Margaret Thatcher the “Iron Lady” – Former Prime Minister of Great Britain
Margaret Thatcher was a British stateswoman and the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. From 1975 to 1990 she was the Leader of the Conservative Party, during which time she was elected for three terms successively as a Prime Minister, serving for 11 years, longer than any other British prime minister of the 20th century. Her political views, based on loose economics and individual self-realization, together with her policies, were reunited under the name of Thatcherism, which remained for a long time an influential political concept in the United Kingdom.
Early Life and Education
Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born on 13 October 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, as the daughter of Alfred Roberts and Beatrice Ethel. Her father was the owner of two grocery shops in Grantham, and Margaret and her older sister, Muriel, spent their childhood in a flat just above the larger of the two shops. The two girls were brought up as conservative Wesleyan Methodists and attended the Finkin Street Methodist Church. Politics were an important concern in the Roberts family, as Alfred was involved in the local political scene, besides his attributions as a local preacher and alderman in the Methodist Church. His political career was focused mostly on Liberal values, but he remained independent and in 1945 he was elected Mayor of Grantham, a position which he held for two years. Margaret admired her father greatly and adopted his values and work ethics in what would later become her impressive political career.
Margaret distinguished herself in school as a hardworking and disciplined student, involved in numerous extracurricular activities such as field hockey, piano, poetry recitals, or swimming. Upon graduating from high school, she applied for a scholarship at Somerville College, Oxford to study chemistry. While her application was initially rejected, she managed to secure a place after the withdrawal of another candidate. Margaret spent four years at Oxford, during which time she specialized in X-ray crystallography. In 1947 she received her Bachelor of Science degree with Second-Class Honors. While working on her dissertation on the structure of the antibiotic gramicidin, Margaret was already envisioning a transition towards politics and law. However, she was highly proud of her science degree.
In 1946, Margaret debuted in politics as the President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Among her political views, the most constant one was the adversity for economic intervention by government. Soon upon graduation, she moved to Colchester, Essex where she found a job as a research chemist. In 1948 Margaret became a member of the local Conservative Association and in the same year, during a party conference, she was propositioned to apply as a candidate for the Dartford Conservative Association in Kent. Margaret managed to impress the officials during the selection and in January 1951, she became a Conservative candidate for Dartford, at the age of 25. A month later, during a dinner party, she met Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman who had recently divorced. In the pursuit of her political ambitions, Margaret moved to Dartford to prepare for the election. During this time, she supported herself by continuing to work as a research chemist.
Early Political Career
Margaret stood out among the members of the Conservative Party of Dartford because of her confidence and fierce attitude. She was not yet a very engaging public speaker, yet all her speeches were meaningful and well-prepared. As a young female candidate, she attracted a lot of attention both from the public and the media. She was chosen as the Conservative candidate for the safe Labour seat of Dartford in 1950 and 1951, yet she did not manage to win the position. In December 1951, she married Denis Thatcher, who was fully supportive of her political ambitions. Around the same period, Margaret decided to resume her studies and qualify as a barrister. She earned her qualification in 1953, with a specialization in taxation. Her twins, Carol and Mark, were born at the end of the same year.
After a short break from the political scene, time in which Margaret decided to focus on raising her twins, she started to become interested in a Conservative safe seat and as a result of her well-prepared campaign in the election of 1959, she was elected as Member of the Parliament. Thatcher was not only very driven, but she was also pragmatic and goal-oriented, which led to her being regarded as a future Prime Minister when she was still in her 20’s. However, his possibility seemed far-fetched to her for a long time, as she considered the male population to still hold a strong prejudice against women. Nevertheless, her career advanced steadily from then on. She became the youngest woman in history to hold the position as a Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. From there, she switched through several important roles and by 1966, most of the party leaders considered her a great fit as a Shadow Cabinet member. As a member of the Parliament, Thatcher was highly critical of the high-tax policies of the Labour Government, she supported the decriminalization of male homosexuality, the legalization of abortion, and the retention of capital punishment.
Thatcher’s political career was boosted by her participation in a professional exchange program in which the United States Embassy in London chose her for a six-week visit to multiple US Cities. Thatcher met many influential American politicians and had the chance to observe the inner mechanisms of important institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. The program helped Thatcher forge a strong identity on the British political scene, even though she was not yet a cabinet member. The embassy spoke greatly of her and even suggested that she would make a great prime minister in the future. Later that year, Thatcher became part of the Shadow Cabinet, where she held different positions before being assigned to Education. After the Conservative Party won the general election of 1970, Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education and Science.
