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Margaret Thatcher
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Margaret Thatcher

The Rt Hon. Margaret Thatcher
Period in Office: 4 May 1979 - 22 November 1990
PM Predecessor: James Callaghan
PM Successor: John Major
Date of Birth: 13 October 1925
Place of Birth: Grantham, England
Political Party: Conservative
Retirement honour: Life Barony of Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC (born 13 October 1925), is a British politician, the first woman to become leader of the British Conservative Party and the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a position she held from 1979 to 1990. Early in her tenure she was called The Iron Lady by Radio Moscow, an appellation which stuck.

After being first elected to parliament in 1959, she served as Education Secretary in the government of Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974. In 1975 she replaced Heath as leader of the Conservative Party. Under her leadership, the Conservatives won a landslide victory in the general elections of 1979, and she became the Prime Minister. She was re-elected in 1983 and again in 1987.

Her domestic policy was markedly conservative - she reduced public spending and privatized many of British government companies. In 1984, she used police to crush the miner's strike, breaking the power of trade unions in Britain. In foreign relations, Thatcher maintained the so-called special relationship with the United States, especially under presidency of Ronald Reagan. When Argentina invaded Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher responded energetically and dispatched the full force of the Royal Navy to defeat the Argentinians in the Falklands War, a policy that proved hugely popular at home.

In 1988, she became the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the 20th century.

Her popularity finally declined with an attempt to impose a poll tax instead of local taxes. Most of the Conservative party also opposed her support for Britain's membership in the Economic and Monetary Union and she was forced to resign in 1990. She was succeeded by John Major. In 1992 she received the title baroness.

Table of contents
1 Early life and education
2 Political career between 1950 and 1970
3 In Heath's cabinet
4 As leader of the opposition
5 First term as Prime Minister
6 Second term as Prime Minister
7 Third term as Prime Minister
8 Fall from power
9 Post-political career
10 Legacy
12 Books
13 See also
14 External links

Early life and education

Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts in the town of Grantham. Her father was Alfred Roberts who ran a grocers' shop in the town and was active in local politics, serving as an Alderman (while officially described as 'Liberal Independent', in practice he supported the local Conservatives). When the Labour Party won control of Grantham Council in 1945, Alfred Roberts was not re-elected as an Alderman, a decision which affected Thatcher deeply.

She did well at school, going on to a girls' grammar school and then to Somerville College, Oxford from 1944 where she studied chemistry. She became Chairman of Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946, the third woman to hold the post. She obtained a good degree and worked as a research chemist for British Xylonite and then Lyons & Company, where she helped develop methods for preserving ice cream.

Political career between 1950 and 1970

In the election of 1950 she was the youngest woman Conservative candidate but fought in the safe Labour seat of Dartford. She fought the seat again in the 1951 election. Her activity in the Conservative Party in Kent brought her into contact with Denis Thatcher; they fell in love and were married later in 1951. Denis Thatcher was a wealthy businessman and funded his wife to read for the Bar. She qualified as a Barrister in 1953, the same year that her twin children, Carol and Mark were born. On returning to work, she specialised in tax issues.

Thatcher had begun to look for a safe Conservative seat, and was narrowly rejected as candidate for Orpington in 1954. She had several other rejections before being selected for Finchley in April 1958. She easily won the seat in the 1959 election and took her seat in the House of Commons. Unusually, her maiden speech was made in support of her Private Member's Bill to force local councils to hold meetings in public. The Bill succeeded and received Royal Assent.

She was given an early promotion to the front bench as Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in September 1961, keeping the post until the Conservatives lost power in the 1964 election. When Sir Alec Douglas-Home stepped down, Thatcher voted for Edward Heath in the leadership election over Reginald Maudling, and was rewarded with the job of Conservative spokesman on Housing and Land. She moved to the Shadow Treasury Team after 1966.

Thatcher was one of few Conservative MPs to support the Bill to decriminalise male homosexuality, and she voted in favour of the principle of David Steel's Bill to legalise abortion. However she was opposed to the abolition of capital punishment. She made her mark as a conference speaker in 1966 with a strong attack on the taxation policy of the Labour Government as being steps "not only towards Socialism, but towards Communism". She won promotion to the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Fuel Spokesman in 1967, and was then promoted to shadow Transport and finally Education before the 1970 general election.

