How Thatcher’s policies affected Scotland’s economy and society
Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female prime minister of the United Kingdom, is a controversial figure in Scottish history. Her economic policies, known as Thatcherism, aimed to reduce the role of the state, privatize public industries, deregulate the market, and curb the power of trade unions. While some argue that Thatcherism helped to modernize the British economy and restore its competitiveness, others contend that it caused widespread social and economic damage, especially in Scotland.
Thatcher’s policies had a devastating impact on Scotland’s traditional industries, such as shipbuilding, steel, coal, engineering, and manufacturing. These industries relied on public investment and subsidies, which Thatcher slashed in order to control inflation and public spending. As a result, many factories and mines were closed, leading to mass unemployment, poverty, and social unrest. According to the Office for National Statistics, the unemployment rate in Scotland rose from 5.8% in 1979 to 11.9% in 1987, while the number of people employed in manufacturing fell by 37% in the same period.
Thatcher also faced fierce opposition from the Scottish trade unions, especially the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which staged a year-long strike in 1984-85 to protest against the planned closure of 20 coal pits. Thatcher appointed the ruthless Ian McGregor to the head of the National Coal Board, who refused to negotiate with the miners and used police force to break the picket lines. The strike ended in defeat for the NUM, and hastened the decline of deep mining in Scotland. In all, 13 Scottish pits closed in Thatcher’s time.
How Thatcher’s policies alienated Scotland from the rest of the UK
Thatcher’s policies also widened the political and cultural gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK, especially England. Thatcher was seen by many Scots as an arrogant and insensitive leader, who imposed her unpopular policies on Scotland without regard for its distinct identity and interests. She was often accused of treating Scotland as a “colonial experiment” or a “laboratory for Thatcherism”.
One of the most contentious policies that Thatcher introduced in Scotland was the poll tax, a flat-rate charge on every adult resident regardless of income or property value. The poll tax was implemented in Scotland a year before the rest of the UK, in 1989, as a trial run for the new system of local government finance. The poll tax sparked widespread resentment and resistance among Scots, who saw it as unfair, regressive, and undemocratic. Thousands of people refused to pay the tax, and many joined anti-poll tax demonstrations and riots. The poll tax was one of the main factors that led to Thatcher’s downfall in 1990, when she was ousted by her own party.
Another policy that alienated Scotland from the rest of the UK was Thatcher’s opposition to devolution, the process of transferring some powers from the central government to the regions. In 1979, a referendum was held in Scotland on whether to establish a Scottish Assembly with limited legislative authority. Although a majority of Scots voted in favor of devolution, the referendum failed to meet the requirement of 40% of the total electorate, due to a low turnout and a boycott by some anti-devolutionists. Thatcher, who campaigned against devolution, claimed that the result showed that there was “no demand” for more autonomy in Scotland. She also abolished the Scottish Office, the department responsible for Scottish affairs, and merged it with the Home Office in 1988.
How Thatcher’s policies paved the way for Scottish nationalism
Thatcher’s policies, however, had an unintended consequence: they boosted the support for Scottish nationalism and independence. Many Scots felt disillusioned and betrayed by the Conservative Party, which had once been a dominant force in Scottish politics, but became increasingly marginalized and unpopular under Thatcher. The Conservative Party’s share of the vote in Scotland fell from 31.4% in 1979 to 24% in 1987, and its number of seats in the House of Commons dropped from 22 to 10 in the same period.
In contrast, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which advocated for Scotland’s independence from the UK, gained more popularity and credibility among Scots, especially the younger generation. The SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland rose from 17.3% in 1979 to 21.5% in 1987, and its number of seats in the House of Commons increased from 2 to 3 in the same period. The SNP also won several by-elections in the 1980s, including the famous victory of Jim Sillars in Govan in 1988, which he attributed to the “anti-Thatcher factor”.
Thatcher’s legacy in Scotland is therefore a complex and contradictory one. On the one hand, she is widely blamed for destroying Scotland’s industrial base, increasing social inequality, and ignoring Scotland’s aspirations. On the other hand, she is also credited for inspiring Scotland’s desire for self-determination, strengthening Scotland’s political identity, and paving the way for the devolution of powers and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.