22 November 2005

Ding dong, the witch is gone!

Apologies for the tasteless heading but I needed something with a bit of pizzazz to point out that 15 years ago today, Margaret Thatcher announced that she wouldn't stand in the 2nd Round of the Tory Party leadership contest.

But can she really be blamed for that? After all, even in the 1997 wipeout, the Tories took 17.5% of the vote, so they're still down on that disastrous result (though up slightly on 2001). Even at Thatcher's lowest ebb - the 1989 European elections - she led a party which took 20.9% of the vote. Of course, the main collapse happened five years on: in the 1994 European elections, the Tories then took 14.5% of the vote, a disaster which they haven't repeated since.

Yet she's the one who has been vilified, and rightly so: her policies did the most damage, particularly with the Poll Tax (which ultimately brought her down), where she used Scotland as a testing ground for her plans. Of course, it says something that even though the introduction of the Poll Tax was a fiasco in Scotland, she pressed ahead with it in England and Wales, but that's by the by. But the fact remains that it was Major who suffered to the greatest extent, with the 1994 nadir and the 1997 wipeout, with McLetchie taking the Scottish party backwards in terms of Westminster (from 17.5% in '97 to 15.8% now) and European elections (19.8% in '99 versus 17.8% in 2004), and maintaining a creative inertia around the 15-16% mark at Holyrood.

Perhaps it's time we took another look at Thatcher's legacy, both for the Tories and for Scotland. For the former, she didn't damage the party as much as Major and his successors did. For the latter, well, remember that the Tories didn't actually 'win' (by which I mean 'come first in') a Westminster election during Thatcher's leadership, but they did set policy for Scotland and implement their manifesto. So Thatcher taught us something important about the UK Constitution. And without that lesson, it's doubtful that the result of the '97 Referendum would have been as clear cut as it was.

It's ironic - in the '79 Referendum, the Tories encouraged voters to reject Callaghan Government's proposals for a Scottish Assembly so that they could produce something better. It turns out that, indirectly at least, they did just that.

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