JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 9.5.09
A FEW WEEKS AGO, I became the proud custodian of a piece of family history, in the shape of the letters and photographs sent back to Scotland by my father, while he was serving during the Second World War as young RAF technician in Egypt. The tiny black-and-white pictures show my father and his friend Kenny using the RAF pay they saved, between leaves, to make some remarkable trips around the Middle East, towards the end of the war; to Cyprus and the Holy Land, Beirut and the Cedars of Lebanon, and up the whole length of the Nile Valley.
And the letters, on fragile RAF paper, are full of the hopes that were common, among young British servicemen in 1944-45, that they would be returning to a postwar world utterly different – in terms of social justice, welfare and opportunity – from the one they had lived in during the hard times of the 1930’s. In 1945, along with millions of other young Britons, my father voted Labour; and like the other members of my fortunate generation, I was one of the beneficiaries of the world that he and his contemporaries helped to create, when they came back into civvie street.
My father was a proud Scot who was also, for many years after 1945, happy to be British. Towards the end of his life, though, in the late 1990’s, he began to think, for the first time, of voting SNP; and I tell this story now, because I think it reflects a deep truth about Scottish politics that we need to acknowledge, in this week of huge and significant political anniversaries for Scotland and the UK. Last Sunday, 3 May, marked the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister; Wednesday 6 May was the tenth anniversary of the first election to Scotland’s devolved parliament, back in 1999. And what few have focussed upon, in a week when Westminster gaffes and scandals once again dominated the news, is the direct and powerful link between these two key political dates in early May.
For however much revisionist Scots may argue that Scotland was unfair in its demonisation of the lady, the fact is that Margaret Thatcher, and the character of her government, were the single largest force in powering the political movement that finally led, after a century of campaigning, to Scottish home rule. To say so is not, of course, fully to endorse the routine charge-sheet against Thatcherism drawn up this week by the Labour MSP Margaret Curran, a familiar litany of complaint about how Margaret Thatcher personally closed down Scottish heavy industry, shattered the economy of Glasgow, and used Scotland as a testing-ground for the poll taxt.
But what those who would defend Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in Scotland never quite seem to grasp is this: that the economistic bluster of nitty-gritty Labour politicians like Margaret Curran is only a rationalisation of the real nature of the Scottish objection to Thatcherism, which was always more cultural, ideological and moral than it was practical.
For Margaret Thatcher was a woman who, elected leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, waded into the politics of the Union with all the subtlety and understanding of a cart-horse in a craft-shop. She should have known what Labour politicians of her generation knew in their trade union bones, and what old aristocratic Tories like Alex Douglas-Home and Willie Whitelaw also understood; that a multinational state needs a good, aspirational project to hold it together. She should have understood that while the imperial project of the 19th century had long been the source of that strength in the British state – allowing people to feel good about themselves as missionaries and educators, as well as offering huge economic opportunities – that period was now over. And she should have understood that in the postwar period, for millions upon millions of Britons like my father, Britain had renewed its moral legitimacy, as a state and as a project, by simultaneously defeating fascism, and pledging itself to a new kind of society, a welfare state, a place where the horrors of the Thirties could never happen again.
And in that profound sense, from the moment she mounted the steps of Number 10, what Margaret Thatcher did – which was indeed often surprisingly cautious – never mattered as much as the things she said, which a majority of Scots perceived from the outset as both shallow and unpleasant. In trashing the idea of the welfare state, in trying to reframe a broadly benign public sector as the enemy of freedom, and in suggesting that people could best create a good society by looking out for their own narrow economic interests, Margaret Thatcher essentially broke the deal on which British society had been refounded in 1945, and bereft me and millions of others of the country into which we thought we had been born; and in doing that, she injected a certain iron into the soul of the Scottish home rule movement which she so strongly oppposed.
Of course, Margaret Thatcher and those who supported her in Scotland will never concede any of this. When it comes to Scotland’s resistance to Thatcherism, they resemble the old communist government of East Germany; they want to dissolve the people, and elect another. But on the morning of Margaret Thatcher’s election, 30 years ago this week, the UK chose a leader whose ideology would never wash, with a small northern nation to which a strong element of social solidarity and enabling government seems like simple common sense. Something broke, that day, that can perhaps never be mended; and now that the confused and half-hearted New Labour effort to heal those wounds has ended in failure, then it’s the SNP – the least likely of all Thatcher’s children – who will probably be shaping our unwritten future, for the next generation at least.