Vous êtes ici : Accueil / Civilisation / Domaine britannique / L'héritage thatchérien (1979-2009) / Coming in from the Cold? The Thatcher Legacy, Devolution and Cameron’s Conservatives in Scotland 1979-2009

Coming in from the Cold? The Thatcher Legacy, Devolution and Cameron’s Conservatives in Scotland 1979-2009

Par Peter Lynch : Senior lecturer - University of Stirling
Publié par Clifford Armion le 18/01/2010

Activer le mode zen

In opposition, Conservative leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron adopted quite different strategies to deal with Scotland and devolution. Mrs Thatcher's intention was to avoid splitting her own party over the devolution issue in advance of the 1979 devolution referendum,with an emphasis on party management. Cameron has had to deal with a more complex picture due to the institutional reality of devolution, the unpopularity of the Conservatives in Scotland and the election of the SNP government in 2007. This environment brought a cautious but positive approach to Scotland from Cameron, involving five different strands of territorial management in preparation for the 2010 UK general election.


It would take a very brave person indeed to claim that Mrs Thatcher left a positive political legacy in Scotland - not for her own party. Arguably, her legacy was the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in 1999 - which is deeply ironic as she was completely opposed to this policy. Socially and economically, Mrs Thatcher's government transformed Scotland but electorally the legacy for her own party was negative. The Conservatives lost support and seats during her time in office - especially 1987 when Doomsday arrived - before facing a Canadian-like demise at the 1997 general election under John Major. Behind the declining electoral performance lay other issues such as the economic situation of the early 1980s, Mrs Thatcher's personality and her mishandling of the constitutional question in government: in contrast to her deft handling of the issue in opposition from 1975 to 1979. The Thatcher period spawned a cottage industry of articles and books to examine the multiple reasons for Conservative failure in Scotland (for a small sample see Kendrick and McCrone, 1989; Seawright 1999; Stevens 1990). Much of the literature sought to examine the performance of the Conservative as a party in Scotland compared to England, often historically, in addition to looking at government policy across a range of areas in addition to Conservative attitudes to the constitutional question (Mitchell 1990). However this paper will examine the party's approach to devolution and nationalism in opposition rather than in government - comparing Mrs Thatcher's treatment of the devolution issue 1975-79 with David Cameron's treatment of the issue from 2005-2009 - and given the seeming imminent arrival of David Cameron in No.10 Downing Street, whether these approaches tell us anything about government performance in office.

Cameron is the latest Conservative leader to try to deal with the negative legacy of Thatcherism in Scotland in relation to devolution in particular, with some signs of recognising and addressing some of the party's negatives in Scotland. A devo-sensitive approach has been adopted. The current period is interesting because contemporary Conservatives realise that Scotland is a problem for them in terms of the conduct of devolution and intergovernmental relations as well as the legitimacy of the UK government in Scotland: especially so since the narrow SNP victory at the 2007 Scottish election. Scotland is not on the Conservative radar as an electoral target to any great extent - meaning they expect to make very few gains here in 2010 - but rather as a potential problem area over constitutional politics and government policy. Scotland constitutes a challenge for Unionists and a particular one for a party seen as anti-Scottish. And, given the fact that the Scottish National Party are in government in the devolved parliament, there is the opportunity for a Doomsday Plus scenario to emerge in Scotland: where a Conservative UK government in London with little support in Scotland faces opposition from a popular SNP government in Edinburgh. This scenario is what Mrs Thatcher came to face in office in the 1980s, following the Doomsday Scenario outlined by Radical Scotland in the mid-1980s. Contemporary Conservatives are not unaware of this problem and the difficulties it brings for the UK government. Under Cameron, the Conservatives in opposition have sought to develop an approach to Scotland that takes account of Conservative unpopularity and the constitutional situation (as well as the existence of a SNP government) and this paper will try to trace the various strands of Cameron's narrative on Scotland, devolution, the Union and Britishness.  All of this is quite different to that experienced from 1975-9 though whether it survives into government is another matter entirely.

