Thatcher's shadow falls over Alex Salmond

Gerry Hassan
26 August 2008

Alex Salmond's remark to Iain Dale that Scots 'didn't mind the economic side' of Thatcherism, created a storm of hypocrisy and exposed a fundamental truth about Scottish politics, argues Gerry Hassan, in a swiftly written essay. Mainstream politicians are as united in tacitly accepting Thatcher's legacy as in publicly abominating her policies.


British politics have for the last thirty years been shaped by Margaret Thatcher, Thatcherism and the legacy of Thatcher’s period in office.

All of the mainstream politicians who have followed her – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron at a UK level, and Alex Salmond and his Labour predecessors as First Minister in Scotland – have been influenced by her, and their politics shaped, defined and framed by her and her achievements. This has been thrown into sharp focus by recent remarks - and the reaction to them - made by Alex Salmond in an interview for Total Politics with Iain Dale, who thought them so obvious as to be quite uncontroversial.

The fact that the political world we live in has been created by Mrs. Thatcher is well made by Simon Jenkins in his persuasive thesis, ‘Thatcher and Sons’ where he examines the Thatcher legacy and its acceptance by Major, Blair and Brown. This entailed the reconfiguration of politics, the state and polity around a new credo of free market capitalism, deregulation, privatisation, celebration of the super-rich, alongside increased centralisation and an authoritarian, powerful central state.

Blair and Brown both famously courted Margaret Thatcher once they arrived in office; both invited her to No 10 Downing Street, while at the same time overtly accepting, embracing and extending the nature of the Thatcher revolution. While they were doing this, large parts of Labour continued to see Thatcher as a hate figure and Thatcherism as something they totally detested.

This produced a strange kind of almost Alice in Wonderland politics whereby Blair and Brown attempted to send out overt signals to former Tory voters that they understood their concerns, while continuing with her policies and operating within her legacy, and at the same time, offering the pretence that they disagreed with large parts of her legacy by creating a caricature of it: going about three million unemployment or the ‘Black Wednesday’ moment of Major’s government. At its core New Labour was, in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Thatcherism consolidated’.

‘Bathgate No More, Linwood No More’ and Thatcherism North of the Border

The way Thatcherism has been perceived in Scotland has been even more pronounced on the surface, but even more complex and complicated underneath. The combination of Thatcher’s English persona and style, English nationalism and the fact that the Tories were increasingly a small, declining minority of votes, always meant that Thatcherism was never going to win the popularity stakes north of the border. Part of this was no doubt due to Mrs. Thatcher’s personality rubbing Scots up the wrong way, as much as her policies.

The Thatcherite agenda produced north of the border economic and social dislocation with massive de-industrialisation, hardship and poverty, which were interpreted in Scotland increasingly in the 1980s as ‘anti-Scottish’ – something that the North of England, Yorkshire and Wales shared in policy-wise, but could not experience through the same paradigm. The poll tax was important in precipitating this disparity as it was imposed on Scotland first: the country was singled out as a test case a year before the rest of the UK. There was a genuinely proconsular aspect to this, as one of the most Tory of policies was rolled out in the least Tory province, which precipitated anti-English sentiment.

However, as with all things life was a little more complex that the ‘Bathgate no more, Linwood no more’ lament of The Proclaimers – who compared Scotland’s experience of Thatcherism to the Highland Clearances. Scottish people enjoyed many of the benefits of Thatcherism – buying their council houses and privatised shares, while higher public spending continued north of the border – but they just didn’t vote Tory as a result of it. Instead, the majority of Scottish opinion, aided by the grotesque imposition of the poll tax, moved into a position of feeling both the ‘victim’ of and ‘morally superior’ to, the rest of the UK.

Scottish politics for the eighteen years of Tory rule was characterised by opposition politicians – Labour, Lib Dem, SNP – trying to outdo each other in their opposition and rhetoric towards Thatcher. This was an era of symbols and shibboleths which defined the nation’s resistance to Thatcherism: Linwood, Invergordon, Ravenscraig and Rosyth. All but the last were closed under the Conservatives and each cause, campaign and crisis was meant to signify that the Union might be under threat. Two politicians who excelled in this climate were Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond.

