The Right Honourable Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS (born 13 October 1925) is a British politician and the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a position she held from 1979 to 1990. She is a member of the Conservative Party and still the figurehead for a brand of politics known as Thatcherism theoretically involving reduced government spending (though this in fact slightly increased throughout her tenure) and privatization of government owned industries. Even before coming to power she was nicknamed The Iron Lady in Soviet propaganda, an appellation which stuck. She is arguably the most important British political figure since Sir Winston Churchill.
Thatcher served as Education Secretary in the government of Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974, and successfully challenged Heath for the Conservative leadership in 1975. She was undefeated at the polls, winning the 1979, 1983 and 1987 general elections, and became the longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. Public opinion divided sharply over many of Thatcher's policies, such as her efforts to break the power of the trade unions in the miners' strike of 1984-1985. In foreign relations, Thatcher maintained the special relationship with the United States, and formed a close bond with Ronald Reagan. When Argentina invaded Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher dispatched a Royal Navy task force to retake the islands in the Falklands War, a policy that proved hugely popular in the United Kingdom.
Her popularity finally declined when she introduced a new tax, the Community Charge, to pay for local government which opponents called the poll tax, and the Conservative Party began to split over her sceptical approach to European Economic and Monetary Union. Her leadership was challenged from within and she was forced to resign in 1990. In 1992 she became Baroness Thatcher, and her direct political work limited to membership of the House of Lords and as head of the Thatcher Foundation.
Early life and education
Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts in the town of Grantham in Lincolnshire in eastern England. 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 second class 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 which was successful and forced local councils to hold meetings in public.
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. 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 Town Hall in which she made a scathing attack on the Soviet Union. The most controversial part of her speech ran:
- "The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet Politburo do not have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns."
In response, the Soviet Defence Ministry newspaper Red Star gave her the nickname The Iron Lady, which was soon publicised by Radio Moscow world service. 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, Attila 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).
At first she appointed many Heath supporters in the Shadow Cabinet and throughout her administrations sought to have a cabinet that reflected the broad range of opinions in the Conservative Party. Thatcher had to act cautiously in converting the Conservative Party to her monetarist beliefs. 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.
As Prime Minister
She formed a government on 4 May 1979, with a mandate to reverse Britain's 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 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, Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory claimed by Argentina (see History of the Falkland Islands). Thatcher immediately sent a naval task force to the Falklands which defeated the Argentines (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 'Right to Buy' policy of allowing residents of council housing to buy their homes at a discount did much to increase her popularity in working-class areas.
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 strikes which were wholly or partly aimed at damaging her politically. The most important of these was one carried out by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Thatcher had made preparations for the NUM strike by building up coal stocks. As a result, there were no cuts in electric power. Picket line violence, coupled with the fact that the NUM had not held a ballot to approve strike action, contrived to swing public opinion on her side. The Miners' Strike lasted a full year (1984–1985) 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 the early morning of 12 October 1984, Thatcher 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. Since gaining power, she had experimented in selling off a small nationalised industry, the National Freight company, to the public, with a surprisingly large response. After the 1983 election, 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 privatisation became synonymous with Thatcherism and has since been exported across the globe.
In the Cold war Mrs Thatcher supported Reagan's policies of deterrence against the Soviets. 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 United States 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 United States. 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.  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/low/dates/stories/january/29/newsid_2506000/2506019.stm) This award had always previously been given to Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.
Between 1983 and 1987, 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 United Kingdom paid far more to the European Economic Community than it received in spending and negotiated a budget rebate. She was widely quoted as saying "We want our money back".
By winning the 1987 general election she became the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to win three consecutive general elections since Lord Liverpool (in office from 1812–1827). 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.
In the late 1980's Thatcher began to be concerned by environmental policy, which she had previously dismissed. In 1988 she made a major speech accepting the problems of global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain  (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=107346) and in 1990 she opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research that she had caused to be founded  (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/Speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=108102&doctype=1).
At Bruges in 1988 Thatcher made a speech in which she outlined her opposition to proposals from the European Communities for a federal structure and increasing centralisation of decision-making. Although she had supported British membership, Thatcher believed that the role of the EC should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition, and feared that new EC regulations would reverse the changes she was making in Britain. She was specifically against Economic and Monetary Union, through which a single currency would replace national currencies, and for which the EC was making preparations.
Thatcher started to lose popularity in 1989, as the economy suffered from high interest rates imposed to stop an unsustainable boom. She blamed her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who had been following an economic policy which was a preparation for monetary union; Thatcher claimed not to have been told and did not approve. At the Madrid European summit, Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe forced Thatcher to agree the circumstances in which she would join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a preparation for monetary union. Thatcher took revenge on both by demoting Howe and listening more to her adviser Sir Alan Walters on economic matters. Lawson resigned that October, feeling that Thatcher had undermined him.
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 sixty ballot papers either cast for Meyer or abstaining, a surprisingly large number.
Thatcher's new system to replace local government rates was introduced for Scotland in 1989 and for England and Wales in 1990. 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 the most unpopular policy of her premiership and it was almost universally known as the Poll Tax. The Charge was introduced early in Scotland because the rateable values would in any case have been reassessed in 1989; however, it led to accusations that Scotland was a 'testing ground' for the tax. Thatcher fully believed that the new tax would be popular, and had been persuaded by Scottish Conservatives to bring it in early and in one go. Despite her hopes, the early introduction led to a sharp decline in the popularity of the Conservative party in Scotland.
