Why was Thatcherism relatively unpopular in Scotland?

Discussions of Scottish constitutional change and Thatcherism generally go hand-in-hand for at least three reasons:

1. It contributed to the old argument in the 1990s that Scottish devolution represented “unfinished business”, and that a Scottish assembly in 1979 could have “defended Scotland from Thatcherism” (McCrone and Lewis, 1999: 17) (whether or not this argument is true is discussed here in the context of the current independence debate)
2. “Not identifying with the Conservatives” was more important to support for devolution than identification with parties like the SNP (Mitchell and Bennie, 1996: 101). 

3. Conservative rule from 1979-97 (and 1970-4) symbolised the ‘democratic deficit’ in Scotland – it voted for Labour but received a Conservative Government.

The aim of this blog is to clarify what Thatcherism often means and how different aspects of Thatcherism may be relatively unpopular in Scotland (these points are discussed at greater length in Mitchell and Bennie, 1996):

  • Thatcherism as personality.  Thatcher herself was fairly unpopular in Scotland and “perceived to be English and anti-Scottish”. For example, in 1989, 77% thought that Thatcher treated “the Scots as second-class citizens” (1996: 96-7). Yet, the removal of Thatcher as Prime Minister did not lead to a revival of Conservative popularity in Scotland (or even stop their growing unpopularity).
  • Thatcherism as British Nationalism (putting the Great back into Great Britain) – this proved to be not a good strategy in a country which demonstrates much higher levels of Scottish rather than British national identity.
  • Thatcherism as a ‘two nations’ electoral strategy. This involved focusing on core areas of support (including the south east of England) and accepting defeat in others (including Scotland).
  • Thatcherism as new right ideology. This may have had more of an effect in Scotland which often displayed a (not always markedly) greater tendency to support the role of the public sector (partly because things like public sector employment and welfare payments were often higher in Scotland) and to oppose privatisation (selling off nationalised industries, forcing the sale of council houses (there were more in Scotland), introducing charges for services, introducing quasi-markets and private sector methods in government). In fact, many of these initiatives (such as the NHS internal market) were part-reversed by successive Scottish governments following devolution.
  • Thatcherism as economic reform. The idea that Thatcher-led governments were willing to pursue policies that accepted higher unemployment and opposed subsidising major industries did not go down well in ‘the North’ as a whole and Scotland in particular.
  • Thatcherism as centralisation – treating the UK as a unitary state (with unambiguous central government control and administrative standardization) rather than a union state (with some preservation of Scottish governmental and institutional autonomy).
  • Thatcherism as ‘assimilation’. There is a long history of Scottish nationalism linked to the idea that the UK Government is trying to introduce UK-wide policies that do not recognise Scottish traditions. A great old and modern example is Scottish education reform in the late 19th century and the 1990s under Michael Forsyth.
  • Thatcherism as the poll tax. Much of the opposition was general (i.e. it was not popular in many parts of the UK) and much related to the idea that the policy was first imposed in Scotland which was used as a ‘guinea pig’ for UK initiatives (the latter is questioned by Alex Massie ).
  • Thatcherism as a challenge to ‘social democratic consensus’. A lot of the Scottish ‘new politics’ rhetoric in the 1990s, in the lead up to devolution and political reform, related to the idea that Scotland had a more collectivist and participative political tradition that had to be protected during the Conservative years.  

Further old-school reading

Marsh, D. and Rhodes, R.A.W. (eds.) (1992) Implementing Thatcherite policies: audit of an era (Buckingham: Open University Press)

McCrone, D. and Lewis, B. (1999) ‘The 1997 Scottish referendum vote’ in B. Taylor and K. Thompson Scotland and Wales: Nations Again? (Cardiff: University of Wales Press)

McGarvey, N. and Cairney, P. (2008) Scottish Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave) – a 2nd edition is out in September 2013.

Mitchell, J. and Bennie, L. (1996) ‘Thatcherism and the Scottish Question’, in C. Railings et al. (eds.) British Elections and Parties Yearbook 1995, pp.90-104 (London: Frank Cass)



Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Why was Thatcherism relatively unpopular in Scotland?

  1. Pingback: Scottish Independence: a rejection of Westminster politics? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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