Margaret Thatcher

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Margaret Thatcher in September 1990. By this point she had been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for eleven years.

Margaret Thatcher (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013) was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She made history in being the first woman to be prime minister. Thatcher led her party to a series of electoral landslides in 1979, 1983 and 1987 by preaching 'Thatcherism' as a tough remedy to reverse the United Kingdom's steady decline. Thatcherism meant she weakened labour unions, privatised some industries, rejected Keynesian economic policies for the monetarism of Milton Friedman, and helped reinvigorate the British economy. In foreign policy she collaborated closely with American President Ronald Reagan, especially in his efforts to end the Cold War by working deals with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. She was the first prime minister in modern British history to win three consecutive terms, and her 'Iron Lady' image and toughness in action and optimism for the future impressed many Britons. After proposing a poll tax that alienated voters, and continuing with a domineering style that alienated politicians, she was ousted from power in 1990 and took a peerage. Historians rank her impact alongside Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Tony Blair - indeed, she forced Blair to abandon socialism and incorporate elements of Thatcherism into his 'New' Labour policies.

Early life

Thatcher was born Margaret Roberts in Grantham, England, on 13 October 1925, to a middle-class family. She won a scholarship to Oxford University, where she studied chemistry and became chair of the Conservative Association, graduating in 1947. She worked as a chemist until her marriage in 1951 to Denis Thatcher, a businessman. She qualified as a lawyer in 1953 and then practised as a tax specialist.

Early career

Thatcher entered Parliament in 1959. She held a junior office from 1961 to 1964 and from 1970 to 1974 was education minister in the government of Edward Heath. After its defeat in the two elections of 1974, the Conservative Party in the House of Commons forced Heath in 1975 to defend his leadership. In the first round of voting he trailed Thatcher, a dark horse candidate. Heath then resigned, and the Tories[1] elected Thatcher party leader.

Thatcher pledged to change direction from Heath's policies, advocating tight control of the money supply and of public expenditure as the principal remedies for inflation. She declared that the nation was overtaxed and overgoverned; that individual initiative was being repressed; that only if people were permitted to keep more of the rewards of their work and entrepreneurship would Britain's industrial decline be halted; and that stricter controls should be imposed over Afro-Caribbean and Asian immigration.

1979 election

The Labour Party under James Callaghan (prime minister 1976–1979) contested the May 1979 election as unemployment passed the one-million mark and unions became more aggressive. The Conservatives used a highly effective poster created by Saatchi and Saatchi, showing a dole queue snaking into the distance and carrying the caption "Labour isn't working".

Voters gave Conservatives 43.9% of the vote and 339 seats to Labour's 269, for an overall majority of 43 seats. People generally voted against Labour rather than for the Conservatives. Labour was weakened by the steady long-term decline in the proportion of manual workers in the electorate. Twice as many manual workers normally voted Labour as voted Conservative, but they now constituted only 56% of the electorate. When Harold Wilson won narrowly in 1964, they had accounted for 63 per cent. Furthermore they were beginning to turn against the trade unions — alienated, perhaps, by the difficulties of the winter of 1978-1999. In contrast, Tory policies stressed wider home ownership, which Labour refused to match. Thatcher did best in districts where the economy was relatively strong and poorest where it was contracting.

Prime Minister

Thatcher's monetary and spending restrictions contributed to a doubling of the unemployment rate by 1981, but did curb inflation. Thatcher's popularity rose in 1982 when she sent British troops to drive out an Argentine invasion force from the Falkland Islands. She retained her office after a strong Conservative showing in the June 1983 elections.

Under Thatcher, the Tories widely broadened their electoral base, extending it into the large middle class made up of skilled blue-collar workers and professionals. By fiscal reforms, such as the privatisation of nationalised industries, which encouraged financial discipline and economic dynamism, and by social reforms brought to bear on the educational system and National Health Service, Thatcherism built up a powerful ethos of enterprising individualism.

At the June 1987 elections, thanks in part to the increased number of pro-Tory property owners, she retained a strong parliamentary majority.


