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The Right Honourable Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS (born 13 October 1925), is a British politician. She was the leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, and has been the only woman to hold either post. Her premiership was the longest since Lord Liverpool's tenure between 1812 and 1827. Undoubtedly one of the most significant British politicians in recent political history, she is also simultaneously one of the most lionised and loathed.

She was also Secretary of State for Education and Science from 1970 to 1974, and Leader of the Opposition from 1975 to 1979, the only woman to hold the latter post permanently. She won three successive general elections as party leader, the only British politician to do so in the 20th century. However, although she had strong support from the largest minority of voters for most of her tenure she eventually resigned after failing to win outright a leadership election triggered by opponents within her own party, and was replaced by John Major in 1990. She is an elder stateswoman of the Conservative Party and the figurehead of a political philosophy that became known as Thatcherism, which involves reduced public spending, lower direct taxation, de-regulation, a monetarist policy, and a programme of privatisation of government-owned industries. Even before coming to power she was nicknamed the "Iron Lady" in Soviet media (because of her vocal opposition to communism), an appellation that stuck.

Thatcher served as Secretary of State for Education and Science in the government of Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974, and successfully challenged Heath for the Conservative leadership in 1975. As party Leader she was undefeated at the polls, winning the 1979, 1983 and 1987 general elections. In foreign relations, she maintained the "special relationship" with the United States, and formed a close bond with Ronald Reagan. In 1982 her government dispatched a Royal Navy task force to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina in the Falklands War.

The profound changes Thatcher set in motion as Prime Minister altered much of the economic and cultural landscape of the United Kingdom. She curtailed the power of the trade unions, cut back the role of the state in business, and dramatically expanded home ownership, all of which were intended to create a more entrepreneurial culture. She also aimed to cut back the welfare state and foster a more flexible labour market which she believed would create jobs and could adapt to market conditions. Exacerbated by the global recession of the early 1980s, her policies initially caused large-scale unemployment, especially in the industrial heartlands of northern England and the coalfields of South Wales, and contributed to the continued 'de-industrialisation' of the UK.

Margaret Thatcher and her policies were, and remain, highly controversial and polarising. Her supporters contend that she was responsible for rejuvenating the British economy, while her opponents argue that she was responsible for mass unemployment and a vast increase in inequality between rich and poor. Some have since argued that the hardships and disruption of the period were a regrettable but necessary phase in the modernisation of the British economy, but the perception that her Conservative party was unconcerned or blind to these effects has contributed to the subsequent dominance of the Labour party in government. Both Conservative and Labour governments since 1990 have maintained most of the economic reforms of the Thatcher period; outside observers argue over the degree to which these reforms or the increased public spending of the Blair governments are responsible for the recent continued and stable growth of the economy.

Her popularity declined when she replaced the unpopular local government rates tax with the even less popular Community Charge, which was more commonly known as the "poll tax". At the same time, the Conservative Party began to split over her sceptical approach to Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union. The resignation in November 1990 of her Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe, seriously damaged her authority and undermined confidence in her. Shortly afterwards, her leadership was challenged from within the party and, having failed to gain the confidence of a clear majority of Conservative MPs, she chose to resign and return to the back benches, her defeat attributable at least in part to inadequate advice and campaigning. In 1992 she was created Baroness Thatcher, and since then her direct political work has been 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 grocer's shop in the town and was active in local politics, serving as an Alderman and was also a lay preacher. She was brought up a devout Methodist and has remained a Christian throughout her life. While officially described as 'Liberal Independent', in practice he supported the local Conservatives. He lost his post as Alderman after the Labour Party won control of Grantham Council in 1946. Her mother was Beatrice Roberts née Stephenson, and she had a sister, Muriel. Beatrice Roberts was descended from many baronetial families, as well as the Barons Brownlow and Earls of Kilmorey.

She did well at school, going to a girls' grammar school and then to Somerville College, Oxford from 1944, where she studied chemistry. She became President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946, the third woman to hold the post. She graduated with a 2:2 degree classification, and worked as a research chemist for British Xylonite and then J. Lyons and Co., where she helped develop methods for preserving ice cream. She was a member of the team that developed the first soft frozen ice cream.