Within a few months after getting the office, Thatcher gained massive public attention because of her choice to abolish free milk for schoolchildren as an attempt to cut spending. Her decision met serious disapproval from the press and the Labour government, causing storms of protests. Thatcher was severely disheartened by the numerous attacks on her and even considered giving up on politics.
However, her career would not suffer tremendously in the long term. When the Heath government lost the 1974 general election, The Conservative Party started to doubt Heath’s leadership and while Thatcher was not the primary choice for the replacement, she eventually became Heath’s most fierce competitor. Supported by the members of the right wing, Thatcher defeated both Heath and Heath’s favorite, Whitelaw. On 11th February 1975, Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition.
Prime Minister of Great Britain
Soon after the election, Thatcher started to get increasingly interested in the Institute of Economic Affairs, founded on the principles of economists Friedrich Hayek and Ralph Harris. She became the voice and the face of the growing ideological movement that opposed the welfare state by supporting lower taxes, less governmental involvement in business, and more freedom for the private market. After a severe attack on the Soviet Union, in a speech from 19 January 1976, Thatcher was called the “Iron Lady” in a Soviet newspaper, and the nickname seemed to suit her perfectly and follow her throughout her career.
The 1970s had been a difficult time for Britain’s economy. The Labour Government started to appear to both the public and the opposition as incapable of handling the crisis. During the winter of 1978-1979, the Labour government’s power was further weakened by a series of severe strikes caused by an unprecedentedly high unemployment rate. Using “Labour isn’t Working” as a slogan, the Conservative Party attacked the government to undermine its power among voters. The British population lost all confidence in Callaghan’s government and a general election ensued, in which the Conservatives won with a great majority. On 4 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
As a Prime Minister, Thatcher had the opportunity to put her ideas regarding a new economical approach to practice. She took several innovative measures such as lowering direct taxes on income and increasing indirect taxes, increasing interest rates to lower inflation, introducing cash limits on public spending, and reducing spending on education and housing. Many members of the Conservative Party became reluctant to Thatcher’s ideas. By December 1980, her rating for job approval dropped by 23%, lower than any other Prime Minister, according to the records. While the recession deepened, she chose to increase taxes. In spite of disapprovals from the country’s leading economists, Thatcher managed to lower the inflation, yet the unemployment rate remained really high, with over 3 million people lacking jobs. By 1983, the country was recovering fast with a strong economic growth and the lowest inflation and mortgage rates since 1970. The unemployment rate, however, remained constant until 1987, when the economy finally became stable and London grew into a financial hotspot. The Conservatives regained their strong position and Thatcher had a clear path towards a third term as Prime Minister.
However, Thatcher was yet to go through one of the most damaging decisions of her premiership, which was the reformation of local government taxes. Her policy replaced the domestic rate with the poll tax, in which each adult resident was charged with the same amount independent of the income. The public reacted with a strong demonstration of 70,000 to 200,000 people in Trafalgar Square, London on 31 March 1990. The tax, known as The Community Charge, was removed by Thatcher’s successor, John Major, yet the riots were difficult to forget with almost 113 people injured and more than 300 under arrest.
Among her political goals, Thatcher was also interested in eliminating the influence of the trade unions, which were using strikes as a way to undermine the power of the Parliament. While Thatcher introduced new legislative claims to strain their power, the unions usually responded with new strikes. The confrontation between Thatcher and the unions culminated with the miners’ strike, which lasted for an entire year with no sign of Thatcher wanting to meet the union’s demands. Eventually, the miners had to concede without any deal. The strike caused an enormous loss to the economy. By 1994, 97 coal mines had been closed, which affected multiple communities all over Britain, with thousands of people losing their jobs. Thatcher’s victory was definite. Not only that she managed to reduce significantly the number of stoppages that were causing a loss of millions of working days, but she also managed to weaken the trade unions, by causing a downfall in membership. The decline continued even after Thatcher’s premiership.
Another crucial component in Thatcher’s terms as a Prime Minister is her privatization policy. Soon after the election of 1983 most of the state utilities were sold at an accelerated rate. The sale of nationalized industries and council houses brought the notable sum of 47 billion pounds to the state budget, and also determined an increase in performance and labor productivity during the entire privatization process. It is difficult to establish whether the results of the privatization were the ones envisioned by Thatcher herself, since there were no evident marks of an improved performance among the privatized industries, yet the consumers have benefited from lower prices. One sector in which Thatcher strongly resisted privatization is the railway industry.
