''That Bloody Woman''
Margaret Thatcher thought she understood Scotland... but no prime minister was ever so hated there.
When Alex Salmond remarked recently that it wasn’t so much Margaret Thatcher’s economics that Scots objected to as her social policy, he was taken to task by opposition parties and the Scottish media. The First Minister hurriedly revised his comments to disown every aspect of Thatcher thought: nearly 20 years after she fell, Margaret Thatcher still occupies a prominent place in Scottish political demonology. Gordon Brown may have invited her for tea, but there are precious few homes in Scotland that would take her in, even now.
No prime minister in history, Labour or Conservative, has generated so such hostility for so long from so many in Scotland. Almost from the moment that Thatcher entered N0 10 in 1979, the Scottish Tories went into a tailspin from which they never recovered. They were wiped out in the 1997 general election and to this day there is still only one Scottish Tory MP in the whole of Scotland, the moleish David Mundell. Had it not been for the proportionately elected Scottish Parliament - which the Tories, naturally, opposed - Scottish Conservatism might have disappeared altogether, along with the Communist Party and the old Scottish Progressives. And it was all down to Margaret Thatcher's unique political personality.
There is nothing in the blood of Scots that makes them immune to Conservatism - indeed, the SNP minority government in the Scottish Parliament is doing good business right now by reviving a number of Tory political themes, such as cutting business taxes, freezing council tax and promoting enterprise. The Conservatives are the only party to have won a majority of seats and a majority of votes in a general election in Scotland - back in 1955. But if "Tory" has been a four-letter word in Scotland for the past 30 years, it is largely the legacy of "That Bloody Woman", as she was called on the doorsteps.
Margaret Thatcher opened her account in 1979 by reneging on the pledge given by the Scottish Tory grandee Alec Douglas-Home that the Tories would offer Scotland a better form of devolution than the anaemic assembly that Labour put to a referendum unsuccessfully in 1979. It wasn't so much that she actively disliked devolution as that it was the policy of her predecessor Ted Heath, and she simply didn't see the point of it. There were much more important things to through the recession of 1981-83 that destroyed Scottish industrial culture.
Scottish heavy industry had been in decline since the end of the First World War, but Scotland was still a society based around industrial communities, as with the Ravenscraig steelworks in Motherwell and the coal mines of Fife. By the time Thatcher was finished, Ravenscraig was no more, and the pits had closed along with the car plants and aluminium smelters. The nationalist pop duo the Proclaimers wrote a hit song in the 1980s, "Letter from America", which listed the industrial icons that had closed: "Bathgate no more/Linwood no more/Methil no more . . ."
The song was a lament for departed Scots émigrés, but most of the victims of the 1980s closures actually remained in Scotland, trapped on welfare. The social cost of this socioeconomic disruption lingers to this day in the appalling mortality figures from heart disease, suicide and depression in West Central Scotland. The deep-fried Mars Bars and Buckfast wine are a symptom, not the cause. The communities that gave meaning to the lives of hundreds of thousands of working-class Scots disintegrated, leaving them rotting on Incapacity Benefit.
However, it wasn't just Maggie Thatcher's Englishness and her apparent insensitivity to the plight of industrial Scotland that made her a hate figure. The final nail in her political coffin was the poll tax, which she inflicted on Scotland in 1987, a year ahead of England.
The flat-rate "community charge" - in which "a dustman paid the same as a duke"- offended Scotland's ingrained egalitarianism. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland condemned it as morally indefensible, as did all opposition parties. Yet even after the Scottish Tories lost 11 of their 21 MPs in the 1987 election, Thatcher persevered. The subsequent campaign of non-payment of the tax turned the Militant Tommy Sheridan into a national celebrity after he was imprisoned. Scots mounted huge peaceful demonstrations to no avail, and were outraged that the poll tax was finally repealed only after the London street fighting of the "Battle of Trafalgar Square" in 1990.
It was the poll tax, more than any other facet of Thatcherism, that ensured the disintegration of the old unitary British state. Scots complained that the poll tax legislation was pushed through Westminster on the strength of English MPs co-opted on to the Scottish standing committee to make up the numbers. It was the West Lothian question in reverse. The poll-tax row finally persuaded Labour's ultra-cautious shadow Scottish secretary, Donald Dewar, to join the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1988 and sign its "Claim of Right" document, which called for a repatriation of Scottish sovereignty. Ironically, the Scottish National Party boycotted the convention, making itself politically irrelevant for the next decade and a half.
In 1997, after every single Scottish Conservative seat was lost, Labour held its promised second referendum on the constitution. Scots voted by a decisive three to one in favour of a Scottish Parliament with tax powers, bringing to an end three centuries of debate about home rule. Since the election in 1999 of the first Scottish Parliament in 300 years, the process of constitutional disengagement has speeded up, with the Scots electing their first Nationalist government in May 2007. But it might never have happened if it had not been for Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher was a sincere Unionist who thought she understood the Scots, and that they would eventually come round. Her enduring legacy, however, may be the disintegration of the British state she loved.