World History Blog Logo

Who was Margaret Thatcher?

British Prime Minister 1979–1990

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: May 31, 2021


Alternative Titles: Iron Lady, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher is one of the most remarkable women of modern times. Reviled by many, yet adored by even more, Thatcher played a simultaneously influential and controversial role in British history. Her legacy in Britain, and her impact on the world cannot escape notice.

Childhood and Education

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in Grantham Lincolnshire on the 13th of October 1925 to a middle-class family. Her father was Alfred Roberts, a grocer, a local politician and a Methodist preacher.

Her mother was Beatrice Ethel, a dressmaker and a homemaker. Margaret also had an elder sister named Muriel, and the two girls were brought up in a flat over the family grocery shop.

The social life of the Roberts family encompassed the local Methodist congregation and the closely knit Grantham community. From a young age Margaret learned to cherish values such as self-reliance, personal responsibility, frugality and charitable work.

Around 1938, the family provided sanctuary to a young Jewish girl who had escaped the German Nazis. Margaret and Muriel managed to save money to help pay for the girl’s journey. Margaret attended Huntingtower Road Primary School, and subsequently, Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, a local state school, on a scholarship.

Her extracurricular activities included swimming, poetry recitals, field hockey and playing the piano. She was the head girl in 1942 and 1943, and was accepted for a scholarship to study at Somerville College, Oxford University.

While at Oxford, Margaret studied chemistry under the mentorship of Dorothy Hodgkin, the Nobel Prize winning pioneer of X-ray crystallography. Margaret was an active member of the Oxford University Conservative Association, of which she would become President in 1946.

She also tutored during the summers to supplement her partial scholarship. Following graduation, Margaret moved to Colchester, where she worked for BX Plastics as a research chemist.

Early Political Career and Marriage

Margaret attended the Conservative Party conference at Llandudno, Wales in 1948, representing the University Graduate Conservative Association.

In the meantime, she would also join the Vermin Club (a conservative grassroots group formed in response to a disparaging remark by Aneurin Bevan), and would rise through the ranks to become a “Chief Rat.”

Around 1949, she would apply to run as the Conservative candidate for Dartford. Even though Margaret was not on the party’s initial list, the officials of the Dartford Conservative Association were so impressed by the young lady that they selected her, and inserted her name post ante.

In February 1949, during a dinner following Margaret’s official adoption as the Conservative candidate for the entrenched Labour seat of Dartford, she would meet the wealthy businessman and divorcee Denis Thatcher who would later become her husband.

Margaret Thatcher 1950 Election Dartford

Margaret would run for the Dartford seat at the General Elections of 1950 as well as 1951. Despite losing on both the occasions, she would garner national attention as the youngest woman candidate in the country and sharply reduce the Labour majority.

In 1951, while at Dartford, Margaret would marry Denis, and the couple would have twins, Mark and Carol, in 1953. Although her marriage as well as the baptism of her children occurred at Wesley’s chapel, the family would start going to Church of England services, and eventually convert to Anglicanism.

During this period, Margaret began studying the law. She would begin her private practice in 1954 as a barrister and specialize in patent and tax law.

Member of Parliament

Following a few failed attempts to get elected to the British Parliament as a Tory candidate, Margaret Thatcher eventually contested and defeated Ian Montagu Fraser to be selected for the Conservative safe seat of Finchley in 1958.

During the 1959 election, she managed to win the seat, becoming the youngest of the 25 women in the House of Commons at the time. During this time, Thatcher would build a strong relationship with the many conservative Jews of Finchley, which had the highest proportion of Jewish voters in Britain.

She would continue to represent Finchley until she was appointed as a member of the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher in 1992. It is quite likely that this also accounts for her rock-solid support for the state of Israel especially as Prime Minister.

Within two years following her election to the Parliament, Margaret Thatcher received a junior office in the administration of Harold Macmillan. Subsequently, from 1964 to 1970, when the Conservative Party was again in the opposition, Thatcher established herself within the party leadership by serving as a shadow minister.

As the Conservatives reclaimed power under the leadership of Edward Heath in 1970, she was given the cabinet rank of the Secretary of Education.

Education Secretary

Her tenure as the Secretary of State for Education and Science was far from easy. Student radicalism climaxed in 1970. Protesters started disrupting her speeches and the opposition press began condemning her decisions.

For instance, her withdrawal of Circular 10/65 which called for forced comprehensivisation and her support of Lord Rothschild’s proposal to permit market forces to influence public funding of research elicited harsh criticism.

Her most controversial move, however, which would earn her the notorious nickname, “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher,” was her decision to abolish the provision of milk to schoolchildren between ages seven and eleven.

Given the government’s attempts to reduce spending, Thatcher reasoned that priority should be given to academic needs in schools. While arguing that she was simply continuing a policy the Labour government had already begun (by stopping the provision of free milk at secondary schools), she agreed to provide free milk to those who required it on medical grounds.

During this time, the Heath Government too, experienced numerous difficulties. Though it had won the election upon promises to tame labor unions and shrink the size of the bureaucracy, it became an exceedingly interventionist government with policy reversals which were called ‘U turns.’