 

Political career between 1950 and 1970

In the 1950 election she was the youngest woman Conservative candidate, and fought 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 was a wealthy businessman, and he 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 won the seat easily in the 1959 election and took her seat in the House of Commons. Unusually, her maiden speech was in support of her Private Member's Bill to force local councils to hold meetings in public, which was successful. In the same year, the only occasion she was ever to resist her party's line was to vote for the restoration of birching.

She was given 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 Leo Abse's Bill to decriminalise male homosexuality, and she voted in favour of David Steel's Bill to legalise abortion. However, she was opposed to the abolition of capital punishment and voted against making divorce more easily attainable. 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 election.

 

In Heath's Cabinet

When the Conservatives won the 1970 general 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 abolish grammar schools and adopt comprehensive secondary education, of which she approved, even though this was widely perceived as a left-wing policy. Thatcher also defended the budget of the Open University from attempted cuts.

After the Conservative defeat in February 1974, she was promoted again, to 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 Heath 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 January 19, 1976 she made a speech in Kensington Town Hall in which she made a scathing attack on the Soviet Union. The most famous 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, "Tina" (from an acronym for "There Is No Alternative") "The Great She-Elephant", "Attila the Hen" and "The Grocer's Daughter". The last nickname was derived from her father's profession, but coined at a time when she was considered as Edward Heath's ally; he had been nicknamed "The Grocer" by Private Eye.

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 to convert the Conservative Party to her monetarist beliefs. She reversed Heath's support for devolved government for Scotland. In an interview she gave to Granada Television's World in Action programme in 1978, she spoke of her concerns about immigrants "swamping" the UK, arousing particular controversy at the time, and it has been viewed as having drawn supporters of the extreme right-wing British National Front back to the Conservative fold.

During the 1979 General Election, most opinion polls showed that voters preferred James Callaghan as Prime Minister even as the Conservative Party maintained a lead in the polls. The Labour Government ran into difficulties with industrial disputes during the winter of 1978-9, dubbed the 'Winter of Discontent'. The Conservatives used catchy campaign posters with slogans such as "Labour Isn't Working" to attack the government's record over unemployment and what they perceived to be an over-regulated labour market. The Callaghan government fell after a successful Motion of no confidence in spring 1979, and following the general election, the Conservatives won a working majority in the House of Commons and Thatcher became the United Kingdom's first female Prime Minister.

 

As Prime Minister

 

1979–1983

She formed a government on May 4, 1979, with a mandate to reverse the UK's economic decline and to reduce the role of the state in the economy. 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 wanted the country to punch above its weight in international affairs. She was a philosophic soul mate of Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in the United States, and to a lesser extent Brian Mulroney, who was elected in 1984 in Canada. It seemed for a time that conservatism might be the dominant political philosophy in the major English-speaking nations for the era. In May 1980, one day before she was due to meet the Irish Taoiseach, Charles Haughey to discuss Northern Ireland, she announced in the House of Commons that "the future of the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, this government, this parliament and no-one else."

In 1981 a number of Provisional IRA and INLA prisoners in Northern Ireland's Maze prison (known in Ireland as 'Long Kesh', its previous name) went on hunger strike to regain the status of political prisoners, which had been revoked five years earlier. Bobby Sands, the first of the strikers, was elected as an MP for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone a few weeks before he died. Thatcher refused at first to countenance a return to political status for republican prisoners, famously declaring "Crime is crime is crime; it is not political." However, after nine more men had starved themselves to death and the strike had ended, and in the face of growing anger on both sides of the border and widespread civil unrest, some rights offered to paramilitary prisoners under political status were restored. This was a major propaganda coup for the IRA and is seen as the beginning of Sinn Féin's electoral rise, as they capitalised on the gains made during the hunger strikes.

Thatcher also continued the policy of "Ulsterisation" of the previous Labour government and its Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Roy Mason, believing that the unionists of Northern Ireland should be at the forefront in combating Irish republicanism. This meant relieving the burden on the mainstream British army and elevating the role of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Another noticeable foible of Thatcher's was her refusal to call Cardinal Tomas O'Fiach, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, by his chosen name, insisting on calling him "Cardinal Fee".

