Scotland’s parliament confronts Margaret Thatcher

What to make of the debate about Thatcher's legacy, held at Holyrood the day after her funeral?

Tom Gallagher
On 22 April 2013 09:59

The day after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral on April 17th, Scotland’s Parliament, at Holyrood in Edinburgh, held a debate about her legacy. The omens were not auspicious.

On April 11th, only 9 members (MSPs) could be found to sign a respectful motion in her memory while no less than 42 out of 129 MSPs signed one hailing Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In his 15 years in charge, El Commandante had cracked down with growing firmness on expressions of civil society in the media, the academic world and in business. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, is likely to surpass him and quite possibly drive the country towards confrontation between social forces who would be content to honour Thatcher’s memory and ones wedded to an authoritarian state.

Nearly three hours were spent debating a motion from the Greens and breakaway members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) refuting Thatcher’s 1987 remark that ‘there is no such thing as society’. She had been challenging the idea of the big state providing entitlements while micro-managing the lives of citizens who had grown dependent on it. She wished to assert the importance of individuals over society, arguing that without the efforts made by people to create wealth, nothing would be available to pay for public services.

Professor Hugh McLachlan, a philosopher from Glasgow Caledonian University, argued in the Scotsman newspaper on April 16th that “As citizens and as human beings, we ought to be prepared to give help to those who need it. This moral platitude is quiet unrelated to the conclusion of any philosophical debates about the ontological status of social phenomena. The belief that there is no such thing as society has no association, whether logical or psychological, with selfishness.”

This philosopher, an independent-minded academic by current Scottish standards, also reflected that “if we want to make Scotland a better, fairer place to live in, we could start by treating those whom we dislike and with whom we disagree better and more fairly. We have, perhaps, a moral responsibility to do so.”

A debate meant to beam a light on Thatcher’s allegedly selfish view of humankind, had originally been planned to be held on the day of her funeral. Restraint of the kind urged by McLachlan appeared to prevail and it was switched to the next day. In the event, a thoughtful and temperate debate ensued. Arthur Scargill, the embodiment of unlimited union power, was the object of more scorn than Mrs. Thatcher and not just from the Tories.

The 9-strong Tory contingent put up one of their rare combative performances. John Lamont asserted that the Scottish economy had done well in the 1980s, with manufactured exports increasing by 26 percent over that decade. Speaking of the UK, he insisted that “Margaret Thatcher changed the face of the country...She found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”.

It is true that plenty of manufacturing industry was wiped out in that decade, much of which was unsustainable without government subsidy. The pace of the decline would have been slower in the absence of the high interest rates and high value for sterling of the early 1980s which quickly made many firms unviable that relied on an export base. New hi-tech industries came along which were not as labour-intensive and in which Scotland showed ingenuity, notably oil technology.

Rueful low-key speeches from Labour MSPs referred to the gloom and inertia in their formerly industrial constituencies. Press commentators such as Iain MacWhirter, an influential BBC Scotland political commentator during the Thatcher era, were less restrained. He made the highly doubtful assertion in the Sunday Herald on April 14th that “For nearly a century, Scotland had been a world leader in engineering technology, with Glasgow and Clydeside the industrial heart of the British empire. That was swept away in less than a decade.”

It took a reader, sympathetic with much of the journalist’s world view, to add a small dose of reality. John Collatin wrote:

I can remember when I worked in Singer's Clydebank, that a lighting strike was called because a foreman pushed a bogey stacked with sewing machines from the sub assembly shop floor into the warehouse, a matter of a few yards, an absentminded good housekeeping gesture.

We were all brigaded into the tenement back court adjacent to the stock yards, many many thousands of us, where we were addressed by a megaphone wielding union official, who described this action by management with a passion normally reserved for war criminals, then asked for a show of hands, concluded that there was a majority in favour of industrial action, and ordered 'everybody out'.

I was a young man, at the time, just married, with a mortgage.

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