AS A PROFESSIONAL watcher of politicians, and indeed a non-academic historian, the tendency of some figures to linger long after they ceased to wield any meaningful political power is a persistent source of fascination. I speak, of course, of Margaret Thatcher, for the Iron Lady has again been referenced – largely pejoratively – over the past week.
First was the news that T-shirts boasting that trade unionists would want to “dance on her grave” were on sale at the TUC conference in Brighton. STV’s Scotland Tonight hosted a debate in which those hostile to the former Prime Minister declared that, on reflection, they didn’t think it was a good thing to want an old woman to die. Implicitly, we were invited to admire their generosity and good sense.
I found it rather depressing there had to be a debate at all, for it is quite easy to separate a rational discussion about a politician’s record from whether or not one wants them dead, but then some on the Left have always found it difficult not to conflate the two. Next was Mrs Thatcher’s role in the aftermath of 1989’s Hillsborough disaster, a comprehensive – and damning – report into which David Cameron presented to Parliament with perfectly-judged humility on Wednesday.
Almost immediately attempts were made by some in the Labour Party to implicate Mrs Thatcher. She had, claimed the normally sensible Jack Straw, created a “culture of impunity” in the police that directly led to the Hillsborough cover-up. Why recent Labour governments, and indeed Mr Straw himself, had avoided a thorough investigation of the tragedy while in a position to initiate such a course was swept aside as a matter of “great regret”.
Disappointingly for Labour, the documentary evidence didn’t exactly back up such accusations. All that surfaced was a scribbled note urging her then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd not to concur with Lord Justice Taylor’s “devastating criticism” of the police following his inquiry. Mrs Thatcher’s judgement in this respect is certainly worthy of criticism, but it’s a bit of a leap from one scribbled remark to the broad thrust of Jack Straw’s comments.
Last but certainly not least were remarks from Elaine Smith, a Labour MSP and Deputy Presiding Officer, who contributed the following to a debate at Holyrood:
“Does she [another MSP] agree that Gartcosh steelworks, in my constituency, was also an important contributor to Scotland’s steel industry until it was viciously closed in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher, who threw hundreds of steelworkers on the scrapheap and devastated the whole community?”
It is, at least, historically accurate, for Gartcosh was closed in 1986 by Mrs Thatcher’s government, rather than Ravenscraig, which Scottish historical mythology dictates also closed under the Iron Lady’s watch (it actually closed in 1992). But it was the personalised tone (“viciously closed”) of Smith’s remarks that struck me – the implication was that nothing other than malice lay behind the decision to close Gartcosh.
But why this persistent, and largely unthinking, anti-Thatcherism? I attempted to answer that in my 2009 book, ‘We in Scotland’ – Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, while I’ve also been enjoying two new publications which deal with the subject, Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge University Press) an academic volume edited by the Oxford historians Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, and Confusion to our Enemies (Neil Wilson Publishing), a collection of the late Arnold Kemp’s journalism by his daughter Jackie.
The former is a welcome extension of recent efforts to reconnect the Thatcher era to the wider social, political and cultural history of the 20th century rather than viewing it – as critics are inclined to do – in “splendid isolation”. A chapter by Strathclyde University historian Richard Finlay covers Scotland with scrupulous balance and some welcome blows to accepted myths (although an introduction unfortunately repeats the line that the Poll Tax was “trialled” in Scotland), while others deal with numerous facets of Thatcher and Thatcherism.
“One of Thatcher’s most striking characteristics”, note the book’s editors, “was her capacity to inflame the imagination.” Indeed, many accounts exaggerate the period beyond reality. Thus it is repeated that Mrs Thatcher “destroyed” the welfare state. Curious, then, that the current Coalition is destroying it all over again. Rather, as the editors also write, “for all the radicalism of Thatcher’s rhetoric, the welfare state remained largely intact”.
If journalism is the first draft history, then much of Arnold Kemp’s prose was an unusually perceptive verdict on post-war Scotland, so much so that it reads – in the latter book – well even decades later. In one piece written on the brink of Mrs Thatcher’s departure from Downing Street, Kemp (then editor of the Herald), eschewed hysterical anti-Thatcherism and attempted to assess what her legacy would be in Scotland.
His verdict remains difficult to fault, critical of Thatcher’s political style and tone rather than the central thrust of what she was trying to do. “We [the Scots] are a stiff-necked people and our anti-Thatcherism has not always been logical,” he judged, “a factor made all the clearer in the last year [1989-90] by Scotland’s relatively strong economic performance.” Indeed, as I argued in my own book, by the late 1980s the Scottish economy had achieved parity with the rest of the UK for the first time in decades.
Yet it was too much (certainly not too little) too late, and Mrs Thatcher – or indeed her party – gained little political reward as a result. By 1997 the opposition was reaping the benefits. Kemp, however, didn’t get everything right; he reckoned the Conservatives might recover, Labour would lose its “geological dominance” of Scottish politics, and the SNP would flounder having lost its “best totem”. The end of the Thatcher era in late 1990 meant many things, but none of those – at least not immediately.
Arnold Kemp also concurred with the judgement of historian Professor Christopher Smout, who theorised that Thatcher had “been a scapegoat for us, an external explanation of our failures”. It’s not a million miles away from the conclusion I reached a few years ago that letting go of anti-Thatcher rhetoric was simply not an option for Labour and the SNP. Perhaps it’s too convenient a mask for their own political failures and ideological shifts.