In economic policy, Thatcher started out by increasing interest rates to drive down the money supply. She had a preference for indirect taxation over taxes on income, and value added tax (VAT) was raised sharply to 15%, with a resultant rise in inflation. These moves hit businesses, especially in the manufacturing sector, and unemployment quickly passed two million. Interestingly, her early tax policy reforms were based on the monetarist theories of Friedman rather than the supply-side economics of Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski, which the government of Ronald Reagan espoused. 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, famously telling the party: "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch-phrase—the U-turn—I have only one thing to say: 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 concerns expressed in an open letter from 364 leading economists, taxes were increased in the middle of a recession. In January 1982, the inflation rate dropped to single figures and interest rates were then allowed to fall. Unemployment continued to rise, reaching an official figure of 3.6 million — although the criteria for defining who was unemployed were amended allowing some to estimate that unemployment in fact hit 5 million. However Lord Tebbit has suggested that due to the high number of people claiming unemployment benefit whilst working that he doubts whether unemployment ever reached three million at all.

British defence budget cuts, applying in the South Atlantic, coupled with Thatcher's disregard of the Falkland Islands and the removal of the ice patrol ship Endeavour, as well as immigration reform detrimental to the British citizenship rights of people in the British Empire's few remnants—which some have argued was motivated by a desire to pre-empt a likely influx of people from Hong Kong after the approaching return of the colony to China—provoked the arguably most difficult foreign policy decision of Thatcher's tenure. In Argentina, an unstable military junta was in power and keen on reversing its widespread unpopularity, caused by the country's poor economic performance. On April 2, 1982, it invaded the Falkland Islands, known to the Argentineans as Islas Malvinas, the only invasion of a British territory since World War II. Argentina has claimed the islands since an 1830s dispute on their settlement. Within days, Thatcher sent a naval task force to recapture the Islands. The ensuing military campaign was successful, resulting in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm for her personally, at a time when her popularity had been at an all-time low for a serving Prime Minister.

This Falklands Factor, as it came to be known, is regarded as crucial to the scale of the Conservative majority in the June 1983 general election, which represented a high point for the Conservative government of 1979-97. However, the economy was still in a deep recession associated with encouraging traditional heavy industries to come to an end. Continuing mass unemployment was explained as a consequence of this transition, implying it to be transitory, and alongside it new laws had given trade union members democratic powers to restrain militant union leaderships. Additionally, Thatcher's 'Right to Buy' policy, whereby council housing residents were permitted to buy their homes at a discount did much to increase her government's popularity in working-class areas.

The 1983 election was also influenced by events in the opposition parties. Since their 1979 defeat, Labour was increasingly dominated by its "hard left" that had emerged from the 1970s union militancy, and in opposition its policies had swung very sharply to the left. This drove a significant number of right-wing Labour members and MPs to form a breakaway party in 1981, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Labour fought the election on unilateral nuclear disarmament, which proposed to abandon the British nuclear deterrent despite the threat from a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, withdrawal from the European Community, and total reversal of Thatcher's economic and trade union changes. Indeed, one Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, has called the party's 1983 manifesto "the longest suicide note in history". Aiming to take advantage of the Labour split, there was a new challenge to the political centre, the SDP-Liberal Alliance, formed by an electoral pact between the SDP and the Liberal Party, aiming to break the major parties' dominance and win proportional representation. This was a grouping of uncertain cohesion and it is apparent from the result that they drew votes mainly away from Labour. This unbalanced splitting of the left-of-centre vote without a corresponding effect on the right, in combination with Britain's first past the post electoral system—in which marginal changes in vote numbers and distribution have disproportionate effects on the number of seats won—also contributed to the Conservative landslide.

