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From the Iron Lady to Big Dog: How Scots Feel About Johnson Compared to Thatcher and Why It Matters

It isn’t possible to talk about the rise of Scottish nationalism in the 1980s without encountering the idea that Margaret Thatcher was, ultimately, its handmaiden. The transformational Conservative Prime Minister – in power for that entire decade – is often said to have gutted the country’s industry, used it as a guinea pig for the unpopular poll tax experiment and consistently inflicted policies anathema to Scottish preferences. Thatcher is portrayed as a right wing ideologue whose impositions so alienated the gentle-hearted, left-leaning Scots that they wanted to break their country away altogether.

This is the claim, anyway, one which is a fixture of modern Scottish political folklore despite there being little in the way of concrete analysis on the topic grounded in public opinion data. For an exception, see Mitchell and Bennie’s careful work which shows Thatcherism did, to some extent, encourage the growth of the pro-indy social movement. We also know that the recent rise in support for independence has between attributed to three causes: Brexit, specifically a hard Brexit implemented on the back of a UK-wide Leave vote and a Scottish Remain vote; COVID-19, particularly the perceived mishandling of the pandemic by the UK government; and a deeply unpopular Prime Minister in Boris Johnson, who even before he took office had low levels of approval among pro-Union Scots and even, relatively speaking, Scottish Conservative voters.

But how might we compare these two leaders and their impact on Scottish politics? Was Johnson held in lower estimation than Thatcher? And is he responsible for switching from No to Yes? If so does this suggest support for independence might drop under a different Conservative leader?

At the inaugural Scottish Election Study annual lecture in May 2022, Professor James Mitchell discussed several decades of election survey data, showing how such studies past and present have helped to debunk various myths about Scottish public life. Included among various data gems was late 1980s and early 1990s TNS System Three polling conducted for The Herald about how the Scottish electorate viewed Margaret Thatcher and John Major, specifically how voters felt these leaders regarded Scotland and the Scots.

As part of our Scottish Opinion Monitor (SCOOP) series of cross-sectional surveys, we replicated these questions in August 2022, shortly after Boris Johnson’s resignation to see how he – elected to get Brexit done, at the helm throughout the pandemic, attender of various lockdown parties and target of continued claims of norm-breaking dishonesty in office – fared compared to his two predecessors.

So what did the original questions posit? Adults were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements. This included four statements (two positive, two negative) about how people feel Thatcher treated Scots or Scotland, and an evaluation of her as a leader:

  • She has the best interests of Scotland at heart
  • She regards Scotland as unimportant in her future political plans
  • She deserves respect for what she has achieved
  • She treats the Scots as second-class citizens

This also included two statements about voting behaviour and the Conservative party:

  • I’d be more inclined to vote Tory if she showed more interest in Scots affairs
  • The Tories will never do any better in Scotland until she is replaced.

Now, we wouldn’t tend to frame survey questions like this in the modern era. First, we wouldn’t usually include the word Tory, which is term used more often by the party’s detractors. Also, hypothetical questions about whether you would behave a certain way in the future under particular conditions (I’d do X if Y happened) are difficult in isolation and best included as part of wider experiments (now what about if Z happened, for example). Furthermore, the question implies that no one was voting Conservative to begin with, which was obviously wrong in late 1980s Scotland.

The original Herald reporting claimed that the results show Scots had a certain amount of respect for Margaret Thatcher, but felt she had “little or no regard for Scotland and the Scots”.

 Agree stronglyAgree slightlyNeitherDisagree slightlyDisagree strongly
She deserves respect for what she has achieved1629101132
She has the best interests of Scotland at heart4651569
She regards Scotland as unimportant in her future political plans501851311
She treats the Scots as second class citizens6116498
I’d be more inclined to vote Tory if she showed more interest in Scots affairs1624101035
The Tories will never do any better in Scotland until she is replaced3919121115
Source: System Three/The Herald 2nd September 1989, “Major stumbling block to revival of fortunes in Scotland”, n=962

Almost half (45%) agreed she deserved respect, but only 10% believed she had Scotland’s best interests at heart. Meanwhile, clear majorities believed she viewed Scotland as unimportant (68%) and treated Scots as second class citizens (77%). Furthermore, a majority saw her as an obstacle to Scottish Conservative fortunes (58%) but, in what must have been the only encouraging news in the poll for Scottish Conservatives, 40% said they’d be more inclined to vote Conservative if she changed her behaviour. She didn’t need to leave as leader so much as change her behaviour, and a substantial chunk of the electorate would be open to voting Conservative.

