Monday, 8 April 2013

Thatcher and Scotland - the legacy of self-rule

Lady Thatcher has died, and while it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, the former Prime Minister was so demonised in Scotland that there will be few homes in which the mirrors will be draped with black cloth tonight.

There are more myths about Thatcher and Scotland than there are around Loch Ness, so they are best put to rest before the orations are made or before an arm stretches for the bottle cork.

In the mists of time she will be remembered for imposing the poll tax on Scotland, for the demolition of heavy industry like Ravenscraig steelworks and for reducing the number of Scots Tory MPs to nil. In fact, she did none of these three things.

It was the Scottish Tories themselves who demanded that the community charge, an individual local levy for services, be introduced in Scotland because they feared the backlash that would come from a long overdue rates re-evaluation.

Little did they know what they had sown, and the poll tax, introduced a year early in Scotland as a result, went down as a Thatcherite experiment on the back of an browbeaten nation.

Ravenscraig, of course, did not close until John Major was Prime Minister, and Margaret Thatcher actually gave British Steel extra subsidy to keep the steelworks open. Scotland kept returning Tory MPs, including her greatest disciple Michael Forsyth, for seven years after she left office.

There is only one certainty in Thatcher’s Scottish legacy - the movement for self-government and the independence would not have become half as strong had it not been for how unfairly Scots felt Thatcher had treated them.

Her biggest legacy in Scotland was that she engendered so much hatred that collectively the nation decided they never wanted to see her like again.

She hastened the movement for home rule and in 11 years as Prime Minister she made the process of devolution unstoppable.

The body politics of Scotland scorns Thatcherism, it is like a touchstone of the nation. But virtually all politicians are bound to the political path she established - private sector delivery of services, cuts in the size of the state, and market competition almost unfettered by government rules. She moved all of Britain to the right, and we have stayed there, even  though she could not destroy the spirit of 1945 that laid the basis for the welfare state.

She re-discovered British patriotism - the Falklands saved her and 255 servicemen paid in blood - but she hated the real patriotism people showed to loved institutions like the BBC and the NHS, and the spirit of British tolerance. Few will dance on her grave, but Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening was a balletic response to how Britain overcame her legacy of division.

Her philosophy was summed up in the notorious Sermon on the Mound, her address to the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 in which she tried to twist Christianity into a theology for capitalism and the market economy.

It was so far removed from the consensual, social Scotland that the speech provoked uproar and was seen as pivotal moment in the relationship between a Prime Minister who thought there was “no such thing as society” and a country which deeply valued its communities and sense of belonging.

Without Thatcher Scotland would be a completely different country, an unimaginable one.

She presided over the destruction of the old heavy industries that gave central Scotland its 20th century Labour identity. The deep mines, the shipyards and steelworks, the state industries and the certainties they provided for a largely male workforce are almost all gone.

They may have staggered on with the subsidy of a devolved Scottish Assembly, had it happened, or re-elected Labour government but they were wiped out by her Tory government and the march of globalisation.

She moved the great giants of the state -electricity, gas, telecoms and railways - wholesale into the private sector and undermined the power of the trade unions by using the police and the law against them.

The war with the miners, it could not be described as anything less, destroyed not just an industry but the basis for the existence of whole communities. From one end of Britain to the other Thatcher left communities without purpose, or reason, or hope. These deep wounds are still felt collectively and in some places she will never be forgiven for that radical change to our lives.

What is remarkable about modern Scotland is how much of that community and political cohesiveness survives as the country forges a new identity on a completely different economic base.

Yes, without Thatcher Scotland would now be a different country, one that would not be so far down the road of self-determination.

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