 

1983–1987

Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trade unions but, unlike the Heath government, adopted a strategy of incremental change rather than a single Act. Several unions launched strikes that were wholly or partly aimed at damaging her politically. The most significant of these was carried out by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). However, Thatcher had made preparations long in advance for an NUM strike by building up coal stocks, and there were no cuts in electricity supply, unlike 1972. Police tactics during the strike concerned civil libertarians: preventing suspected strike sympathisers travelling towards coalfields when they were still long distances from them, and a violent battle with mass pickets at Orgreave, Yorkshire. But images of crowds of militant miners using violence to prevent other miners from working, along with the fact that—illegally under a recent Act — the NUM had not held a ballot to approve strike action, swung public opinion against the strike — especially in the south and the moderate Nottinghamshire coalfields. The Miners' Strike lasted a full year, 1984-85, before the drift of half the miners back to work forced the NUM leadership to give in without a deal. This aborted political strike marked a turning point in UK politics: no longer could militant unions remove a democratically elected government.

On the early morning of October 12, 1984, the day before her 59th birthday, Thatcher escaped death from the 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 Roberta Wakeham, wife of the government's Chief Whip John Wakeham, and the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry. A prominent member of the Cabinet, Norman Tebbit, was injured, along with his wife Margaret, who was left paralysed. Thatcher insisted that the conference open on time the next day and made her speech as planned in defiance of the bombers, a gesture which won widespread approval across the political spectrum.

On November 15, 1985, Thatcher signed the Hillsborough Anglo-Irish Agreement, the first acknowledgement by a British government that the Republic of Ireland had an important role to play in Northern Ireland. The agreement was greeted with fury by Irish unionists. The Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists made an electoral pact and on January 23, 1986, staged an ad-hoc referendum by resigning their seats and contesting the subsequent by-elections, losing only one, to the nationalist SDLP. However, unlike the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974, they found they could not bring the agreement down by a general strike. This was another effect of the changed balance of power in industrial relations. The agreement stood, and Thatcher "punished" the unionists for their non-cooperation by abolishing a devolved assembly she had created only four years before, although unionists have traditionally been in two minds about political devolution (see the "Home Rule" crisis that led to the Anglo-Irish War), and the politicians most affected by the abolition of the assembly were the constitutional nationalists — not, it must be noted, Sinn Féin, which was not interested in a devolved assembly at that time, and would not be for many years to come. The Anglo-Irish Agreement therefore enraged the Unionists and alienated moderate nationalists, while doing little to reduce IRA violence. The British Government's intention may have been to solidify support from Dublin, although the Irish government had had reservations about some aspects of the peace process and continued to do so.

Thatcher's political and economic philosophy emphasised free markets and entrepreneurialism. Since gaining power, she had experimented in selling off a small nationalised company, the National Freight Company, to its workers, with a surprisingly positive 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, while anathema to many on the left, has become synonymous with Thatcherism.

In the Cold War Mrs Thatcher supported Ronald Reagan's policies of deterrence against the Soviets. This contrasted with the policy of détente which the West had pursued during the 1970s, and caused friction with allies still wedded to the idea of détente. US forces were permitted by Mrs. Thatcher to station nuclear cruise missiles at British bases, arousing mass protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, she later was the first Western leader to respond warmly to the rise of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring that she liked him and describing him as "a man we can do business with" after a meeting in 1985, three months before he came to power. This was a start of a move by the West back to a new détente with the USSR under Gorbachev's leadership which coincided with the final erosion of Soviet power prior to the turbulence of 1991 and the collapse of the Union. Thatcher outlasted the Cold War, which ended in 1989, and voices who share her views on it credit her with a part in the West's victory, by both the deterrence and détente postures.

Also in 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford voted to refuse her an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for education. This award had always previously been given to Prime Ministers that had been educated at Oxford.

She supported the US bombing raid on Libya from bases in the UK in 1986 in defiance of other NATO allies. 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 remained an influential critic and potential leadership challenger. He would, eventually, prove instrumental in Thatcher's fall in 1990.

In 1986 her government controversially abolished the Greater London Council (GLC), then led by left-winger Ken Livingstone, and six Metropolitan County Councils (MCCs). The government claimed this was an efficiency measure. However, Thatcher's opponents held that the move was politically motivated, as all of the abolished councils were controlled by Labour, had become powerful centres of opposition to her government, and were in favour of higher public spending by local government.

