Nearly five years after her death, Margaret Thatcher continues to stimulate controversy and debate. A staggering nine years ago, I published an appraisal of the Iron Lady's relationship with Scotland ('We in Scotland – Thatcherism in a Cold Climate'), and a few days ago I was asked to speak about this to some students at the Glasgow University, mainly members of its surprisingly healthy Conservative and Unionist Association. The formal title was 'Beyond Thatcherism in Scotland?' but, as I argued, we haven't really moved on in Scotland, either ideologically or in terms of the considerable mythology still associated with that period.
I referenced SNP minister Maree Todd, who recently told a journalist her support for independence partly derived from a childhood memory of the 'democratic deficit' under which the Conservatives had no MPs in Scotland and had to appoint a Scottish secretary who, horror of horrors, sat for an English constituency. This never happened, but then neither did Mrs Thatcher closing down Ravenscraig (that happened two years after she left Downing Street), nor 'testing' the poll tax on Scotland (the Scottish Office insisted upon early legislation), or even 'destroying' the Scottish Tory party (she actually improved its fortunes, which had been in long-term decline).
As if to underline my point, afterwards one of the students recalled a history seminar in which those present had been invited to read the conclusion to my (2009) book and discuss it. He said it had provoked quite a storm, with some of those present simply refusing to believe that 30% of Scots had voted Conservative for most of the 1980s, producing 21 or 22 MPs in the process (rather than none, as many believe). Depressingly, the event also had two security guards stationed outside, because the Glasgow Uni Tories have had trouble in the past. Even talking about Margaret Thatcher, it seems, upsets some people.
Talking of universities, two of Scotland's 'ancients' – Edinburgh and Aberdeen – are currently in the midst of rectorial contests, a very Scottish tradition dating back to the 17th century. Last week I bumped into Ann Henderson, one of two candidates standing in Edinburgh (the other is Marco Bauder), and whoever wins that fight will end up presiding over the university court, its governing body.
In Aberdeen, meanwhile, there's been a bit of controversy regarding its rectorial battle, which took place a few months ago. At first the results were simply delayed amid complaints of 'irregularities' in the campaign, and then suspended. So, it's currently being re-run with a result due at the end of this month (some students tried to nominate a cat called 'Buttons' as a candidate).
I was at Aberdeen between 1995-99 and remember all the rectors during my time as an undergraduate. Interestingly, the university was then in the midst of a trio of nationalists: the broadcaster Colin Bell had finished his term in 1993, while Ian Hamilton still had another year when I matriculated. In 1996, the SNP MEP Allan Macartney became rector, but died two years later. The election to replace him was the only one I was involved in personally, and I'm reasonably sure I campaigned for the then ubiquitous TV chef Clarissa Dickson Wright, who was duly elected. One aspect of the campaign was a food fight in the quad of Marischal College, an older 'tradition' revived in 1998.
But while rectorial elections are now little more than curiosities, ignored by most students and – unless something goes wrong as in Aberdeen – the mainstream media, until the 1950s they were taken extremely seriously, treated almost like parliamentary by-elections and extensively covered in the press, especially when candidates included serving prime ministers or chancellors. For example, when in 1932 Compton Mackenzie beat a senior unionist politician to become 'lord rector' (as it used to be styled) of Glasgow University, this was considered a big deal, not least because the author openly supported home rule for Scotland. Indeed, many commentators considered him the first nationalist to hold elected office, more than a decade before Robert D McIntyre briefly held Motherwell in 1945 following a proper by-election.
Scottish University reform (an 1889 act of parliament put rectors on a statutory footing) crops up in copies of the Scottish Review, one of this magazine's many forerunners, which I've been studying at the National Library of Scotland (NLS). Although there had been other Scottish Reviews in 1812 and 1853-63 (published by the Scottish Temperance League), this one appears to have been the first substantial publication, a quarterly journal with an explicit aim of promoting Scottish home rule.
It remains surprisingly readable more than a century later, with an eclectic range of articles on Scottish history, culture and, most interestingly from my point of view, commentaries on contemporary politics, particularly the first proper debates about Scottish devolution. Contributors were generally kept anonymous, although pencil annotations in copies at the NLS reveal some to be by Lord Bute, an ardent home ruler who bought the journal cheap in 1886. It appears to have had constant funding problems and circulation issues.
Bute's Scottish Review died with him in 1900 and was revived three times, first as the Scottish Review and Christian Leader, a weekly more concerned with church affairs than politics, in 1914 by another Scots peer, the hon Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, and between 1975-85 by the Scottish Civic Trust and Saltire Society. Erskine's quarterly journal ('devoted to the cause of the independence of Scotland') is too polemical and angry to be interesting.
One article in its summer 1916 edition chastises the Scottish press for following 'mechanically in the wake of their London contemporaries.' 'They pay little heed to that nationalism in which the vast body of the people is already interested,' stormed JM Murdoch, editor of the Ayrshire Post, 'and will become more so in proportion as the people realise the extent to which Scotland is fleeced by the "Predominant Partner."' There is nothing new, as they say, under the sun.