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Victims of Thatcherism: the Scottish Conservatives?

Updated on December 17, 2011
Enemy of the People
Enemy of the People

It has been suggested that Scottish Conservatives became the victim of social change, economic dislocation and the bogey of Thatcherism. This piece shall analyse the extent to which this is an accurate description. What is evident is that Scotland was afflicted by the economic dislocation and social change enforced by Thatcherism. Subsequently, support for the Conservative Party in Scotland fell into sharp decline. It is rather difficult however to assign the Scottish Conservatives the role of victim given their complicity in Thatcherism and thus their own downfall.

When Thatcher came to power in 1979, the Tories took 31.4% of the Scottish vote. By 1987 this had fallen to 24%. This downward spiral culminated with a landslide victory for New Labour in the 1997 general election. In Scotland the Tories polled only 17.5% of the vote and returned zero MP’s. Similar trends are expressed regarding local elections. In 1982, only 3 years into the rule of Thatcher, 22.5% of Scottish councillors belonged to the Conservative Party. Yet by 1995 this had plummeted to a meagre 7.5%. This steep decline and rejection of conservatism in Scotland can only be understood in light of the economic and social upheaval of Thatcherism.

The starting point of analysis is to evaluate what Thatcherism meant for the economy of Scotland. As early as 1975 the Thatcherite cure to the sickness of unemployment was spelled out by Keith Joseph. It was articulated that people living in areas of high unemployment would have to retrain or ‘move if they are to find a steady job’. Moreover, the Thatcherites took the view that companies would not move to such areas as wages were not low enough. Thus, they reasoned that the proletariat should accept low wages in exchange for low levels of unemployment. What this view failed to appreciate was that the number of unemployed far outweighed jobs available.


The Class War Intensified
The Class War Intensified

Unemployment was but one of the factors which contributed to Thatcher’s view that Scotland was in a state of dependency. Chancellor Lawson went so far as to claim that Scotland lacked an enterprise culture because it had a separate dependency culture and was sheltered from market forces. For Thatcher, these were the conditions in which socialism and trade unionism would thrive. Thus, economic reform was meant to overhaul the welfare system and roll back the state. The government would revoke the Keynesian consensus and implement a monetarist economic policy. Trade unions rights were to come under attack and public assets sold off. So began the advent of Britain’s neo-Liberal project.

Economic dislocation was severe in Scotland. In the first instance the governments monetarist fiscal policies drove up the exchange rate. As a result the manufacturing industry was now unable to compete in a global market and suffered devastation. Another result of the monetarist tendency was the introduction of the flat rate poll tax.


In 1989 Scotland became the testing ground for this. The result was widespread civil unrest typified by the non payment campaign which often meant eviction or arrest for the campaigners. In these conditions Scotland simply appeared to be a “guinea pig” for radical right wing economic experimentation and in response “the Scots were showing consistency in their support for the state, but it was the welfare state.” Another tax which fostered hostility was the mortgage relief tax. This tax would disproportionately benefit those out with Scotland, in particular the mainly property owning south-east of England.

Another feature of Thatcherite economics was the widespread closure of ‘old’ industry. This was a result of the downgrading of regional policy. As a result previously viewed success stories of regional policy such as Singers in Clydebank, Goodyear near Glasgow and BSR in East Kilbride were all closed. Furthermore, 10,000 jobs in coal mining were lost throughout the 1980’s and the shipbuilding industry of Dundee was eradicated. One of the more symbolic closures was the Gartcosh cold mill in 1985. Gartcosh was the largest single customer of the Ravenscraig steel mill which the government had failed in its attempt to close in 1982. By now putting its largest customer out of business the Tory party had also ensured the death of Ravenscraig. While Gartcosh was not one of the largest closures it was to prove symbolically potent and undoubtedly contributed to the notion of the government being at best disinterested in Scotland and at worse anti-Scottish. To add insult to injury this all came on the back of an oil boom. Between 1979 and 1980 oil prices doubled, having already quadrupled between 1973-74. Yet, while the government were enjoying record revenues from Scottish natural resources, half of this net increase would leave the Scottish and wider British economy in the form of overseas investment. In these conditions there were clearly economic antagonisms between the Scottish working class and the Conservative government.

Gartcosh workers on the long march to London
Gartcosh workers on the long march to London
The derelict Ravenscraig steel mill.
The derelict Ravenscraig steel mill.

Class antagonisms were even more pronounced by the regressive Thatcherite social revolution which occurred. Thatcher herself claims that the thrust of this revolution was the extension of choice and the dispersal of power. She also claims that while mistakes were made, overall she was successful and reforms were popular, but Scotland was an exception. Inhabitants of the industrialised north of England may take exception to that claim.

