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Post-Thatcherite Scotland

scotmagDespite desperate (frantic) attempts to re-write history with variations of ‘Scotland never rejected Thatcher’  by an assortment of  scribes (no names necessary*) the reality is, we did. This is a really good time to reflect on what that rejection meant and means today.

Did we reject Thatcher? Yes we did at a fundamental base value level, and we still do. It’s why the cortege of Thatcher fans and apologists that besieged our airwaves this week seemed so odd. Here was people speaking openly – in public – in favour of Thatcherism.

The tortured stupidity of Ruth Davidson was a glory to behold as she trotted out her defence of the Iron one. ‘She was more pragmatic than people thought’  she blabbed at one point citing ‘she stock-piled coal prior to the strike’ as evidence for Maggie’s non-ideological pragmatism.

[Note to self:  she’s not very bright]

The weird sexualised sycophancy of Lord Forysth was only marginally worse, referring to the 1975 leadership campaign he quips about a bawdy sticker: “There was the most almighty row because the slogan was: ‘Put a woman on top for a change.’ I thought she’d never speak to me again but typically she pretended not to understand the double-entrendre.” This is Tory comedy Carry On style.

The evidence for this rejection is everywhere:  from support for the abandonment of selling of council housing in Scotland (though the media obsessed about how Scotland embraced this and conveniently ignored its abject failure in repossessions) to the  dramatic collapse of the Tory vote from 31.4% in 1979 to 17.5% in 1997 when we first established a Tory-Free zone. All of this through to the visceral decades-on anger, it’s on everybody’s lips it’s in everyone’s clenched fist.

poll-tax-scotland

But of course the clearest example was the largest civil disobedience campaign in British history, the struggle against the Poll Tax, which seems to have been wiped from the history books by those seeking to prove that there is no or little difference between political cultures and movements north and south of the border. This memory-loss needs to be challenged.

jumperLeast of all Thatcherism was rejected in Scotland culturally because it represented Chingford Britain, a petty Little-Englandism writ large, with Tebbit’s Cricket Test and Monday Club nationalism overseeing a decade of Union Jack thuggery on the terraces of Chelsea, Milwall et als. This jarred.

Why wasn’t she more popular in Scotland? Aside from the obvious decimation of manufacturing (some have it that 250,00 people lost their job during her time), maybe something of the brutal certainty didn’t chime also. There was a deep-seated arrogance to her idea of TINA: there is no alternative. But watching the re-runs you realise this is the wrong question. It’s not ‘why didn’t  Scotland love Maggie, it’s why did she gain such support at all?’ The terrible hackneyed oratory, the awful sound-bites and the collection of very odd men that surrounded her look bizarre in retrospect.

Why didn’t Scotland embrace her? Because she combined a moronic simplism with a sure-fire certainty about  a political project that didn’t make sense even within the parameters of it’s own twisted logic. Plus, it was just about (and remains) social bullying.

Suzanne Moore writes: “what remains of her agenda is privatisation that is so internalised, it is immoral. By this I mean that a loathing of those who have little, who are weak or uncertain is justified by a political discourse which says we can longer afford the weak. The Thatcherite fetishisation of strength enables the coalition to trample on the already broken. We are saving money apparently because some humans are not worth saving. That’s just housekeeping.”

The result was a society bitterly divided between north and south, whole communities abandoned. Thatcher’s body will not lie in state at Westminster Abbey as others offered the for ‘security concerns’.  That’s some legacy.

thatchpartySpontaneous parties celebrating any humans death may be ghoulish but denouncing them is a form of social control. The reality is that the state funeral for Thatcher is a slap in the face for everyone who suffered from her policies and another attempt at unification through symbol.  As Jacqueline Rose has put it: ‘it is an act of coercion and a masquerade…pretending at a time when the social divisions of her legacy have never been more acute that on this at least the British are at one’.

This isn’t just what Britain does best, increasingly it seems to be all Britain does. A year after floating Betty down the Thames on a gold barge we’re going to spend £10 million celebrating Margaret Thatcher. Really?

Well if Danny Boyle’s glorious revanchism perked up the dropping breasts of Britannia for a moment I expect Thatcher’s wake to boost Yesism as much as the crude censorship of the National Collective.

