Thatcher, Margaret (b. 1925)

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British Conservative politician (1959–1992), party leader (1975–1990), and prime minister (1979–1990).

Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving twentieth-century prime minister, and also the only female incumbent of 10 Downing Street. Elected for the House of Commons in 1959 as member of Parliament (MP) for Finchley, she continued to represent that seat until 1992 and her ennoblement as a hereditary peer. She was the first serving prime minister to be removed by a ballot of her own MPs. She was education minister (1970–1974) under Edward Heath, and earned a reputation as the "milk snatcher" after ending free school milk for children over seven years of age. Her opportunity arose in 1975 when she challenged Heath for leadership of the Conservative Party. With her campaign guided by Airey Neave, enough of the party's MPs were persuaded to back her candidature. In the first ballot she secured 130 votes to Heath's 119, and he withdrew. Other candidates entered the second ballot, but Thatcher easily saw off their challenge. It was a brave choice for the Conservative Party, her victory was more by default, and few expected her to survive long. Immediately she was faced with the 1975 European Referendum. Although she supported the "Yes" campaign, she viewed the whole affair as "Ted's issue." The opposition years were a steep learning curve, particularly at prime minister's questions when Labour prime minister Leonard James Callaghan, regularly got the better of her. Ideologically, though, this period saw Thatcher develop her intellectual commitment to monetarism and deregulation through think tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies. She also received an image makeover during this period, overseen by Gordon Reece.

In June 1979 the Conservatives narrowly won the general election.

The reality in 1979 was that few in the parliamentary party were committed to monetarist doctrine and a brand of authoritarian individualism. Many in her new cabinet were nonbelievers, or "wets" as she dubbed them. Many of the key features of Thatcherism, such as deregulation of industry, privatization, and trade union reform, were still in their rudimentary stages during this first administration. However, public spending and taxation was reduced and price controls abolished; interest rates soared, industrial output fell, and unemployment hit three million. Deeply unpopular in the country, Thatcher resolutely held her position, reshuffling her cabinet to remove or demote the "wets" and promoting key allies to positions of significance. In defense of her economic stance she told the 1980 Party conference, "The lady's not for turning."

The 1982 Falklands war was a significant turning point. Although it could be blamed on military cutbacks instigated by her government, the bravado in dispatching the Task Force to the South Atlantic to recapture the islands captured the public imagination. During this period Thatcher also sought to enhance the Anglo-American special relationship, such as sanctioning the use of U.K. soil to launch the U.S. air strikes against Libya in 1986. She formed a close working relationship with President Ronald Reagan, united by a common desire to resist the Soviet Union.

Her landslide victory in the 1983 general election was as much due to divisions among the Labour Party and the poor leadership of Michael Foot, whose party campaigned on the "longest suicide note in history." For Thatcher, Britain's panacea was trade union industrial militancy. Her premiership was typified by periods of significant industrial unrest, particularly the yearlong miners' strike (1984), the unrest at the General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) (1984–1988), and the print workers' strike at Wapping (1986); each was used as an opportunity to legislate to restrict trade union power. Her government's economic policies, particularly the privatization of state assets such as British Telecom (1984) and British Gas (1986), were both controversial and popular. In October 1984, Thatcher narrowly escaped death when the IRA successfully bombed the Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the Conservative Party's annual conference. It was a stark reminder that her government had failed to resolve the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland, despite the Anglo-Irish agreement (1985).

Britain's relationship with Europe was one of the key themes of Thatcher's premiership. Despite having fought for a rebate from the British contribution to the European Economic Community (EEC), Thatcher in the first half of the 1980s appeared to believe that Britain could exercise leadership over the Community. She championed the Single European Act (1986) believing that it would see the economic implementation of "Thatcherism in Europe," and would retard any plans for further integration. When the opposite occurred, her hostility toward Europe grew. She infamously attacked the prospect of a federal Europe at Bruges in 1988, and was publicly critical of the plans of the European President Jacques Delors. However, divisions over the advisability of this policy grew among her closest supporters, most notably Geoffrey Howe. At the 1989 Madrid Conference, Thatcher accepted that Britain must join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Thatcher's Euroskeptism grew following her ousting from office in 1990, causing considerable inconvenience for her successor John Major.

Although Thatcher won the 1987 general election, doubts about her electoral viability grew within the party. In 1989 she faced a leadership challenge, which although she survived, tarnished her reputation for invincibility. Her judgment was also being called into question, not least over her willingness to implement the Poll Tax (1990), which proved deeply unpopular with the country. In 1990, Howe resigned and took the opportunity to attack Thatcher's leadership. Michael Heseltine announced he would stand against Thatcher, and although she won the majority of votes, under the rules it was not sufficient to guarantee victory, and after taking advice she resigned as leader and prime minister.

Thatcher is the only twentieth-century prime minister whose name has given rise to an "ism." Coined in 1976, it implies that the ideology she advocated was unique. This is a disputed point, but her brand of mold-breaking politics, with its emphasis on monetarism, individualism, and allowing Britain to act as a world player, has made her one of the most influential British politicians of the twentieth century. She was a politician either loved or loathed. Her acolytes have fought to sustain her legacy, making political life very uncomfortable for her successors, especially John Major.

See alsoHeath, Edward; United Kingdom.


Campbell, John. Margaret Thatcher. 2 vols. London, 2000–2003.

Evans, Eric. Thatcher and Thatcherism. 2nd ed. London, 1997.

Green, E. H. H. Thatcher. London, 2002.

Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. London, 1993.

Young, Hugo. One of Us: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. London, 1991.

Nick Crowson