1. 1979 and 2009: A World of Difference

The two historical periods here have a number of common parallels that will be examined in the paper. However, their political contexts and political opportunity structures are very different. The 1970s can be viewed as the early period for the SNP and for the rise of the devolution issue in a serious way - meaning involving government action to legislate for a Scottish Assembly during the Labour governments from 1974-9. The period saw relative Conservative electoral success in Scotland with the demise of the SNP at the 1979 general election: Conservative support in Scotland rose 6.7% compared to October 1974 with the party gaining 6 seats and returning to second place behind Labour. The SNP by contrast fell dramatically from 30.4% to 17.3% and lost 9 of its 11 seats. Moreover, devolution itself was something of a settled issue for a while as the devolution referendum in 1979 helped the Conservatives to paint devolution as a dead issue following the No vote. The Scotland Act 1978 was duly repealed and devolution disappeared from the Conservative's political agenda. It was to return in time with the Doomsday scenario at the 1987 general election - when England voted Conservative and Scotland voted for parties who favoured a Scottish parliament - but was in abeyance in the early 1980s. Mrs Thatcher governed a unitary state and didn't have to deal with political or policy opposition from an elected Scottish government/legislature.

The current period could not be more different. Sure enough, just as in 1979, the Conservatives are electorally popular at the UK level and look likely to defeat an unpopular Labour government at the forthcoming general election. However, in Scotland, Conservative support has seldom recovered from the 1997 electoral wipeout. The party has one Scottish MP in the UK parliament (with 15.83% in Scotland) and 17 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament (through 16.6% of the constituency vote in 2007): most delivered by a measure of proportional representation that the Conservatives oppose. Its electoral support has flatlined for a decade and David Cameron has not revived its fortunes in Scotland to any noticeable extent, leading to speculation about the position of the Scottish Conservatives and their current leader Annabelle Goldie.[1] In addition, whereas the Nationalists were in decline when the Tories last entered government in 1979, in the current period the Nationalists are actually in the ascendancy in opinion polls for the Scottish elections, though behind Labour in opinion polls for the forthcoming Westminster election.

And, most obviously, devolution has happened - and is an institutional reality that has become embedded over the last decade: so much so that Conservatives have accepted the reality of devolution and discussed proposals for its extension rather than its abolition in conjunction with Labour and the Liberal Democrats (Commission on Scottish Devolution 2009). In a final radical contextual change to 1979 - the Nationalists are the Scottish government, through running a popular minority administration in Edinburgh since 2007. This situation creates the potential for a Doomsday Plus scenario in which the Conservatives are elected to the UK government on the basis of English votes, whilst Scottish voters support the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats and the Scottish government and parliament become bulwarks against Conservative policies in Scotland. That this scenario would present a political challenge to the Union seems obvious, though it might lead to negotiation and a reformed devolution scheme rather than constitutional crisis.

Though the political contexts of 1979 and 2009 are very different, there are important parallels. The first parallel is the nature of the devolution debate itself. The issue came to prominence in the 1970s before Mrs Thatcher became Conservative leader and was an important item on the agenda of the Labour government during her period as leader of the opposition. The issue was also prominent during David Cameron's period as leader, except that devolution had ceased to become a political issue on its own but became a political reality in 1999. Even so, the devolution question generated some of the same types of concerns for the Conservatives - the Union and British versus Scottish nationalism, electoral advantage, public expenditure and the Barnett formula, the West Lothian question as well as questions of governance and statecraft. And, these questions needed to be dealt with in opposition, not just in government.

The second parallel involves the importance of devolution and constitutional change itself for the Conservatives. Devolution is not really a major issue for the Conservatives. It is not something the party sought to institute but something that is on its political agenda because of other political actors in both the 1970s and currently. Scottish devolution is something Conservatives opposed rather than proposed and in UK terms, it pales in significance next to major socio-economic policy considerations for the Conservatives in opposition and government (economic policy and the recession for example, though these have important implications for devolution). Nonetheless, the Conservatives in opposition needed to have a policy on devolution and recently, some notion of how they would deal with devolution in UK government, especially in the context of a Nationalist government in Edinburgh. There is also the issue of territorial management - how to deal with Scotland, seek voter support in Scotland and assuage English nationalism. The electoral decline of the Scottish Conservatives from the 1960s and complete annihilation of the party at the Westminster election in 1997 also provide uncomfortable questions about the Union for Conservatives and the party's role as an English party (trying to win votes in Scotland).

