Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Scots and Mrs T

Breakfast in Bute House, Alex Salmond's official Edinburgh residence, is normally, one would imagine, a cheery affair.

The SNP still riding high in the polls ... Labour in a self-inflicted slough of despair ... the First Minister himself apparently incapable of putting a foot wrong. Nothing there that would make the porridge turn to ashes in the mouth.

But all the normal Salmond breakfast bonhomie and bombast seemingly disappeared yesterday morning as the First Minister scanned the daily papers and discovered that he was the object of much editorial ordure for having come close to committing the original Scottish political sin - giving Baroness Thatcher an even break.

What Mr Salmond had actually said in an interview with Total Politics magazine, was, if not all that cogent, not especially shocking either. “We didn't mind the economic side [of Lady Thatcher] so much. We didn't like the social side at all.”

Now put to one side whether the economic and social aspects of the Thatcherite agenda can actually be separated; put to one side whether her reforms were in fact a wrongheaded experiment or, as some economists argue, a necessary correction; put to one side the fact that while tens of thousands of Scots detest Lady Thatcher and all her ways, they still went ahead and bought their council houses.

This very faint praise of the lady's economic policy was enough for outrage to spread throughout the land - or at least these parts of it inhabited by political journalists. In Scotland, even the most innocent suggestion that she was not as bad as the Scots want to paint her is a sure-fire way to create a political “stooshie”. The Herald reported that “Salmond excuses Thatcherite economics” (note the damning word “excuses”); The Sun characterised it as “Alex in Maggie storm” and the Daily Record put the boot in and said it was “Salmond's shocking claim”.

Labour in Scotland even raised itself from its now permanent dwam to suggest that Mr Salmond should “hang his head in shame”, although the impact of such inflated rhetoric was somewhat disssipated by the fact that they chose the mild-mannered Malcolm Chisholm to give vent to it.

Now, whether the air around the Bute House marmalade turned saltire-blue as he read all this, no one really knows. But what became quite apparent as the day unwound was that a highly embarrassed and exercised Mr Salmond felt that he had to clear his diary and clear the air at one and the same time.

Nothing would do apparently but for the First Minister (the First Minister, remember) to arrange to call a BBC Radio Scotland phone-in programme and put an immediate stop to the tiniest suggestion that he was a secret Thatcherite admirer or that he had misrepresented Scots for whom the name Thatcher remains a term of vicious political abuse.

The criticism of him, he told the phone-in, was “total tosh”. He added: “I'm well on the record as never having approved of either Margaret Thatcher's social or economic policies - that's clear if you look at the interview.” He then proceeded to call on the name of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and a man deeply admired by Mr Salmond ... and Lady Thatcher.

Never one to miss a chance to show off, he claimed: “Margaret Thatcher could have only ever read the Penguin edition of Wealth of Nations and she missed out the moral sentiments.”

The clear implication, of course, was that “Our Alex” had read the real version, although how on earth he can speak for Mrs Thatcher in the matter, only he can say.

He finished with a flourish and a very Salmond-like barb at Gordon Brown. He would, he said, never follow Mr Brown's example of inviting Lady Thatcher to tea.

In Mr Salmond's case, however, even if he did, there is no guarantee that she would accept. He probably figures, on her list of political hate figures, somewhere just above General Galtieri and Lord Geoffrey Howe.

Labour, thinking that they had the man who has contributed to their recent woes where they wanted him, were not prepared to let go.

John Park, the Labour MSP, accused Mr Salmond of panic. “The screech,” intoned Mr Park, “of the First Minister going into reverse gear can't disguise the own goal he's scored with his praise of Thatcherism.”

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