They're Cheering Thatcher In Scotland


They knew what the priorities were north of Hadrian's Wall this week. As Baroness Thatcher was laid to rest in what may well have been the last great state funeral of the British Empire — a fusion of state, capital and ideology — the headline of the Scotsman was focused on the main game: “Labour pushes for full income tax powers for Scottish MPs”.

Yes, it was a dull story in itself, but in its way more important than anything that was going on down South. Scottish Labour, a party opposed to independence, was pioneering yet another move which would give more independent powers to Scotland. Control of income tax is not nothing; it gives a polity power over the design of its own policies. Any party that wanted to preserve unity would resist the move. But Labour knows that it cannot not make moves such as this, if it is to look to the future not the past.

While England looked to the past through the prism of St Paul's Cathedral, Scotland has one date on its mind. On 18 September 2014 the realm will go to a referendum on whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom or not. The pro-independence forces are likely to lose, but the fact that they managed to get a referendum on the table at all is an extraordinary victory.

Thirty years ago, Scottish nationalism remained a quixotic cause, with no more than three of four Scottish Nationalist Party MPs in the Commons, and zero regional representation. The country's politics were dominated by the major English parties, and the conventional left-right split. In Glasgow, the major conurbation, Scottish nationalism had been a dirty word. The area had been the only place in the UK to elect Communist MPs, let alone Labour ones.

In the 1980s, Labour had included the idea of a Scottish regional assembly as part of its election promises, but it took until 1997 for it to be enacted. The promise was part of the process by which Labour established a dominance of Scottish politics. By the 2000s, there was not a single House of Commons Tory MP north of the border. Labour assumed that the place was theirs for the duration.

A scarce decade later, they got a rude shock. In Holyrood, the Scottish parliament, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) swept to power, under its canny leader Alex Salmond, and began the immediate push for a referendum. In the intervening years the SNP, once known as the “Tartan Tories” had shifted their politics considerably, becoming a smart, European-oriented social-democratic party and a marketplace for innovative policy solutions and applications. They were firmly opposed to the Iraq war and neocon adventures and quickly became an alternative to New Labour's disastrous embrace of big banks and US foreign policy.

The SNP's leftward move had allowed it to take a section of Labour's vote, largely on the Eastern side; in 2003, a breakaway group, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) took six regional seats, largely in the Glasgow area. The SSP proposed Scottish independence as a radical measure of a subject country; New Labour's move had been sufficiently rightward to detach its fiercely loyal Glasgow voters.

Several years later, the SSP collapsed after its charismatic leader Tommy Sheridan “successfully” sued the News of the World for libel over reports he attended swinger parties. He was later jailed for perjury after disaffected SSP members reported that they had lied to give him an alibi.

By that time, the voters were sufficiently detached and the SNP sufficiently acceptable to move on from Labour permanently. In the 2007 Scottish General Election, Labour ran a disastrous campaign, largely steered by John McTernan (now Julia Gillard's media spin doctor). The party's arrogant, out-of-touch pitch fell before Salmond's smarter mix of local politics, social progress, and scepticism towards the grand narratives of neoliberal capitalism. Salmond won minority government power.

The SNP would love its smart politics to be the big story about Scottish independence. But that's not the main tale, nor even Labour's incompetence over a decade. Behind it all, there's one reason that Scotland re-appeared from beneath the waves, and this week they were burying her. Yes, the last act of Margaret Thatcher may well be the break-up of the United Kingdom.

That would have horrified Thatcher, the ultimate Great British loyalist. It was the last thing she would have wanted to do. But the inescapable conclusion is that she did more than anything to restart regional independence as real movements within the UK.

Theorists of nationalism point to various factors that create a feeling that a region is something more than an administrative or linguistic unit, but two are crucial. The first is economic unevenness; the fortunes of two different regions within one polity diverge so wildly that whichever starts to do worse begins to feel a distinct identity through deprivation and exploitation.