A third parallel factor related to the difference between party attitudes to devolution in government versus opposition. Some of the discussion below in relation to both Mrs Thatcher and to David Cameron focuses on distinct periods when the Conservatives were in opposition and sought to deal with devolution in a manner to maximise vote-gathering in Scotland and in England. This can be a difficult balance as we shall see below, with some use of "disguised" political opinions (Mrs Thatcher 1975-9) as well as positive noises (David Cameron 2005-9) to close down devolution as a problem issue for the Tories and seek to bolster electoral support in Scotland as well as an awareness of English opinion on issues such as Scottish public spending. In government, though, things may be quite different and also perceived so by voters, to the detriment of the Conservatives.

2. Mrs Thatcher and Devolution In Opposition 1975-9

When Mrs Thatcher became Conservative leader in February 1975, devolution was not an issue particularly high up on her political agenda. She did not have a fixed position on devolution, but inherited previous leader Ted Heath's commitment to support devolution. This support had been bounced on the Scottish Conservatives at the party's annual conference in Perth in 1968 - Heath's (in)famous Declaration of Perth. Following the rise of the SNP and its electoral success at the Hamilton by-election in 1967 and in local elections, Heath announced support for an elected assembly for Scotland of sorts (linked to Westminster) and that former Prime Minister Alec Douglas Home would chair a special committee to investigate devolution, which began meeting in late 1968. The Conservatives duly won the UK general election in 1970 but did not act upon their devolution commitment in one of a number of missed opportunities on the issue of Scotland and/or devolution (Mitchell 1990).

Whilst absolute opposition to devolution and a unitary view of the UK constitution would seem to be the hallmarks of Mrs Thatcher's position on Scottish constitutional change, this was not apparent in the 1975-79 period. Indeed, Mrs Thatcher was actually quite adept at managing the devolution issue in this period. Instead of providing clear statements for or against devolution, in her statements and speeches Mrs Thatcher tended to dissemble to disguise her true position. Given Scottish public opinion and disquiet within her own party, Mrs Thatcher sought to avoid making any fundamental commitment on devolution (Torrance 2009: 23-4). She saw herself as an "instinctive Unionist", but realised that her party was deeply divided over the issue - not least between her supporters and those of the previous leader, Edward Heath. Rather than face internal divisions and damage her own leadership - as she felt her position wasn't yet strong enough to adopt a u-turn over devolution - she sought to avoid confrontation with supporters of devolution within her party.

So, rather than take a clear position on devolution - with the unflinching rhetoric that she became famous for - Mrs Thatcher adopted a position of selective opposition to devolution (Torrance: 2009: 24). When she moved the party towards opposition to the Labour government's plans for Scottish and Welsh assemblies in 1976 (at the second reading on 13th December 1976), Mrs Thatcher was quite specific at pointing to the constitutional difficulties of Labour's proposals and attempted to minimise the damage to the Conservatives. Despite this, there were notable resignations - Scottish MPs Alec Buchanan Smith and Malcolm Rifkind resigned from the front bench - and a number of Conservative MPs abstained or were paired for the vote or voted with the Labour government. However, the political fallout for Mrs Thatcher was limited as she held out the prospect of some form of devolution and the pressure was on Labour after its legislation fail due to the failure of the guillotine motion in February 1977. Party management in the short-term was the priority over territorial management of Scotland over the longer term.

At the devolution referendum, the Conservatives campaigned for a No vote, but not strongly (and not alone like in 1997) and made good use of Alec Douglas Home's "no, but" position which stated that the Conservatives opposed the Scotland Act 1978 but would examine introducing a better form for devolution when in government. At the 1979 general election, the Tories scarcely bothered to campaign on the devolution issue, believing it had been settled at the referendum: an outcome, which when combined with the SNP's electoral demise at the election, meant that devolution was a closed book for the Thatcher government in office. Even then, Mrs Thatcher's speech to Scottish Conservative conference in May 1979 saw her propose all-party discussions on measures to bring government closer to the people (Torrance 2009: 39). Nothing substantial came from this suggestion barring the creation of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in 1979, which was instituted alongside the rest of the select committee system, but presented as a positive measure for Scotland as a substitute for devolution.