Two years later the questions were repeated with John Major, and to save space we’ll report his findings relative to his immediate predecessor.

 Agree, difference
from Thatcher
He deserves respect for what he has achieved+10
He has the best interests of Scotland at heart+16
He regards Scotland as unimportant in his future political plans-28
He treats the Scots as second class citizens-36
I’d be more inclined to vote Tory if he showed more interest in Scots affairs-1
The Tories will do better in Scotland Now Major is party leader37%
Source: The Herald, 19th June 1991

The results show that Scots viewed Major more positively, with 20 percentage points more adults believing he deserved respect and 16 points more believing he had Scotland’s best interests at heart. In addition, there was a substantial drop in the proportion of adults who believed that he viewed Scotland as unimportant or viewed Scots as second-class citizens. This didn’t translate into greater willingness to vote Conservative, but more than a third felt the party would do better with him at the helm. Note the change in question wording from 1989 (the party will never do better if she stays) and 1991 (the party will do better now he’s here), which inhibits an exact comparison. It is therefore accurate that Scottish opposition was not necessarily to Conservative leaders as such, but to a particular one. Given how singular the reaction to Thatcher was, it’s worth seeing where evaluations of Johnson are at a similar low point in his premiership.

There are caveats here about the data. We had intended to include these in our Autumn 2022 SCOOP, but included them in the summer survey so that we could capture data before Johnson’s departure and before any new leader’s honeymoon period (to the extent that is available to Conservative Prime Ministers in Scotland). Respondents would therefore already have known Boris Johnson was on his way out the door when they answered this. What do our results show?

Boris Johnson’s polling highlights three interesting differences from earlier results. First, Scots hold him in far lower regard than Thatcher in 1989, with less than half as many saying he deserves respect . Second, his views of Scotland are not perceived to be as negative. More people perceived Margaret Thatcher to have a more dim view of Scots and Scotland than is the case for Boris Johnson. But third, while this might have suggest there is positive news for Boris Johnson in the survey, the findings don’t translate into political support for the Conservatives. Even if he had behaved differently towards Scotland, only 17% of Scots claim they would have been tempted to vote Conservative. If the original assessment of Thatcher was that it wasn’t her departure so much as her behaviour that needed to change, with Johnson it seems an improvement in behaviour wasn’t likely to sway Scots to vote for the party.

These are obviously different times. The lower levels of respect could be attributed to declining trust in politicians in general. Voters in Scotland can be attracted to parties because of what happens in Westminster but also in Holyrood, so it’s perhaps the case that this is less to do with the low regard with which Scottish voters held Boris Johnson and more to do with the ability of a different cadre of politicians to sway voters. The question also assumes one needs to be swayed. After all, committed Conservative voters could answer strongly disagree – as they couldn’t be more inclined to vote for them, having always done so. If we look at how different voters responded to each of these questions we can break down attitudes by 2019 vote.

The interesting thing is not that supporters of the SNP dislike Boris Johnson. It’s that among supporters of pro-union parties, such large proportions believe he holds a dismissive view of Scots and Scotland. These individuals are categorically not Scottish nationalists. Almost 60% of Labour voters in 2019 – voters sticking with an avowedly unionist party while many soft nationalists fled at each successive election – believed the Prime Minister viewed Scots as second-class citizens. Almost three quarters of Lib Dem voters believed he viewed Scotland as unimportant (and it’s worth pointing out that almost a quarter of Conservative voters felt that as well).

The findings are interesting because they show those voters who would be least likely to fall victim to a framing of politics as us vs them – or quick to defend Scottish interests as distinct from British interests – clearly of the view that Boris Johnson’s treatment of Scotland was a problem. On the issue of respect, 58% of Conservative voters believe Boris Johnson deserves it for what he has achieved; but recall that in 1991, 55% of the Scottish electorate as a whole felt this about the Conservative Prime Minister. In 2022, figures among supporters of pro-union parties are markedly lower (13 for Labour voters, 10 for Lib Dems).

Overall, this points towards the pro-union side’s big problem when it comes to Scottish electoral politics – unlike the indy supporters monopolised by the SNP, anti-independence voters are too ideologically divided to operate as a coherent single bloc. Anti-Conservative animus is a powerful force in Scottish electoral politics, and, if anything, these findings suggest it has strengthened over time rather than weakened.

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