In Heath's cabinet

When the Conservatives won the election, Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education and Science. In her first months in office, forced to administer a cut in the Education budget, she decided that abolishing free milk in schools would be less harmful than other measures. Nevertheless, this provoked a storm of public protest, earning her the nickname "Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher", coined by The Sun. Her term was marked by many proposals for more local education authorities to adopt comprehensive secondary education, of which she approved 96%. Thatcher also defended the budget of the Open University from attempts to cut it.

After the Conservative defeat in February 1974, she was again promoted to be Shadow Environment Secretary. In this job she promoted a policy of abolishing the rating system that paid for local government services, which proved a popular policy within the Conservative Party. However she agreed with Sir Keith Joseph that the Heath Government had lost control of monetary policy. After Heath lost the second election that year, Joseph and other right-wingers declined to challenge his leadership but Thatcher decided that she would. Unexpectedly she outpolled him on the first ballot and won the job on the second, in February 1975. She appointed Heath's preferred successor William Whitelaw as her Deputy.

As leader of the opposition

On 19 January 1976 she made a speech at Kensington containing a scathing attack on the Soviet Union. She declared that "The Russians are bent on world dominance" and that they "put guns before butter". In response, the Soviet Defence Ministry newspaper Red Star gave her the nickname The Iron Lady. She took delight in the name and it soon became associated with her image as an unwavering and steadfast character. She acquired many other nicknames such as The Great She-Elephant, Attilla the Hen, and The Grocer's Daughter (due to her father's profession, but coined at a time when she was considered as Edward Heath's ally; he had been nicknamed The Grocer).

Thatcher had to act cautiously in converting the Conservative Party to her monetarist beliefs, due to the presence of many Heath supporters in the Shadow Cabinet. She reversed Heath's support for devolution to Scotland. An interview she gave to Granada Television's World in Action programme in 1978 spoke of her concern of immigrants "swamping" Britain aroused particular controversy. Most opinion polls showed that voters preferred James Callaghan as Prime Minister even when the Conservative Party was in the lead, but the Labour Government's severe difficulties with the Trades Unions over the winter of 1978–1979 (dubbed the 'Winter of Discontent') put the Conservatives well ahead in the 1979 election and Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister.

First term as Prime Minister

She formed a government on 4 May 1979, with a mandate to reverse Britain's perceived economic decline and to reduce the extent of the state. Thatcher was incensed by one contemporary view within the Civil Service that its job was to manage Britain's decline from the days of Empire, and wanted the country to punch above its weight in international affairs. She was a philosophic soulmate with Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in the United States, and to a lesser extent Brian Mulroney, who was elected around the same time in Canada. It seemed for a time that conservatism might be the dominant political philosophy in the major English-speaking nations for the era.


Thatcher began by increasing interest rates to drive down inflation. This move hit businesses, especially in the manufacturing sector, and unemployment rose sharply. However her early tax policy reforms were arguably based on supply-side economics. There was a severe recession in the early 1980s, and the Government's economic policy was widely blamed. Political commentators harked back to the Heath Government's "U-turn" and speculated that Mrs Thatcher would follow suit, but she repudiated this approach at the 1980 Conservative Party conference, telling the party "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning". That she meant what she said was confirmed in the 1981 budget, when despite an open letter from 364 economists, taxes were increased in the middle of a recession. Though unemployment reached 3 million in January 1982, the inflation rate dropped to low single figures and interest rates were able to fall. By the time of the 1983 election the economy was recovering well.

On 2 April 1982, Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland Islands, a British colony claimed by Argentina (see History of the Falkland Islands). Thatcher immediately sent a naval task force to the Falklands which defeated the Argentineans (see Falklands War), resulting in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm for her personally. The landslide victory of the Conservatives in the June 1983 general election is often ascribed to the 'Falklands Effect'. Her policy of allowing residents of council housing to buy their homes at a discount did much to increase her popularity in working-class areas.