Thatcher had two noted foreign policy successes in her second term. In 1984, she visited China and signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Deng Xiaoping on 19 December, which committed the People's Republic of China to award Hong Kong the status of a "Special Autonomous Region" without economic change 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. She famously declared at the summit: "We are not asking the Community or anyone else for money. We are simply asking to have our own money back". Her arguments were successful and the EEC agreed on an annual rebate for the United Kingdom, which still remains in effect and occasionally causes some political controversy among the members of the European Union.

 

1987–1990

By winning the 1987 general election, on the economic boom and against a stubbornly anti-nuclear Labour opposition, she became the longest continuously serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since Lord Liverpool (1812 to 1827), and the first to win three successive elections since Lord Palmerston in 1865. 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 inspired the well-known "Maggie Out!" protest song, sung throughout that period by some of her opponents. Her unpopularity on the left is evident from the lyrics of several contemporary popular songs: "Stand Down Margaret" (The Beat), "Tramp the Dirt Down" (Elvis Costello), "Margaret on the Guillotine" (Morrissey) and "Mother Knows Best" (Richard Thompson).

At the 1986 Conservative party conference, Thatcher issued the infamous statement that "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay." Backbench Conservative MPs and Peers had already begun a backlash against the removal of discrimination against homosexuality and in December 1987 the controversial 'Section 28' was added as an amendment to what became the Local Government Act 1988.

Many opponents believed that she and her policies had created a significant North-South divide from the Bristol Channel to The Wash, between the "haves" in the economically dynamic south and the "have-nots" in the industrial north. Hard welfare reforms in her third term created an adult Employment Training system that included full-time work done for the dole plus a £10 top-up, on the workfare model from the US. The "Social Fund" system that placed one-off welfare payments for emergency needs under a local budgetary limit, and where possible changed them into loans, and rules for assessing job seeking effort by the week, were breaches of social consensus unprecedented since the 1920s.

In the late 1980s, Thatcher, a former chemist, became briefly concerned with environmental issues, which she had previously dismissed. In 1988, she made a major speech accepting the problems of global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain. In 1990, she opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research.

In her book Statecraft (2002), Thatcher described her regret in supporting anthropogenic global warming theory; she saw what negative effects the theory had on the policy-making process. "Whatever international action we agree upon to deal with environmental problems, we must enable our economies to grow and develop, because without growth you cannot generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment" (452). She notes that the doomsters' favourite subject today is climate change, which "provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism" (449).

At Bruges, Belgium in 1988, Thatcher made a speech in which she outlined her opposition to proposals from the European Community 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 the UK. "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". 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. The speech caused an outcry from other European leaders, and exposed for the first time the deep split that was emerging over European policy inside her Conservative Party.

Thatcher's popularity once again declined 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 of this and did not approve. At the Madrid European summit, Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe forced Thatcher to agree the circumstances under which she would join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a preparation for monetary union. Thatcher took revenge on both by demoting Howe, and by 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 for a sitting Prime Minister.

Thatcher's new system to replace local government rates was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990. Rates were replaced by the "Community Charge" (more widely known as the Poll Tax), which applied the same amount to every individual resident, with only limited discounts for low earners. This was to be the most universally unpopular policy of her premiership. The Charge was introduced early in Scotland as 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 apparently 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 already low support for the Conservative party in Scotland.

Additional problems emerged when many of the tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than 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 Community Charge on March 31, 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 'poll tax' banded together to resist bailiffs and disrupt court hearings of poll tax debtors. Mrs Thatcher refused to compromise on the tax, and its unpopularity was a major factor in her 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 of the Exchequer 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 Conservative Party conference that year saw an unusual degree of unity; few who attended could have imagined 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 perceived mishandling of the economy (especially high interest rates of 15%, which were undermining her core voting base within the home-owning, entrepreneurial and business sectors), and the divisions opening within her party over the appropriate handling of European integration made her and her party seem increasingly politically vulnerable.

A challenge was precipitated by the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe, with whom Thatcher had for a long time had very bad personal relations, on November 1, 1990. The immediate pretext was a particularly combative answer she had given to a parliamentary question in the Commons on the October 30, 1990, in which she denounced the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors.