Among her early supporters were libertarian intellectuals, their think-tanks, and neoliberal economists, notably Sir Keith Joseph (b. 1918) who in the mid-1970s had challenged the Conservative Party's previously collectivist orientation. Her attempts to implement their ideas deeply divided the British intellectual establishment and infuriated many academics and members of the artistic and literary worlds. Thatcher's populist style of politics, identification with the business world, strong personality, cuts to education budgets and idiosyncratic mannerisms enhanced the divisive impact of the controversial ideas she espoused.[2]

Economic policies

The economy had done poorly in the 1970s and entered another recession in 1980-81, followed by a long boom that strengthened her hand. Her 'Medium Term Financial Strategy' (MTFS) of 1980 was based on Milton Friedman's monetarism in its focus on broad money. Although she reduced public spending, increased privatisation, and spearheaded legislative reforms restricting trade union activity, unemployment and poverty grew substantially.[3]


Privatisation was perhaps the most enduring legacy of the political economy developed under Thatcher. She privatised long-nationalised corporations (such as the telephone and aerospace firms) and, most importantly, sold public housing to tenants, all on favourable terms. The policy developed an important electoral dimension during the second and third Thatcher governments (1983-1990). It involved more than denationalisation: wider share ownership was the second plank of the policy, and this provides an important historical perspective on the relationship between Thatcherism and twentieth-century conservatism.[4]


Even in the new anti-socialist climate Thatcher had forged, her replacement of property taxes with a poll tax proved highly unpopular. Inflation of 11%, coupled with her resistance to the UK's further integration into the European monetary system, disillusioned the Conservatives, as did her abrasive leadership. The resignations of Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe were particularly damaging; Heseltine ultimately challenged Thatcher for leadership of the party. On 22nd November 1990, she was forced to resign her party role (and thus the prime ministership), despite having beaten Heseltine in the first round of voting by Conservative MPs; it was nevertheless clear that she had lost a lot of support. John Major, Thatcher's preferred successor at the time, succeeded her, following victory over Heseltine in a second round.

Post-Downing Street career

Thatcher remained an MP until the 1992 election, and on 5 June 1992 she was given a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. In the House of Lords she frequently criticised Major's European policies. She penned two biographies and remained much in demand as a speaker. Thatcher's opinion on political matters was often sought by politicians and the media, and she publicly supported William Hague as Major's successor following the party's heavy defeat in the 1997 general election. Thatcher also returned to the headlines in the later 1990s as an ardent supporter of General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, who was under house arrest in London following an extradition request on human rights grounds.

Further reading

See the more detailed guide at Margaret Thatcher/Bibliography

  • Campbell, John. Margaret Thatcher. Vol. 1: The Grocer's Daughter. (2000); Margaret Thatcher. vol. 2: Iron Lady (2007), 520pp; 913pp; long, detailed authoritative biography .
  • Evans, Brendan. Thatcherism and British Politics, 1975-1997 (2000).
  • Evans, Eric J. Thatcher and Thatcherism. (2nd ed. 2004). 176 pp online edition
  • Fry, Geoffrey K. Politics of the Thatcher Revolution: An Interpretation of British Politics 1975-1990 (2008).
  • Geelhoed, Bruce E. and Hobbs, James F. Margaret Thatcher's Last Hurrah: In Victory and Downfall, 1987 and 1990. (1992). 193 pp. online edition; also excerpt and text search
  • Holmes, Martin. The First Thatcher Government, 1979-83: Contemporary Conservatism and Economic Change (1985); Thatcherism: Scope and Limits, 1983-87. (1989). 174 pp. a sympathetic assessment.
  • Kavanagh, Dennis, and Anthony Seldon, eds. The Thatcher Effect (1989), major interpretive essays by experts.
  • Pugliese, Stanislao, ed. The Political Legacy of Margaret Thatcher. (2003). 419 pp.
  • Reitan, Earl A. The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain, 1979-2001. (2003). 260 pp.
  • Roy, Subroto and Clarke, John, eds. Margaret Thatcher's Revolution: How It Happened and What It Meant. (2005). 209 pp.
  • Sharp, Paul. Thatcher's Diplomacy: The Revival of British Foreign Policy. (1997). 269 pp.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. The Path to Power (1995); The Downing Street Years. (1993). 914 pp., highly detailed memoirs
  • Thompson, Juliet S., and Wayne C. Thompson. Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister Indomitable (1994) online edition.
  • Wapshott, Nicholas. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage. (2007) 329 pp.
  • Young, Hugo. The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. (1989). 570 pp. Well written and researched.


  1. 'Tory' is a synonym for Conservative.
  2. Brian Harrison, 'Mrs. Thatcher and the Intellectuals'. Twentieth Century British History 1994 5(2): 206-245. Issn: 0955-2359.
  3. Roger E. Backhouse, 'The Macroeconomics of Margaret Thatcher'. Journal of the History of Economic Thought 2002 24(3): 313-334. Issn: 1053-8372.
  4. Richard Stevens, 'The Evolution of Privatisation as an Electoral Policy, c. 1970-90'. Contemporary British History 2004 18(2): 47-75. Issn: 1361-9462. Fulltext: Ebsco.