Scotland in the 1980s: The pivotal political moments of the decade – including the Miners’ Strike and the election of Alex Salmond


It was a decade to forget for Labour and the SNP as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives took full control of Britain’s political destiny.

Charles Kennedy MP celebrates his election victory back in 1983 outside Dingwall Town Hall.

Fresh from the bitter disappointment of the failed devolution attempt and Thatcher’s subsequent election win in 1979, the SNP saw its number of elected MPs plunge from a high of 11 at the 1974 General Election to just 3 in 1987, when even party leader Gordon Wilson lost his seat.

One of the few bright lights for the SNP at that 1987 General Election was a certain Alex Salmond, who managed to emerge victorious over the incumbent Conservative MP for Banff and Buchan, Albert McQuarrie. Within just three years, Mr Salmond would rise to become SNP leader.

Seemingly turning their backs on nationalism, the Scottish electorate appeared hellbent on helping the Labour Party dethrone Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government whose rampant de-industrialisation policies saw Scotland, a nation which once prided itself on its heavy industries, lose around a third of its manufacturing capacity by the end of the 1980s.

Conservative MP and Secretary of State for Scotland Malcolm Rifkind waves to supporters, retaining the Edinburgh Pentlands seat when the General Election votes come in at Meadowbank stadium in June 1987.

Sewing the seeds of a post-industrial economy that would begin to take root in the 1990s, the Tories were blamed for the unprecedented levels of hardship experienced in Scotland’s former industrial heartlands where tens of thousands of people were left unemployed.

The closure of the Linwood car factory meant the loss of almost 5,000 jobs, while a further 4,000 were left on the breadline due to the demise of Leyland and Plessey in Bathgate.

These dire events would provide inspiration for The Proclaimers, whose 1987 hit Letter From America bemoaned Scotland’s industrial losses.

Scottish mining communities were also hard hit. Mrs Thatcher’s prolonged battle with the National Union of Miners raged for much of the decade and, within just three years of the 1984 miners’ strike, a total of 13 Scottish pits were closed for good.

Margaret Thatcher at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

Despite Labour in Scotland claiming more than double the number of the seats won by the Conservatives at the 1983 and 1987 elections, the Tories’ immense popularity south of the border guaranteed Mrs Thatcher’s continued reign. The notion that Scotland was being repeatedly handed the party it didn’t want would lead to renewed calls for devolution.

A picketer gets his head between two policeman to shout at a fellow miner outside Bilston Glen colliery during the industrial action of March 1984.
Labour’s Alistair Darling celebrates winning the Edinburgh Central seat after the General Election votes come in at Meadowbank stadium in June 1987.
Eilidh Whiteford with Alex and Moira Salmond at the 1987 General Election. Mr Salmond won the Banff and Buchan seat.
The Carron ironworks company near Falkirk had collapsed in 1982 and plant and machinery were up for auction in June 1983. The Scottish National Party and Social Democratic Party used the occasion in the runup to the General Election.
Labour MP Robin Cook, his wife Margaret Cook and supporters celebrate winning the Livinsgton seat in the General Election, June 1983.
Gordon Wilson, chairman of the Scottish National Party, launches the SNP’s General Election manifesto in Glasgow in May 1987.
Margaret Thatcher at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
Roy Hattersley (left) and Donald Dewar at the Scottish Labour party launch of their General Election manifesto in Glasgow, May 1987.



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