The Heath government, succumbing to the demands of the unions, introduced controls on prices, wages and dividends, thereby inducing inflation and producing industrial strife.

Leading the Opposition and the Birth of Thatcherism

Following two General Election defeats in February 1974 and in October 1974, the Conservative Party was ready for a new leader.

In February 1975, Thatcher ran for the party leadership against Heath, and defeated him on the initial ballot. On the second ballot, she won outright and became the first woman ever to lead a Western political party as well as serve as the Opposition Leader of the House of Commons.

During this period, Thatcher would regularly attend lunches at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a rightwing Hayekian think tank whose publications she had been reading for a long time.

By now, she was especially influenced by the ideas of Arthur Seldon and Ralph Harris whose ideological commitment to less government, more economic freedom for consumers and businesses, and lower taxes, she shared. In the meantime, her opposition to the welfare state and Keynesian economics too, was becoming increasingly pronounced.

Her neoliberal views on the role of government were undergirded by a strong belief in the importance of the nuclear family, traditional Victorian moral values and a well-equipped national defense.

Thatcher added a personal touch to her brand of conservatism by constantly relating how much she cherished hard work as a grocer’s daughter. This amalgamation of ideological commitments, which would become manifest in the policies of her government, would come to be known as Thatcherism.

In other words, Thatcherism, briefly defined, is a distinctly British conservative ideology which advocates for limited government, free enterprise, civic responsibility, self-reliance, a strong military and the sanctity of the nuclear family.

As the leader of the opposition, Thatcher undertook visits across the Atlantic to promote her neoliberal ideas abroad. She met with President Gerald Ford, President Jimmy Carter and the Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during this time.

The Iron Lady Ascends to Power

In the meantime, the Labour Government was struggling in crisis. The nation was thrust to the verge of bankruptcy as a collapse in the currency compelled the government to borrow a mammoth loan worth $3.9 billion from the International Monetary Fund.

Speech at Kensington Town Hall ("Britain Awake")

Consequently, the Labour Government had to drastically reduce spending and raise interest rates. While the Labour Government’s problems were abounding, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech on the 19th of January 1976, titled, “Britain Awake,” at Kensington Town Hall in London.

In her unequivocally anti-Communist speech, she accused the Soviet Union of seeking world-domination and exploiting the Angolan Civil War. While warning of a possible communist victory in the upcoming Italian election, she also questioned the Labour governments’ defense cuts and the status of the NATO in certain parts of Europe.

Margaret Thatcher added that a Conservative government would increase military spending and stand strong alongside the United States. She concluded by urging the British people to wake up from their long sleep so as not to forsake the freedoms which they must now fight to preserve for future generations.

Thatcher’s fiery speech was not destitute of far-reaching effects. Nikolai Lunkov, the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom lodged an official protest concerning the tone of the speech. Yuri Gavrilov of Krasnaya Zvezda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Ministry of Defense, described Thatcher as the “Iron Lady” in a piece titled, “The Iron Lady Wields Threats.”

The Russian News Agency TASS also referred to Thatcher as the “Iron Lady,” and the Russian tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, described Thatcher as a “militant amazon.” Gavrilov would later note that until then, Russia had had a low opinion of Britain; Soviet cartoons had been portraying Britain as a toothless lion.

Following Margaret Thatcher’s speech however, Russia would begin to demonstrate more respect for Britain’s power. Thatcher herself would, subsequently, gladly embrace the sobriquet. In a speech to her fellow Conservatives at Finchley, she would say, “Yes, I am an iron lady (…) if that’s how they wish to interpret my defense of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life.”

By the winter of 1978, the Labour Government was in dire straits. Demands for Trade union pay would soon lead to a series of strikes known as the “Winter of Discontent” despite the Labour Party’s supposed influence over the labor movement.

Thatcherite Economics: The Lady’s Not for Turning

The new Conservative government vowed to check Britain’s economic decline. The monetarist economics of Alan Walters and Milton Friedman were soon manifest in Thatcher’s response. The policies however, also required painful measures.

Although direct taxes were cut in order to restore incentives, balancing the budget necessitated increases in direct taxes. Moreover, the imminent recession was accompanied by rising inflation which called for the raising of interest rates.

Speech at Conservative Party Conference (10th of October 1980)

Amidst these uncertain times, Thatcher gave another memorable speech. Thatcher decided to address concerns of many while at the Conservative Party Conference on the 10th of October 1980. By the autumn of 1980, unemployment had risen by nearly half-a-million since the previous year, and the nation was experiencing recession.

Many on the left as well as her predecessor Ted Heath had urged Thatcher to reverse her policies, or, as they put it, perform a “U-turn.” However, Thatcher had other plans.

During the speech she therefore, said: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn,’ I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!”

Thatcher’s speech was warmly received, and she received a long, standing ovation. Unemployment, however, continued to rise and the economic downturn was becoming increasingly severe. Thatcher’s promise, nonetheless, was that vital gains would become manifest only in the long run.

