Games with Shadows: Living in Thatcher’s Scotland
Open Democracy, April 10th 2013
We live in Thatcher’s Britain, yet that statement is obvious, contentious and deeply divisive. And this is all the more true of Thatcher north of the border.
Thatcher is simultaneously both history and present day. You can hear this in the differing accounts on TV and radio; with conservative figures claiming she remade the modern world from knocking down the Berlin Wall and freeing Eastern Europe, to preventing a future ‘socialist Britain’; while elements of the left wail in pain and agony at how events have turned out and their inability to come to terms with the country and politics she created.
We live in an age as much shaped by Thatcher as the previous political era: the so-called ‘post-war consensus’, a phrase seldom used in that era, and only invoked at its fag end. The date of Thatcher entering office, 1979, is exactly halfway between 1945 and today. Therefore, we are 34 years from Thatcher’s first victory; and 34 years from then to Clement Attlee’s historic mandate. And given that there are detailed studies of ‘the post-war consensus’, we should be able to begin to do the same with Thatcherism, but instead we are still arguing over what it means.
In Scotland, Thatcher’s reign, implications and legacy is even more subject to myth making and misunderstanding. Take popular vote. The Scots Tories were in trouble long before Thatcher (1). The patrician, grouse moor Tories of Macmillan and Home had a resonance and reach in Scotland. The long story of Tory decline from Eden’s 50.1% in 1955 to 24.7% in October 1974, predates Thatcher.
In fact, if we accurately assess Thatcher’s popularity she inherited that 24.7% in 1974 and saw their vote fall to 24.0% in 1987 which isn’t much of a decline; the Scots Tory number of Westminster seats fell from 16 to 10 over this period while the English vote rose from 38.9% in October 1974 to 46.2% in 1987 (the usual comparison is between 31.4% in 1979 and 17.5% in 1997, the latter with zero seats, but that includes seven years of Major as PM) (2).
We have to consciously remember and recall as accurately as memory will allow the lost Scotland that some think Thatcher took away from us, but which in reality was in deep turmoil and fracture in the 1960s and 1970s. This world is one of a closed, managed society of powerful elites made mostly of professional interest groups which learned to invoke a progressive language and appropriate the values of social democracy and collectivism to ingratiate itself with political culture; and avoid difficult questions and scrutiny.
This was a society of deference, authority and trust in ‘high Scotland’ pre-1979; the world of enlightened council officials, simultaneously caring, judgemental and punitive; of the power of the Kirk and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland being broadcast live on TV as if it were the Parliament of the nation (something which continued into some point in the 1980s). And of course it matters that most positions of power in public life were held by middle aged men. It isn’t an accident that Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Sermon on the Mound’, the ‘Claim of Right’ and Scottish Constitutional Convention, and first years of the Scottish Parliament, were all held in the same Church of Scotland building.
‘False Memory Syndrome’ Scotland
What we are witnessing is ‘False Memory Syndrome’ Scotland. This forms a set of collective memories which state that Thatcher hated Scotland, set out to destroy us, deliberately inflicted the poll tax on us as an ‘experiment’ and closed the pits, shipyards and steelworks (3). This isn’t about facts but folk stories; it is irrelevant that Ravenscraig was twice saved from closure by the Thatcher Government and shut by Major in 1992.
A Glasgow taxi driver talked to me about the appetite for destruction Thatcher had for all things Scottish and said, ‘When I look at Margaret Thatcher and Adolf Hitler, I know which one I hate most because of what they did to Scotland’. He did mean the first of the two, and with a twinkle in his eyes smiled and said, ‘I know it is wrong’. What excuse did William McIlvanney have when he delivered his ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did?’ lecture in the 1980s, and actually dared to suggest that Thatcher wanted to wipe Scotland as a set of values and ideas off the map, and reduce us to geography (4). The bigger crime is that we listened and believed it at the time.
Institutional establishment Scotland at its core has always done self-importance, certainty and smugness. Elements of public life are happy to declare that our elites aren’t really elites. They are the people’s elites if that isn’t too Blairite. If you think that is just a quip then Magnus Linklater, former editor of ‘The Scotsman’ and the Scottish edition of ‘The Times’ and serial sitter on many of the great and good panels and boards of Scotland, said in a book entitled, ‘Anatomy of Scotland’, that, ‘It would … be very hard to talk about a Scottish ‘establishment’’ (5). Who needs satire or a Scottish ‘Private Eye’ when we have this?
They have good reason for their sense of importance, for they have run Scotland since the union (and before I surmise). Post-1707 as political power moved south they were left to administer the dense set of networks of Scots society; with the added bonus of an absence of political scrutiny and accountability.
