Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
Here's a snapshot of some reaction to Margaret Thatcher's death from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Thatcher: The bogeyman of Welsh politics?
of the clearest illustrations of the gap between the Margaret Thatcher of
history and that of folklore is in this excellent article by David Williamson, political editor of Wales Online. In it, he draws
attention to many of the discrepancies between the Thatcher of today’s
remembering and the one Wales experienced. The best passage is worth quoting at
“When the Assembly took its
first, often faltering, steps Mrs Thatcher’s memory was regularly evoked by
AMs. Devolution, for all its imperfections, had a purpose: to prevent
Thatcherite policies ripping through Wales again.
“Just as the myth of the
bogeyman has been used by generations of parents to make children scamper
upstairs at bedtime, the image of Mrs Thatcher as the nemesis of Wales has
served an electoral purpose."
lists the dry, psephological facts: that some three in ten Welsh voters backed
Thatcher at the ballot box in each of her election victories. That in 1983 the
Conservatives returned 14 Welsh MPs. That they did all this despite facing
three consecutive Welsh leaders of the Labour Party in Callaghan, Foot and
Kinnock, MPs for Cardiff South East, Blaenau Gwent and Islwyn respectively. One
of the most memorable moments of the 1979 general election was David Dimbleby
informing the nation that Keith Best was the first Tory MP for Anglesey since
the Viscount Bulkeley… in 1722.
also points out that, despite Margaret Thatcher being in Wales as in Scotland allegedly one of the key driving forces in the devolution movement, when their moment
came in 1998 the Welsh only seized self-government by the skin of their teeth, 50.3% to
49.7%, despite the only party campaigning against devolution being the now
MP-less Welsh Conservatives.
Failing to unite the United Kingdom
the complex and disputed role of Thatcher as recruiting sergeant for devolution
is also examined in this piece by the BBC’s Welsh political editor Betsan Powys. Whilst the full extent of her
influence may be disputed, I’m not convinced by Ron Davies’ assertion that
devolution would have happened irrespective of her time in office – if the Iron
Lady truly were the daemon so many Welsh politicians claim she was, the ‘Thatcher
Factor’ must surely have amounted to the measly 0.3% of the vote that formed
the Yes victory margin.
legacy of Thatcherism in Scotland, much like in Wales, is that she seems to
have grown more monstrous as she grew more remote from contemporary experience.
It seems hard to believe now that when the Conservatives won in 1979 they did
so with 22 Scottish seats,
up from Heath’s 16 and including seats in Glasgow and across the Highlands. She
left with ten, and in the post-Thatcher 1992 election the Conservatives not
only recaptured by-election losses like Kincardine and Deeside but recaptured
Aberdeen South, lost in 1987, off Labour.
today, Thatcher’s legacy is commonly taken as the reason that we only have a
single MP and a shrinking corps in the Scottish Parliament – a view neatly
captured by this BBC roundup of reactions to her death by Scottish political figures. Brian Taylor, the BBC’s
Scottish political editor, sums it up:
“In many ways, she typified the
conundrum which confronted the Conservative Party and continues to do so to
this day. Her instincts, their instincts, were for a powerful brand of economic
liberalism applied uniformly and with vigour across the United Kingdom.
“By contrast, the Scots were
demonstrating their appetite for tailored politics, for distinctive treatment.
For self-government, in short.”
in Wales, one of the central planks of the analysis of her reign is that
Thatcher, a staunch unionist and avowed opponent of devolution, ended up one of
the great driving forces behind its eventual implementation. Sad as it is it
seems hard to deny. Personally it always struck me that on the constitution, as
in few other places, she was an unimaginative and cautious premier.
defeat of devolution in the two 1979 referendums, and the rise in support for
integration in Northern Irish unionism under her old mentor Enoch Powell,
offered a real window for finding an alternative to national assemblies by
passing power directly from Westminster to genuinely local government. Yet
following the murder of Airey Nieve she allowed his reforming vision to die
with him, and her centralising instincts brought Westminster to the zenith of
its power but sowed the seeds for its post-1997 fragmentation. Indeed, one of
the current debates in Scottish politics is the impact her passing will have
A 'one nation' legacy lost
probably the most interesting was Allan Massie’s comparison of Thatcher to that other long-standing Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin. It
is well worth reading the whole thing, but I’ll quote his conclusion:
“Of course the times and the
situation were different. Nevertheless Baldwin was right in his understanding
of what the Tory Party should be, and Lady Thatcher, for all her many admirable
qualities and achievements, was wrong in hers. Despite the efforts of her
successors, the Tory party has come to represent, and be seen to represent,
sectional interests. It needs a new Stanley Baldwin if it is ever to be a
national party again.”
that will not sit well with most Tories, since Thatcher was “for the most part … adored by her party in Scotland, just as in England”. But
it falls to Thatcher’s defenders to find a better answer to the question of how
we are “ever be a national party again”.
Black bunting in bad taste
of course, as in England the response was not just contained to thoughtful
columns and the respectful contributions of allies and opponents. The
already-infamous “death parties”, not limited to looting London charity shops
or attacking Bristol police officers, took place on an apparently more
peaceable scale north of the border, with three hundred people marking the occasion in Glasgow’s George Square.
you follow the link you’ll see the partygoers wearing posters bearing the
slightly surreal slogan “Gotcha! Now get the rest”, which suggests they believe
Lady T’s passing is the first stage of a cunning attempt to pick off
Conservative politicians using human biology and time.
I actually debated against one of the Glasgow
celebrants for the BBC World Service (in the second half of the show), and what struck me about all four of the
anti-Thatcher panellists lined up opposite me was their shrill defensiveness. Naturally
none of them supported celebrating the death of an old lady personally, good
lord no. But how dare Conservatives try to suppress criticism of Thatcherism
and censor people’s right to free expression? Of course, nobody is trying to do
any such thing. There is a world of difference between censoring someone’s free
speech and censuring them for how they exercise it.
morbid parties also cropped up in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast
Revellers defied the calls of a PR-minded Martin McGuinness, who like Ed Miliband was clearly worried
about the freer spirits of his political movement drawing popular ire.
Legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland
Northern Irish responses hinged on her approach to the troubles. First Minister
Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, praised her as “one of the greatest political figures in post-war Britain” whilst
referencing the deep divisions between Ulster unionists (including Powell) and
Thatcher left by the Anglo-Irish agreement, and noted commentator Alex Kane
proclaims that he “will always be a Thatcherite”.
Others take a different view: Timothy Lavin of Bloomberg is particularly
scathing about her Northern Irish legacy.
Adams meanwhile has clearly taken out a lucrative insurance policy on a glass
house, for he set about throwing stones with gusto. “Margaret Thatcher did
great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British prime
minister,” he claimed, adding that “her espousal of old draconian militaristic
policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering.” That seems a little
hard to stomach given that the ‘war’ was rather a terrorist campaign aimed at
tearing Northern Ireland out of the UK against the democratic will of the
majority of its inhabitants, waged by an organisation with which Sinn Fein is,
to say the least, not unconnected.
Missing the point
rather than leave the last word to the IRA, I thought I’d end with this piece
on Thatcher in, of all places, the Belfast Telegraph’s Sports section. The author maintains
that NI sportsmen and women “defied” Margaret Thatcher by “growing ever faster,
higher, stronger” despite her cutting their public funding.
strikes me that by buying into the myth that Thatcher cut public money to try
to kill things, they miss the point. Teams and individuals thriving and growing
despite a reduction of state involvement is the polar opposite of a challenge
to Thatcherism. If anyone pointed these triumphs out to her at the time, I’m sure she was all the prouder of them.