Thatcher’s Disputed Legacy
Watching the interminable coverage of Thatcher’s death was absorbing. It was particularly fascinating to see how her acolytes and apologists worked furiously to cement her reputation in the public consciousness. The same phrases were used over and over again to describe the woman and her legacy.
The most over-used was that she was a divisive character, that she fomented division in politics and society and across the UK. Loathed and loved in equal measure.
But they were wrong. Thatcher didn’t divide Scotland, she united us.
At every level and in every way, the Scots rejected her policies and her attempts to re-shape our beliefs. In many ways, her legacy lives on. And it will have done our young people no harm – many of whom have found their elders’ vehemence at the mere mention of her name bewildering and bemusing – to have had political history played out for them all over the media.
We may indeed all be Thatcher’s children, with neo-liberal economics the bastard child of her neo-conservative ideology. Every aspect of our economy, national and local, is suffused with the taint of market forces. Politicians in all the mainstream parties – yes, even the SNP – have bought into key aspects of her creed, with only the current recession prompting some tinkering round the edges with a call in some quarters for a more Keynsian approach to economic recovery.
But this recession can trace its roots to her time. Some have tried to claim that her vicious dismantling of the heavy industrial pillars of many communities was forged from necessity. People forget what she inherited, just what a state the country was in when she came to power, they bleat.
The only difference between then and now is that the decay was much more visible and tangible. Britain was broken then and while she might have tried to glue the pieces back together again, the cracks were visible all the way through the 90s and 00s, finally fissuring in 2008.
It was somehow fitting, though depressingly so, that on the day she was buried, unemployment climbed again to above two and a half million and employment fell. Additionally, statistics suggested that employees have never been worse off, with wages rising by an average 1% in the last three years. Job instability, low paid work, a workless void for young people, women and the over 50s – this is what she has bequeathed us.
Her importance in political terms – of this, there is no doubt – can be seen not just in what her heirs and successors adopted and adapted, but also in what they have abandoned. And despite Scotland holding its nose against much of what she espoused, the Scottish people had to wait until 2007 for a party prepared to posit a different political approach.
Thus, when the SNP came to power, it avowed its allegiance to the public sector. Nicola Sturgeon, then Health Secretary, trod the boards of the doctors, nurses and health workers’ conferences, declaring that the NHS really was safe in the Scottish Government’s public hands and won standing ovations for her efforts.
The SNP also began shifting emphasis on to universalism more overtly than previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administrations, beginning the long slow process of reinstating society’s needs and aspirations over the individual’s.
And perhaps most tellingly, it was the SNP which legislated to remove the right to buy, that totemic symbol of Thatcher’s philosophy of social mobility which involved people moving a step up the ladder and then knocking it away from those trying to climb behind them.
Even though many Scots availed themselves of the opportunity it afforded – some through economic necessity it should be said – few complained when it was removed. Right to buy was the kind of Thatcherite policy which sat uneasily with us: we could see how we might benefit as individuals, yet understood the damage the policy was designed to deliver in terms of further dismantling communities and a working class way of life. There’s a reason Scotland has always had more social housing than the rest of the UK and still has.
Our electing a party prepared to redress some of these key tenets and symbols of Thatcher’s creed – not just once, but twice – says something important about us. Yes, how we do and think our politics continues to be defined by her, not because we have learned to embrace all that she stood for but because we are still wont to butt against the worst excesses of her government.
The failure of UK Governments since to reject her legacy outright, instead allowing it to continue to underpin our way of life, has resulted in Scotland seeking a different political route, whether consciously or not.
What metropolitan observers consider to be our unfathomable obsession with further constitutional change is partly about trying to sate a desire to obliterate Thatcher’s legacy from our political system. They have no trouble living with her ghostly presence in UK politics – indeed, the genealogy between her Conservative government and Cameron’s was laid out for all to see.
But we do and we have been guided by this lodestar on our constitutional journey. We may as individuals buy into Thatcher’s legacy in a range of different ways, our actions and choices informed by all that she laid down through privatisation, market forces, ownership and individualism. But as a society, Scotland chooses still to reject what she stood for and all that which some spent much of last week resurrecting. She wanted to divide us as a nation, as families and as communities; in attempting to do so, she succeeded only in uniting us.
And to be reminded of all this, of what “stay” represents in political and social terms, while trying to decide whether to take the path to independence, even when we cannot see what lies beyond the horizon, can only be a very good thing.