Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG OM PC FRS (née Roberts, 13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013), was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and the Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and is the only woman to have held the office. A Soviet journalist called her the "Iron Lady", a nickname that became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style. As Prime Minister, she implemented policies that have come to be known as Thatcherism.
Originally a research chemist before becoming a barrister, Thatcher was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Finchley in 1959. Edward Heath appointed her Secretary of State for Education and Science in his 1970 government. In 1975, Thatcher defeated Heath in the Conservative Party leadership election to become Leader of the Opposition and became the first woman to lead a major political party in the United Kingdom. She became Prime Minister after winning the 1979 general election.
Upon moving into 10 Downing Street, Thatcher introduced a series of political and economic initiatives intended to reverse high unemployment and Britain's struggles in the wake of the Winter of Discontent and an ongoing recession.[nb 1] Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of trade unions. Thatcher's popularity during her first years in office waned amid recession and high unemployment until the 1982 Falklands War brought a resurgence of support, resulting in her re-election in 1983.
Thatcher was re-elected for a third term in 1987. During this period her support for a Community Charge (popularly referred to as "poll tax") was widely unpopular and her views on the European Community were not shared by others in her Cabinet. She resigned as Prime Minister and party leader in November 1990, after Michael Heseltine launched a challenge to her leadership. After retiring from the Commons in 1992, she was given a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the county of Lincolnshire, which entitled her to sit in the House of Lords. After a series of small strokes in 2002, she was advised to withdraw from public speaking, and in 2013 she died of another stroke in London at the age of 87.
Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts in Grantham, Lincolnshire, on 13 October 1925. Her father was Alfred Roberts, originally from Northamptonshire, and her mother was Beatrice Ethel (née Stephenson) from Lincolnshire. She spent her childhood in Grantham, where her father owned two grocery shops. She and her older sister Muriel (1921–2004) were raised in the flat above the larger of the two, on North Parade near the railway line. Her father was active in local politics and the Methodist church, serving as an alderman and a local preacher, and brought up his daughter as a strict Wesleyan Methodist attending the Finkin Street Methodist Church. He came from a Liberal family but stood—as was then customary in local government—as an Independent. He was Mayor of Grantham in 1945–46 and lost his position as alderman in 1952 after the Labour Party won its first majority on Grantham Council in 1950.
Margaret Roberts attended Huntingtower Road Primary School and won a scholarship to Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School. Her school reports showed hard work and continual improvement; her extracurricular activities included the piano, field hockey, poetry recitals, swimming and walking. She was head girl in 1942–43. In her upper sixth year she applied for a scholarship to study chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, but she was initially rejected and was offered a place only after another candidate withdrew. Roberts arrived at Oxford in 1943 and graduated in 1947 with Second-Class Honours in the four-year Chemistry Bachelor of Science degree; in her final year she specialised in X-ray crystallography under the supervision of Dorothy Hodgkin. She was reportedly much more proud of becoming the first Prime Minister with a science degree than the first female Prime Minister.
Roberts became President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946. She was influenced at university by political works such as Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944), which condemned economic intervention by government as a precursor to an authoritarian state. After graduating, Roberts moved to Colchester in Essex to work as a research chemist for BX Plastics. In 1948 she applied for a job at ICI, but was rejected after the personnel department assessed her as "headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated". Roberts joined the local Conservative Association and attended the party conference at Llandudno in 1948, as a representative of the University Graduate Conservative Association. One of her Oxford friends was also a friend of the Chair of the Dartford Conservative Association in Kent, who were looking for candidates. Officials of the association were so impressed by her that they asked her to apply, even though she was not on the Conservative party's approved list: she was selected in January 1951, at age twenty-five, and added to the approved list post ante. At a dinner following her formal adoption as Conservative candidate for Dartford in February 1951 she met Denis Thatcher, a successful and wealthy divorced businessman, who drove her to her Essex train. In preparation for the election Roberts moved to Dartford, where she supported herself by working as a research chemist for J. Lyons and Co. in Hammersmith, part of a team developing emulsifiers for ice cream.
In the 1950 and 1951 general elections Roberts was the Conservative candidate for the safe Labour seat of Dartford. The local party selected her as its candidate because, while not a dynamic public speaker, Roberts was well-prepared and fearless in her answers; another prospective candidate recalled that "Once she opened her mouth, the rest of us began to look rather second-rate". She attracted media attention as the youngest and the only female candidate. She lost both times to Norman Dodds, but reduced the Labour majority by 6,000, and then a further 1,000. During the campaigns she was supported by her parents and by Denis Thatcher, whom she married in December 1951. Denis funded his wife's studies for the bar; she qualified as a barrister in 1953 and specialised in taxation. That same year, their twins, Carol and Mark, were born.