As usual our writers have the best analysis. This from James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still..

‘It’s only with the passing of time that the picture comes fully into focus, as the present slides and settles into history. Who are we? One of the unintended effects of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution, he sees now – and let’s face it, that’s what it was, a revolution – was to destroy Scottish loyalty to the British State. If it didn’t provide you with a job, if it didn’t give you a decent pension or adequate health care or proper support when you were out of work, what was it for? It wasn’t for anything – except maybe things you didn’t want or believe in, like nuclear weapons on the Clyde, or the poll tax. In the Thatcher years the great presumption of the left – that the industrial working class would eventually tame capitalism – came crashing down. The class war may not yet be over but it’s certainly not what it used to be. In its steed there may be many creeds, ancient and new, ethnic and national and religious and green…’

Elsewhere in the book one of Robertson’s characters reflects that the point of the Scottish Parliament may be simply to say ‘we exist’. That’s not good enough any more. It never was.

As global crisis finds local expression, as globalism unfolds before us, the impetus for control of our own resources and self-management increases. This is not about a retreat from Westminster incompetence, entrenched venality or the allure of the City as a sump for corporate whoredom. This is not  – crucially – about wallowing in victimhood, glorious failures, the iniquities of yesteryear (count them). This is not about creating ‘a smarter, fairer, better’ clone of Nu Labourite efficiency, nor a Jim Matherish beacon of entrepreneurial business-slick Scotian buzz. The ‘how many start-ups’ and hand-wringing about reliance on the (utterly taboo) public sector is redundant.

The challenge now is to create an alternative way of operating based on being in the world. Ones that aren’t based on the values celebrated by Thatcher’s governments, by Keith Joseph and Norman Tebbit, by Nigel Lawson and Michael Forsyth.

So as we dream of (at last) establishing  a post-Thatcherite Scotland let’s toast ‘ many creeds, ancient and new, ethnic and national and religious and green…’  and begin to figure out what that means.

  • Okay okay I mean, for different reasons David Torrance, Alex Massie and Gerry Hassan

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  1. Svenja says:

    Great article, as usual – apart from the title. I’ve been accused of hair splitting, but I really disapprove of calling a female power figure a ‘witch’ (or implying it, as in the title), which is a gendered insult that bears connotations of witch hunts. The same happened during the Rebekah Brooks affair. There are more creative insults than that 🙂

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Fair point. Hadn’t thought of that. Just like the sound plus it has a double-meaning. Will change it.

      1. Svenja says:

        Brilliant – thank you, belatedly! I’m glad you changed it.

  2. Piobaire says:

    Good article. Scottish media? I’m beginning to seriously dislike BBC Scotland.

  3. Charles Patrick O'Brien says:

    I can see that the respect that is asked no really demanded by some for Thatcher is wrong,she had no respect for anybody not of her ilk,Hillsborough,for one,workers especially miners,for two.None was shown and therefore none merited.

  4. Dave McEwan Hill says:

    I think on the day of Thatcher’s we should gather in central points and hold services in expiation of the war crime done in our name in the sinking of the Belgrano and tell Argentine and the families of the dead sailors that this was not done in our name

  5. scotchwoman says:

    There’s no substitute for level-headed, clear-minded articles at at time when the referendum debate is embroiled in so much bitterness and fiction. Well done BC for an article which places negative actions and outcomes in a positive context. Keep the YES message positive and true.

  6. Jimmy Kerr says:

    All this about Thatcher is a waste of energy. If the people that were dancing and singing in George Square put half as much effort into building a unified left wing party, then we might be in a better position than we are now

    1. Davy Marzella says:

      I think you might have a bit of a point…… a lot of the rage directed at Thatcher , which I understand , could be a kind of frustration and displacement at the lack of a viable opposition to the continuing reality of Thatcherism …….. is it too much to hope , the tide could now start to turn ??

      1. Davy Marzella says:

        PS. @ Jimmy , I don’t think it is just about building THE Party , but A Movement

  7. Albalha says:

    Agree with it all and not a day passes when I’m not reminded of the absurdity of so called ‘people of the left’, be that hard or centre, who are implacably opposed to voting YES next year.

