by David Torrance

Thatcher in the Raw

March 28, 2013 | by David Torrance

Ah, the 1980s. I remember it, of course, but mine was the vantage point of a pre-teen, and by the time I’d figured out what was happening it had gone, replaced by the more nondescript 1990s. If only I’d been a decade older, or even a few years, that tumultuous decade might have left more of an impression. Thus the decade of shoulder pads, BMX bikes, Stock Aitken & Waterman and Spitting Image is for me the recent past and, as Alan Bennett once observed, there is no period so remote. Yet the influence of the 1980s remains prevalent, in the number of privately-owned homes, the triumph of consumerism and nostalgic fads in music, fashion and literature.

Nevertheless it’s a gift to the contemporary historian, conveniently bookended between the rise and fall of the Iron Lady and encompassing much that was distinctive culturally, politically and economically. Just the sort of decade that warrants a door-stopper of a book, which is where Graham Stewart’s Bang! comes in. It offers a Scottish Tory perspective on the 1980s, for Stewart is a product of an Edinburgh public school system, the distinctive voice of which often surfaces in his lucid prose. This is no bad thing. Plenty of history has been produced from an English, left-wing perspective, and balancing works are long overdue.

Gratifyingly, Stewart pays frequent attention to Scotland in Bang! and does so intelligently and with empathy. So the Thatcher that emerges from his book is more pragmatic, in economic and political terms, than the still prevalent discourse would otherwise suggest. Sure, no one could argue she ‘got’ Scotland and what Tony Judt called its ‘curious admix of superiority and ressentiment’, but nor did she set out to destroy it.

Conveniently, events in Scotland also bookended the 1980s: the 1979 devolution referendum hastened an already beleaguered James Callaghan’s demise, while opposition (if not riots, as in London) to the Poll Tax accelerated the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher. Mythology has since overtaken both events. As Stewart notes, it was disgruntled Labour backbenchers who ‘badly mauled’ the first Scotland Act rather than the Labour government, while the SNP’s failure to support Callaghan in the vote of no-confidence did not usher in a decade of Thatcherism, as some histrionic Labour figures continue to claim, but rather robbed Labour of a full five-year term (an election was due by October 1979 at the latest). Nevertheless the 1980s in Scotland – if only among the political classes – began on a sour note. Sour because the 40 per cent rule in the referendum was manifestly unfair, and sour because the devolutionary hopes of a generation had been maimed by the ballot box and then killed off, in its first Parliamentary act, by the new Thatcher government. Alex Salmond, who poured energy into the referendum and general election campaigns, later called it his annus horribilus. 

What followed was undeniably traumatic for many Scots. While in 1976 almost 30 per cent of Scotland’s labour force worked in manufacturing, by 1990 that figure had fallen by almost ten per cent. The steelworks at Ravenscraig assumed totemic status. Few remembered it had been brought to Scotland by a Conservative of a more moderate, Keynesian hue, Harold Macmillan; yet contrary to popular mythology, it also outlived the 1980s – only closing in 1992. Despite rhetoric about slaying lame ducks, Mrs Thatcher helped this one out twice, for which political credit came there none.

Elsewhere there was growth, not least in the north-east and Silicon Glen. At the height of the 1980s nearly a third of Europe’s personal computers were manufactured in central Scotland and one in eight of the world’s semi-conductors. By 1986 (the year of the Big Bang in the City of London, from which Stewart’s book takes its title) Scottish-based firms managed £50 billion of funds, rising to £211bn in 1994. Thatcher did brag about this, but it fell on deaf ears. Even when, by the late 1980s, Scotland’s economy had moved into line with (if not, in some respects, ahead of) the rest of the UK for the first time in decades, it was too late to reap any political rewards; the pain of deindustrialisation had been too acute, high unemployment too persistent, and the message unpalatable however beneficial the consequences.

Even so, Thatcher was not as electorally toxic as many appear to believe. As Stewart writes: ‘Much as Scottish Tories would subsequently blame the legacy of Thatcherism for their annihilation in 1997, they still did far better with the honourable member for Finchley as their leader than any of her five successors in the twenty years after 1990.’ Indeed, for much of the 1980s Mrs Thatcher was backed by around 30 per cent of the Scottish electorate and around 20 MPs. Not a mandate in either sense (unlike 1955), but then much more so than the party shouting ‘no mandate’ the loudest. Even after eight years of supposedly ‘alien’ Thatcherite medicine, in 1987 the SNP only mustered 14 per cent of the vote and, at that election, three MPs, one of whom was the 32-year-old Alex Salmond.

