Published: 10/04/2013 11:00 - Updated: 10/04/2013 09:35

Thatcher's legacy still felt in north


The newly-elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pictured during a visit to Dounreay, accompanied by a senior manager, Owen Pugh, and the late director Clifford Blumfield (left). Photo: DSRL / NDA
The newly-elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pictured during a visit to Dounreay, accompanied by a senior manager, Owen Pugh, and the late director Clifford Blumfield (left). Photo: DSRL / NDA

MARGARET Thatcher, who died on Monday at the age of 87, was yesterday described by a former senior Dounreay official as "energetic, intelligent and single-minded".

The former Conservative Prime Minister came to Caithness to officially open the refurbished reprocessing plant at the site in September 1979 – just four months after defeating Jim Callaghan in the general election.

The visit was recalled by Owen Pugh, one of the senior managers who accompanied Britain’s first female Prime Minister on her tour of the plant.

Mrs Thatcher arrived after attending a funeral service for Lord Mountbatten who was killed by an IRA bomb.

She spent most of the day at Dounreay and impressed Mr Pugh with her scientific knowledge and her energy.

"She was pretty bright – she was a chemist and a lawyer – and knew what she was taking about. She was energetic, single-minded and intelligent," Mr Pugh told the Caithness Courier.

"She was very supportive of the industry during her visit and we expected she would be in favour of nuclear power. So we were miffed when her government withdrew the funding for the fast reactor programme in 1988."

That decision, made by Secretary of State for Energy Cecil Parkinson, signalled the end for the Dounreay site which is currently being decommissioned.

Mr Pugh disagreed politically with Mrs Thatcher’s views but felt she "changed a number of things for the better" – although she did so in "the wrong way".

He said the trade unions needed reforming in the 1970s but claimed there were less brutal ways of achieving that aim. Home ownership was "a good idea" but Mrs Thatcher was wrong not to allow councils to reinvest the money in building new houses. "We are still suffering from that, today," added Mr Pugh.

While in Caithness, Mrs Thatcher, who was accompanied by her husband, Denis, stayed overnight at the Royal Hotel in Thurso.

She could never claim to be Scotland’s favourite politician but she must have thought that was about to change during her trip north. Also staying at the hotel was a bus load of tourists from England who had gathered in the lounge for afternoon tea. When Mrs Thatcher and Denis entered the hotel the visitors recognised the couple and gave them a standing ovation.

Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister from 1979 until 1990.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross SNP MSP Rob Gibson said Mrs Thatcher came to power on "a wave of revulsion" against the winter of discontent in 1979. But he argued her policies had a detrimental effect on the Highlands.

"She ushered in an era of cuts, unemployment, social dislocation and protest unseen here since the 1930s. The Tories won a minority of the vote in Scotland in 1979 and thereafter," he recalled.

"Mrs Thatcher’s policy on the sale of council houses wrought havoc with social housing stock and does so to this day. Of course people took up the deeply discounted offers to buy in great numbers but did not vote Tory. The proceeds went to the Treasury as did the revenues from North Sea oil which underpinned huge unemployment payments across the UK due to the destruction of nationalised industries and so-called ailing plants," said Mr Gibson.

However, he said it was the poll tax which the Tories put in place of the rates that galvanised Scots to seek the creation of a Scottish Parliament.

"The dislocation of Highland life, the failure to use European cash to build the Dornoch rail short-cut to the far north and the shortage of affordable housing are sad reminders of the Thatcher era whose prescription did more to kill than cure," added Mr Gibson.

Mrs Thatcher had been in poor health for some time and died from a stroke. Her funeral will take place on Wednesday, April 17.

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