In office, Mrs Thatcher's government did not need to deal with devolution to any great extent - as the referendum and change of government had solidified Conservative strategy on the issue. Generally territorial management was left in the hands of the Scottish Office and the new Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger. Any movement on the Scottish devolution issue in the decade that followed came from the opposition parties and pressure groups (rather than the UK government) which struggled to get the issue back onto the political agenda. When they did so, it was aided by the unpopularity of the Conservative government in Scotland on a range of issues such as the economy, public sector, poll tax, Europe and the perceptions about the party's image as well as Mrs Thatcher's personality. These all contributed to the Conservative electoral decline at the 1987 general election - a loss of 11 seats and 4.35% of votes in Scotland - in stark contrast to the party's performance in England. However, outside of the actions of the various Secretaries of State for Scotland, the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher made few initiatives in Scotland beyond speeches: the only constitutional initiative attempted came with the Taking Stock exercise launched by her successor John Major in 1992 (Scottish Office 1993). Of course, whilst Mrs Thatcher faced electoral losses in Scotland in 1987, much worse was to come for the Conservatives in 1997 when the party lost all its seats in Scotland (and in Wales). Since then, the Conservatives have been banished from UK office by Labour, devolution has occurred, the Scottish Conservatives have attempted to become a much more identifiably Scottish party (Lynch 2003) and the SNP government has created some policy space for the Scottish Conservatives through budgetary and policy co-operation in the Holyrood parliament.

3. David Cameron and Respecting Scotland

Like Mrs Thatcher, David Cameron became Conservative leader during an interesting period for Scottish politics and the devolution issue. These were important issues for Mrs Thatcher at the outset of her leadership of the Conservatives in 1975 as the Labour government actively legislated for Scottish and Welsh devolution during her leadership, whereas they became important for Cameron during his leadership and especially so after the 2007 Scottish election and establishment of a SNP government. Before and after Cameron's election as Tory leader the party had discussed the Barnett formula and West Lothian question as well as the issue of English votes for English laws in the House of Commons, but had very little positive to say about Scotland and devolution. The party leadership had adopted a permissive approach to the Scottish Conservatives in terms of allowing them policy autonomy to a certain extent (Lynch 2003), but there was no sense of a distinctive narrative or approach to Scotland. This situation changed with Cameron as the political environment required a specific narrative in relation to the Conservatives and Scotland given the party's continued unpopularity North of the Border, the reality of devolution and the SNP's governmental success in 2007. There are a number of different strands to David Cameron's attitudes to Scotland, some identifiable with traditional Unionism and some others more with the realpolitik or Jim Bulpitt's notion of statecraft (Bullpit 1986) in dealing with a popular Nationalist government whilst leader of a UK party that has been unpopular in Scotland for two decades. These attitudes can be nested in Cameron's overall efforts to recast the Conservatives as a different party from the nasty party' that was seen to prevail in previous times.

First, Cameron has presented arguments that are recognisable as traditional Unionism, albeit a more multi-cultural version, stressing the importance of the Union in personal terms whilst also indulging in some UK nationbuilding to stress how much Scotland and England have in common and also how they are linked together (a nationbuilding narrative also pursued by Gordon Brown). Cameron has stated that "I'm a Unionist and every corner of the United Kingdom is precious to me, including Scotland".[2] Cameron has hailed the Union as

(...) a constitutional masterstroke. There is little doubt that our achievements together have made this one of the most successful unions between two countries in history. (...) if the Union broke up, we should explain what we would all lose - politically, culturally and historically. Because the links between Scotland and England have never been stronger: more Scots live in England, and more English people live in Scotland, than ever before; almost half of Scots have English relatives; and travel across the border is at an all-time high. Our ties are not built on government and constitutional arrangements alone. It is about something much deeper than that: the bonds of kinship and the strength of our individual and community relationships which span the border.[3]

Similarly, in the speech "Stronger Together", Cameron talked of confronting and defeating the ugly stain of separatism "because being British is one of the most successful examples of inclusive civic nationalism in the world, We are a shining example of what a multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multi-national society can and should be (...). A society in which were are held together by a strong sense of shared history and common values and institutions we cherish".[4] For Cameron, "Britishness is also about institutions, attachment to our monarchy, admiration for our armed forces, understanding our history, recognising that our liberty is rooted in the rule of law and respect for parliament".[5] In Cameron's eyes, Scottish nationalism is separatism - a divisive and negative phenomenon - whilst British nationalism and the Union are unifying and positive. A simple case of my nationalism is good and your nationalism is bad.