In 1954, Thatcher was narrowly defeated when she sought selection as the candidate for the Orpington by-election of January 1955. She was not a candidate in the 1955 general election, as it came fairly soon after the birth of her children. Afterwards, Thatcher began looking for a Conservative safe seat and was selected as the candidate for Finchley in April 1958 (narrowly beating Ian Montagu Fraser). She was elected as MP for the seat after a hard campaign in the 1959 election. Benefiting from her fortunate result in a lottery for backbenchers to propose new legislation, Thatcher's maiden speech was in support of her private member's bill (Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960), requiring local authorities to hold their council meetings in public. In 1961 she went against the Conservative Party's official position by voting for the restoration of birching as a judicial corporal punishment. Reversing her early casual anti-Semitism, Thatcher came to admire the values she saw in Finchley's Jewish residents, viewed them as "her people" and "good citizens", and became a founding member of the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley as well as a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel. She also believed Israel had to trade land for peace, and condemned Israel's 1981 bombing of Osirak as "a grave breach of international law".
Thatcher's talent and drive caused her to be mentioned as a future Prime Minister in her early 20s although she herself was more pessimistic, stating as late as 1970 that "There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime—the male population is too prejudiced." In October 1961 she was promoted to the front bench as Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in Harold Macmillan's administration. Thatcher was the youngest woman in history to receive such a post, and among the first MPs elected in 1959 to be promoted. After the Conservatives lost the 1964 election she became spokeswoman on Housing and Land, in which position she advocated her party's policy of allowing tenants to buy their council houses. She moved to the Shadow Treasury team in 1966 and, as Treasury spokeswoman, opposed Labour's mandatory price and income controls, arguing that they would produce effects contrary to those intended and distort the economy.
By 1966 party leaders viewed Thatcher as a potential Shadow Cabinet member. James Prior proposed her as a member after the Conservatives' 1966 defeat, but party leader Edward Heath and Chief Whip Willie Whitelaw chose Mervyn Pike as the shadow cabinet's sole woman member. At the Conservative Party Conference of 1966 she criticised the high-tax policies of the Labour Government as being steps "not only towards Socialism, but towards Communism", arguing that lower taxes served as an incentive to hard work. Thatcher was one of the few Conservative MPs to support Leo Abse's Bill to decriminalise male homosexuality. She voted in favour of David Steel's bill to legalise abortion, as well as a ban on hare coursing. She supported the retention of capital punishment and voted against the relaxation of divorce laws.
In 1967, the United States Embassy in London chose Thatcher to take part in the International Visitor Leadership Program (then called the Foreign Leader Program), a professional exchange programme that gave her the opportunity to spend about six weeks visiting various US cities and political figures as well as institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Although not yet a cabinet or shadow cabinet member, the embassy reportedly described her to the State Department as a possible future prime minister. The description helped Thatcher meet with many unusually prominent individuals during a busy itinerary focused on economic issues, including Paul Samuelson, Walt Rostow, Pierre-Paul Schweitzer, and Nelson Rockefeller. After Pike's retirement, Heath appointed Thatcher later that year to the Shadow Cabinet as Fuel and Power spokesman. Shortly before the 1970 general election, she was promoted to Shadow Transport spokesman and later to Education.
The Conservative party under Edward Heath won the 1970 general election, and Thatcher was subsequently appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education and Science. During her first months in office she attracted public attention as a result of the administration's attempts to cut spending. She gave priority to academic needs in schools. She imposed public expenditure cuts on the state education system, resulting in the abolition of free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven. She held that few children would suffer if schools were charged for milk, but she agreed to provide younger children with a third of a pint daily, for nutritional purposes. Cabinet papers later revealed that she opposed the policy but had been forced into it by the Treasury. Her decision provoked a storm of protest from Labour and the press. leading to the moniker "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher". She reportedly considered leaving politics in the aftermath and would later write in her autobiography: "I learned a valuable lesson [from the experience]. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit."
Thatcher's term of office was marked by proposals for more local education authorities to close grammar schools and to adopt comprehensive secondary education. Although she was committed to a tiered secondary modern-grammar school system of education and was determined to preserve grammar schools, during her tenure as Education Secretary she turned down only 326 of 3,612 proposals for schools to become comprehensives; the proportion of pupils attending comprehensive schools consequently rose from 32 per cent to 62 per cent.