Then Thatcher came along and challenged their right. Their response was to invoke the idea of ‘civic Scotland’ which had never much been heard of pre-1979 and throw their weight behind the notion of a Scottish Parliament (which previously they had been suspicious of), to maintain the positions, privileges and the complex negotiated order which they managed.
That’s why ‘civic Scotland’ cannot stand Thatcher to this day; her politics, philosophy and ism were a direct threat to their time honoured way of doing things before. And no one had asked them before to justify what they were doing in the name of the people.
Change was coming. Thatcher went with the grain of economic and social change in Britain at the end of the 1970s and put her emphasis on it. The so-called ‘post-war consensus’ was falling apart. This doesn’t mean that Thatcherism was inevitable, merely that change was coming and political attempts to reverse decline; in the early 1980s there were three political projects on this, Thatcher, Bennism, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with the last two dividing and destroying the twin forces of opposition. Thatcher’s ‘modernisation’ to use that discredited Blairite word, gave voice to a whole host of powerful economic and social changes, the rise of empowered individualism, a more questioning view of authority, and a more pro-business, low tax economy, And some may not like this, but in its wake, New Labour and Alex Salmond’s SNP have followed; they are both ‘Thatcher’s children’.
‘Civic Scotland’ still doesn’t understand this. It wants to go back to the Scotland of the past; to talk as Joyce McMillan did on ‘Newsnight Scotland’ about how good the 1970s were. It gets you into all sorts of confusion, for you have to argue as McMillan did that the major root of all public sector problems are coming from the UK and London policy classes; and then ignore that Scotland has been self-governing in most of its public services for over a decade as David Torrance pointed out in the same programme (6). The inconvenient truth is that Scotland’s elites have in time honoured practice chosen accommodation with the corporate orthodoxies of pseudo-marketeerism; and that is something that is our choice and responsibility, not London’s.
Whose Parliament and Scotland is it?
It is often said that Thatcher was the midwife of the Scottish Parliament. In some respects this is true but the Parliament had many parents – Labour, SNP, the unorganised, collective wishes of the Scottish people. And then there is ‘civic Scotland’.
Canon Kenyon Wright writing ostensibly about Thatcher turned the focus back on his own role in history, declaring that some have called him the ‘father’ of the Scottish Parliament (7). It is a presumptive, inaccurate statement, of the entitlement classes, who for generations ran the Empire with the English, and then administered the burgeoning welfare state in their own version of the Scots Empire state.
This group believes that the Parliament is theirs because they think that Scotland is theirs, in the way that Labour claim ownership of the NHS (‘our NHS’). Margaret Thatcher and her ism they state without a shred of irony is ‘not one of us’. It is an instinctual, emotional ‘claim of right’ over the Parliament’s genesis, and we have to say, firmly and politely, no to it.
Scotland cannot go back to its past, to the predictable, caring, suffocating, ordered society that many of us grew up with. In our hearts and hopes, we know the multiple characteristics of that system, compassion and diligence for sure, but orthodoxy and small minded, petty officialdom as well. Its clarion call was ‘planned freedom’, a very Scottish concept if ever there was one, freedom for a purpose if you behave, with the result being ‘learned helplessness’.
We have to finally realise that democratisation, disputation and pluralism are our future. We should embrace and champion them, and answer the question, democratisation for what? We have grown up these last few years as a society, and yes we still have some growing, learning and maturing to do. Margaret Thatcher may have inadvertently contributed to the self-governing Scotland of today, but the time has come for us to stop playing games with shadows, hunting for the pantomime villain to blame all our woes on, and get on with creating a better, fairer nation.
These few days should be a time for reflection and release. We don’t have to be Thatcher’s Scotland if we don’t want to be.
1.David Seawright, An Important Matter of Principle: The Decline of the Conservative and Unionist Party, Ashgate 1999; James Mitchell, Conservatives and the Union, Edinburgh University Press 1990.
2. All figures from Colin Rallings and Michael Trasher, British Electoral Facts 1832-2012, Biteback Publishing 2012.
3. David Torrance, ‘We in Scotland’: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, Birlinn 2009; Gerry Hassan, ‘It’s Only a Northern Song: The Constant Smirr of Anti-Thatcherism and Anti-Toryism’, in David Torrance (ed.), Whatever Happened to Tory Scotland?, Edinburgh University Press 2012.
4. William McIlvanney, ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did?’, in Surviving the Shipwreck, Mainstream 1992.
5. Magnus Linklater, ‘Foreword’, to Magnus Linklater and Robin Denniston (eds), Anatomy of Scotland, Chambers 1992.
6. Newsnight Scotland, April 8th 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01rxhwt/Newsnight_Scotland_08_04_2013/
7. The Herald, Letters Page, April 9th 2013, http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/why-we-should-give-thanks-to-mother-of-scottish-parliament.20740869