Apart from a fleeting victory for Jim Sillars in Govan, the 1980s were barren years for the SNP. The early part of the decade had been consumed by internecine strife, while most of the things Nationalists expected to boost their support (North Sea oil, hatred of the Tories and latterly the Poll Tax) did so only marginally. Even Mrs Thatcher’s supposed constitutional inflexibility (the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement appeared to suggest otherwise) did not benefit ‘Scotland’s party’.

Salmond et al have also rewritten history to some extent. While they frequently remind Scots that the wicked Tories opposed devolution throughout the 1980s they omit to mention the SNP did too (it only formally reversed that position in 1997, as did the Conservatives). While Mrs Thatcher preached fundamentalist Unionism, the SNP (though not the more pragmatic Mr Salmond) banged the drum of undiluted independence. Although the 1980s ended with the SNP riding relatively high (the party polled respectably in the double Paisley by-election that followed Thatcher’s resignation), that was not how it felt at the time. Although I was an apolitical 10-year-old rather than a political obsessive, the impression I retain of leafleting and poster-pasting with my Nationalist father was of hope trying very hard to triumph over experience.

North Sea oil was mentioned constantly, although it was not then (or indeed now) the panacea depicted by the SNP (‘No Wonder She’s Laughing,’ screamed one memorable poster, ‘She’s Got Scotland’s Oil’). Initially the revenue kept Thatcher’s government afloat, but production had peaked by 1985, and a year after that the international oil price collapsed as quickly as it had soared seven years before. Drilling in the North Sea was cut by 40 per cent and value of production halved from £20bn to £10bn with the loss of 20,000 jobs. To crown it all the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988 also made the industry (which economically transformed the Grampian region) appear unsafe. There were to be no more cost-free riches, even without the environmental implications.

The government was also more alert to the Scottish dimension than is acknowledged. In 1988 Nigel Lawson only allowed BP to acquire the Scottish-based Britoil if it promised to keep an HQ in Glasgow and endow several Scottish universities. But Westminster, unlike Norway, failed to invest the proceeds. In one of his book’s many interesting ‘what if?’ passages, Stewart ponders what might have been while concluding that short-termism might actually have extracted maximum value from the sea bed in the early 1980s. Nationalists were not alone in viewing black gold as an economic saviour. Labour had believed the same a decade before, while the Conservatives reaped the benefits from 1979 onwards.

But the question that needs to be asked about the 1980s is, contrary to Thatcher’s dictum (TINA), was there an alternative? It’s not one Stewart adequately addresses, nor indeed do many of the Conservatives’ most vehement critics. Arguably, there was. Sandwiched between Ireland, which by the end of the decade was pursuing turbo-charged neoliberalism, and social democratic Nor-way with its enviable oil fund, the UK could, with a little imagination, have pursued a less destructive third way. Unfortunately the mainstream Scottish Left, be it Labour or the SNP, failed to rise to the occasion, instead looking in both directions and settling upon a sort of social democracy-lite, a beguiling notion that Scandinavian-style public services could be paid for via Irish levels of taxation. Of course there were dissenting voices, often articulate and compelling ones at that, but even by the late 1980s they were drowned out by the plausible business-speak of Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond.

This was captured in Salmond’s faux pas during an interview with Iain Dale, when he asserted that Scots hadn’t liked the social side of Thatcherism ‘at all’, but ‘didn’t mind the economic side so much’. Try telling that to anyone who lost their job as a consequence of deindustrialisation or monetarism. Yet the SNP leader continues to view the Laffer Curve as a thing of beauty, an economic theory worthy of a modern, progressive centre-left Nationalist movement. But then Salmond was forged in the 1980s, first at RBS and then in the House of Commons, as were Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney in less influential contexts. But the central paradox in their politics, along with many of their Labour contemporaries, remains: a relentless and rather puerile disdain for Thatcher as a person, but a curious attachment to her political ethos, no matter how outdated or discredited it becomes, particularly in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

Thus the same old mantras are trotted out ad nauseam: the Westminster government has ‘no mandate’; Thatcher hated Scotland; Scotland is more socially democratic than England, and so on. All of them took shape during the 1980s and were, perhaps understandably, comforting. But soon they became restrictive, dulling rather than sharpening political thought, restricting rather than stimulating debate. And, to an extent, all today’s parties have become trapped by them; trapped by political clichés; trapped, in essence, by the 1980s.


BANG! A HISTORY OF BRITAIN IN THE 1980S 

Graham Stewart

ATLANTIC BOOKS, PP 560, £25, ISBN: 9781843549987

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