Sunday, 10 May 2009

Was Thatcher Good For Scotland?

It is often forgotten that Winnie Ewing made the claim, on the night the Callaghan government fell, that Thatcher would be good for Scotland? This is a claim which was dismissed as the Scottish electorate fell out with the SNP. Indeed, my Dad cites this as a major influence on his dislike of the SNP. However, on the 30th anniversary of the election of Thatcher, was Ewing right?

The most obvious answer is a resounding no. Her policies, at the time influenced by the theories of the American economist Milton Friedman, destroyed huge parts of Scottish society. Her first aim was to control inflation. Her weapon of choice was to control the supply of money. Interest rates rose to 17% at the end of her first year in government, with a direct influence on output and jobs. In the first 2 years of her government, Scottish manufacturing lost 11% of its output and 20% of all its jobs. Manufacturing capacity between 1976 and 1987 fell 30.8%. Arguably Scottish manufacturing has not recovered from then.

This is before the assault on Scotland’s heavy industries. Coal, steel and shipbuilding used to be the main employer of Scotsmen in the central belt of Scotland. Coal pits in Scotland fell from 15 pits to just 2 during the 1980’s. Steel was decimated UK wide, but Scotland was particularly hardest hit, with the Ravenscraig plant in Motherwell a symbol of industrial Scotland throughout the 1980’s. Shipbuilding did not survive either. Glasgow used to build the best ships in the world. Now there are only 2 BAE Systems facilities, in Govan and in Clydebank. In 1986 when the QE2 was due to be re-fitted, it did not come home to Scotland, but got its refit in West Germany.

The replacement for the home-grown heavy industries was “Inward Investment”, i.e. the subsidising of foreign companies to come into Scotland and set up factories. This strategy has only proved to be limited in its success. The hyped Silicon Glen of the 1980’s has shrunk as the likes of National Semi-conductor and Motorola left Scotland in the late 1990’s, as cheaper markets emerged. Hewlet-Packard remains in Erskine, but for how much longer?

All of this economic unrest brought unemployment. At the end of Thatcher’s premiership, unemployment stood at 220000 people, which represented an improvement from the peak of the early 1980’s. It is during this period that a dependency culture came in, fuelled by a government only too happy to pay the benefits bills. The theory was that unemployment would somehow create a “flexible employment market”, i.e. create a competitive sprit within unemployed people. As Drink and Drug’s very quickly moved into the working class schemes, and have so far proved more stubborn to eradicate, this instead created a spirit of defeatism. This dependency culture, 2 generations on, have spawned the Lazy Poor. Content to get by in life, and not contribute anything to society. Drug, alcohol and benefits dependency are a way of life for these people, and the longest lasting legacy of Thatcherism on the landscape of Scottish life.

Yet, if this is all true. Why do I suspect that Ewing had a point about Thatcher? I think she might have been right, but not in the way that she imagined. Take the other lasting legacy of Thatcherism on the Scottish landscape, the Scottish Parliament. Cannon Wright, who would go on to chair the cross party Constitutional Convention, said…

There were I think two fundamental reasons why (Thatcher) was midwife at the birth of something in Scotland which will grow and flourish. First we perceived that she was imposing on Scotland not just policies broadly rejected and even detested… but worse was the imposition of an alien ideology that rejected community and expressed itself as an attack on our distinctive systems of education and local government.

The second reason was even deeper – the grim centralisation of power, the determined attack on all alternative sources of real corporate power in local government and elsewhere….We came to see that if Mrs Thatcher could so insure the powers of her office, the crown prerogatives, the extent of patronage and the parliamentary system to cut down real power elsewhere… We realised that the real enemy was not a particular government whatever it’s colour but a constitutional system. We came to understand that our central need, if we were to be governed justly and democratically was not just to change the government but to change the rules

Essentially this argument goes along the lines that there were good things to come out of Thatcher’s time in No 10, its just that these things were a reaction against Thatcher and the evolving ideology of Thatcherism, rather than be part of the great plan. The “rejection” of Home Rule in 1979 directly led to the vote of no confidence, which led to the election of Thatcher, a self confessed English Nationalist. Second time around, the Scottish Parliament had a period where ideas were formed, and a consensus was struck on the how, where and why, after the need for a parliament was identified. This time, the referendum on 11th September 1997 would be on concrete proposals, a 129 seat legislature, with a separate question on tax raising powers.

The rise in popularity in Devolution in the late 80’s also coincided with a kind of a cultural re-awakening. At the same time as a glut of Glasgow based bands started to enter the UK Charts with regularity, bands like Wet Wet Wet, The Proclaimers & Deacon Blue who were influenced by the sounds coming from America, emerged a series of authors, among them James Kelman, Iain Banks and, later on, Irvine Welsh. A theme of the work which emerged from these artists and others was the reality of living in urban Scotland. Television also started to commission and show more “Scottish” shows. Again, all of this was a reaction against the Conservative agenda.

On the one hand, Thatcher destroyed the “old” Scotland, the Scotland of working hard and living hard. New Scotland is still a hard place to live, where less people can be bothered with life, to quote Irvine Welsh’s reinterpretation of an old anti-drugs slogan…

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f##king big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments… I chose not to choose life, I chose something else

We now have a parliament, we have a renewed cultural identity, and we are much less reliant on heavy industry. These are things which we have gained in the 30 years. Still doesn’t make up for the loss that little thing which bound us together, made us care about each other, yet Thatcher was in denial about it existance. What was it called again, oh yes. Society.

Ecconomic statistics & Kenyon Wright quote taken from "The Scottish Nation" by TM Devine

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