Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher (born 13 October 1925) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She is the only woman to have held either post.
Born in Grantham in Lincolnshire, England, she went on to read chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford and train as a barrister. She won a seat as an MP from Finchley in 1959, as a Conservative. When Edward Heath formed a government in 1970, he appointed Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education and Science. Four years later, she backed Keith Joseph in his bid to become Conservative party leader, but he was forced to drop out of the election; Thatcher felt that Heath's government had lost direction, so she entered the contest herself and became leader of the Conservative party in 1975. As the Conservative party maintained leads in most polls, Thatcher went on to become Britain's Prime Minister in the 1979 general election.
Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street with a mandate to reverse the UK's economic decline. Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised reduced state intervention, free markets, and entrepreneurialism. She gained much support after the 1982 Falklands War and was re-elected the following year. Thatcher took a hard line against trade unions, survived an assassination attempt, and opposed the Soviet Union (her tough-talking rhetoric gained her the nickname the "Iron Lady"); she was re-elected for an unprecedented third term in 1987. The following years would prove difficult, as her Community Charge plan was unpopular with many, and her views regarding the European Community were not shared by others in her Cabinet. She resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990.
Thatcher is well remembered for her famed remarks to the reporter Douglas Keay, for Woman's Own magazine, 23 September 1987:
To her supporters, Margaret Thatcher remains a revolutionary figure who revitalized Britain's economy, impacted the trade unions, and re-established the nation as a world power. She contributed greatly to the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism. But Thatcher was also a controversial figure, in that her premiership was also marked by high unemployment and social unrest. Many critics fault her economic policies for the unemployment level.
The Labour Party has incorporated much of the economic, social and political tenets of Thatcherism. Thatcher's program of privatising state-owned enterprises has not been reversed. Indeed, successive Tory and Labour governments have further curtailed the involvement of the state in the economy and have further dismantled public ownership.
After her resignation in 1990, a MORI poll found that 52% of Britons agreed that "On balance she had been good for the country", while 48% disagreed, thinking she had not. In April 2008, the London Daily Telegraph commissioned a poll asking who Britons regard as the greatest post-World War II prime minister; Thatcher came in first, receiving 34% of the vote, while Winston Churchill ranked second with 15%. Thatcher has been the subject of a number of television programs, documentaries, films and plays; among the most notable depictions of her are Patricia Hodge in The Falklands Play (1986) and Lindsay Duncan in Margaret (2009). She was also the inspiration for a number of protest song.
Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister was the longest since that of Lord Salisbury and the longest continuous period in office since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th century. She was the first woman to lead a major political party in the UK, and the first of only three women to hold any of the four great offices of state. She holds a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire, which entitles her to sit in the House of Lords.
Thatcher became Prime Minister on 4 May 1979, with a mandate to reverse the UK's economic decline and to reduce the role of the state in the economy. Arriving at 10 Downing Street, she said, in a paraphrase of St. Francis of Assisi:
Thatcher was incensed by one contemporary view within the Civil Service, that its job was to manage the UK's decline from the days of Empire, and she wanted the country to assert a higher level of influence and leadership in international affairs. She represented the newly energetic right wing of the Conservative Party and advocated greater independence of the individual from the state and less government intervention. She became a very close ally, philosophically and politically, with President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in the United States. During her tenure as Prime Minister she was said to need just four hours sleep a night.
New economic initiatives
Thatcher's political and economic philosophy emphasised reduced state intervention, free markets, and entrepreneurialism. She vowed to end what she felt was excessive government interference in the economy, and did this through privatizing nationally-owned enterprises selling public housing to tenants. After the James Callaghan Government had concluded that the Keynesian approach to demand-side management failed, Thatcher felt that the economy was not self-righting and that new fiscal judgements had to be made to concentrate on inflation She began her economic reforms by increasing interest rates to slow the growth of the money supply and thus lower inflation. In accordance with her less-government intervention views, she introduced budget cuts\ and reduced expenditures on social services such as health care, education, and housing. She also placed limits on the printing of money and legal restrictions on trade unions.
At the time, some Conservatives expressed doubt over Thatcher's policies. Civil unrest in Britain resulted in the British media discussing the need for a policy u-turn. At the 1980 Conservative Party conference, Thatcher addressed the issue directly, saying, "You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!"
Thatcher lowered direct taxes on income amid a recession in 1981, but, despite concerns expressed in a letter from 364 leading economists, indirect taxes were increased. In January 1982, the inflation rate had dropped to 8.6% from earlier highs of 18%, and interest rates fell. By 1983, overall economic growth was stronger and inflation and mortgage rates were at their lowest levels since 1970, though manufacturing output had dropped 30% from 1978 and unemployment reached a figure of 3.6 million. The term "Thatcherism" came to refer to her policies as well as aspects of her ethical outlook and personal style, including moral absolutism, nationalism, interest in the individual, and an uncompromising approach to achieving political goals.