Understanding Thatcherism in the post-Thatcher Age

The election of New Labour and acceptance and consolidation of much of the Thatcher legacy, led to Scottish politics moving on as well, but with the continuation of an even more complex Alice in Wonderland set of attitudes. With the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, both Scottish Labour and the SNP had to emphasise their ‘Scottish’ credentials and their difference. They did this by stressing that they were more left-wing and social democratic than parties south of the border, and continuing with the language of detestation towards Thatcher and Thatcherism. While they presented themselves in this way, both parties moved in the same direction as New Labour and came under the same influence: accepting the logic and values of the post-Thatcherite environment, while pretending otherwise.

Thus, we come to the importance of Alex Salmond’s recent remarks on Margaret Thatcher. Salmond stated:

The SNP has a strong, beating social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself. One of the reasons Scotland didn’t take to Lady Thatcher was because of that. It didn’t mind the economic side so much. But we didn’t like the social side at all.

He then had to qualify his remarks almost immediately, taking the unprecedented (and slightly embarrassing) step as First Minister of Scotland of phoning in to BBC Radio Scotland’s Saturday ‘Morning Extra’ programme to state:

I’m well on the record as never having approved of either Margaret Thatcher’s social or economic policies – that’s clear if you look at the interview.

He also commented that he would not be following Gordon Brown (and Tony Blair before him) of inviting Margaret Thatcher for tea. Subsequently Salmond said about his remarks:

I was commenting on why Scots, in particular, were so deeply resentful of Thatcher and I think here her social message epitomised in the unfair poll tax and her comments of ‘no such thing as society’ cut against a very Scottish grain of social conscience. That doesn’t mean that the nation liked her economic policies, just that we liked her lack of concern for social consequences even less.

Now it does not take a Kremlinologist to work out the difference between Salmond’s first and last statements. The quote that Scots ‘didn’t mind the economic side so much’ is a tacit acceptance and endorsement of Thatcherism’s economic agenda; in his follow up comments Salmond attempted to quote his ‘economic and social side’ remarks and deny that they were in any way support for Thatcherite economics.

What was as revealing was the reaction to the remarks. The ‘cybernat’ community tried to defend Salmond saying this was not an endorsement of Thatcherite economics; that New Labour has more embraced it, and so on. Labour politicians attacked Salmond’s ‘own goal’ and ‘praise of Thatcherism’. Most interesting of all was the comments from some of Salmond’s critics in the Nationalist community. Jim Fairlie, a senior figure in the party in the 1980s called the remarks ‘a qualified acceptance of Mrs. Thatcher’s economic policies’ and talked of Salmond’s ‘drift to the right’. Jim Sillars, SNP victor of the 1988 Govan by-election commented:

It is revisionist nonsense for Alex Salmond to suggest that our society only objected to her social policies, while we accepted her economic ones.

What is going on here is that Salmond has violated the first cardinal rule of Scottish politics after Thatcher: that is namely to vilify, degrade and denounce Thatcher and Thatcherism with every word in your vocabulary, while being influenced, shaped and following in her footsteps. To be flattering, he made the ‘political error’ of being too relaxed and speaking with a degree of honesty.

All of Scotland’s mainstream political parties have had their policies and philosophies altered by Thatcherism, while at the same time, they continue to articulate a social democratic centre-left politics which has been diluted and diminished by Thatcherism; you can even include the Scottish Tories in this equation as they have been consistently devoid of a right-wing agenda and gone with the grain of Scottish politics. When you combine this mix with the national question, Scottish centre-left politicians have to emphasise even more than south of the border, their distinctiveness and moral disgust at the world Mrs. Thatcher brought about.

The ‘Catch-All’ Nature of the Scottish Nationalists

Alex Salmond’s remarks and the controversy they have caused have to be seen in this context. He has inadvertently blown open the Alice in Wonderland mentality and Janus-like attitude which exists across the whole of the UK and the political spectrum about Thatcher and Thatcherism, which is just more acute and sensitive north of the border.