    I can understand the less politically involved to express fear of the unknown but those who claim to be politically aware, well it’s way beyond me. Self interest doesn’t cover it all either.

    PS If you haven’t seen it the graffiti captured in the Guardian

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/11/iron-lady-dead-thatcherism-lives

  8. Albalha says:

    Oh and on the sycophancy of Forsyth, as I’ve commented elsewhere, did anyone see the J Snow, Maggie and Me Ch 4 programme, that was a master class in certain types of men, that woman and weird infantilisation. At one, admittedly, banal level, a country trashed because some men didn’t like their mothers, nannies or private education.

  9. Donald Adamson says:

    Mike,

    Excellent piece. Powerfully argued and providing lots to think about, one of the best I have read on Thatcherism and not only because, refreshingly this week, it tells part of Scotland’s story but, crucially, because it makes some of the necessary connections between then and now. I agree wholeheartedly with one of the implicit themes in this piece, that is, we mustn’t leave it to the revisionists to tell Scotland’s story here. I say this not only because those of us who lived in Scotland through the terrible lost decade of the 1980s have such bitter memories of the effects of the policies, but because many of the policies, particularly the economic policies, were so misguided.

    The best place to start, though, is with a fact that the revisionists have conveniently overlooked. That is, Thatcher was a member of Ted Heath’s government from 1970, a government that left a terrible legacy to the incoming Labour government in 1974. As a member of Heath’s government, she was implicated in all of Heath’s policies, the disastrous Credit Control Act (1971), the Industrial Relations Act (1971), which even the CBI saw as unworkable at the time, the reckless Barber boom of 1971-73. The lack of a clear exchange rate policy after sterling left the Bretton Woods ‘fixed’ exchange rate regime, the notorious Threshold Agreements ineptly timed to coincide with OPEC’s quadrupling of oil prices in the final quarter of 1973 and, of course, Heath’s inept handling of wage negotiations with the miners in the winter of 1973-74 which provoked the miners into calling a strike at the end of February of that year which Heath pre-empted by calling a snap general election, inducing the Sun to run with the headline: ‘Who runs the country, the government or the miners?’. In truth, that 1974 Labour government, for all of its own incompetence and mismanagement, never stood a chance of succeeding.

    Given this legacy, particularly the increasing inflationary tendencies, that the Heath government bequeathed to Labour in 1974, which the latter never came to terms with, it is more than a little ironic that the flagship policy of Thatcherism in its first term from 1979 was its counter-inflation policy, with ‘monetarism’ as the main policy instrument. But this, too, after a brief respite in the mid-1980s, was destined to fail. The hasty abolition of exchange controls in 1980, which sucked in capital inflows to the City of London, was the first signal that the Thatcher government was about to unleash the forces of a boom in private credit creation.

    This was always the contradiction in the peculiar variant of ‘monetarism’ that the Thatcher government pursued and which even Milton Friedman, in his written evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee in 1981, expressed his utter bemusement about. How could a government prioritise ‘control’ of the money supply with one hand and unleash the forces of a credit boom with the other? The question was never addressed. Those who seek to defend Thatcherism’s record on inflation have conveniently forgotten also that throughout the period 1979-90 annual wage increases in the private sector averaged 9 per cent. The most fitting epitaph to the Thatcherite ‘monetarist’ experiment, though, was provided by the then new Chancellor, John Major, in 1989. In his oral evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, he was asked by a Labour MP about his policy on the money supply. His reply? “We don’t do that anymore”.

    Underpinning this boom in private credit creation, of course, was the right to buy legislation in the Housing Act (1980) and the broader promotion of home ownership in the 1980s. Although this is often hailed as one of the ‘successes’ of Thatcherism, here too, a terrible price was paid as a consequence of the policies of a government that, on average, changed interest rates every seven weeks between 1979-90, one of a number of policies at the time from a government and a UK Treasury that gave every impression that they didn’t know what they were doing. Although the sale of council houses raised some £21 billion in the Thatcher ‘decade’, it’s often forgotten that the cost of MIRAS (Mortgage Interest Relief at Source, effectively a taxpayers subsidy to private home owners) was £39 billion between 1979-90. Demonstrating, among other things, that in spite of much rhetoric about ‘curbing’ public spending and giving taxpayers ‘value for money’, the Thatcher government was not above using taxpayers money to advance its own economic and political agenda.