On 2 April 1982, a ruling military junta in Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, a British overseas territory that Argentina had claimed since an 1810s dispute on the British settlement. The following day, Thatcher sent a naval task force to recapture the islands and deport the salvagers back to Argentina. The conflict escalated from there, evolving into an amphibious and ground combat operation by the British. Argentina surrendered on 14 June and the operation was deemed a success for the British, despite 258 British casualties. The effect of the war resulted in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm and support for the Thatcher government.
After the 1983 election, the Conservative majority expanded, Thatcher continued to enact her economic policies. The UK government sold most of the large national utilities to private companies. The policy of privatisation, while anathema to many on the Left, was a main component of Thatcherism.
Many people took advantage of share offers, although many sold their shares immediately for a quick profit and therefore the proportion of shares held by individuals rather than institutions did not increase. By the mid 1980s, the number of individual stockholders had tripled, and the UK government had sold 1.5 million publicly owned housing units to their tenants. In 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford voted to refuse Thatcher an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education.
Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trades unions. Several unions launched strikes in response to legislation introduced to curb their power, but these actions eventually collapsed, and gradually Thatcher's reforms reduced the power and influence of the unions. According to the BBC, Thatcher "managed to destroy the power of the trade unions for almost a generation."
In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers ordered a strike, without a national ballot, in opposition to proposals to close a large number of mines and cut thousands of jobs. Thatcher refused to meet the demands of the unionsand famously referred to the strike, saying, "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." Violence was common during the year-long miners' strike; controversial police tactics were used on strikers. Two miners, Dean Hancock and Russell Shankland, were convicted of the murder of a taxi driver and were sentenced to life imprisonment. After a year of striking, in 1985, the NUM leadership conceded without a deal. The Conservative government proceeded to close 25 pits in 1985; by 1992, a total of 97 pits had been closed with the remaining being sold off and privatised in 1994. These actions had great effect on the industrial and political complexion of Great Britain. The closing of the mines resulted in a loss of jobs and thus an increase in unemployment.
In another display of her views of less-government control, Thatcher broke up the state-owned British shipbuilders and privatised the companies. Only few British shipyards survive today.
Thatcher took office during the later period of what was known as the Cold War, a period of frosty relations primarily between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. During her first year as prime minister, Mrs Thatcher supported NATO's decision to deploy US cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. She became very closely aligned with the policies of US President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), and their closeness produced transatlantic cooperation. His policy of deterrence against the Soviets contrasted with the policy of détente which the West had pursued during the 1970s, and caused friction with allies who still adhered to the idea of détente. Thatcher permitted US forces to station more than 160 nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common, arousing mass protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; Thatcher took a hard line against the protestors. She modernized the British naval fleet with Trident II nuclear submarines.
On 19 December 1984, Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping of the People's Republic of China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which committed Hong Kong to the status of a Special Administrative Region. Britain agreed to leave the region in 1997. In April 1986, Thatcher permitted US military forces to utilize British Royal Air Force bases amid the US bombing of Libya.In July 1986, Thatcher expressed her belief that economic sanctions against South Africa would be immoral because they would make thousands of black workers unemployed.
Thatcher was among the first of Western leaders to respond warmly to reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. They met in London in 1984, three months before he became General Secretary. Thatcher declared that she liked him, and told Ronald Reagan, saying, "we can do business together."Following the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings from 1985 to 1988, as well as multiple reforms enacted by Gorbachev in the USSR, Thatcher declared in November 1988, "We're not in a Cold War now" but rather in a "new relationship much wider than the Cold War ever was."She continued, "I expect Mr Gorbachev to do everything he can to continue his reforms. We will support it."Thatcher was initially opposed to German reunification, as she worried that a united Germany would align itself closer with the Soviet Union and move away from NATO.
Her liking for defence ties with the United States was demonstrated in the Westland affair when she acted with colleagues to allow the helicopter manufacturer Westland, a vital defence contractor, to refuse to link with the Italian firm Agusta in order for it to link with the management's preferred option, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation of the United States. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had pushed the Agusta deal, resigned in protest after this, and remained an influential critic and potential leadership challenger. Thatcher's premiership outlasted the Cold War, which ended in 1989, and those who share her views on it credit her with a part in the West's victory, by both the deterrence and détente postures.
Other domestic issues
In 1986, in a controversial move, the Thatcher government abolished the Greater London Council, then led by the left-wing Ken Livingstone, as well as six Labour controlled metropolitan county councils. The government stated that they ordered this to decrease bureaucracy and increase efficiency, and encouraged transferring power to local councils for increased electoral accountability. Thatcher's opponents, however, held that the move was politically motivated, as the GLC had become a powerful centre of opposition to her government, and the county councils were in favour of higher local government taxes and public spending.
As Prime Minister, Thatcher met weekly with Queen Elizabeth II to discuss government business. She was just six months older than the Queen, and their relationship was one of much scrutiny; though there was never any personal animosity between the two, the consensus was that they did not get along overly well. While they displayed public images that largely contrasted, Tim Bell, a former Thatcher advisor, recalled, "Margaret has the deepest respect for the Queen and all her family". She was said to greet the Queen with a curtsey every time they met.