"Yes, the Commission does want to increase its powers. Yes, it is a non-elected body and I do not want the Commission to increase its powers against this House, so of course we are differing. The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No."

In his resignation speech Howe condemned Thatcher's policy on the European Community as being devastating for British interests, and openly invited "others to consider their own response", which led Michael Heseltine to announce his challenge for the party leadership (and, by extension, the premiership). In the first ballot, Thatcher was two votes short of winning automatic re-election, a small but critical margin. (The margin was 14.6%; and the necessary margin required to avoid a second ballot was 15%.)

The results were:
 

First Ballot: 20 November 1990
Candidate Votes %
  Margaret Thatcher 204  
  Michael Heseltine 152  
  Abstentions 6  
  Void/Spoilt 17  
Majority 52 14.6
Turnout 379
  Second Ballot required

This was probably at least in part due to mismanagement; she had fatally decided to be out of the country for the CSCE summit (Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe) in Paris, and her advisors appear to have underestimated the seriousness of the matter and the need to campaign, and the need to cajole potentially wavering supporters and reassure them in order to achieve the necessary first round win and put paid to talk of doubts.

Upon returning to London, Thatcher consulted her cabinet colleagues. A large majority believed that, the first round not being a clear win, she would lose the second run-off ballot.

On November 22, at just after 9.30 am, Mrs. Thatcher announced to her cabinet that she would not be a candidate in the second ballot, thereby bringing her term of office to an end.

"Having consulted widely among 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."

In defeat, Margaret Thatcher seized the opportunity of the debate on confidence in her government to deliver one of her most memorable performances:

"... a single currency is about the politics of Europe, it is about a federal Europe by the back door. So I shall consider the proposal of the Honourable Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Now where were we? I am enjoying this."

She supported John Major as her successor and retired from Parliament at the 1992 election.

 

Post-political career

In 1992, she was raised to the peerage by the conference of the life barony of Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire upon her. It is interesting that she did not take an hereditary title, as she recommended for Harold Macmillan, later Earl of Stockton, on his ninetieth birthday in 1985, and become the Countess Thatcher or something similar. She has explained that she thought she hadn't sufficient means to 'support' an hereditary title. By virtue of the life barony she entered the House of Lords, although she did not become an active member of the House. She had already been honoured by the Queen in 1990, shortly after her resignation as Prime Minister, when she was appointed to the Order of Merit, one of the UK's highest distinctions. In addition, her husband, Denis Thatcher, had been given a baronetcy in 1991 (ensuring that their son Mark would inherit a title). This was the first creation of a baronetcy since 1965. In 1995 Thatcher would also join the majority of former Prime Ministers as a member of the Order of the Garter, the United Kingdom's highest order of chivalry.

In July 1992, she was hired by tobacco giant Philip Morris Companies, now the Altria Group, as a "geopolitical consultant" for US$250,000 per year and an annual contribution of US$250,000 to her Foundation. In practice, she helped them break into markets in central Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam, as well as fight against a proposed EC ban on tobacco advertising. From 1993 to 2000, she served as Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, one of the oldest universities in North America which was established by royal charter in 1693.

She wrote her memoirs in two volumes, The Path to Power and The Downing Street Years. In later years she wrote several more books on politics and foreign affairs. 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 Surrey facing charges of torture, conspiracy to torture and conspiracy to murder. She expressed her support and friendship for him. (Pinochet had been a key ally in the Falklands war.) During the same year, she made a £2 million donation to Cambridge University for the endowment of a Margaret Thatcher Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies. She also donated the archive of her personal papers to Churchill College, Cambridge.

She made many speaking engagements around the world, and she actively supported the Conservative election campaign in 2001. However, on March 22, 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.

In 2003 she visited Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City and compared his offices to those of Sir Winston Churchill's War Room. Although she was able to attend the funeral of former US President Ronald Reagan in June 2004, 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, which 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 June 26, 2003.

On 13 October 2005 Thatcher celebrated her 80th birthday with a drinks party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hyde Park where the guests included the Queen. At the celebration Lord Howe of Aberavon commented on her political career, "Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible."

