On an icy February morning in 1975, a modest, unremarkable woman stepped out of a car on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, hoping to walk the retail thoroughfare and shake a few hands for the waiting cameras.
Instead, she was mobbed by a crowd of 3000 well-wishers, waving Union Flags and cheering “Maggie”. The throng surged forward with her every step, trying to catch a glimpse of the new leader of the Conservative Party, the first female Leader of the Opposition in Britain’s history.
As the overwhelmed politician reached the St James Shopping Centre, the celebrants rushed into the mall, crushing some of their number against windows. Fearful for public safety, police cut short the walkabout and needed the help of additional officers to bring the situation under control. “At least three women fainted, and others had to be helped clear,” the Times reported the following day.
Those scenes sound like events from a different Scotland, an alternative past, one foreign to our popular imagination almost four decades later. Margaret Thatcher would go on to win the 1979 election with almost a third of Scotland’s votes but soon she would again draw huge crowds, these ones protesting her radical economic policies and chanting for her downfall.
Scotland’s complex relationship with the Iron Lady has been thrown into sharp relief by her death. But who was Margaret Thatcher, why did she inspire such contempt, and what is her legacy north of the Border?
Born on October 13, 1925, Margaret Hilda Roberts was raised in the flat above her father’s grocery shop in the Lincolnshire market town of Grantham. Alfred Roberts was an alderman on Grantham Council and raised Margaret and her older sister Muriel in the twin doctrines of Methodism and self-reliance. Her childhood was modest and she grasped the value of money working in the shop while dedicating herself to academics at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School. She learned of the impending Second World War from Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish refugee whom the Roberts family took in after helping to fund her escape from Nazi-occupied Austria.
Margaret read chemistry at Oxford and took a post as a research chemist with BX Plastics upon graduation in 1950. She married businessman Denis Thatcher the following year and raised their children Carol and Mark while studying to qualify as a barrister. Throughout this time, she sought selection as a Tory candidate for a series of seats, mostly in unwinnable Labour heartlands, and did not become an MP until she took Finchley for the Conservatives in 1959.
She would serve in a series of posts in government and opposition, entering the Cabinet as Ted Heath’s Education Secretary in 1970. Here her spending cuts, specifically to government provision of milk in schools, earned her the epithet “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”. When Heath lost the February and October elections of 1974, Mrs Thatcher challenged him for the leadership of the Tory Party and, against all the odds, won.
The Labour government of the day, led first by Harold Wilson and then by James Callaghan, struggled from crisis to crisis, dogged by growing union militancy that saw endless strikes and an economic decline that required an IMF bailout to keep Britain afloat. The Conservatives launched a poster campaign declaring “Labour Isn’t Working” and by the 1979 election they had convinced enough people to switch their vote, making Mrs Thatcher the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
She embarked upon a policy agenda that would transform Britain within a decade from a sclerotic socialist society into a liberalised market economy. Across three parliaments, Mrs Thatcher’s government privatised national monopolies, allowed council tenants to buy their homes, and cut the top rate of tax from 83% to 40%. Reversing the post-war consensus between Labour and Tory governments, she focussed on controlling inflation rather than unemployment and by 1984 more than three million Britons were out of work.
The policy of privatising nationalised industries exacerbated the decline in coal and steel and sparked a wave of strikes, most famously the 1984-85 miners’ strike led by Arthur Scargill. Mrs Thatcher refused to compromise, insisting that pit closures reflected the economic realities of the marketplace, and after a year of walk-outs, stand-offs, fly-picketing and violent clashes, the miners returned to work, defeated, and Mrs Thatcher had effectively ended what she called “government by the consent of the TUC”.
On the international scene, she forged a strong alliance with Ronald Reagan, her ideological doppelganger in the White House, and denounced the Soviet Union as “bent on world dominance”, a barb that earned her the sobriquet “The Iron Lady” from the Russian press. Her greatest test came when Argentina invaded the Falklands but after a two-month campaign the islands were recaptured and Mrs Thatcher was re-elected in 1983 on a wave of patriotic sentiment.
Even as her economic policies shuttered the industries on which many in the north of England and Scotland relied, Mrs Thatcher maintained an unassailable electoral position. Her determination proved popular with a large section of the public and her economic reforms were seen by many as necessary, if bitter, medicine. But she was aided most of all by the Labour Party, which had responded to Thatcherism by lurching to the far-left and promising to raise taxes, renationalise industries and repeal laws against secondary picketing. Labour’s commitment to full-blooded socialism frightened the electorate and gave new meaning to Mrs Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative”.
The Iron Lady’s eventual downfall came not at the hands of Labour or the voters but her own Cabinet ministers and backbenchers. Her stridency and stubbornness began to take their toll and colleagues ignored or rebuked grew hostile and rebellious. The Community Charge, dubbed “the Poll Tax” by opponents, tried to simplify local taxation but proved fiercely unpopular with even lifelong Conservative voters.