The sale of council housing was to be a key social policy of the Thatcher regime. Much like the mortgage relief tax this would disproportionately impact Scotland where the majority of people lived in social housing. While the ruling regime presented this as an opportunity for the working class to own property, this did not factor in the dire economic position of the working class. As has already been said they were expected to accept low wages in order to find work in a job market void of vacancies. The concrete material reality of the Scottish working class by and large precluded them from becoming home owners. In Scotland, Thatcher’s social revolution would fail to impart petit-bourgeois tendencies upon the majority of the working people. Nonetheless between 1979 and 1989 a total of 150,000 council houses were sold. Besides the attempted social engineering aspect of this policy the main failure of the policy was that it completely failed to stimulate new investment in housing. All it allowed for was the short term accumulation of financial capital at the governments disposal, it created no real capital and would reduce long term public funding by reducing rents collected by the state. The culmination of the process of reducing social housing provision came in the Housing Act (Scotland) 1988. This essentially meant slashing housing support grants and the prevention of local authorities providing subsidized rents. For the working people this meant rising rent costs.

Pinochet: An Inspiration and Friend
Pinochet: An Inspiration and Friend

The class war was justified by the ruling elite on the basis of supposed internal and external enemies. This went hand in hand with the dominant ideologies of British nationalism and free market capitalism. When the Argentinean government looked to liberate the Falkland Islands from the remnants of the British empire in 1982 this provided the Thatcherites with a strategically useful external enemy. The apparent internal enemy was socialism and trade unionism which Thatcher claimed were responsible for economic and social disease. There was also an enemy who could be classed as either external or internal depending on ones point of view, that being the anti-colonialist Irish revolutionaries of the six counties.

It has been argued that as Britain had lost it’s empire (although not entirely), ended military conscription and gone through secularization, British nationalism had lost its imperial identity. The new nationalist identity would be moulded in the first instance by opposition to the apparent enemies of the nation. It is arguable that the essence of Thatcherite nationalism was the maintenance of the myth of British greatness. To create the perception of defeating these apparent enemies would certainly go some way to sustaining this myth. From the miners strike to the massacre of civil rights protestors in Free Derry, to the sinking of the Belgrano, to the condemnation to death for the 7 IRA and 3 INLA hunger strikers; this perception was created.

In memory of the 10.
In memory of the 10.

The strategy was not completely successful though. As has been shown, support for the Conservative Party plummeted in Scotland throughout the Thatcher reign. Furthermore, polling in 1987 revealed that 72% of Scots viewed Thatcher as ‘looking after the interest of one class’, 75% also viewed her as an extremist. Thatcher herself explains her party’s declining support on the crumbling of the ‘orange vote’. Given that her policies towards the six counties certainly enamoured the ‘orange vote‘, then her economic and social policies have to be viewed as a total disaster if they were enough to more than counterweight the former. She also accused both the catholic and protestant churches of being proponents of the left. This is at least partly contradicted by the fact that in 1986 46% of Kirk members admitted being Tory voters compared to 17% for Labour. Furthermore, Protestantism was welded together with the state, as well as unionism within the British nationalist identity. This was an identity which still managed to find popular expression in the virulent nationalism and union flag waving found on the slopes of Ibrox Park.

Broadly speaking the Scottish Conservatives supported all of this. They did after all remain party members, run in elections as conservatives etc. So in that sense they must be viewed as complicit in the economic and social dislocation of Thatcherism. There were pockets of opposition, however slight. Malcolm Rifkind was one such ‘opponent’. As Secretary of State for Scotland in 1986 he boasted that Glasgow Health Board was the best funded in the UK. This brought much criticism from the party as by boasting of high public spending he was essentially accepting the position of the opposition. Rifkind was also criticised for listening to public opinion as was signified by his opposition to the 1990 budget of chancellor Major. This was 3 years after the government abandoned the Scottish Affairs select committee as the conservatives were unable to command a majority within it. All of this being further indication that the Scottish Conservatives were one of the losers of Thatcherism, but they were at least partially self-inflicted losers. The electoral impotence of the government in Scotland made it clear that the government had no mandate in Scotland, something which could only worsen the prospects of success for the Scottish Conservatives.

With all considered the assertion that the Scottish Conservatives became the victim of social change, economic dislocation and the bogey of Thatcherism is at best only partly true. It has been argued here that while the Scottish Conservatives were one of many losers of Thatcherism and the economic and social policies it entailed, their losses were by and large self-inflicted. It is also difficult to accept that those who are complicit in something are at the same time victims of it. In the first instance the complicit actions in question here being the social and economic policies of Thatcher. These were actions underpinned by British nationalist ideology and the myth of British greatness produced by attacking perceived enemies facilitated by the development of a siege mentality.


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    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 4 years ago from Athens, Greece

      A very interesting insight! Great article! Voted up and useful!

    • John Holden profile image

      John Holden 5 years ago

      Nothing kind about them, just truthful!

      It gladdens me to know that I'm not really alone when it seems everybody about me is blind to her machinations.

    • Comrade Joe profile image
      Author

      Comrade Joe 5 years ago from Glasgow, United Kingdom

      Thank you very much for the extremely kind words.

    • John Holden profile image

      John Holden 5 years ago

      I'm going to give up any more attempts at political writing!

      I'm in awe.