    Local authority finances were also tightly controlled and the sharp reduction in council housing stock and increases in housing costs created mass homelessness and widespread hardship for countless families. This dramatic increase in home ownership – even the Economist, one of the cheerleaders of Thatcherism, still refers occasionally to the British ‘obsession’ with home ownership – was to have devastating consequences under New Labour and leave Britain terribly exposed in the current crisis. As a consequence of rampant house price inflation under New Labour, millions of homeowners took advantage of the inflated equity of their homes, ‘mortgage equity withdrawal’ (borrowing more money on their existing mortgage, in many cases, up to the inflated values of their homes) and embarked on a credit-fuelled spending spree. Needless to say when, inevitably, the bubble burst many of these people experienced the negative equity that millions of homeowners in the early 1990s had also experienced when, as a consequence of Thatcher’s (and her personal economic advisor, Alan Walters) long-standing intransigence in refusing to take sterling into the ERM, the then Chancellor Nigel Lawson, pursued a disastrous policy of shadowing the Deutschmark at an over-valued sterling exchange rate, culminating, eventually, in the humiliating events of ‘Black Wednesday’ in September 1992.

    Let’s also not forget that it was under Thatcher, in 1981, that Britain began its 32-year trend of an annual deficit in its visible trade. The legacy of this was felt most tellingly under New Labour, some two decades later when, in 2006, after almost a decade of the credit-fuelled boom phase of Labour’s boom and bust, UK manufacturing employment fell to its lowest level since records began in 1841.

    The ‘compensation’ for this loss, apparently, was financialisation. This, too, can be traced back to Thatcherism. The ‘Big Bang’ didn’t just create a technological revolution in the City, allowing both the velocity and volume of market transactions to increase significantly, it started an irreversible trend of overseas capitalists owning banks, financial institutions and corporations in the UK. More than this, it unleashed an army of speculators, a new rentier class and a collection of assorted rogues in ‘personal finance’ which has devalued all of us. Even the language we used was monetised by the Thatcherite parvenus. There was a time, not that long ago, when the acronym ‘ISA’ was associated exclusively with Althusser (‘Ideological State Apparatus’). Now, it’s just another savings plan touted by the ubiquitous money man (and woman).

    It is perhaps with privatisation that Thatcher is most closely associated. In the period 1979-90, the Thatcher governments raked in some £80 billion in privatisation proceeds (if you include the proceeds of council house and government land and buildings sales). Added to this, in the same period, the Thatcher government also raked in some £70 billion in North Sea oil revenues. This was a bounty of some £150 billion in a decade, a bounty that was not only unavailable to any other post-war government in Britain but unavailable to any other government in the world, and it was largely squandered. After initial rhetoric about ‘people’s capitalism’ and spreading share ownership to small shareholders, within a decade most of these shares were owned by large financial institutions and corporation, both British and overseas.

    There is so much more that could be said about Thatcherism – the mass unemployment, the trade union reforms that gave Scottish workers, by virtue of Scotland’s membership of the UK, the most repressive labour legislation in the developed world, the zealous pursuit of neo-liberalism and financialisation that culminated in New Labour turning the UK into ‘Fantasy Island’ (as Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson memorably called it in their book of the same title) and much else besides. People often ask, wasn’t there anything positive about Thatcher? Yes there was. It happened on the morning of April 8th, 2013.

    But thanks for an excellent piece Mike. To repeat, we mustn’t leave it to the revisionists to tell Scotland’s story here, nor must we forget the terrible policies of the 1980s and their consequences for Scotland in subsequent decades. Not now. Not ever.

  10. Theuniondivvie says:

    Good to see the some deconstruction of the latest ‘it wisnae Maggie’s fault’ revisionism. Apart from the ridiculous suggestion that over the poll tax Thatcher suddenly became a pliable conciliator in thrall to her cabinet and Scottish Torydom, no one seems to have asked if that was the case, why did they proceed with implimentation of the same disaster a year later in England? I suspect it’s just another manifestation of the cringe, ‘Scotland, even your Thatcherites are crap’.

