(1925– ) British prime minister
Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, helped reverse the economic decline of her country. Even her enemies grudgingly respected the strong-willed “iron lady.” She rejected the “consensus” politics that had characterized Britain since World War II in favor of polarizing “conviction” politics.
During her 10 years as the head of the British government, she created a successful free-market economy, but at a high price: deindustrialization of many old factory towns and, for several years, massive unemployment. Strongly nationalistic, Thatcher fought for Britain within and sometimes against the European Union. She was lucky that the main body of the Labour Party moved to the left and Labour moderates broke away to form their own party; she defeated her divided opponents at general elections without ever winning over a majority of the voters. She also was lucky to have the opportunity to fight a short, successful, and very popular war with distant Argentina, whose brutal military dictatorship had seized a sparsely populated and almost unknown British colony, the Falkland Islands. Labour eventually accepted her basic policies. She succeeded in changing the language of political discourse. Except for those from a few stubborn socialists, proposals for the nationalization of major industries disappeared from the debate over public policy.
In part because Thatcher was personally abrasive, she was controversial in her own Conservative Party. It was a rebellion among her nominal supporters that ended her political career. According to rumor, moreover, she did not get along with the other important woman in the British government, Queen Elizabeth II.
Intelligence and hard work, not family connections, explain Thatcher’s rise to power. Her principles owed much to the middle-class values of her upbringing. Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925, in Grantham, a small town in eastern England. Her father was a grocer, and the family lived over his shop. Active in civic affairs, her father served for many years on the city council and at one point held the title of mayor. After attending local state schools Margaret Roberts studied chemistry at Somerville College, a women’s college that was part of Oxford University. Already politically minded, she was elected president of Oxford’s student Conservative organization in 1946, the year after Labour had crushed her party in the general election that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany.
After university she worked for several years as a research chemist. In addition, she stood for Parliament, always for seats that were hopeless for her party. During her political campaigns she met Dennis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman, whom she married in 1951. She left her first career as a research chemist to study law. In 1953 she gave birth to twins, Carol and Mark. Thatcher was in her mid-30s when in 1959 she was elected to the House of Commons for the safe Conservative seat of Finchley in north London. Two years later she was appointed to a junior position in the Harold Macmillan government as parliamentary secretary at the ministry of pensions and national service. Thatcher’s first cabinet office came in the Edward Heath government. In 1970 she was appointed minister for education. As part of broader cuts in spending she eliminated free milk for
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led an uncompromising
conservative government in the United Kingdom during the 1980s. school- children. The Labour Party attacked her as the heartless “Thatcher, the milk snatcher.”
Heath’s failure to stand up to the trade unions successfully and his defeat in two 1974 general elections cost him the support of many Conservatives. Despite his weakness, his principal colleagues were reluctant to challenge him. Thatcher, a midlevel figure in the Conservative Party with limited ministerial experience, dared in 1975. After the first ballot Heath withdrew, and on the second ballot Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party. Four years later, the Conservatives won the general election, and Thatcher became prime minister. She also led her party to victory in the next two general elections.
Her policies during her more than a decade as prime minister came to be called “Thatcherism.” She acknowledged that many of her ideas came from an older Conservative politician, Sir Keith Joseph. He argued that Britain needed to revive its entrepreneurial spirit.
Thatcher became prime minister during a two-sided economic crisis: a depression accompanied by rising prices. She made her first priority fighting double-digit inflation. She cut government spending, with higher education suffering particularly hard. She increased interest rates and sales taxes and eventually income taxes too. Manufacturing shrank, and several million workers lost their jobs. It took years for this bitter medicine to cure runaway inflation, but it did. Some members of Thatcher’s own party thought that the human cost of her policies was unacceptable.
Convinced that the welfare state had ruined Britain, Thatcher wanted to encourage individualism and discourage reliance on the state. Consequently, she made it easy for tenants in council houses (public housing) to buy their homes. Pressured by an increase in rent, hundreds of thousands did. As property owners, they were more inclined to vote Conservative.