Mrs Thatcher’s problems were compounded by her regular clashes with the European Community and her increasingly vituperative rhetoric towards Brussels enraged pro-European Cabinet colleagues. In November 1990, Michael Heseltine challenged the Prime Minister for the leadership of the Tory Party. Although she won on the first ballot her victory was not resounding enough and she announced her resignation. After 11-and-a-half years, Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street and left a new Britain in her wake.
To many, Margaret Thatcher was the politician who tamed the unions, liberalised the economy, privatised the inefficient state monopolies, and gave working-class people their first opportunity to own property and shares. A hard, uncompromising ideologue but one who did what had to be done.
She is admired around the world, especially in the United States where her alliance with Ronald Reagan is credited with helping to end the Cold War, and in Eastern Europe where her furious denunciations of Communism were cheered by those living under Soviet rule even if they were condemned by opponents and diplomats at the time.
But then there is Scotland – and, to be fair, much of the north of England – where the Iron Lady remained till her final breath a figure of revilement. It is no exaggeration to call her the most hated woman in Scotland and that contempt is unlikely to subside with her passing. The Sunday school injunction against speaking ill of the dead will not be kept this time.
Asked why Scotland rejected his old boss, former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind posited: “She was a woman, an English woman, and a bossy English woman”. While she did stir that latent stream of Anglophobia that still simmers in some Scots and although sexist cries of “Ditch the Bitch” were common from the Left, gender and identity politics do not offer all the answers. The animosity felt towards Mrs Thatcher was largely inspired by her worldview, her personality, and her tone.
She was seen as remote and extreme, a cold practitioner of brutal policies that were contemptuous of the social democratic consensus that had embedded itself in Scottish national identity. Thatcherism became a byword for greed, selfishness and sharp-elbowed individualism, a break with the paternalist unionism that had hitherto defined the Conservatives in Scotland. When she attempted to reconcile free-market capitalism and Christianity in a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, her remarks were mocked as “The Sermon on the Mound” and roundly dismissed.
Her term in office coincided with a decline in large-scale manufacturing, symbolised by the slow death of Ravenscraig, and the growth of the service and financial sectors. The Poll Tax, a complex and inefficient replacement for the rates system, was introduced in Scotland a year before its rollout in England, giving rise to the suspicion that Scots were being used as guinea pigs to test a harsh and unjust policy. This animosity was compounded by Mrs Thatcher’s abandonment of the Tory Party’s pro-devolution stance, convincing many Scots that only devolution could protect them from alien right-wing policies hostile to Scottish values.
For a skilled politician attuned unlike few before her to the aspirations and fears of Middle England, Mrs Thatcher was remarkably tin-eared when it came to Scotland. She could not understand the hostility she attracted, blaming a left-wing establishment that confused the moral imperatives of charity and compassion with state-engineered equality. Scotland, she felt, had abandoned its proud heritage as the nation of Adam Smith in favour of “nationalist myths” and “socialist illusions”.
However, the socialism to which many Scots were wedded had little to do with Marxist doctrine or historical materialism. It was a socialism forged in the grinding poverty of the late nineteenth century and roused to a movement by the oratory of Keir Hardie and James Maxton. Egalitarianism became the moral anchor of Scottish national identity, the ethical imperative of “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns” finding life in the redistributivist state, and it was this worldview that Mrs Thatcher could not fathom and would not assuage.
Martin Amis quipped in his 1995 novel The Information that “everyone in England was Labour, except the government” and in the 1980s the social shibboleth “I didn’t vote Tory” did not square with the party’s electoral success. Scotland’s dirty little secret is that many did vote for Mrs Thatcher; even at her lowest ebb she secured almost a quarter of the votes north of the Border. Her Right to Buy policy was highly popular, with 500,000 Scots choosing to purchase their council house, and there is little appetite for a return to union militancy and state monopolies. She forced the Labour Party to move to the centre ground or face electoral oblivion and there is more than a hint of Thatcherism in Alex Salmond’s plans for an independent Scottish economy buoyed by corporation tax cuts.
Hatred has a long burn and conviction endures the passing of years but neither can resist the sweep of political reality. Scotland has its own parliament and decides its future and still the Thatcherite settlement remains, more or less intact. Baroness Thatcher lamented in her memoirs that “There was no Tartan Thatcherite revolution” but there was a quiet revolution that saw Scottish political culture tacitly accept the underpinnings of Thatcherism. There would be no more cheering crowds lining Princes Street, no more flag-waving well-wishers, but while her popularity faded her ideas endured, against all challenges, and transformed Scotland into the country it is today.
In death, as in life, Margaret Thatcher may not change a single mind but she changed a nation, and that is her legacy.
An edited version of this article appeared on STV News.