Margaret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain and nicknamed the Iron Lady for her strong-willed demeanor. Her policies and decisions were not always well received by the public. In Scotland, many people felt that her legacy was one of division. This article explores what Margaret Thatcher did to Scotland as Prime Minister, how it affects Scottish politics today, and why she is still a divisive figure in modern society.
Thatcher implemented stern measures against the labor movements, such as the National Union of Mineworkers in the 80s. She cracked the whip against striking miners who clashed against the police. To her, the clashes were “an opportunity to crush militant labor unions for good” [Source]. For the Scottish, the Iron Lady was behind the closure of industries and mines, so the workers scorned her.
Thatcher’s Scottish secretary from 1986-1990, Sir Malcolm Rifkind described Thatcher by saying, “She was a woman, she was an English woman, and she was a bossy English woman, and they could probably put up with one of these but three simultaneously was a bit too much” [Source].
Plans to Turn Scotland Tory
“Her dream was to paint the electoral map of Scotland in Tory-blue, but Margaret Thatcher made Scots see red” [Source]. Because of a reduced number of Scottish Tory MPs, Thatcher felt the need to fix this problem but failed because when she stepped down as Tory leader, only 10 MPs had been elected.
Rifkind explained that the flaw in Thatcher’s plans of turning Scotland into a Tory entity was that she did not check the numbers. He said, “She just assumed it was my job to represent the cabinet in Scotland. I saw it as the other way round. The problem Margaret had was that she was an English woman and a bossy English woman”, and he complained about how Thatcher did not that the Tory were a minority in Scotland.
The Pox Tax: When did the poll tax start in Scotland?
The Pox Tax, also known as The Community Charge, “was a taxation system introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government to replace domestic rates in Scotland from 1989, prior to its introduction in England and Wales from 1990” [Source]. The Pox tax “provided for a single flat-rate, per capita tax on every adult, at a rate set by the council authority.”
It was introduced to “make local council finance fairer and more accountable.” But it fuelled rebellion in the Conservative party and triggered civil disobedience. The tax enacted had adverse effects on everyone, including those who supported the Iron Lady. David Cameron noted how the Conservatives were wrong in imposing the pox tax as he renounced his party’s Thatcherite past. He said, “The imposition of the poll tax was the most egregious. The decision to treat Scotland as a laboratory for experimentation in new methods of local government finance was clumsy and unjust”.
In regards to the pox tax, BBC News noted that “It was Margaret Thatcher’s biggest political misjudgment – and brought her career as prime minister to an ignominious end” [Source].
Establishing Scottish Assembly and Favor of devolution
The Scotsman revealed how “Margaret Thatcher wanted to prevent the creation of a Scottish assembly by amending Labour legislation to allow the English to vote in the 1979 referendum on devolution” [Source]. Her goal was to enable all UK citizens to have a say in the devolution of Scotland.
The Guardian gives more details on Thatcher’s resistance to Scottish devolution and said, “Wikileaks has published 1.7m originally classified and secret US cables from the 1970s, where diplomats describe the then Tory leader as rigid, right-wing and leader of an English backlash on devolution” [Source].
In 1979, Thatcher turned her back on the pro-devolution model and caused Shadow Scottish secretary Alick Buchanan-Smith and the shadow minister of state, Malcolm Rifkind, to resign. “In the referendum, on 1 March 1979, Scotland voted in favor of devolution by52% to 48%, but only 33% of the total electorate voted in favor less than the 40% required for victory”.
“When the referendum was lost, the Conservatives, supported by the SNP, tabled a motion of no confidence in the Labour government. The resulting general election would see a victory for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, putting devolution off the political agenda at Westminster for nearly two decades”.
Red cards protest
Former PM Thatcher attended a Scottish Cup Final in 1988 between Celtic and Dundee United. This match took place after the Iron lady had rolled out the pox tax. Such a tax system faced much backlash from the Scottish, including Thatcher’s natural supporters, and it caused political tensions.
About 70 000 football fans reacted to having the PM present by flashing red cards at her to express displeasure. This demonstration would have been a crime under the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act enacted later [Source].
According to National Archives alluded to by The Guardian, it was noted that “Margaret Thatcher wanted to crush the power of trade unions” [Source], and brought out her iron hand on these unions and labor movements.
“We must neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership wherever this corresponds to the wishes of the workforce. We must see to it our new legal structure discourages trade union membership of the new industries,” penned down by Mount, who was writing Thatcher’s views.
Mount further explained that they hoped to see “a trade union movement whose exclusive relationship with the Labour party is reduced out of all recognition. Again, it is absurd and unjust that millions of Conservatives, Liberals, and Social Democrats should be supporting the Labour party directly or indirectly. This relationship fossilizes the Labour party and stultifies the whole political dialogue”.
Such a mindset enabled the Iron Lady to take on miners who were striking and pour down the full force of law enforcement on them.
In 1986, Chicago Tribune wrote, “Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said Wednesday her goal is to destroy socialism in Britain. She implied this would require the demise of the opposition Labor Party which she accused of moving steadily toward ‘an Eastern European kind of society’ [Source].
During an interview, Thatcher said she missed Britain, which only had two parties that ‘believe in the same fundamentals’ of freedom under the law backed by a free-enterprise society. Other political analysts argue that Thatcher killed British socialism and forced liberals to play the “me-too” game, as noted by Jonah Goldberg [Source].
Thatcher’s view on her political conduct said, “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people. We were the first country in the world to roll back frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage; we are renewing it and carrying it forward” [Source].