Second, similar to other Conservative politicians seeking to revise the party's position on Scotland and devolution (and many other issues) Cameron added his apologies for past Conservative policy under the Thatcher and Major governments. In a BBC Scotland programme examining Scotland after a decade of devolution, Cameron stated that

I don't think we got it right. I think you can argue that the principled position, of arguing that devolution within a unitary state is extremely difficult and there are all sorts of problems it brings and those problems are there. But, I think where we went wrong was we should have spent more time in government thinking, how do we give legitimate help to those people within our United Kingdom who want to have a greater expression of self-government?[6]

Such revisionism was bolstered by Cameron's statement to the Scottish Conservative party conference in 2009 that "I stand here, the leader of the Conservative Party, and say loudly and proudly, we support devolution, we back it heart and soul and we will make it work for everyone."[7]

Third, Cameron extended his "respect" agenda to pledge respect for Scotland and the constitutional settlement set out in the Scotland Act 1998. In 2007, he stated that "Whoever is Scotland's First Minister, I will be a Prime Minister that respects and listens to the voice of the Scottish people"[8] and "who acts on the voice of the Scottish people and works tirelessly for consent and consensus".[9] Such views will be an interesting political principle to operationalize against both a popular SNP government and a substantial anti-Conservative electorate in Scotland. Cameron also declared that one of the first things he will do when elected as Prime Minister will be to come to Scotland to meet with the First Minister. He also pledged to meet with MSPs at Holyrood on an annual basis to answer questions on any subject and proposed that Conservative Treasury Ministers will come in person to Holyrood to explain the budget and pre-budget reports. Finally, there are to be monthly meetings between Scottish Secretary and First Minister and an opportunity for the Scottish Secretary to explain the contents of the UK government's Queen's Speech at the start of every session.[10] Wales, by contrast was to see an annual Cameron visit as Prime Minister as well as Ministers appearing at Assembly committees but there were few traces of the "respect" issue (due to the absence of a no mandate issue),[11] whilst Northern Ireland was treated to a rather different approach. Rather than the promise of annual visits to Stormont (which happen regularly anyway) the Conservatives have merged with the Ulster Unionist Party and intend to adopt joint candidates in Westminster constituencies at the 2010 election.[12]

Fourth, we can identify statements that would seem to advance a kind of Schedule 5 Unionism - with Cameron demanding that the Scottish government stick to its policy responsibilities under the Scotland Act 1998 whilst allowing the UK government to operate within its responsibilities (which are contained within Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act). This position is the other side of the coin of the "respect" position set out above. Cameron responded to the SNP government's opposition to the siting of nuclear weapons in Scotland by stating that

If a government in Westminster has a mandate to deliver issues to do with nuclear deterrence or the size of the army or whatever, then they should be able to do that without the Scottish government trying to obstruct them.[13]

Given the manner in which devolved and reserved policy areas resemble marble-cake federalism rather than clear divisions, such Schedule 5 Unionism may well come to grief: witness the political fallout from the release of the Lockerbie bomber in 2009, stretching back to the UK government's negotiation of a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya in the early stages of the SNP government in 2007. Disentangling devolved and reserved policy areas and responsibilities are not so easy as Cameron has stated. This grey area between policy responsibilities and the policy overlaps between the two sets of institutions will become particularly apparent in the fields of economy, taxation and public expenditure, especially as the SNP government stakes out positions on non-devolved policy areas as part of its campaign for greater autonomy.

Fifthly and finally, Cameron and the Conservatives have examined measures to improve devolution. The party sought to deal with the issue of Scottish MPs voting on English domestic legislation at Westminster by proposing a special committee procedure for legislation - meaning that English bills would go through committee and report stages in the House of Commons when only English MPs could vote, whereas all MPs would be able to vote at subsequent stages of legislation (Conservative Party Democracy Task Force 2008). More importantly, the Conservatives at the Scottish and UK levels participated in the Commission on Scottish Devolution from 2008-9, which made a number of proposals to reform devolution by giving minor legislative powers to Scotland in addition to some tax powers. The tax powers were particularly interesting as they involved a tax-substitution scheme, whereby the UK government would cut the block grant of £30 billion to the Scottish government (which currently funds most devolved expenditure in Scotland) and the devolved administration would be able to levy income tax domestically to bridge the gap. This policy plays into Conservative demands for fiscal responsibility for the Scottish parliament but also helps the party in England as a means to reduce the UK contribution to Scottish public expenditure (which can be translated as: if the Scots want higher levels of public spending, they can pay for it directly, rather than from the UK public purse). It also plays into a wider debate about the allocation of territorial public expenditure in the UK (House of lords Select Committee 2009) to address perceived failings with the Barnett formula.