On 7 December 2005, Thatcher was hospitalized in London after feeling faint. She stayed overnight at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. She began to feel faint on a visit to the hairdressers and was taken to hospital by her bodyguards. Her daughter Carol has reported that her short term memory is now poor: "She doesn't read much because of her memory loss. It's pointless. She can't remember the beginning of the sentence by the time she reaches the end."

 

Legacy

Many British citizens remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Margaret Thatcher had resigned and what their reaction was. She was a polarising figure, who brought out strong reactions from people. Likewise, her legacy is highly disputed.

Some people credit her microeconomic reforms with rescuing the British economy from the stagnation of the 1970s and admire her committed radicalism on social issues. Others see her as authoritarian and egotistical. She is accused of dismantling the Welfare State and of destroying much of the UK's manufacturing base.

The first charge reflects her government's rhetoric more than its actions, as it actually did little to reduce welfare expenditure, despite its desire to do so. The second charge may be credible in that there was a major fall in manufacturing employment, and some industries almost disappeared, though manufacturing does take a smaller share of employment and GDP as an economy modernises and the service sector expands. The UK 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. Instead, the UK emerged as one of the most successful economies in modern Europe. Her supporters claim that this was due to Margaret Thatcher's policies.

Critics of this view believe that the economic problems of the 1970s were exaggerated, and were caused largely by factors outside any UK government's control, such as high oil prices caused by the oil crisis which led to high inflation which 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 (although this is sometimes a double-edged sword; see Dutch disease), and that these were the real cause of the improved economic environment of the 1980s rather than 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", which was the highest placing for a living person. She also appears at number 3 in the 2003 List of "100 Worst Britons", which was confined to those living, narrowly missing out on the top spot, which went to Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the end, however, few could argue that there was any woman who played a more important role on the world stage in the 20th century. In perhaps the sincerest form of flattery, Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, himself a thrice-elected Prime Minister, has implicitly and explicitly acknowledged her importance by continuing many of her economic policies.

Another view divides her economic legacy into two parts: market efficiency and long-term growth. The first part, due to her reforms, is quite controversial. While the unemployment rate did eventually come down, it came after initial job losses and radical labour market reforms. These included laws that weakened trade unions and the deregulation of financial markets, which certainly succeeded in returning the City to a leadership position as a European financial centre, and her push for increased competition in telecommunications and other public utilities. Long-term growth, according to available data, is considered low, due to lack of civil research and development spending, lowered education standards and ineffective job-training policies.

Many of her policies have proved to be divisive. In much of Scotland, Wales and the urban and former mining areas of northern England she is still reviled. 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 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 remaining areas of the country. Through the Common Agricultural Policy British agriculture was (and remains) heavily subsidised while other failing parts of the economy did not receive similar support.

Perceptions abroad broadly follow the same political divisions. On the left, Margaret Thatcher is generally regarded as somebody who used force to quash social movements, who imposed social reforms that disregarded the interests of the working class and instead favoured the wealthier elements of the middle class and business. Satirists have often caricatured her. For instance, French singer Renaud wrote a song, Miss Maggie, which lauded women as refraining from many of the silly behaviours of males – and every time making an exception for "Mrs Thatcher". She may be remembered most of all for declaring: "There is no such thing as society" to reporter Douglas Keay, for 'Womans Own' magazine, 23 September 1987. This quote is often taken out of context and truncated. The original quote goes on to emphasise the importance of families and individuals in the fabric of British life. On the economical and political 'liberal' right, Thatcher is often remembered with some fondness as a conservative who dared to confront powerful unions and removed harmful constraints on the economy, though many do not openly claim to be following her example given the strong feelings that highly ideological Lady Thatcher and Thatcherism elicits in many.

