Thatcher’s Positive Legacy: an Independent Scotland


By Mark McNaught

The reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher has reminded the UK how divisive her reign as Prime Minister was, and the extent to which her economic and social policies were a Rorschach test for the UK electorate.

Her defenders see a neo-liberal gladiator, thrashing unions and regulations to bring about a free-market utopia, where ‘aspiration’ and upward social mobility are the most valued attributes. Working people who simply want to earn a decent living and raise their children do not get a ticket.

While growing up in the US as the son of a Scot, my view of Margaret Thatcher was through the prism of the UK my father left in the 1960’s. I remember him staying up all night watching CNN during the Falklands war. I perceived Thatcher as a ‘strong’ leader defending Britain. Being a Texan at the time, I was not aware of and did not live under her economic and social policies.

It was not until I spent several months in Scotland in the early 1990’s that I fathomed the depth of hatred for her, and just how economically debilitating her policies were in industrial North England and Scotland. In the flat where I was staying in Glasgow, I remember vividly the ever-higher pile of poll tax bills on the mail table. I will never forget the rage towards her personally which would flow from Scots after a few drams, due not only to her destructive policies but also to the arrogance and contempt with which she treated them.

The most disturbing aspect of the economic hell Scotland and much of the North of England went through was the futility of their votes. The 1955 election which brought Anthony Eden to power marks the last time that Tories won more MP seats than Labour in Scotland. The last time Thatcher was elected in 1987, Labour in Scotland had 50 seats to the Tories’ 10.

This was before the poll tax was imposed in Scotland a year prior to the rest of the UK. This move compounded Scots’ hatred for Thatcher and the Tories, and sowed the seeds for decimation of the Tories in Scotland in 1997.

Rather than in Trafalgar Square, perhaps they should place a statue of Margaret Thatcher in the Scottish Parliament in recognition of her role in its creation.

Following the 1997 ‘New Labour’ victory of Tony Blair, the government was keenly aware that devolution was needed to give Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish more controls over their own affairs. The newly formed parliaments would also serve as a pressure relief valve for nationalism and moves towards independence. Perhaps if ‘New Labour’ had enacted policies consistent with their social democratic roots, Scots would have been content with their new constitutional arrangements.  

But New Labour did not pursue such policies, opting instead to extend Thatcherism with the help of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, particularly in the area of reckless financial deregulation. In addition, Tony Blair was sycophantic towards George W. Bush long enough to go to war in Iraq. We saw how all that worked out.

With the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition of the 2010 election, we have witnessed an assault on working people and the poor with a ferocity and contempt unseen since the Thatcher era. Tories are putting the finishing touches on their free-market utopia, seemingly relishing the fact that so many live in economic hell. George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith appear to enjoy cranking up the furnaces.

Thatcher’s passing last week has brought up a bitter debate about her legacy, with responses ranging from hagiographic eulogies to street parties celebrating her death. This debate comes in the context of the welfare cuts, with a scary number of UK citizens buying into the logic that welfare benefits subsidize laziness by dissuading people from getting non-existent jobs, thus driving a wedge between hard-pressed members of society. This strategy has been employed in US politics for decades. It has been the principal method used by Republicans to gain the votes of workers and the middle class, despite their contempt for them.

Tony Blair is advising Ed Miliband to get with the Tory program on welfare reform if he wants to win in middle England. Therefore, if Scots vote ‘no’ in 2014, even a Labour win in 2015 will not necessarily lead to more humane social policy. This political cacophony will endure, with policies promoting social and economic justice indefinitely deferred.

For Scots, this debate will remind them exactly why independence is the only way to definitively avoid the savagery of neo-liberalism. Voting ‘yes’ will ensure that Scots never again have to stand helplessly by while their unions, factories, communities, and social safety net are demolished by fundamentalist ‘free-market’ ideologues, be they Tory or Labour.

It is also important for the ‘yes’ vote not to be perceived as abandoning English and Welsh social democrats. Numerically, Scotland has made no difference in the overall Westminster majority in the post-war era. As long as there is an anti-democratic first-past-the-post electoral system, an archaic aristocratic unelected House of Lords, an unelected hereditary Head of State, shady corporate-funded neo-liberal think tanks, and Tories, these social welfare policies will continue to divide the country and prevent meaningful progress on jobs and education. How many generations will Scots have to wait to again have such an opportunity to construct a better and more just political system and society?

In fact, Westminster losing Scottish representatives and the construction of an egalitarian, democratic, and prosperous Scotland may be just what the r-UK needs to grasp how dysfunctional their system is. It will unequivocally demonstrate how much better a system they could build. England, Wales, and Northern Ireland deserve nothing less. 

Scots have the opportunity to vote for independence, reject Thatcherism, and democratically elect equitable, accountable, and decent governments they can be proud of for generations to come. What more convincing do Scots need to vote ‘yes’?

Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.


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