However, the key point to remember about these five different positions is that they have been advanced by a Conservative leader with little experience of government, not least under devolution since 1999. In addition, these positions are being advanced in opposition, when vote-gathering is important (even in Scotland) - with warm words about Scotland fairly standard for the party leader at Scottish Conservative party conference each year stretching back into the mists of time. Mrs Thatcher, as we saw above, was fairly adept at managing opinion on devolution amongst her party membership and supporters in the 1975-9 period, only to adopt a more hardline position when in office, especially after the 1979 devolution referendum (Torrance 2009). Therefore, some of David Cameron's attempts to promote the Conservatives in post-devolution Scotland can be taken lightly, not least as Scotland is unimportant to Conservative electoral success in 2010, though intergovernmental relations between Edinburgh and London may take an interesting turn upon the election of a Conservative administration at Westminster. This is not to suggest that a period of intense intergovernmental conflict will ensue with the election of a Conservative government in 2010. For one thing, devolution has been established and operational since 1999 and the Conservatives have expressed their acceptance of it: as expressed by David Cameron above.

Second, though not well-used, there are a range of intergovernmental relations mechanisms between the UK government and Scotland at the civil service and Ministerial level to manage relations between the two sets of governments. Third, the Conservatives have made moves towards support for a reform agenda for devolution in conjunction with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with the Scots and UK Tories as participants in the Commission on Scottish Devolution from 2008-9 (Commission on Scottish Devolution 2009). How serious this position actually is remains an open question. The Conservatives committed themselves to support the Calman proposals but these are certainly not a priority for an incoming Conservative government. However, like Labour, support for reformed-devolution with Calman provides the Conservatives with a political position to challenge the SNP as well as to present itself as a more pro-Scottish party.

Of course, whilst Cameron and the Conservatives have shown considerable electoral success in England since 2005, the situation in Scotland is quite different. North of the Border, the Cameron effect is quite limited. Though there are some signs that support for the Tories has picked up in Scotland, just to a very modest degree. The Tories won 1 seat out of 59 at the 2005 Westminster election in Scotland through obtaining 15.8 per cent of the vote. Since then, support for the party has hovered around this level whilst Scottish politics has evolved into a two party contest between Labour and the SNP. At times the Conservative vote has seemed static. For example, at the 2007 Scottish election, the Conservatives won 17 seats on 16.6 per cent of the constituency vote and 13.91 per cent of the regional list vote - compared to 2003, this was a gain of 0.07 per cent at the constituency level and a drop of 1.59 per cent at the regional level. The election put the SNP into government and into the driving seat, with occasional support in the parliament from the Tories on specific policy issues. At the three most recent Westminster by-elections held in Scotland, the Tories managed only 6.25 per cent in Glasgow East in July 2008, 3.82 per cent in Glenrothes in November 2008 and then 5.22 per cent in Glasgow North East in November 2009 (just 62 votes ahead of the extreme-right British National Party): the SNP was the main challenger to Labour in each case.

These electoral performances compared with Conservative gains in Labour seats such as Norwich North in 2009 (+6.3 per cent) and Crewe and Nantwich in 2008 (+16.9 per cent) as well as Conservative holds in Haltemprice and Howden and Henley in 2008. Similarly, at the 2009 European elections, the Conservatives won 16.8 per cent and 1 seat in Scotland, compared to 27.7 per cent across the UK. On the other hand, opinion poll ratings for the Tories in Scotland have been lingering at the low 20 per cent level - distinctly unimpressive by historic standards, but quite good by post-1997 standards. For example, YouGov polls gave Scots Tories +20 per cent for four polls in a row in 2009, the party's best opinion individual poll rating since 2005 and its best run since the 1990s (Curtice 2009). At the forthcoming UK general election this might manifest itself in something like 3-6 seats in Scotland: small beer compared to the party's heyday but a lot more than in 1997 when the party failed to win a single seat. In that sense, it's clear why the Conservatives are right to be exercised about the prospect of a Doomsday Plus and part of Cameron's strategy and narrative towards Scotland has been aimed at reducing this problem.


