a bogeyman and to imagine the world has monsters in it.

Not everything that happened in Scotland these last three decades was wrong, damaging or evil. Good things happened as well as bad: Scotland became a more pluralist, tolerant, democratic place: a nation prepared to vote for a Parliament in name if still unsure what to do with it.

And all of this matters today, as we are away to re-enter the bunker and tunnel vision of ‘ConDem nation’ and the world of cuts. The past of Thatcherism tells us one potential vision of the future we have to avoid: both in terms of savaging public spending and a mindset of bunkerism.

Re-published with thanks from Gerry Hassan's Scotsman column.

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