Second term as Prime Minister

Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trade unions but unlike the Heath government, proceeded by way of incremental change rather than a single Act. Several unions decided to launch strikess which were wholly or partly aimed at damaging her politically, in particular the National Union of Mineworkers. Thatcher had made preparations for the strike by building up coal stocks and there were no power cuts, and picket line violence combined with the fact that the NUM had not held a ballot to approve action to swing public opinion on her side. The Miners' Strike lasted a full year (19841985) before the miners were forced to give in and go back to work without a deal. After this strike, trade union resistance to reform was much reduced and a succession of changes were made.

During the middle of the strike, on 11 October 1984, Thatcher miraculously escaped injury from a bomb planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Brighton's Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference. Five people died in the attack, including the wife of Government Chief Whip, John Wakeham. A prominent member of the Cabinet, Norman Tebbit, was injured, along with his wife, Margaret, who was left paralyzed. Thatcher insisted that the Conference open on time the next day and made her speech as planned.

Thatcher's political and economic philosophy emphasised free markets and entrepreneurialism. In her first term, she had experimented in selling off a small nationalised industry to the public, with a surprisingly large response. In the second term, the Government became bolder and sold off most of the large utilities which had been in public ownership since the late 1940s. Many in the public took advantage of share offers, although many sold their shares immediately for a quick profit. The policy of privatization became synonymous with Thatcherism.

United States forces were permitted by Mrs Thatcher to station nuclear cruise missiles at British bases, arousing mass protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She had no objections to the US bombing raid on Libya from bases in Britain in 1986, and her liking for defence ties with the USA was demonstrated in the Westland affair when she acted with colleagues to prevent the helicopter manufacturer Westland (a vital defence contractor) from linking with the Italian firm Agusta in favour of a link with Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation of the USA. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had pushed the Agusta deal, resigned in protest at her style of leadership, and thereafter became known as a potential leadership challenger.

In 1985, the University of Oxford voted to refuse her an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for education. [1] This award had always previously been given to Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford. However during the second term, Thatcher had two noted foreign policy successes. In 1984 she visited China and signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Deng Xiaoping on 19 December stating the basic policies of the People's Republic of China (PRC) regarding Hong Kong after the handover in 1997. At the Fontainebleau summit of 1984, Thatcher argued that the UK paid far more to the EEC than it received in spending and negotiated a budget rebate. She was widely quoted as saying "We want our money back".

Third term as Prime Minister

By winning the 1987 general election she became the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to serve for three consecutive terms since Robert Banks Jenkinson (in office from 18121827). Most United Kingdom newspapers supported her, with the exception of The Daily Mirror and The Guardian, and were rewarded with regular press briefings by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham. She was known as "Maggie" in the tabloids, which in turn led to the well-known "Maggie Out!" protest song, sung throughout that period by her opponents.

Thatcher started to become unpopular in 1989, as the economy suffered from high interest rates imposed to stop an unsustainable boom (for which she blamed her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who had been following an economic policy of which she claimed not to have been told and did not approve). When Thatcher began to listen more to her adviser Sir Alan Walters, Lawson resigned. That November, Thatcher was challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party, by Sir Anthony Meyer. As Meyer was a virtually unknown backbench MP, he was viewed as a "stalking horse" candidate for more prominent members of the party. Thatcher easily defeated Meyer's challenge, but there were a surprisingly large number of ballot papers either cast for Meyer or abstaining.

From 1989 in Scotland and 1990 in England and Wales, Thatcher's new system to replace local government rates began. She replaced them with the "Community Charge" which applied at the same amount to every individual resident, with only limited discounts for low earners. The indiscriminate nature of the charge led to it being almost universally known as the Poll Tax, and it became very unpopular across the political spectrum with protest marches being held even in safely Conservative areas.

On 31 March 1990 — the day before the tax was introduced in England and Wales — a large London demonstration turned into a riot. Millions of people resisted paying the tax, with up to 17,000,000 being behind with payments at one point. Opponents of the tax banded together to resist bailiffs and disrupt court hearings of poll tax debtors. Mrs Thatcher refused to compromise and change the tax (which was abolished by her successor), and some believe the resistance to the poll tax was a major factor in Thatcher's downfall.

One of her final acts in office was to pressure US President George H. W. Bush to deploy troops to the Middle East to drive Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Bush was somewhat apprehensive about the plan, but Thatcher famously told him that this was "no time to go wobbly!"