Committed to competition and capitalism, Thatcher regarded the nationalized industries as a deadweight handicapping the British economy. In the early 1980s she sold off minor parts of the state’s array of industries, such as the railroad hotels, but it was not until the mid-1980s that privatization became dramatic. At this time Thatcher sold the telephone system, the gas industry, the principal automobile and truck manufacturers, the steel industry, and water companies.
Thatcher worried that the power of Britain’s militant trade unions crippled the economy. She decided to tame them. In 1984 Parliament enacted legislation that required a majority vote by secret ballot for a legal strike. In the same year, the leader of the coal miners challenged the management of one of the last nationalized industries. He hoped to block the closing of unprofitable mines. He used outside militants to intimidate working miners. These tactics offended public opinion. Worried about their own jobs, few other unions supported the miners. After nearly a year, the strike collapsed. As a result of competition from oil and natural gas, the coal mining industry soon shrank to almost nothing.
Priding herself on her decisiveness and rarely conciliatory toward opponents, Thatcher did not care how many people she alienated. She rejected compromise as weakness. Victory over Argentina in the Falklands War was perhaps her only success that nearly everybody applauded. She refused any compromise when members of the Irish Republican Army, imprisoned in Ulster, started a hunger strike to be recognized as political prisoners. Ten IRA men died of starvation. Labour controlled many local councils, including that of greater London. Thatcher considered their spending profligate, and so she had Parliament abolish the troublesome councils. She regarded the European Community without enthusiasm. Protective of British sovereignty, she was suspicious of the trend toward economic and political centralization within the European Union.
In contrast to her ambivalence toward Europe, she was a staunch ally of the United States. She was particularly close to President Ronald Reagan. Although they were much alike in their economic and foreign policies and their insistence upon law and order, Thatcher did not share Reagan’s concern for moral issues in politics. She voted to decriminalize homosexuality and to legalize abortion. Thatcher’s relationship with the United States was, in part, the result of political realism. The world’s most powerful nation was a useful ally. Her realism also showed in her conciliatory relationship toward Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union. She recognized the importance of the reforms that he advocated in changing the nature of communism in his powerful country and the flexibility that he showed outside the Soviet Union. Unlike Reagan, she was not so entranced with Gorbachev as to propose mutual nuclear disarmament, but she did think the Soviet leader was somebody with whom she could “do business.”
In her last years as prime minister Thatcher blundered politically, which gave an opening to her numerous enemies within the Conservative Party. In her biggest mistake, she proposed a reform of local government finance widely denounced as an unfair poll tax. Except for the well-off, nearly all households would pay more than they had in the past. Perhaps because she was preparing for war against Iraq in alliance with the United States,Thatcher paid insufficient attention to the political situation at home. She also erred by making provocatively anti–European Union remarks that caused her foreign secretary to resign. One of her old enemies, a former defense secretary, challenged Thatcher for the party leadership in late 1990. When she failed to win on the first ballot, she withdrew and threw her support to one of her loyalists, John Major. After Major became Conservative Party leader and prime minister, Thatcher quickly alienated her one-time favorite. Calling herself a “good back-seat driver,” she interfered too much, undermining the new prime minister’s authority.
In retirement Thatcher took a nonhereditary peerage (baroness Thatcher of Kesteven) that made her a member of the House of Lords. She also wrote her memoirs. She outraged public opinion by visiting the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet while he was under house arrest in Britain. Most people believed that he was guilty of torturing and murdering opponents in his home country.
By the first years of the 21st century, Thatcher’s physical and mental health began to fail. She rarely made public appearances and no longer gave speeches. Her husband died in 2003, and her children sometimes proved to be an embarrassment. Her son, Mark, became involved in an abortive coup against an African government. Her daughter, Carol, appeared on a widely viewed and undignified “reality” television program. According to her, Thatcher suffered from a form of dementia that destroyed her short-term memory.