Lord Forsyth on Margaret Thatcher and the Union
Lord Forsyth's speech at the 30th Anniversary Dinner for Margaret Thatcher (Glasgow, 3rd May 2009)
There is one Union which has your unwavering commitment and support. The Union between Scotland and England, the union which binds the United Kingdom. We are Conservatives and we are Unionists.
Writing about Scotland's Tories you said ‘Life is not easy for Scottish Tories; unlike English Conservatives they are used to being a minority party, with the Scottish media heavily slanted against them'. But these circumstances gave Scottish Conservatives a degree of enthusiasm and a fighting spirit which I admired, and which always guaranteed a warm hearted and receptive audience. Some leading Tories though a small minority hankered after a kind of devolved government but the rest of us were deeply suspicious of what that might mean for the future of the Union’.
Some on the left argue that the Thatcher revolution enabled Labour to create the Scottish Parliament. Of course the opposite is true . It was Labour’s defeat in the referendum on the Scotland Bill that lead to Margaret tabling a motion of no confidence in the Callaghan Government. We won it with the support of the SNP, which precipitated the 1979 election. Labour changed their minds on devolution cynically believing it would entrench their power in Scotland. George Robertson’s famous boast that ‘Devolution would kill nationalism stone dead' rivals Gordon Brown’s ‘no more boom and bust' in the stakes for catastrophic errors of political judgment. Labour having created the Parliament allowed their best and brightest to skulk off to Westminster and watched as their long held hegemony in Scotland evaporated.
We Conservatives are democrats and practical people. We respect the decision of the electorate who voted for a Scottish Parliament. We opposed the principle because we believed it would damage Scotland’s interests and threaten the Union. We could not see an answer to Tam Dayell’s West Lothian Question. We wondered how an executive could be held to account for expenditure it did not have to raise in taxes and if it did was that not independence. We agonised at the impact of Scotland losing its place and voice at the centre of the United Kingdom Government. We worried that a divisive, nationalist administration might abuse the powers of government to create conflict and try to destroy the Union. As Conservatives we believe it is irresponsible to bring forward reforms that have not been thought through.
That it is reckless to embark on a journey with no sense of the end direction. Today, we have a Scottish Parliament but all of the central problems remain unresolved. But my friends they cannot remain unresolved forever. Contrary to some people’s beliefs it was easy to get a hearing from the Prime Minister if there was a problem in Scotland. George Younger persuaded her to abolish domestic rates because of the savage impact of a revaluation in Scotland and soaring council spending. Our opponents claim the Scots were guinea pigs for the Poll Tax but the truth was it was imposed on England following a public outcry at the unfairness of the system for funding local government in Scotland. The rating system took little account of ability to pay and the burden had become unbearable for pensioners on fixed incomes living in the family home. It was grossly unfair just like the Council Tax today and you Margaret despite the obvious political hazards were determined to put it right.
The Poll Tax was undoubtedly badly implemented mainly because of Treasury opposition. It was set too high and had insufficient exemptions but the principle that everyone who receives council services should make some contribution to their cost according to ability to pay was the right one. Today the problem of local government finance remains unresolved.
Margaret, Your resolute defence of the Union never wavered.