A guest-style crosspost today from Douglas McLellan, who has a new blog here and who describes himself, amongst other things, as the most right-wing member of the Scottish Greens (as discussed on LPW’s excellent For A’ That podcast). 

ThatcherThe passing of Margaret Thatcher has brought to the surface an issue that I think has been holding back Scottish politics for some time. All of our politicians define themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, on the period of 1979 – 1990 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. On one hand this is understandable given the relative ages of our politicians and the fact that she was in power when many either became politically active or became the focus of their existing political activities. On the other hand I struggle to understand why she is the millstone that every Scottish politician seems to carry around their neck even now.

The debate in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, opened by SGP MSP Patrick Harvie, exemplified this. He, the independents and the SNP all took out their current well used scripts and voiced their disaffection about Thatcher, Westminster and UK economic models. All the points they made were the old, told many times, stories of how Thatcher wronged the very nation of Scotland and all who reside here (despite 25% of Scots voting for her). The Minister for Local Government and Planning, Derek Mackay, basically read out an SNP Party Political Broadcast. Thatcher it seems, is the very reason for independence. Labour MSPs in their speeches seemed to utterly forget that Labour was in power for 13 years and could have made more significant changes to the country if they wanted. Predictably the Conservatives defended everything that Thatcher did as Prime Minister without reference to the damage done to communities and without irony. After all, it was the Conservatives that ended her Prime Ministership, not the electorate. If she did nothing wrong why did they get rid of her? So far, so predictable.

We are now living 23 years after Thatcher left office. It is time to move on.

Much was made in the debate of how we still live in a country dominated by Thatcherism. If we do, it is a much diluted version. Thatcherism is not just a view on economics but also social policy and conviction politics. Nigel Lawson described Thatcherism as “Free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, …. privatisation and a dash of populism”.

The markets we have now are indeed far more free that when before Thatcher came to power. Having a vast array of inefficient industries relying on the public purse is not a suitable way to run an economy. Neither is letting the workers in some of those industries have enough power to bring the country to a standstill on little more than a whim. It is true that the way some industries were changed had unintended consequences such as eventually allowing overseas entities controlling the supply of much of our domestic energy supply. However, what business does a government have building cars or airplanes? Or taking months or years to supply a simple telephone line? Or running a computer company (ICL). In 1972 the state was running Thomas Cook and we cannot truthfully say the Tories were wrong to sell it (a Heath, not Thatcher, privatisation). Yet now, we have two nationalised banks and, with a focus on renewable energy we find that important locations for tide based energy are part of the Crown Estate. If we were beholden to a Thatcherite view of things that this would not be the case.

If there was actually financial discipline and firm control over public expenditure in the Thatcher years (debateable) then we certainly didn’t have it under Labour and we don’t have it now.

Tax under Labour was very high. When she came to power the basic rate of income tax was 33% and could rise to as much as 98% on those who earned and invested higher amounts. Tax cuts have given earners at every level more choice on how to spend the money that they earn. This cannot be a bad consequence of Thatcherism. Even those who complain that higher earners should be taxed more cannot seriously argue that the state should take 1/3 of a low earners income? Who is complaining about this benefit to low earners? But even with tax we have moved on from Thatcherism to at least Brownism. Tax credits clutter the income tax landscape, even for those earning above the 40% tax rate. We have a tax system that is so byzantine in nature, well qualified advisers can find loop-holes and develop legal tax management schemes. Furthermore, with the introduction and then removal of the 10p rate as well as the narrowing of the monetary value between the basic and higher rates of tax it is clear that Brownism, not Thatcherism sets the scene for today’s Chancellor and economic approach.

Populism is certainly an issue in politics today as it was then. In fact, it may be that the populist approach of universally attacking or universally defending Thatcher at every opportunity which is stopping Scotland move forward rather than constantly looking back.

Instead of looking back to the failures or successes of Thatcher, why can’t Scottish politicians move forward, looking to provide solutions to current problems regardless of their supposed origin? It seems no policy now can be brought forward without genuflecting to the memory of Thatcher. The peculiarly Scottish approach of developing public policy by first referencing bad things in Scottish history means that often the proposed solutions are not as helpful as they could be. For example, Scotland has a health problem. I am part of that problem as I am very overweight. If I still lived in Fife my weight problem would no doubt be attributed to living in a former mining village suffering from unemployment caused by Labour in the 1970s and the Tories in the 1980s (remember Labour never did anything bad to mining communities….). However my weight problem is actually to do with a disposable income large enough to fund far too many takeaways, full fat soft cheeses and high sugar/caffeine drinks. Another example is that a high number of older people presenting liver problems are not former mine workers resorting to alcohol to drown their sorrows but instead those who have enough money to drink a bottle of nice wine each night with their evening meal.

Social housing is a problem due to a lack of stock but we have had almost a decade and a half of devolution. If we have a failure to house people it is not Thatcherism to blame but a failure of our devolved parliament. In the heady, well financed days of early devolution we did not build enough social housing so why do we not blame that period of time? Scottish politicians had the chance to make changes. Blame for Scottish housing as it is no must be held by Scottish politicians in Holyrood. It is probably because that is an unpalatable truth that Labour and the Lib Dems (eight years in power) and the SNP (six years and counting) cannot face. All of Scotland’s problems can, in large part, be addressed by a forward looking parliament. They may not be solved, they may not be completely addressed but Scotland can lead the way. Instead it is clear many want so sit in the corner and chew over the stale vomit of history.

On the other side, the Tories want to reclaim the Thatcher glory days of strong election victories yet fail to understand what was wrong with some of their policies then and also ignore their role in her downfall. Whilst Murdo Fraser clearly admires her, he stood for leadership of the Scottish Conservatives on a platform of more powers for Scotland (which Thatcher never wanted) and rebranding/launching the Tories as a Scottish centre-right party. The problem for him is that his party did not agree with him and still clings to its Thatcherite electoral successes south of the border as a hopeful springboard for the future. Their own genuflection to Thatcher will keep them out of power for a long while yet and stop them developing genuine Scottish centre-right policies.

The independence debate, like the debate held last week, is focussed not on the future but a series of “What if” scenarios. What if she hadn’t been elected, what if Scotland had a greater say in oil revenues, what if she didn’t close fewer mines that Labour, what if she didn’t stop the state making cars etc. etc. This even extends into thinking about trying to do what others did in the past yet still blame Thatcher. What if we got independence and create an oil sovereign fund instead of using the money to pay unemployment benefits?

Nice idea but that money is earmarked to go elsewhere. And it shows a lack of ambition. How about this for a different what if – we get independence and use oil money to develop the renewables sector strongly, from which future profits can be invested in a Scottish Sovereign Fund? See what I did there? No mention of the past.

No party is ever going to make a difference to Scotland if it cannot look forward. The independence debate cannot be fought, never mind won, on the battles of the 1980s. It should be fought on the battles of the 2020s and the 2030s as we make Scotland a better nation.

On Thursday, one MSP did make an interesting intervention. Margo McDonald said this

[the Scottish Parliament] is the opportunity to make us bigger and better and to think more adventurously and more creatively. That is what we have a Parliament for.

I hope Scottish politicians think about that and offer adventurous and creative policies for Scotland that are based on current and future Scottish needs, not on what has gone on before.