Scotland got that in spades in the 1980s, as Thatcher's deflationary policies hit Glasgow hard. The area had been a powerhouse of shipbuilding and industry. Until the 1950s it had been the fourth most important urban industrial area in Europe. Thirty years later, its industry was unquestionably inefficient and loss-making, and was kept in business to maintain employment. Nevertheless, there would have been a pathway out of such inefficiency to a high-tech industrial future: the North Sea oil, which had come onstream in 1974, could have paid for the transition.

But instead it was used for tax cuts, thus creating a double whammy of inequality. As Glasgow declined, the high income South-east had even more disposable income. What had been recognisably shared economic destiny began to pull apart relentlessly, and continued to do so for the next three decades. That happened in the English North too, but no real independence movement developed there; of course the Scottish had something else, a real history of independent existence and a surviving culture.

Since the act of union in 1707, Scottish nationalism had been the preserve of a conservative, even reactionary elite, while Union had been the path to progressivism and metropolitanism. But from 1945, the wave of global decolonisation permitted nationalism to be seen as a progressive force, unifying a people against an oppressor. Such anti-colonial nationalism had begun in Ireland and spread to the Empire — and eventually came home in Scotland. Its revival in northern Ireland crossed the Irish sea. Modern Scottish nationalism was born from this fusion of economic unevenness —- the sense of being in it together — and the belief that such national unity could be forward-looking, an ethnic identity based on the future, not some Tartan-Walter-Scott past.

Thatcher's economic policies had been the essential midwife of that process, for the simple reason that she had never understood the material basis of the Union. It came into existence on the very eve of the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, which saw the economic fortunes of both countries bound together. Thatcher's right wing sentiment — that political and social unity would persist through patriotism even as an individualistic and unequal economic liberalism tore them apart — hid from her the real process she was building up.

But of course, a nationalist independence process needs something else too — a real pathway towards change. Amazingly, Margaret Thatcher provided that too. In 1985, Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish agreement, between the UK government and that of the Republic of Ireland. The agreement gave the Republic's government a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland, with a department of Republic civil servants based in Belfast. In return, the Irish government recognised that borders would not change until there was a successful pro-Irish referendum on both sides of it.

Ostensibly, this was a Tory triumph, one of its main purposes being security and policing co-operation between the two governments. In reality, and as Unionists realised at the time, it was a fatal concession, because it made visible the degree to which the UK was a confected, contingent arrangement. Though Sinn Fein/IRA rejected the agreement, they claimed credit for forcing the UK government to compromise. The agreement coincided with SF/IRA's transition to a political strategy. Thatcher would later come to agree with the critics of the agreement and recognise that she had made a major strategic error, which was, once again, the child of poor reasoning.

Implicitly believing that the UK derived its unity from some essential, pre-political character, she believed that an agreement such as this one could be arranged without loss; that it could be a pure add-on. Instead it was a fatal and decisive shift in UK sovereignty. It occurred at a time when Irish nationalists were looking to the EU as a new framework which would make new forms of sovereignty possible — small independent nations like Scotland would be viable with open trade borders, and regions like Northern Ireland could make a gradual transition from one state to another.

Even here, Thatcher helped with yet another policy she later came to reject; the Single European Act of 1985 was passed in all the countries of what was then the European Community. It set the predominantly economic union onto a path of super-statehood and empowered the Commission to enforce laws onto member states in a whole range of areas.

It is that EU, with its social-liberal philosophy (whatever its disastrous flirtation with a single currency) which is the framework within which Scotland, northern Ireland — and Welsh nationalism, under the leadership of the very left wing Plaid Cymru — can imagine a future beyond what the marxist theorist Tom Nairn called “UK-ania”. Nairn predicted much of this in his 1977 book The Break-Up of Britain.

I imagine he is watching the passage to a referendum — even a longshot one — with some glee. As for the near-Pharaonic departure of Baroness Thatcher, Nairn would likely be as bemused as the rest of us; at the paradoxes of politics, the persistence of myth, and how our deeply held beliefs create a blindness to what we most dearly want to come to pass.

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