Additional problems emerged when many of the tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than many earlier predictions. Some have argued that local councils saw the introduction of the new system of taxation as the opportunity to make significant increases in the amount taken, assuming (correctly) that it would be the originators of the new tax system and not its local operators who would be blamed.
A large London demonstration against the poll tax on 31 March 1990 (the day before it was introduced in England and Wales) turned into a riot. Millions of people resisted paying the tax. 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, and its unpopularity 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!"
On the Friday before the Conservative Party conference in October 1990, Thatcher persuaded her new Chancellor John Major to reduce interest rates by 1%. Major persuaded her that the only way to maintain monetary stability was to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism at the same time, despite not meeting the 'Madrid conditions'. The conference that year saw a degree of unity break out within the Conservative Party. Few who attended could have realised that Mrs Thatcher had only a matter of weeks left in office.
Fall from power
By 1990 opposition to Thatcher's policies on local government 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, whom Thatcher had been humiliating in Cabinet meetings. Howe condemned Thatcher's policy on the European Communities and 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 automatic 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.
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, had been given a Baronetcy in 1991 (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 Augusto 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.  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/304516.stm).
Lady Thatcher visits Pinochet during house arrest in London, in 1998
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 City (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 (who held a dinner at the Savoy Hotel in honour of the 25th Anniversary of her election). She is honorary president of the Bruges Group, which takes its name from her 1988 speech at Bruges where she was first openly hostile to developments in the European Union. She is also patron of the Eurosceptic European Foundation founded by the Conservative MP Bill Cash. 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 coincided 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" (of all those who ever lived, though she was the highest placed living person, sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public), she also appears at Number 3 in the 2003 List of "100 Worst Britons" (confined to only those living, 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.
Many of her policies have proved to be divisive. In Scotland, Wales and the urban and former mining areas of northern England she is still unpopular and many retain strong feelings about her. Many people remember the hardships of the miners strike, which destroyed many mining communities and the decline of industry as service industries boomed. This was reflected in the 1987 general election, which she won by a landslide through winning large numbers of seats in southern England and the rural farming areas of northern England while winning few seats in the rest of the country.
Her son, Sir Mark Thatcher, has been dogged by a series of controversies. As of late 2004, he was under house arrest in South Africa facing charges of abetting a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. These reports have been received with considerable schadenfreude by those in Britain less than impressed by the Thatcher legacy.
- "If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman."
- "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." (in an interview for Woman's Own magazine on 23 September 1987 at 10 Downing Street; see Wikiquote page (http://quote.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Thatcher) for full quote and context).
- "Every Prime Minister needs a Willie" (a reference to her Deputy Prime Minister William Whitelaw; Mrs Thatcher was deaf to any more euphemistic interpretation).
- "We have become a grandmother" (3 March 1989, on the birth of her first grandchild; this was controversial for her apparent use of the Royal we)
- "Europe will never be like America. Europe is a product of history. America is a product of philosophy."
- Statecraft: Strategies for Changing World by Margaret Thatcher (HarperCollins, 2002) ISBN 0060199733
- The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher by Margaret Thatcher (HarperCollins, 1999) ISBN 0060187344
- The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher by Margaret Thatcher, Robin Harris (editor) (HarperCollins, 1997) ISBN 0002557037
- The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher (HarperCollins, 1995) ISBN 0002550504
- The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher (HarperCollins, 1993) ISBN 0002553546
- "The Anatomy of Thatcherism" by Shirley Robin Letwin (Flamingo, 1992) ISBN 0006862438
- Memories of Maggie Edited by Iain Dale (Politicos, 2000) ISBN 190230151X
- Britain Under Thatcher by Anthony Seldon & Daniel Collings (Longman, 1999) ISBN 0582317142
- Thatcher for Beginners by Peter Pugh and Paul Flint (Icon Books, 1997) ISBN 1874166536
- One of Us: Life of Margaret Thatcher by Hugo Young (Macmillan, 1989) ISBN 0333344391
- The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher by Hugo Young (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989) ISBN 0374226512
- Margaret, daughter of Beatrice by Leo Abse (Jonathan Cape, 1989) ISBN 0224027263
- Mrs.Thatcher's Revolution: Ending of the Socialist Era by Peter Jenkins (Jonathan Cape, 1987) ISBN 0224025163
- The Thatcher Phenomenon by Hugo Young (BBC, 1986) ISBN 0563204729
- "My Style of Government: The Thatcher Years" by Nicholas Ridley (Hutchinson, 1991) ISBN 0091750512
- Margaret Thatcher Foundation (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/)
- The Thatcher Era (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Thatcher/) — Written on the 10th anniversary of her resignation on 22 November
- The George H. W. Bush Library — 22 November 1990 (http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/papers/1990/90112204.html) — President George H. W. Bush talks about Thatcher resignation
- On This Day 22 November (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/001122onthisday.html) — New York Times marks Thatcher's resignation
- Harold Hill: A People's History - Buying into the Iron Lady's Dream (http://www.haroldhill.org/section_four/section_four_page_five.htm)