At the time of the 1987 general election, Labour leader Neil Kinnock presided over a party deeply divided on policy agendas. Margaret Thatcher, in turn, led her party to victory, winning an unprecedented third term with a 102 seat majority, and became the longest continuously serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since Lord Liverpool (1812 to 1827), as well as the only Prime Minister of the 20th century to serve three terms. She was elected riding on an economic boom against a weak Labour opposition. The Conservatives won 42.2% of the popular vote, while the Labour party won 30.8% and Alliance won 22.6 %.
Thatcher, the former chemist, became publicly concerned with environmental issues in the late 1980s. In 1988, she made a major speech communicating the problems of global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain.
Continuation of economic changes
Thatcher introduced a new system for the government to raise revenue; she replaced local government taxes with a Community Charge or 'Poll tax', in which property tax rates were made uniform, in that the same amount was charged to every individual resident, and the residential property tax was replaced with a head tax whose rate would be established by local governments. Thatcher's revolutionary system was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales the following year.
A sceptical British public was disenchanted with Thatcher's system and it was to be among the most unpopular policies of her premiership. What the Thatcher government did not anticipate was that local councils would raise their total shares from the taxes. As a result, the central Government capped rates that seemed out of line, resulting in charges of partisanship and the alienation of small-government Conservatives. The Prime Minister's popularity declined in 1989 as she continued to refuse to compromise on the tax. Unrest mounted and culminated in a number of riots, the most serious of which occurred at Trafalgar Square, London, on 31 March 1990; more than 100,000 protesters attended and more than 400 people were arrested.
At Bruges, Belgium, in 1988, Thatcher made a speech in which she outlined her opposition to proposals from the European Community, a forerunner to the European Union, for a federal structure and increasing centralisation of decision-making. Though she had supported British membership in the EC, Thatcher believed that the role of the organisation should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition, and feared that the EC approach to governing was at odds with her views of smaller government and deregulatory trends; in 1988, she remarked, "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels". A split was emerging over European policy inside the British Government and her Conservative Party.
At a meeting before the Madrid European Community summit in June 1989, Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe sought to persuade Thatcher to agree to circumstances under which Great Britain would join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a preparation for monetary union, and abolish the pound sterling as British currency. At the meeting, they both said they would resign if their demands were not met. Thatcher, as well as her economic advisor Alan Walters, was opposed to this notion and felt that the pound sterling should be able to float freely, and that membership would constrain the UK economy. Both Lawson and Howe eventually resigned and Thatcher remained firmly opposed to British membership in the European Monetary System.
1989 Leadership election
Thatcher was challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by virtually unknown backbench MP Sir Anthony Meyer in the 1989 leadership election. Of the 374 Conservative MPs eligible to vote, 314 voted for Thatcher while 33 voted for Meyer; there were 27 abstentions. Thatcher noted, "I would like to say how very pleased I am with this result and how very pleased I am to have had the overwhelming support of my colleagues in the House and the people from the party in the country", while Meyer said he was delighted as well: "The total result I think is rather better than I had expected. "Her supporters in the Party viewed the results as a success, and rejected suggestions that there was discontent within the Party.
Fall from power
By 1990, opposition to Thatcher's policies on local government taxation (the poll tax), and the divisions opening in the Conservative Party over European integration made her seem increasingly politically vulnerable and her party increasingly divided.
Her combative personality and willingness to override colleagues' opinions contributed to the discontent. On 1 November 1990, Geoffrey Howe, once one of Thatcher's staunchest supporters, resigned from his position as Deputy Prime Minister in protest of Thatcher's European policy. His resignation speech in the House of Commons on 13 November led to the beginning of Mrs Thatcher's fall from power.
Thatcher's former cabinet colleague Michael Heseltine subsequently challenged her for the leadership of the party, and attracted sufficient support in the first round of voting to prolong the contest to a second ballot. Though she initially stated that she intended to contest the second ballot, she consulted with her Cabinet and decided to withdraw from the contest. Thatcher said that pressure from her colleagues helped her to conclude that the unity of the Conservative Party and the prospect of victory in the next general election would be more likely if she resigned. On 22 November, at 09.34, the 65 year old Prime Minister announced to the Cabinet that she would not be a candidate in the second ballot. A statement was soon released from 10 Downing Street:
"The Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher, F.R.S., has informed the Queen that she does not intend to contest the second ballot of the election for leadership of the Conservative Party and intends to resign as Prime Minister as soon as a new leader of the Conservative Party has been elected... Having consulted widely among my colleagues, I have concluded that the unity of the Party and the prospects of victory in a General Election would be better served if I stood down to enable Cabinet colleagues to enter the ballot for the leadership. I should like to thank all those in Cabinet and outside who have given me such dedicated support.
The British public was stunned. Thatcher went to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen of her decision. She later arrived at the House of Commons to a debate; Neil Kinnock, Leader of the Opposition, proposed a motion of no confidence in the government, and Thatcher displayed her combativeness. She said: