Thatcher’s policies fuelled calls for devolution

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In a five part series, Ian Swanson looks back at the key moments in the independence debate. Part 2: 1980s

MARGARET Thatcher personified Westminster’s hostility to Scottish home rule – but had it not been for her, Scotland might not be where it is today.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the Right Reverend Professor James Whyte addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, May 1988, where she delivered her so-called 'Sermon on the Mound'.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the Right Reverend Professor James Whyte addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, May 1988, where she delivered her so-called 'Sermon on the Mound'.

The Iron Lady dominated politics throughout the 1980s at the head of a Conservative government, repeatedly re-elected with comfortable majorities and pursuing controversial right-wing policies from privatisation to the poll tax, but without a mandate from Scotland.

The failure of Labour’s 1979 Scottish Assembly referendum, quickly followed by the Tories’ general election victory saw devolution effectively taken off the agenda for most of the decade.

But the policies pursued by Mrs Thatcher and their impact on Scotland fuelled fresh demands for home rule, which led eventually to the creation of the Scottish Parliament and gave the SNP the platform for the independence referendum.

However, at the start of the 1980s, the SNP, reduced from 11 MPs to just two at the 1979 election, was in poor shape.

In the wake of the devolution referendum – which produced a Yes majority, but not a big enough vote to meet the rules – Margo MacDonald argued the SNP could only advance by winning over the working class and needed to become more socialist.

She helped form the 79 Group inside the party – which also included Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill, Roseanna Cunningham and Stewart Stevenson. It produced high quality campaign materials and put up candidates for internal party positions. But traditionalists in the party, who preferred to avoid ideology as much as possible, reacted against its criticisms and in 1982 seven key members of the 79 Group were expelled, including Messrs Salmond and MacAskill.

The year before, the SNP conference backed a motion calling for “political strikes and civil disobedience on a mass scale” and Jim Sillars – who had joined the SNP after the collapse of his breakaway Scottish Labour Party – was put in charge of the new policy of “Scottish Resistance”. In October 1981, he led a break-in at the old Royal High School, which had been converted to house the Assembly that never was. The group had planned to read out a declaration on what the Scottish Assembly would have done to counter unemployment, but they were arrested before they had the chance.

Across the UK, the early 1980s were a time of recession and high unemployment. In 1982, the number of people out of work reached three million for the first time since the early 1930s.

Scotland was particularly hard hit, with a string of major factory closures and a steady erosion of its traditional industries. The Singer sewing machine plant in Clydebank shut in 1980, throwing 3000 out of work; another 2000 went when Dunlop closed its tyre plant at Inchinnan, Renfrewshire; 6000 jobs went when the Peugeot Talbot factory at Linwood – former home of the Hillman Imp – closed in 1981.

In Leith, Henry Robb Shipbuilders – which used to occupy the site where Ocean Terminal now stands – closed in 1984 with the loss of 700 jobs.

And the Leyland truck plant in Bathgate, which had once employed 6000, shut in 1986.

The year-long miners’ strike which began in 1984 marked another key stage in Scotland’s de-industrialisation and also increased the bitterness many Scots felt towards the Thatcher government. This reached its crescendo, though, with the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland a year ahead of the rest of the UK.

No matter that it was done in response to complaints about rates revaluation, the injustice of a tax which made the “dustman pay the same as a duke” seemed all the greater when it was imposed by a Tory party which had just ten of the 72 Scottish MPs.

Despite all this anger, the SNP failed to make much electoral progress for most of the Eighties. It still had just two MPs after the 1983 general election and only added one more in 1987 – though that was a 32-year-old Alex Salmond.

And the following year Jim Sillars won a stunning victory at a by-election in Govan, repeating the triumph his wife Margo MacDonald had won 15 years earlier.

Well aware of Thatcherism’s unpopularity in Scotland, the prime minister visited the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly in 1988 and tried to explain her market ideology in theological terms. Her “Sermon on The Mound” did not go down well – ministers and elders queued up to register their dissent before she had even spoken. And at the end of her speech, the Moderator presented her with copies of two Kirk reports highly critical of her government’s policies.

Despite the apparent collapse of interest in devolution in the wake of the 1979 referendum, a cross-party Campaign for a Scottish Assembly had been set up in 1980, led among 
others by Jim Boyack, father of the now Lothian Labour MSP Sarah Boyack. It paved the way, towards the end of the decade, for the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which brought together churches, trade unions, businesses, Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and others to draw up a blueprint for a Scottish Parliament – though the SNP and the Tories stayed out. The convention had its first meeting on March 30, 1989, in the Church of Scotland General Assembly Hall – the place where Mrs Thatcher had delivered her Sermon on The Mound. Those present put their names to a “Claim of Right” asserting the “sovereign right” of the Scottish people to choose their own form of government.

And in a rousing speech, Canon Kenyon Wright, who chaired the convention’s executive, spoke of the battle ahead to secure devolution and referred to the most obvious obstacle, the lady at Number Ten: “What if that voice we know so well says ‘We say No and we are the state’? Well, we say Yes and we are the people.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com