Author: Gerry Mooney

The 1979 General Election in Scotland: A Highpoint for Thatcher and the Tories?

Updated Wednesday, 8th April 2015
Gerry Mooney discusses the long shadow that Margaret Thatcher still casts over Scottish politics.

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Map of Scotland with Scottish flag. Scotland: A Land of Myths and Myth Making?

Of the recurring myths that surrounds the discussion not only of politics in Scotland, but of Scottish society as a whole, is that Scotland and ‘the Scots’ are in some way naturally ‘left-wing’. Though ill-defined and ambiguous, nonetheless this idea underpins claims – long-standing claims – that Scots are likely to be more collectivist, reflecting that Scotland is a more communal society and where a greater sense of social attachment and solidarity. From time to time this is expressed in the view that public and social attitudes, as well as the aspirations of the Scots, are more in tune with social democratic policy-making, with ideas of fairness and equality.

While such claims have long been critiqued and now largely understood as being mythical, nonetheless they retain a great deal of support both within and outwith Scotland. Not only is this one of the favoured stories that we like to tell ourselves and others about Scotland, many people outside Scotland have also viewed Scotland and Scottishness in such terms. In addition to the widespread popular investment in such stories, that is, in the myth of an innate Scottish progressiveness, there is considerable political capital invested here. Myths they maybe, but they circulate as myths with huge political consequences, and playing to such myths has almost become a must in terms of winning support.

These myths have informed the view that Scotland represents a hostile country for the Conservatives, that in some way the Tories are out of step with Scottish society. These claims have long been voiced by the Scottish National Party and by the Labour Party in Scotland. They also shape claims that in relation to policy making, Tory policies have been anathema to Scotland and to the Scots. Other claims have been made that in many ways Scottish civil society protected Scotland from the worst ravages of Tory policies in the 1980s and 1990s and also mobilised in the shape of movements for some form of ‘self-government’ or devolution.

Why are such narratives popular and politically potent in Scotland? There are many factors at work here, but that the Tories have been reduced to having only 1 MP in Scotland in recent decades; that the Party has largely become, at best, a marginal political force; that it now falls well behind both the SNP and Labour in terms of political support and that Tory policies have generally been unpopular across much of Scotland (which is also true of parts of England too!) are relevant here. But there is something else at play here, or more correctly another figure that we need to factor in.

The key figure in much of this anti-Toryism is one Margaret Thatcher. That Thatcher apparently ‘did not get the Scots’ or that the Scots were ‘essentially anti-Thatcherite’ are views that circulate widely to this day.

One of the enduring images of Mrs Thatcher’s reception in Scotland relates to her attendance at the Scottish Cup Final of 1988 in Glasgow between Celtic and Dundee United. Over 70,000 fans of both teams greeted her appearance in the main stand before kick-off by waving red cards to show their opposition to Thatcher and her government. These red cards spelled out hostility to key Tory policies.

Image of red card shown to Thatcher that reads: Thatcher is at today's cup final. This is your chance to send her off. When she appears show her the red card and let her know what you think of her and what she's done to Scotland's health service. Why not accompany your protest by some appropriate community singing! Enjoy the match. But let's make Thatcher realise that Scotland's United against the Tories. Red cards shown to Margaret Thatcher

That Thatcher’s death in April 2013 was met in parts of Scotland with some degree of celebration, only confirmed that she remained a hate figure long after her period in government.

And it is Thatcher who is seen by many commentators as one of the key factors in the drive for Scottish ‘home rule’ and, perhaps ultimately as a result, to Scottish Independence.

Dispelling The Myths

Myths work as myths because there appears to be some truth in them, albeit a grain of truth. It is true that Thatcher’s English home-counties mind set and approach (as well as her accent) did not go down well in Scotland. That policies such as the Poll Tax (the community charge) were introduced in Scotland first, to widespread popular opposition; also contribute to the view that she was anti-Scottish.  Yet we don’t have to look too far back in recent political history to find that the myth of Scotland as historically an anti-Tory society is to be found seriously wanting.

It is often overlooked that in post 1945 general elections in Scotland only one party has ever had over 50% of the votes. This came in the 1955 election where the Tories gained 50.1% of the vote. Since that time the party has been in long-term decline but they remained a significant political force in Scotland until the late 1970s at least. The 1979 general election perhaps represents the final high point of Conservatism in Scotland.

The 1979 General Election in Scotland

The 1979 general election in Scotland saw Labour emerge as the largest party with 44 of the 71 seats available, and 41.5% of the vote, up from 36.1% in 1974. The Conservatives ended up with 22 seats and 31.4% of the vote, compared with 24.7% in 1974. The SNP came third with 17.3% and only 2 MPs. For the SNP this was a crushing blow following the October 1974 general election where they gained 30.4% of the vote, sending 11 MPs to London. That the comparative success of the Tories in Scotland in 1979, winning almost a third of the popular vote, was in no small part due to the marked decline in the fortunes of the SNP contributed to Labour and left-wing views in Scotland that the Tories and SNP were essentially chasing the same right of centre voters. For Labour Party members and supporters, this was more proof that the SNP were really ‘Tartan Tories’, a label that stuck with the Party through much of the decade that was to follow.

What were the factors that contributed to the Tories winning over 30% of the vote in 1979? As ever, there are multiple factors at work here, some of these the results of longer term shifts and trends in Scottish society. In Scotland, as in other parts of the UK, Thatcher’s victory came on the back of the fall of what was widely perceived to be a badly failing Labour Government led by Jim Callaghan. Media-fuelled claims of trade union militancy being rampant, cuts in public services and rising unemployment all contributed to the search for an alternative to Labour.

The defeat of the March 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum only two months prior to the general election not only had serious political consequences for the SNP but it effectively pushed the question of Scottish home rule off the political agenda for well over a decade and more.

A Political High-Point or Simply Masking Long-term Decline?

By the standards of what was to come later, the 1979 general election in Scotland perhaps marked a last hoorah for the Tories. Their long term decline as a political force in Scotland thereafter has been widely discussed but the reality is that it was already in serious decline prior to the 1979 general election and Mrs Thatcher’s time as Conservative leader. Since the early 1960s Labour was very much in the ascendancy and there were marked signs of a decline in support for the Tories. Scotland’s historic key role in the expansion of the British Empire had long passed, and this contributed to a declining sense of Britishness. And together with long term industrial decline and rising unemployment one clear effect of this was the sharp decline in the unionist or Protestant vote which had formed a bedrock for the Tories in the past.  By the mid- 1960s the SNP were stirring and beginning to attract support, albeit at that time small scale and sporadic. Few then could have predicted that within three or so decades, the political fortunes of the SNP and Tories were to undergo such a mammoth transformation as the Scotland of the post 1990s became a very different Scotland from that of both the 1960s and of 1979.


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    Gerry Mooney

    (Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences)

    Gerry Mooney is Professor of Scottish Society & Social Welfare, School of Social Sciences & Global Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University. Gerry started tutoring with the OU in Scotland in 1986.

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