Mrs Thatcher certainly created a political legacy in Scotland, but one that her successors and party have struggled to deal with - a heady mix of nationalism, constitutional politics and a view of the Conservatives as an anti-Scottish party. Following her deft handling of the devolution issue from 1975-79, Mrs Thatcher demonstrated a rather inflexible approach to Scotland from 1979 to 1990: even though she wanted to be liked in Scotland and couldn't understand her own unpopularity North of the border. Her approach helped to galvanise the opposition parties, especially at the Doomsday election of 1987 when the Conservatives lost seats in Scotland and exacerbated the sense of political disconnection between Scotland and England: even though this has been fairly constant in left-right terms for most of the previous two centuries. Of course, contemporary Conservative strategy towards Scotland does recognise both the political reality of devolution as well as the party's electoral unpopularity in Scotland. Unlike previous leaders, Cameron has sought to trace an approach to Scotland and devolution that recognises the new political realities of post-devolution politics. The different strands of the Cameron narrative towards Scotland combine some traditional elements of Unionism in addition to a more devo-sensitive position. These are influenced by Mrs Thatcher's negative legacy as well as the capacity of some within the Conservatives to revise their approach to Scotland through using different language, respect and engagement with devolved government (a hallmark of the Cameron leadership). However, similar to the Thatcher period, Conservative strategy in opposition does not necessarily equate to Conservative behaviour in government. Both Mrs Thatcher and Ted Heath adopted different positions in government and therefore it's not unrealistic to imagine that Cameron will do the same.


[1] Sunday Herald, 29th November 2009.

[2] David Cameron, "I will never take Scotland for Granted", speech in Glasgow, 15th September 2006.

[3] David Cameron, "Scots and English flourish in the Union", The Daily Telegraph, 11th April 2007.

[4] David Cameron, "Stronger Together", speaking on the importance of the Union, Edinburgh, 10th December 2007

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Cameron, Holyrood and the Search for Scotland's Soul, BBC Scotland, 28th June 2009.

[7] David Cameron, Speech to Scottish Conservative Party Conference, Perth, 15th May 2009.

[8] David Cameron, "Stronger Together", speaking on the importance of the Union, Edinburgh, 10th December 2007.

[9] David Cameron, Speech to Scottish Conservative Party Conference, Perth, 15th May 2009.

[10] David Cameron, Speech to Scottish Conservative Party Conference, Perth, 15th May 2009.

[11] David Cameron, Speech to Welsh Conservative Party Conference, 29th March 2009.

[12] David Cameron, A New Political Force in Northern Ireland, 6th December 2008.

[13] Sunday Herald, 3rd July 2009.


Bullpit, James (1986), "The Discipline of the New Democracy: Mrs Thatcher's Domestic Statecraft", Political Studies, Vol. 34, No.1, pp.19-39.

Commission on Scottish Devolution (2009), Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, Edinburgh: HMSO.

Conservative Party Democracy Taskforce (2008), Answering the Question: Devolution, The West Lothian Questions and the Future of the Union, London: Conservative Party.

Curtice, John (2009), "Blue Shoots of Recovery", Holyrood Magazine, 4th June 2009.

Evans, Stephen (2008), "Consigning its Past to History? David Cameron and the Conservative Party", Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 61, No.2, pp.291-314.

House of Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula (2009), The Barnett Formula, 1st Report, Session 2008-9, HL 139,  HMSO: London.

Kendrick, Stephen and David McCrone (1989), "Politics in a Cold Climate: The Conservative Decline in Scotland", Political Studies, Volume 37 Issue 4, pp.589-603.

Lynch, Peter (2003), "The Scottish Conservatives 1997-2001: From Disaster to Devolution and Beyond", in Mark Garnett and Philip Lynch (Eds), The Conservatives in Crisis, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mitchell, James (1990), Conservatives and the Union, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Seawright, David (1999), An Important Matter of Principle: The Decline of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Scottish Office (1993), Scotland in the Union: A Partnership for Good, Edinburgh: Scottish Office, Cmnd 2225.

Stevens, Chris (1990), "Scottish Conservatism: A Failure of Organization?", in Alice Brown and Richard Parry (Eds), Scottish Government Yearbook, Edinburgh: Unit for the Study of Government in Scotland.

Torrance, David (2009), We in Scotland - Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, Edinburgh: Birlinn.


Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre du colloque franco-britannique "The Thatcher Legacy 1979-2009", organisé par l'université de Lyon 2 et l'université de Sterling les 4 et 5 décembre 2009.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Peter Lynch, "Coming in from the Cold? The Thatcher Legacy, Devolution and Cameron’s Conservatives in Scotland 1979-2009", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2010. Consulté le 15/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/l-heritage-thatcherien/coming-in-from-the-cold-the-thatcher-legacy-devolution-and-cameron-s-conservatives-in-scotland-1979-2009