The Heath government continued to experience difficulties with oil embargoes and union demands for wage increases in 1973 and lost the February 1974 general election. Labour formed a minority government and went on to win a narrow majority in the October 1974 general election. Heath's leadership of the Conservative Party looked increasingly in doubt. Thatcher was not initially the obvious replacement, but she eventually became the main challenger, promising a fresh start. Her main support came from the Conservative 1922 Committee, but Thatcher's time in office gave her the reputation of a pragmatist instead of an ideologue. She defeated Heath on the first ballot and he resigned the leadership. In the second ballot she defeated Whitelaw, Heath's preferred successor. The vote polarized along right-left lines, with in addition the region, experience and education of the MP having their effects. Thatcher was stronger among MPs on the right, those from southern England, and those who had not attended public schools or Oxbridge.
Thatcher began to attend lunches regularly at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a think tank founded by the poultry magnate Antony Fisher, a disciple of Friedrich von Hayek; she had been visiting the IEA and reading its publications since the early 1960s. There she was influenced by the ideas of Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, and she became the face of the ideological movement opposing the welfare state. Keynesian economics, they believed, was weakening Britain. The institute's pamphlets proposed less government, lower taxes, and more freedom for business and consumers.
The television critic Clive James, writing in The Observer during the voting for the leadership, compared her voice of 1973 to a cat sliding down a blackboard.[nb 2] Thatcher had already begun to work on her presentation on the advice of Gordon Reece, a former television producer. By chance Reece met the actor Laurence Olivier, who arranged lessons with the National Theatre's voice coach. Thatcher succeeded in completely suppressing her Lincolnshire dialect except when under stress, notably after provocation from Denis Healey in the House of Commons in April 1983, when she accused the Labour front bench of being frit.
On 19 January 1976 Thatcher made a speech in Kensington Town Hall in which she made a scathing attack on the Soviet Union:
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.
Margaret Thatcher wanted to prevent the creation of a Scottish assembly. She told Conservative MPs to vote against the Scotland and Wales Bill in December 1976, which was defeated, and then when new Bills were proposed she supported amending the legislation to allow the English to vote in the 1979 referendum on devolution.
Britain's economy during the 1970s was so weak that Foreign Minister James Callaghan warned his fellow Labour Cabinet members in 1974 of the possibility of "a breakdown of democracy", telling them that "If I were a young man, I would emigrate." In mid-1978, the economy began to improve and opinion polls showed Labour in the lead, with a general election being expected later that year and a Labour win a serious possibility. Now Prime Minister, Callaghan surprised many by announcing on 7 September that there would be no general election that year and he would wait until 1979 before going to the polls. Thatcher reacted to this by branding the Labour government "chickens", and Liberal Party leader David Steel joined in, criticising Labour for "running scared".
The Labour government then faced fresh public unease about the direction of the country and a damaging series of strikes during the winter of 1978–79, dubbed the "Winter of Discontent". The Conservatives attacked the Labour government's unemployment record, using advertising with the slogan "Labour Isn't Working". A general election was called after Callaghan's government lost a motion of no confidence in early 1979. The Conservatives won a 44-seat majority in the House of Commons, and Margaret Thatcher became the UK's first female Prime Minister.
Thatcher became Prime Minister on 4 May 1979. Arriving at 10 Downing Street, she said, in a paraphrase of the "Prayer of Saint Francis":
Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.
Thatcher was Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister at a time of increased racial tension in Britain. Commenting on the local elections of May 1977, The Economist noted "The Tory tide swamped the smaller parties. That specifically includes the National Front, which suffered a clear decline from last year". Her standing in the polls rose by 11 percent after a January 1978 interview for World in Action in which she said "the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in."; and "in many ways [minorities] add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened." In the 1979 general election, the Conservatives attracted voters from the National Front, whose support almost collapsed. In a meeting in July 1979 with the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and Home Secretary William Whitelaw she objected to the number of Asian immigrants, in the context of limiting the number of Vietnamese boat people allowed to settle in the UK to fewer than 10,000.
As Prime Minister, Thatcher met weekly with Queen Elizabeth II to discuss government business, and their relationship came under close scrutiny. In July 1986, The Sunday Times reported claims attributed to the Queen's advisers of a "rift" between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street "over a wide range of domestic and international issues". The Palace issued an official denial, heading off speculation about a possible constitutional crisis. After Thatcher's retirement a senior Palace source again dismissed as "nonsense" the "stereotyped idea" that she had not got along with the Queen, or that they had fallen out over Thatcherite policies. Thatcher later wrote: "I always found the Queen's attitude towards the work of the Government absolutely correct ... stories of clashes between 'two powerful women' were just too good not to make up."
In August 1989, Thatcher queried her government's response to the Taylor Report, writing a hand-written comment on a Downing Street briefing note: "The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome? Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations?"