  11. Donald Adamson says:

    For those looking for a little more substance in their appraisals of Thatcherism (and a useful complement to Mike’s piece), Michael Roberts’s excellent analysis here, ‘Thatcher: there was no alternative’, is worth looking at:

    http://www.thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/thatcher-there-was-no-alternative/

    This locates Thatcherism in the context of the British crisis at the time, the crisis in international capital and the emergence of neo-liberal globalisation. Roberts’s point is that there was no alternative for Thatcher, there was an alternative for the labour movement.

  12. This is an excellent article Mike.

    The tagline for David Torrance article on the Scotsman: ‘David Torrance weighs up both sides of the Thatcher myth’

    Does he?

    “Of course anti-Thatcher hostility is not a specifically Scottish phenomenon, ­although here it has a curiously personal edge. Thatcher closed Ravenscraig; she shut down the coalmines, as if as Prime Minister she had personally – and by implication vindictively – directed the demise of heavy industry without reference to economic winds or management desire.”

    That anyone could blythly dismiss the Ravenscraig/Gartcosh closure like this suggests that David Torrance has read the books but he doesn’t understand the reality on a gut level. He’s perhaps just a few years too young as he was born in ’77. That means he’s only seven years younger than me but I have a vivid memory of ’87 which is when Thatcher was first wholly rejected by Scots and was an election I was actually involved in, my first political action as a Scottish nationalist and I was actually interested in politics for some years before.

    The myth of Thatcherism continues and clearly Mr Torrance (whether by accident or design) wants to perpetuate it going by his article which can be read in full here:

    http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/features/thatcher-what-does-reaction-say-about-scotland-1-2894105

    The Scots ‘got’ Thatcherism (in both senses, we were given it whether we wanted it or not, and we understood it), but we didn’t vote for her and if Britain had provided devolution (something the Conservative’s had promised us) we would have avoided much of the destruction of our industrial base during the Thatcher years. We certainly would never have had the Poll tax!

    The recent film about Mrs Thatcher the Iron Lady was actually quite a clever film but it sheared away from the controversy of her legacy and in fact it seemed to be an attempt to humanise Thatcher, using her dementia as a device to show her love for her husband Dennis. That’s not a bad thing, Mrs Thatcher was a human being after all, but despite the fantastic central performance by Meryl Streep it really did not serously touch on her politics at all! I don’t think there was one mention of Scotland in it but that is probably not surprising.

    We Scots definitely did understand her politics and we didn’t like them in much the same way as we don’t support the actions of David Cameron right now.

    Let’s not forget that the Tories recently used the murder of six small children to justify their benefits reforms. That puts a few people in George Square holding a flash demo on the day of Mrs Thatcher’s death in perspective!

    Harry Reid wrote these comments about Mrs Thatcher on the Scottish review of books:

    “The fact is that by the mid 1980s Thatcher had lost Scotland. This was a disaster for such an enthusiastically Unionist politician, a leader who grandly claimed that the Tory party was a “national party or nothing”. This was a quote from Disraeli, which Thatcher duly delivered to an audience of Scots Tories. In this context, national meant British. So, in Scotland anyway, the Tory party became, by her own admission, nothing.

    Thatcher could never really grasp that Scotland itself was a nation, and a proud one; that was part of the problem. For her, much as she tried to respect and to understand Scotland, the country was just a component part of the UK. In losing Scotland, she grievously diminished her party’s unionist credentials, and she helped to pave the way for the fragmentation of the Union she cherished.

    Thus the most successful and controversial British leader of modern times, and the most politically talented Unionist, could not maintain the unity of the UK. That is, in essence, her legacy in Scotland. It could be argued that she, more than anyone, paved the way for eventual Scottish independence.”

    What we can say about Mrs Thatcher is that she clarified the relative status of Scotland and England within the British union. England elects a Government, we get the results, and our opinions can be utterly ignored by Westminster.

    In private Mrs Thatcher actually claimed to be an English nationalist and her action in denying Scotland devolution (a reversal in policy which caused Malcolm Rifkind to resign) and making sure North Sea Oil stayed in ‘British’ hands were certainly not in our interests but a case could be argued that these two actions allowed her to keep British imperial delusions alive, something which is central to English state interests.

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