The 1981 budget which increased taxes amidst the recession contradicted traditional Keynesian wisdom. This move permitted a lowering of interest rates which initiated an economic recovery in the same quarter, thereby paving the way for the economic growth of the next eight years.

While public support followed this revival, Thatcher’s re-election was assured by an unexpected event.

The Falkland War and Re-election

On April 2, 1982, the Argentine military, under the Argentine junta, invaded the Falkland Islands, and on the following day, invaded South Georgia. Following several failed attempts to arrive at a diplomatic solution, the Iron Lady responded by dispatching a British Task Force to liberate the islands.

Margaret Thatcher Falkland War

The operation was swift, and by June, Argentina had surrendered, and the Islands were back in British hands. The electorate responded by reelecting the Thatcher government, more than tripling the Conservative majority with 144 seats.

While Thatcher’s re-election victory was decisive, her second term in office did not lack difficulties. In October 1984, Thatcher narrowly escaped a bombing by the Irish Republican Army which sought to murder her during the annual Conservative Party conference in Brighton.

Furthermore, the militant bosses of the miners’ union fought a strike from 1984 to 1985, and many trade unions bitterly resisted the Thatcherite reforms. Eventually, however, the union interests were defeated, and ironically, even the Labour Party ultimately pledged not to reverse the key features of the reforms.

Moreover, Thatcher negotiated the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement with Ireland, and recognized, to some degree, the Catholic sentiments in Northern Ireland. In the meantime, the economy improved, and the Conservative government enacted a vigorous policy of privatizations. State assets were put on sale, and shares were offered to the public on generous terms.

People were encouraged to make private pension provisions and purchase their own homes. Despite internal party divisions which became manifest with the resignation of Michael Heseltine, the Defense Minister, with the strong economy, Thatcher’s government won a third term in June 1987, with a Parliamentary majority of 101.

The Third Term and Resignation

The ambitious legislative platform of Thatcher’s third term proposed reforms to the education system, the National Health Service and the tax system of the local governments.

While the health and education reforms gained momentum, the Community Charge, or the ‘poll tax,’ became increasingly controversial. In the meantime, the economic boom led to an overheat, and interest rates had to be doubled in 1988.

Moreover, the tension inside her government too, intensified. An evident rift arose between Thatcher and her Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, over the European Integration. Moreover, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, resigned from office following a dispute over policies on the foreign exchange rate.

Despite the troubles during this time, Thatcher played her part in championing the Conservative cause. Her close alliance with the Reagan administration helped build a strong defense against communism, and her cordial relationship with the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990.

Nonetheless, at the same time, the French demands for a single European currency and the appeals for European integration unveiled Thatcher’s Euroscepticism. Her hostility to the European project elicited much opposition even from within her own party.

On the 14th of November, Michael Heseltine challenged Thatcher for the Conservative Party leadership. Although Thatcher won a majority in the vote that ensued, the margin was insufficient, and a second ballot was needed.

Initially, Thatcher intended to fight on, but her cabinet protested against her leadership. Consequently, Thatcher resigned from premiership on November 28th, 1990, having served as Prime Minister for 11 years, the longest uninterrupted term anyone had occupied the office in recent history.

Conclusion

Following her retirement from the office of Prime Minister, Thatcher served as a backbencher until she left the Commons in 1992. Subsequently, she was awarded a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher which earned her a seat in the House of Lords.

Thatcher went on to found the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, and wrote the famous memoirs, “The Downing Street Years,” and “The Path to Power.” She also wrote a book which she dedicated to Ronald Reagan, “Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World.”

In June 2004, despite her ailing health and against her doctor’s advice, she attended the funeral service of Ronald Reagan. In 2007, Thatcher became the first ever living Prime Minister to be honored with a statue in the British Parliament.

After suffering a stroke, Baroness Thatcher finally passed away on the 8th of April at age 87 inside the Ritz Hotel in London. Thatcher received a state funeral attended by Queen Elizabeth II. Aside from the funeral of Winston Churchill, the occasion marked the only time the Queen had attended a funeral of a prime minister during her reign.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Margaret Thatcher." World History Blog, May 31, 2021. https://www.worldhistoryblog.com/margaret-thatcher.html.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Bibliography
  • Butler, David, and Gareth Butler. British political facts since 1979. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  • Campbell, John. Margaret Thatcher: The grocer's daughter. Volume one. Vol. 1. Random House, 2007.
  • Hughes, Libby. Madam Prime Minister: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. 2000.
  • Ogden, Chris. Maggie: An Intimate Portrait of a Woman in Power. 1990.
  • Thatcher, Carol. A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir. 2008.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. Speech at Kensington Town Hall ('Britain Awake') (The Iron Lady). Margaret Thatcher Foundation. 19 January 1976.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. "Speech to Finchley Conservatives (admits to being an 'Iron Lady')". Margaret Thatcher Foundation. 31 January 1976.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. 1993.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. The Path to Power. 1995.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher. Robin Harris, editor. 1998.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World. 2002.
  • Seldon, Anthony. Britain Under Thatcher. 1999.
  • Webster, Wendy. Not a Man to Match Her: The Marketing of a Prime Minister.