During her time in office, Thatcher practised great frugality in her official residence, including insisting on paying for her own ironing-board.
Thatcher's economic policy was influenced by monetarist thinking and economists such as Milton Friedman and Alan Walters. Together with Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe, she lowered direct taxes on income and increased indirect taxes. She increased interest rates to slow the growth of the money supply and thereby lower inflation, introduced cash limits on public spending, and reduced expenditure on social services such as education and housing. Her cuts in higher education spending resulted in her being the first Oxford-educated post-war Prime Minister not to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford, after a 738 to 319 vote of the governing assembly and a student petition. Her new centrally funded City Technology Colleges did not enjoy much success, and the Funding Agency for Schools was set up to control expenditure by opening and closing schools; the Social Market Foundation, a centre-left think tank, described it as having "an extraordinary range of dictatorial powers".
|GDP and public spending
by functional classification
|% change in real terms
1979/80 to 1989/90
|Total government spending||+12.9|
|Law and order||+53.3|
|Employment and training||+33.3|
|Trade and industry||−38.2|
Some Heathite Conservatives in the Cabinet, the so-called "wets", expressed doubt over Thatcher's policies. The 1981 riots in England resulted in the British media discussing the need for a policy U-turn. At the 1980 Conservative Party conference, Thatcher addressed the issue directly, with a speech written by the playwright Ronald Millar that included the lines: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!"
Thatcher's job approval rating fell to 23 per cent by December 1980, lower than recorded for any previous Prime Minister. As the recession of the early 1980s deepened she increased taxes, despite concerns expressed in a statement signed by 364 leading economists issued towards the end of March 1981.
By 1982 the UK began to experience signs of economic recovery; inflation was down to 8.6 per cent from a high of 18 per cent, but unemployment was over 3 million for the first time since the 1930s. By 1983 overall economic growth was stronger and inflation and mortgage rates were at their lowest levels since 1970, although manufacturing output had dropped by 30 per cent since 1978 and unemployment remained high, peaking at 3.3 million in 1984.
By 1987, unemployment was falling, the economy was stable and strong, and inflation was low. Opinion polls showed a comfortable Conservative lead, and local council election results had also been successful, prompting Thatcher to call a general election for 11 June that year, despite the deadline for an election still being 12 months away. The election saw Thatcher re-elected for a third successive term.
Thatcher reformed local government taxes by replacing domestic rates—a tax based on the nominal rental value of a home—with the Community Charge (or poll tax) in which the same amount was charged to each adult resident. The new tax was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales the following year, and proved to be among the most unpopular policies of her premiership. Public disquiet culminated in a 70,000 to 200,000-strong  demonstration in London on 31 March 1990; the demonstration around Trafalgar Square deteriorated into the Poll Tax Riots, leaving 113 people injured and 340 under arrest. The Community Charge was abolished by her successor, John Major.
Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trade unions, whose leadership she accused of undermining parliamentary democracy and economic performance through strike action. Several unions launched strikes in response to legislation introduced to curb their power, but resistance eventually collapsed. Only 39% of union members voted for Labour in the 1983 general election. According to the BBC, Thatcher "managed to destroy the power of the trade unions for almost a generation".
The miners' strike was the biggest confrontation between the unions and the Thatcher government. In March 1984 the National Coal Board (NCB) proposed to close 20 of the 174 state-owned mines and cut 20,000 jobs out of 187,000. Two-thirds of the country's miners, led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) under Arthur Scargill, downed tools in protest. Scargill had refused to hold a ballot on the strike, having previously lost three ballots on a national strike (January 1982, October 1982, March 1983). This led to the strike being declared illegal.
Thatcher refused to meet the union's demands and compared the miners' dispute to the Falklands conflict two years earlier, declaring in a speech in 1984: "We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty." After a year out on strike, in March 1985, the NUM leadership conceded without a deal. The cost to the economy was estimated to be at least £1.5 billion, and the strike was blamed for much of the pound's fall against the US dollar. The government closed 25 unprofitable coal mines in 1985, and by 1992 a total of 97 had been closed; those that remained were privatised in 1994. The eventual closure of 150 coal mines, not all of which were losing money, resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and devastated entire communities. Miners had helped bring down the Heath government, and Thatcher was determined to succeed where he had failed. Her strategy of preparing fuel stocks, appointing a union-busting NCB leader in Ian MacGregor, and ensuring police were adequately trained and equipped with riot gear, contributed to her victory.
The number of stoppages across the UK peaked at 4583 in 1979, when more than 29 million working days were lost. In 1984, the year of the miners' strike, there were 1221, resulting in the loss of more than 27 million working days. Stoppages then fell steadi
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