Thatcher’s popularity decreased around 1981 as a result of her refusal to offer the status of political prisoners to detainees belonging to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who went on a hunger strike to have their demand met. Ten prisoners died while fasting and the strike ended, not without leading to some violent manifestations in Northern Ireland. Thatcher escaped an assassination attempt run by the IRA, in which five people were killed. Despite the traumatic event, Thatcher delivered a speech at the Conservative Party Conference the following day.
Besides her economic and social concerns, Thatcher was also a fervent supporter of climate protection policies. She had an important part in the development of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and she was also focused on raising awareness about climate change, pollution, and acid rain in the 1980s when the topics hadn’t reached mainstream attention yet.
The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other peoples' money.— Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher encountered her first critical moment during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. She was totally against the invasion, yet didn’t support American President Jimmy Carter when he tried to force economic sanctions on the USSR because Britain’s own economic situation was unable. During the Cold War, Thatcher’s views were convergent to those of Ronald Reagan as both of them disliked Communism. At the same time, she was the first British Prime Minister who visited China, a communist country. Thatcher proved to be a highly capable war leader during Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Island and South Georgia, territories under British rule. She managed the entire situation with great tact and gained a new massive wave of popularity for how she handled the conflict, careful of not causing major losses to Britain.
It is no doubt that Thatcher had an antipathy towards the idea of European integration. She did not keep her opinions against the European Community hidden. She preferred smaller and less powerful governments and deregulation, but agreed to free trade and an increase in competition. The idea to form a federal structure in Europe, however, did not appeal to her.
By 1990, the Conservative Party was facing sprouts of discontent, especially because of Thatcher’s overly combative personality and her lack of consideration for the opinions of her colleagues. When Geoffrey Howe, the only remaining member from Thatcher’s 1979 cabinet, decided to resign, Thatcher’s position was weakened beyond recovery. After losing the leadership election of the party, Thatcher was persuaded by the members of her Cabinet to withdraw without contesting the elections. Feeling betrayed by her colleagues, she made a visit to the Queen and had her final Common speech, before leaving Downing Street in tears. She was replaced by John Major, her Chancellor.
Later Life and Death
Thatcher retired in 1992, at the age of 66, after spending two more years on the backbenches as a member of the Parliament. During retirement, she continued to remain politically active, often delivering speeches and commentaries on global and domestic events. She also published two volumes of memoirs, entitled The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power. Her skepticism towards the European Union remained constant.
Around 2000, Thatcher’s health started to deteriorate and she went through a series of small strokes. As a result, she cancelled all her speaking engagements. In 2003, she was left without the support of her caring husband, Denis Thatcher, who died of pancreatic cancer. Her grief was tremendous as the couple had been partners and best friends for years. Two years later, her daughter, Carol started to notice that Margaret was slowly losing her memory, because of dementia. She continued, however, to attend official events, such as celebrations, memorials, or funerals. In 2008 Thatcher was hospitalized after falling down and breaking her arm at a House of Lords dinner.
On April 8, 2013, Thatcher suffered a fatal stroke, at the age of 87. The news of her death was received with mixed reactions, ranging from sorrow, to praise, to celebrations or strong criticism. She received a state funeral, similar to her hero, Winston Churchill. Queen Elizabeth II attended the ceremony.
Years after her death, Margaret Thatcher remains a controversial figure. While some consider that she saved the UK from a severe economic crisis, others argue that by doing so, she stepped on the lives of millions of workers. Despite the controversy, her political achievements have been celebrated on numerous occasions and in 2007, Margaret Thatcher became the first living prime minister to receive an honorary statue in the Houses of Parliament.
List of References
- Beckett, Clare (2006). Margaret Thatcher. Haus Publishing
- Blundell, John (2008). Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady. Algora.
- Campbell, John (2000). Margaret Thatcher; Volume One: The Grocer's Daughter. Pimlico.
- Campbell, John (2003). Margaret Thatcher; Volume Two: The Iron Lady. Pimlico
- Evans, Eric (2004). Thatcher and Thatcherism (The Making of the Contemporary World) (2nd ed.). Routledge
- Reitan, Earl Aaron (2003). The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain, 1979–2001. Rowman & Littlefield
- Seldon, Anthony; Collings, Daniel (2000). Britain Under Thatcher. Longman.
- Pugh, Peter; Flint, Carl (1997). Thatcher for Beginners. Icon Books.
West, D. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: A Short Biography. 2016. C&D Publications.