Fall from power

By 1990 opposition to Thatcher's policies on taxation, her Government's handling of the economy, her perceived arrogance and her reluctance to commit Britain to economic integration with Europe made her politically vulnerable. A challenge was precipitated by the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe on 1 November, who had been sidelined and felt that she was taking a damaging approach on the European Union. Howe openly invited "others to consider their own response", which led Michael Heseltine to announce his challenge. In the first ballot, Thatcher was two votes short of winning re-election, but on consulting with cabinet colleagues found a vast majority thought that she could not win on the second ballot.

On 22 November, at just after 9:30 AM, Mrs Thatcher announced that she would not be a candidate in the second ballot and therefore her term of office would come to an end. She supported John Major as her successor, and retired from Parliament at the 1992 election.

Post-political career

In 1992 she was created Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire, and entered the House of Lords. In addition, Denis Thatcher, her husband, was given a Baronetcy (ensuring that their son, Mark, would inherit a title).

She wrote her memoirs in two volumes. Although she remained supportive in public, in private she made her displeasure with many of John Major's policies plain, and her views were conveyed to the press and widely reported. Major later said he found her behaviour in retrospect to have been intolerable. She publicly endorsed William Hague for the Conservative leadership in 1997.

In 1998 she made a highly publicised and controversial visit to the former Chilean dictator General Pinochet during the time he was under house arrest in London facing charges of torture, conspiracy to torture and conspiracy to murder, and expressed her support and friendship for him. [1].

She made many speaking engagements around the world, and actively supported the Conservative election campaign in 2001. However, on 22 March, 2002 she was told by her doctors to make no more public speeches on health grounds, having suffered several small strokes which left her in a very frail state. Since then she visited Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York (in 2003), and compared his offices to those of Winston Churchill's War Room.

Although she was able to attend the funeral in June 2004 of former US President Ronald Reagan, her eulogy for him was pre-taped to prevent undue stress.

She remains involved with various Thatcherite groups, including being president of the Conservative Way Forward group, and is honorary president of the Bruges Group. She was widowed on 26 June 2003.


Many United Kingdom citizens remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Margaret Thatcher had resigned and what their reaction was. She brings out strong responses in people. Some people credit her with rescuing the British economy from the stagnation of the 1970s and admire her committed radicalism on social issues; others see her as authoritarian, egotistical and responsible for the dismantling of the Welfare State and the destruction of many manufacturing industries. Britain was widely seen as the "sick man of Europe" in the 1970s, and some argued that it would be the first developed nation to return to the status of a developing country. By the late 1990s, Britain emerged with a comparatively healthy economy, at least by previous standards. Her supporters claim that this was due to Margaret Thatcher's policies.

However, critics claim that the economic problems of the 1970s were exaggerated, and caused largely by factors outside of any UK government's control, such as high oil prices caused by the oil crisis which caused high inflation and damaged the economies of nearly all major industrial countries. Accordingly, they also argue that the economic downturn was not the result of socialism and trade unions, as Thatcherite supporters claim. Critics also argue that the Thatcher period in government co-incided with a general improvement in the world economy, and the buoyant tax revenues from North Sea oil, which critics contend was the real cause of the improved economic environment of the 1980s and not Margaret Thatcher's policies.

Perceptions of Margaret Thatcher are mixed in the view of the British public. A clear illustration of the divisions of opinion over Thatcher's leadership can be found in recent television polls: Thatcher appears at Number 16 in the 2002 List of "100 Greatest Britons" (sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public), she also appears at Number 3 in the 2003 List of "100 Worst Britons" (sponsored by Channel Four and also voted for by the public), narrowly missing out on the top spot, which went to Tony Blair. In the end, however, few could argue that there was a woman who played a more important role on the world stage in the Twentieth Century, and even the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has implicitly and explicitly acknowledged her importance by continuing many of her economic policies.



See also

External links

Preceded by:
Edward Short
Secretary of State for Education and Science
Followed by:
Reginald Prentice
Preceded by:
Edward Heath
Leader of the British Conservative Party
Followed by:
John Major
Preceded by:
James Callaghan
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Followed by:
John Major