The legacy of Thatcherism north of the border thirty years on

Gerry Hassan
6 May 2009

This is the woman that closed down our shipyards and steel mills, believed that unemployment is a price worth paying, and then told us that she knew best. If that wasn't bad enough, she used Scotland as a guinea pig for the poll tax. The Tories abandoned families and offered no support to people in desperate circumstances.

Margaret Curran, Labour MSP for Glasgow Baillieston [1]

‘Margaret Thatcher did more good than harm in Scotland’. This was the motion for a packed audience and animated discussion in Edinburgh on Monday May 4th, the 30th anniversary of Thatcher becoming Prime Minister, and marking the publication of a new book assessing the record, legacy and challenging some of the prevalent myths, ‘We in Scotland: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate’ by David Torrance [2]

The debate about Thatcherism has long been clouded in fog, half-truths and myths, of the kind articulated above by Margaret Curran, Labour MSP and defeated Labour candidate in the Glasgow East Westminster by-election last year. A whole set of worries, anxieties, feelings of loss and anger, about industrial decline, job losses and social change which were decades old, are transmuted in Scotland into a simple set of black and white attitudes and a charge sheet against Thatcherism.

The case for Thatcher was made by Malcolm Rifkind, Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea, and David McLetchie, MSP and former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and opposed by Brian Wilson, former Labour minister, and Jim Sillars, former SNP victor of the Glasgow Govan by-election.

Rifkind opened the case for Thatcherism stating that it had transformed Scotland for the good: a more dynamic, entrepreneurial economy, an end to trade union militancy, a housing revolution and education reform. He argued that when some claim that under Thatcher ‘Scots symbols declined, they need to address Black Watch and the Royal Bank of Scotland under Labour’.

Brian Wilson articulated the view against Thatcherism stressing that ‘Thatcherism needed to be seen through the prism of an ism’, and that politically and socially the Conservatives were more than happy to win elections with 40% of the population doing well and 20% being left far behind and disadvantaged.

In a lively, good-humoured evening, filled with jokes and bonhomie, discussion flowed back and forward about Scotland and the UK. Often it was unclear whether people were talking about Thatcher’s impact north or south of the border. The divided nature of the anti-Tory opposition was in full display, presenting contradictory arguments. Jim Sillars stressed Scottish difference, while Brian Wilson, claimed that Thatcherism was a British, not uniquely Scottish experience.

Both Sillars and Wilson repeatedly called themselves ‘socialists’, but it remained unclear all evening exactly what that meant and what they stood for. Neither offered any real explanation for Thatcherism. No one discussed that what they considered an abomination somehow became the political consensus of the last thirty years. Wilson in particular offered no insight or apology for his leading role in New Labour.

Large parts of the discussion were spent on the Scots sense of going on about the past, as if you could rewrite history to get your preferred outcome. Thus, the evening had never-ending debates about who did what to whom in the 1970s. This veered back and forth across areas, nearly entirely focusing on the UK rather than Scotland, such as Thatcher standing against Heath for the Tory leadership, 29 million days lost to strikes in 1979, and even, worse, from Sillars, the rights and wrongs of the Donovan Commission on trade unions in 1966 and In Place of Strife in 1969.

The most anger, passion and emotion was shown when talking about council house sales. Wilson saw the legacy of this policy as having directly produced ‘social apartheid’ and an ‘underclass’, a term he and Sillars used without any qualification or acknowledgement of its New Right origins.

This presented Malcolm Rifkind with an open goal in concluding when he said that his fellow speakers and members of the audience who went on at length about their continued opposition to this policy showed the prevalence of ‘left-wing paternalism’ and ‘middle class people who felt they still knew best’. Rifkind implied that such people hadn’t learnt much from history, but that didn’t stop Wilson, Sillars and part of the audience from wanting to rewrite history yet again.

The other touch paper issue was Thatcher’s ‘Sermon on the Mound’ to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 which at the time incensed Scots institutional opinion. Sillars and Wilson attacked Thatcher’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan with its emphasis on wealth, while Rifkind made the shrewd point that the Sermon with its moralising and message was ‘very Blair and Brown’.

The entire evening only touched in passing the journey of the Scots from being reluctant, nervous devolutionists in 1979 to emphatic, enthusiastic home rulers in 1997, and the role played in this by Thatcher and Thatcherism. It focused even less, given the grey haired male nature and Westminster bias of the speakers, McLetchie exempted, on the role of the Scottish Parliament, which for all its lack of high theatre in debates, has quietly positioned itself nurturing a very different politics, legislature and country from that of the UK state.

There was a sad sense of a passing era and age in this debate, of the remorseless decline of Labour municipalism and narrow appeal of Thatcherite Conservatism in Scotland. Neither Labour or the Conservatives north and south of the border have shown the capacity to renew themselves, and are still scrambling around under the shadow of Thatcher. It is no wonder that the SNP have been able, particularly, up until the economic crash, to dominate Scottish politics. While the Nationalists have hit problems recently, the two main UK parties on this showing, have no idea about how to begin facing up to the complex legacy of Thatcher, which led directly to the deregulation and excess which resulted in the on-going crisis.

It was still surprising, although maybe it shouldn’t have been that at the end of the evening when the motion was put to a vote, there was a slim, slender majority which said Thatcher had done more good than harm. Thirty years on, Scotland hasn’t learned to love Maggie, but beyond the predictable positions parts of Scotland have moved on. The Oxford Union debate this wasn’t, but something had shifted nonetheless.


1. David Torrance, Scotland too Critical of Margaret Thatcher, STV News, May 4th 2009, http://news.stv.tv/home/94097-analysis-scotland-too-critical-of-margaret-thatcher/

2. David Torrance, We in Scotland: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, Birlinn 2009.

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