The SNP like Labour north and south of the border are a broad coalition of social democratic sentiment which has acquiesced with Thatcherism and the neo-liberal project. It is not for nothing that the SNP, like Scottish Labour and New Labour, is ominously silent on the central issue of political economy. Salmond’s acceptance of the dominant economic order was evident in remarks in the same interview:

I suppose I have tried to bring the SNP into the mainstream of Scotland. We have a very competitive economic agenda. Many business people have warmed towards the SNP. We need a competitive edge, a competitive advantage. That side of SNP politics – get on with it, get things done, speed up decision making, reduce bureaucracy.

These remarks reveal the ‘catch-all’ nature of the SNP’s political agenda, and the reality that for all its popularity, statecraft and progressive elements which have been on show since it came to office, social democracy and challenging the vested interests of the global order, are just as unsafe in the SNP’s hands as they are in Scottish Labour’s.

The political project of the SNP is a ‘Scotland plc’ – not that different from the kind of economy and society envisioned by Labour modernisers, only independent. That is one of the defining features of Scottish politics: the lack of a real, distinct set of political differences between Labour and the SNP beyond independence. And that leads us to the second cardinal rule of Scottish politics after Thatcher: because of that lack of substantive difference, Labour and SNP go at it upping the ante and vitriol between each other.

The current Nationalist vision of the world is one where a ‘national project’ will see an independent Scotland and its government align with business and corporate interests to promote the nation and compete in the global economy. Jim Mather, Enterprise Minister, an ardent marketer, once commented: ‘Any notion that an independent Scotland would be left-wing is delusional nonsense’; Mike Russell, Environment Minister, penned a book ‘Grasping The Thistle’ one year before becoming a minister, filled with the most fundamental free-market proposals.

Alex Salmond, once a radical left-winger in the days when he was an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland in the 1980s, has now undergone a full conversion to celebrating and advocating corporate interests. This can be seen in Salmond’s fully fledged support for Donald Trump’s luxury golf development in North East Scotland, or his consistent advocacy for the corporate interests of the Royal Bank of Scotland: the fifth largest banking group in the world. Sometimes it seems as if Salmond sees the interests of RBS and the Scottish economy as being one and the same; this is a bank which employs 8,500 people in Edinburgh.

1979 And All That: The Power of the BBC Consensus

There is a larger set of questions for Scottish and UK politics posed by this episode. How long are politicians in Scotland and the UK going to continue being defined and shaped by Thatcher and Thatcherism? For how long are we going to continue to allow them to act in the two-faced, hypocritical, talking one way and acting another manner towards the Thatcher legacy?

Alex Salmond inadvertently has hit a raw nerve with his recent comments. He has shown the lack of straightforwardness and honesty that lies within the SNP acceptance and continuation of Thatcherism, that is much like Labour’s. By doing so has exposed the narrowness of the SNP’s rationale as a party to the ‘left’ of Scottish Labour. 1979 was a long, long, long time: over a generation ago. Yet, its myths, folklores, triumphs and limitations still shape our politics, our political debate and political horizons and imaginations.

The current political, economic and social impasse has a direct linkage and causal relationship to the events and forces which emerged in 1979 and this cannot go on forever. However, no political settlement just collapses because of the weight of its own internal contradictions, but requires a counter-movement and set of stories. It took over thirty years before the previous watershed - 1945 - was challenged and overthrown. But that was part of an international, neo-liberal mobilisation for a new global arrangements. Despite the limitations of Thatcherism and flaws in the neo-liberal worldview, of which the ‘credit crunch’ is the latest example, we don’t yet have any countervailing economic and social strategy.

Instead, we still live in the world created by Thatcherism: the world of the BBC consensus: Blair, Brown and Cameron (with Alex Salmond providing a supporting role). It is aptly titled for it is comprehensively signed up to by the influential and powerful in the UK whether they are in politics, the corporate world or the media. The bandwidth of what is politically possible and imaginable is defined by these elites, and what passes for their commentary unquestioningly supports the present political, economic and social order.

We should be grateful to Alex Salmond for being relatively honest about this and scornful of the hypocrisy of those in the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats who want to deny their subordination to the Thatcherite hegemony. It is up to progressives and democrats of every and no party to challenge this state of affairs. We have to push and pull, dream and work, to devise new counter-movements and widen our political horizons and imaginations from their current straightjacket.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst and author and editor of twelve books on Scottish and UK politics including The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas, After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade and The Political Guide to Modern Scotland. He can be contacted on: [email protected]

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