NOTHING trips more easily off the lips of Thatcher-baiters when asked about the Iron Lady's relationship with the Scots. "She hated Scotland," they reply, or at least imply she "did not care" about it. The more charitable simply conclude that Thatcher "did not understand" the needs and aspirations of voters north of the Border.

As with the "testing" of the poll tax and the closure of Ravenscraig steelworks, such puerile myths have endured through an unholy, although sometimes understandable, alliance of opposition rhetoric, lazy repetition and woolly media analysis.

In fact, Thatcher not only liked Scotland but worked hard to understand its problems and desires.

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Curiously, the perception to the contrary manifested itself just months after Thatcher became prime minister almost 30 years ago. "There is a feeling among Scotch MPs," a journalist informed her in December 1979, "that because the government find a Labour majority in Scotland the prime minister has not all that much sympathy on Scottish issues."

"Absolute nonsense," was Thatcher's rather defensive response. "I spend a good deal of my time on them and I think possibly visit Scotland as a part of the UK more than anywhere else." This was certainly true, but regular visits (her first holiday as prime minister was on Islay) had little effect. If Thatcher stayed away she was charged with neglect; if the prime minister visited too often she was accused of interfering.

This played to a particular facet of the Scots psyche - its victim-hood mentality - in which distant figures sought to impose an alien ideology. As the Tory frontbencher Michael Gove has put it: "Whether this was the Hanoverian monarchs or the Highland Clearances, there was a pre-existing narrative into which Thatcher was unwittingly slotted."

So no matter how many times Ravens-craig was bailed out (despite Thatcher's "no subsidies" rhetoric), or how often the Scottish Office escaped savage spending cuts afflicting other departments, the reaction was usually the same. The poll tax was but the culmination of an innate suspicion that every government measure was contrived to inflict pain on long-suffering Scots guinea pigs.

But just because this was the widespread perception then, and even now, does not make it true. In fact Thatcher was normally pragmatic when it came to Scotland and Scottish affairs, and the political failure of some policies - most notably the poll tax - does not make that any less the case.

To attempt a defence of the Iron Lady's view of Scotland, however, is like debating with a conspiracy theorist. No matter how many facts, figures and arguments are advanced, they are deflected with an unshakeable belief that the conspiracy is beyond question.

Yet while most baseless theories tend to fade with time, Thatcher's apparent hatred of Scotland endures, fuelled by the opportunistic arguments of those who should know better, and the seemingly ceaseless tide of Scottish political mythology.

David Torrance's book, We In Scotland - Thatcherism In A Cold Climate, is published by Birlinn on May 4


Thatcher and... the USA

THE place: Washington, the year; 1982, the main players; a group of senior US officers and their British counterparts, the subject; Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands. To the irritation of the British contingent, the North American cousins are making no secret of their satisfaction that the Brits are about to get their booties kicked and that Uncle Sam will not lift a finger.

Back home in London the news infuriated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who felt that she had a great thing going with Ronald Reagan.

Eventually, the US president came off the fence and provided much-needed intelligence and missiles and Thatcher forgave him. Alone among European leaders she gave the US bases for their bombers to attack Libya in 1986, justifying it as a strike against terrorism. As a British diplomat said at the time, it was nothing less than a lovers' tiff.

It was a good analogy. The two leaders' "special relationship" was turned into a wonderful spoof of the famous Gone With The Wind poster with Reagan as Rhett Butler sweeping Maggie off her feet. For all that the image became something of a cult, it got pretty close to the mark. Not only did they share a similar ideology but everything about their relationship says that they enjoyed one another's company. Even when she was giving him a hard time over the transatlantic hot line Reagan would put his hand over the telephone and say to his aides: "Isn't she marvellous?"

In that respect it was not dissimilar to the relationship that Tony Blair enjoyed with George W Bush, but with Reagan and Thatcher there was a sexual element, albeit subliminal. She was captivated by his Hollywood magnetism and old world charm while he fell completely for her Amazonian refusal to bend.

It was not all sweetness and light. Thatcher was not altogether convinced by Reaganomics and she had to fight hard to convince him that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a man with whom they could both do business. Much to her ire, the president almost blew the talks by failing to understand the deterrent worth of nuclear weapons and she had to work hard behind the scenes to prevent him agreeing to the elimination of all strategic missiles.

But for all that they did not always see eye-to-eye, Maggie could never stay angry for long with Ron. Their relationship was very different from what had gone before - the first among equals companionship of Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt during the second world war or the later avuncular connection between Harold Macmillan and John F Kennedy. Quite simply, it was very special indeed. Other times, other circumstances, and they might even have enjoyed a tumble.

Trevor Royle is the Sunday Herald's Diplomatic Editor


Thatcher and... feminism

By Jennifer Cunningham

WHEN Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first female prime minister, it was a historic moment from any perspective. For feminists for whom the personal had become political and the urgent causes were equal pay, nursery provision and uniform access to abortion, it was also a moment of deep ambivalence. A woman had achieved the highest office in the land, but she had been elected on policies that did nothing to help the majority of women.

For old-school feminists, today's obsession with expensive handbags is a sell-out of hard-fought principles, and thus the true legacy of the woman who turned the word "handbag" into a verb. The charge against Thatcher is that as a uniquely powerful woman she not only failed to advance the cause of the majority of women who lacked her advantages, but actively held back progress. Indisputably, we are still trying to make up lost ground: only this week it was revealed that even in stockbroking and futures trading, women earn 60% less than men.

The ruthlessness of Thatcher's leadership style demolished any fond notion that a government headed by a woman would be collaborative, consensual and dedicated to the cause of cementing society. The famous assertion that "there is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families" is now seen as the trigger for the materialism and division blamed for a variety of ills from the banking crisis to youth crime. Ironically, what is now required is a restructuring of family and community life that can only succeed with the joint commitment of men and women.

Her dismissal of feminism - "I owe nothing to Women's Lib" - failed to acknowledge that beyond her initial chemistry degree, her success depended on the support of a wealthy husband. Meanwhile, criticism of working mothers producing "a creche generation" was not only unhelpful but hypocritical, given that the limits of her own child-rearing abilities are now evident.

The reining back of public spending, particularly on the welfare state, was foreshadowed when, as education secretary, she ended free milk in schools. "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk-snatcher" became a playground chant, but as the jarring antithesis of motherhood, it became the first piece in the jigsaw of Thatcher iconography. Images, from the blue-suited, tight-curled election victor to the tank-driving cross between Lawrence of Arabia and Boadicea, all convey "woman" and "power" in equal measure.

Whatever other reactions they provoked, they gave young women and girls the simple message that a woman running the country was normal. In many ways that simple fact has been more effective than the weary decades of campaigning for women's rights. The lesson? Actions speak louder than words, sisters.

Jennifer Cunningham is a writer for The Herald