Brian Monteith: Thatcher myths are hard to take

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If Margaret Thatcher had not existed, we would have had to have invented her. There will never be another Thatcher; she was a one-off, a one of a kind – and while some will say thank goodness and good riddance, the hard reality is that such was the dreadful state of Britain when she was elected in 1979 that we needed someone with her determination, self-belief and powerful intellect to take on her 
powerful detractors.

The reason she was equipped for the huge challenge that faced her was not because she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, had a privileged upbringing, moved in the right circles and was a member of the right clubs. No, quite the reverse. To challenge the unions, to take on supine management, to run a cabinet of 21 ambitious men, to inspire the confidence of the working classes who broke their Labour habit to vote for her, she had to be something else.

Margaret Thatcher was an outsider. The wrong class in her class-conscious party, and a woman in a man’s world. Both made her impervious and tough. No-one else would have coped

She was no right-wing nut job, no mad axe woman or uncaring, high-maintenance diva. Margaret Thatcher stood on a very similar manifesto to Edward Heath, but unlike her predecessor she had the bottle, the guile and the resolution to see the task through.

Maggie became famous for refusing to make U-turns, unlike Heath who regularly had, but as with so many of the myths propagated by her opponents – and repeated without question by the BBC and others to the point that new generations who never knew her or experienced her premiership now believe them and hate her – she was far more pragmatic and pliable than is appreciated.

She is blamed for closing Ravenscraig steelworks but she twice kept it open in 1982 and 1985, each time committing further huge taxpayer subsidies because she believed it was important to Scotland’s morale as we came through a world recession. It was John Major who allowed the plant to be shut in 1992.

She is blamed for closing countless mines and destroying mining communities, but the reality is that pits had been closing throughout the post-war period and Harold Wilson closed far more pits in a shorter time (290 in six years) than Thatcher (160 in 11), putting more miners out of work then she ever allowed. And yet nobody suggested dancing on Wilson’s grave when he died.

In 1983, the year before the miners’ strike, every tonne of Scottish coal cost £14 more than it could be sold for. Across the UK the loss was £7 a tonne that taxpayers had to find. This meant electricity was relatively expensive, pricing other British people out of work as their industries could not compete internationally thanks to high energy costs. It also meant taxes in general had to be higher than need be to support such ailing industries.

It is also forgotten that many Scottish pits actually voted against Arthur Scargill and Mick McGahey’s strike (including Bilston Glen and Polkemmet); that the miners across Britain were divided and a new union was established to represent those that wanted to work.

Allowing the National Coal Board to close uneconomic pits saved huge amounts of money, but more importantly priced other people back into work and allowed everyone’s taxes to come down.

The mythology goes that Thatcher destroyed British – and Scottish – manufacturing and yet output was 7.5 per cent higher when she left office. In fact, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decimated manufacturing far more, and on the day Brown was defeated it had fallen below the level Thatcher left 20 years earlier.

That Britain’s automobile industry is now exporting more cars than at any time in its history is due directly to the economic realities Thatcher introduced, but only after taming the unions by removing the legal privileges that had made them untouchable.

Gone were the lightning strikes, the sympathy strikes and the mass picketing that intimidated moderate trade union members and workers in companies that had nothing to do with a dispute.

Likewise, Thatcher never wanted Scotland to have the poll tax first, she believed it should start everywhere at the same time. That error was the fault of Scottish Office ministers who convinced her to allow Scotland to start a year early to replace the old rates after a rates revaluation had caused outrage across the country.

So why all this bile, why the falsehoods, why the bitterness?

Simple. Margaret Thatcher took the tough and unpopular decisions other leaders of all parties had sidestepped before – but also, she was a winner.

She beat Labour three times in a row and never lost an election – and she isn’t forgiven for that, especially north of the Border. When she resigned as PM, Tory support in Scotland stood at 25 per cent – the same as when she became leader. More than 700,000 Scots voted for her each time, so even her unpopularity is a myth.

Now gone but undefeated. If she hadn’t existed we would have needed to invent her.