Among Irish nationalists, she is generally remembered as an intransigent figure who eschewed negotiations with the Provisional IRA who had targeted her. Her critics believe this contributed to the length and ferocity of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, despite the efforts her government made to increase Irish involvement in the North through the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

In 1996, the Scott Inquiry into the Arms-to-Iraq affair exposed the Thatcher government’s record in dealing with Saddam Hussein. It revealed how £1bn of Whitehall money was spent in propping up Saddam’s regime and pulling strings for arms firms. The judge found that during Baghdad's protracted invasion of Iran in the 1980s, officials destroyed documents after smuggling Chieftain tank hulls to Iraq. Ministers clandestinely relaxed official guidelines to help private companies sell machine tools to build munitions factories. Some of the many shipments were from Racal, who exported sophisticated Jaguar V radios to the former Iraqi dictator’s army on credit. The judge also discovered they had abused lines of credit meant to include military sales. Members of the Conservative cabinet refused to stop lending guaranteed funds to Saddam even after he executed a British journalist, Farzad Bazoft, Thatcher’s cabinet minuting that they did not want to damage British industry.

Many on both the right and left agree that Thatcher had a transformative effect on the British political spectrum in Britain and that her tenure had the effect of moving the major political parties rightward. New Labour and Blairism have incorporated much of the economic, social and political tenets of "Thatcherism" in the same manner as, in a previous era, the Conservative Party from the 1950s until the days of Edward Heath accepted many of the basic assumptions of the welfare state instituted by Labour governments. The curtailing and large scale dismantling of elements of the welfare state under Thatcher have largely remained. As well, Thatcher's programme 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.

For good or ill, Thatcher's impact on the trade union movement in Britain has been lasting with the breaking of the miner's strike of 1984-1985 seen as a watershed moment, or even a breaking point, for a union movement which has been unable to regain the degree of power it exercised up to the 1970s. Unionisation rates in Britain declined under Thatcher and have not recovered and the legislative instruments introduced to curtail the impact of strikes has not been reversed. Instead, the Labour Party has worked to loosen its ties to the trade union movement.

Thatcher's legacy has continued strongly to influence the Conservative Party itself. Successive leaders, starting with John Major, and continuing in opposition with William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, have struggled with real or imagined factions in the Parliamentary and national party to determine what parts of her heritage should be retained or jettisoned. The leadership of David Cameron in 2006 may mark an end to this fixation, which has riven the party since Thatcher left office.

 

Family life

Lady Thatcher's husband, Sir Denis Thatcher, died in June 2003. The couple had been married for fifty-two years and had two children, twins, on 15 August 1953.

Her son, Sir Mark Thatcher, has been dogged by a series of controversies from 1982 when he went missing in the Sahara Desert to January 2005 when he was fined three million rand and received a four-year suspended jail sentence in South Africa over funding an aircraft intended for use in a planned coup d'etat in Equatorial Guinea.

Her daughter, the journalist and commentator Hon. Carol Thatcher, won the fifth series of the British reality TV show "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!".

 

Titles and honours

Titles from birth

Titles Lady Thatcher has held from birth, in chronological order:

  • Miss Margaret Roberts (October 13, 1925 – December 13, 1951)
  • Mrs Denis Thatcher (December 13, 1951 – October 8, 1959)
  • Mrs Denis Thatcher, MP (October 8, 1959 – June 22, 1970)
  • The Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher, MP (June 22, 1970 – June 30, 1983)
  • The Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher, FRS, MP (June 30, 1983 – December 7, 1990)
  • The Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher, OM, FRS, MP (December 7, 1990 – February 4, 1991)
  • The Right Honourable Lady Thatcher, OM, FRS, MP (February 4, 1991 – April 9, 1992)
  • The Right Honourable Lady Thatcher, OM, FRS (April 9, 1992 – June 26, 1992)
  • The Right Honourable The Baroness Thatcher, OM, PC, FRS (June 26, 1992 – April 22, 1995)
  • The Right Honourable The Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS (April 22, 1995 – )
 

Honours

  • Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter
  • Member of the Order of Merit
  • Member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council
  • Fellow of the Royal Society
 
 

References

 

Books

  • 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
 

Biographies

  • "The Anatomy of Thatcherism" by Shirley Robin Letwin (Flamingo, 1992) ISBN 0006862438
  • Margaret Thatcher; Volume One: The Grocer's Daughter by John Campbell (Pimlico, 2000) ISBN 0712674187
  • Margaret Thatcher; Volume Two: The Iron Lady by John Campbell (Pimlico, 2003) ISBN 0712667814
  • 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


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