Born October 13, 1925
Prime minister of Great Britain when Iraq staged 1990 Invasion of Kuwait
"Aggression must be stopped. That is the lesson of this century."
Margaret Thatcher as quoted on "Frontline."
The first female prime minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher was an early supporter of using military force against Iraq after it seized control of Kuwait. She firmly believed that Iraq and its president, Saddam Hussein, needed to be harshly punished for invading Kuwait. As the Persian Gulf crisis unfolded, she worked closely with U.S. President George H. W. Bush (see entry) to establish a military force capable of defending other vulnerable Middle Eastern nations from Hussein. In addition, Thatcher helped build international support for a military assault on Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Iraq.
A small-town upbringing
Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher was born October 13, 1925, in the small town of Grantham, England. Her parents were Beatrice and Alfred Roberts, and she had one older sister, Muriel. Thatcher's family was well known throughout Grantham. Her parents owned and operated one of the town's most successful grocery stores, and her father was a leader in the community. One of the most prominent members of the local Methodist church, he also served as a town councilman and spent several years as Grantham's mayor. He had an enormous influence on Thatcher, who credits him with giving her confidence, shaping her political views, and molding her overall outlook on life.
As a youth, Thatcher's parents ensured that she went to the finest schools in the area. At age ten, she enrolled at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, where she achieved top grades in chemistry, biology, and mathematics. She also showed strong leadership qualities at an early age. A captain of her school's field hockey team, she took leadership positions in various extracurricular school clubs.
Encouraged by her father, Thatcher became interested in politics at an unusually young age. In fact, by the time she was a young teenager she had declared that she wanted to be an MP, a member of British Parliament, when she grew up. When she entered Oxford University's Somerville College in 1943, she initially pursued a degree in chemistry. But she also devoted much of her spare time to the Oxford University Conservative Association, a group of students that supported Great Britain's Conservative Party. By her junior year, Thatcher was president of the association, and she led the group during her senior year as well.
Early career in politics
In 1947 Thatcher graduated from Somerville with a chemistry degree, and she spent the next four years supporting herself as a research chemist. In the early 1950s she studied to become a barrister (a lawyer). She also remained heavily involved in England's Conservative Party, and was named a party candidate in two Parliamentary elections, but she lost both of these campaigns, in 1950 and 1951. On December 13, 1951, she married businessman Denis Thatcher, and in August 1953 they became the parents of twins, Mark and Carol.
In 1959 Thatcher finally achieved her childhood dream of becoming a MP when she won a seat in the House of Commons. At age thirty-four, she was the youngest woman in the House of Commons, but she did not let that stop her from speaking out on all sorts of issues. In fact, the outspoken Conservative emerged as one of her party's most visible members during the 1960s. She also gained the respect of other lawmakers, who recognized her as one of the country's hardest-working members of Parliament. She rose rapidly through the party ranks, and in 1970 she was named secretary of state for education and science to Prime Minister Ted Heath, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party.
In early 1975 Thatcher registered a stunning upset victory over Heath in party elections to claim the top post in the Conservative Party. As leader of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, she battled the ruling Labour Party on a wide array of issues, from education and economic policies to foreign affairs. By the late 1970s Thatcher's tough, blunt, and uncompromising personality had earned her the nickname "Iron Lady" in England and within international diplomatic circles.
Elected prime minister of Great Britain
Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain in May 1979, when her Conservative Party won the majority of seats in Parliamentary elections. She held the position for the next eleven years, leading the Conservatives to victory in three straight general election victories during that time. Thatcher's eleven-year-run as prime minister was the longest in England since the 1820s.
During Thatcher's run as prime minister, she successfully introduced many Conservative policy goals, from dramatic reductions in government spending to transfer of water and telephone utilities and various industries (including British Airways) from government to private control. She also supervised major changes in the country's education and health care systems and strongly opposed any European treaties that she felt weakened British independence. In addition, she established a warm and friendly relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The two leaders held many of the same conservative views on government, business, and social issues, and they worked together on many foreign policy issues.
Thatcher's popularity with the British public reached its peak in 1982, when Great Britain defeated Argentina in the Falklands War. The Falkland Islands are a cluster of islands located in the South Atlantic that had been under British control since 1833. Argentina has long claimed that it was the rightful owner of the islands, however, and in 1982 Argentina's army seized the islands by force. The invasion enraged Thatcher, who ordered a British military force headed by the Royal Navy to take back the islands. The British counterattack battered the Argentine army, and on June 14, 1982, Argentina surrendered and removed its remaining military forces from the Falklands.
During the mid-1980s, strong economic growth kept Thatcher and her Conservative Party in power. But in the late 1980s, Thatcher's popularity in England declined. A downturn in the economy was partly to blame for this. Concerned by high rates of inflation, high interest rates on loans, and high unemployment levels, many people in Great Britain came to believe that a change in leadership might be in order. In addition, many British strongly opposed changes to the tax structure being proposed by Thatcher. Finally, critics complained that Thatcher's policies had produced a decline in the quality of education, health care, and other social services. But despite her declining popularity, Thatcher never changed her style, and when the Persian Gulf Crisis erupted in the summer of 1990, she responded in her usual bold and decisive manner.
Showdown in the Persian Gulf
On August 2, 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (see entry) had ordered his military forces to invade the neighboring country of Kuwait. Hussein argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. The international community reacted strongly to Iraq's attack, with many nations issuing demands that Hussein give up his claim on Kuwait. When he refused, the United States organized a military coalition against Iraq that eventually grew to include more than four hundred thousand U.S. troops and thousands of soldiers from other nations. In addition, the Bush administration successfully lobbied the United Nations to pass a tough resolution approving the use of military force to free Kuwait from Iraq's army.
As the Persian Gulf crisis unfolded, Great Britain quickly emerged as the United States' strongest ally. Thatcher repeatedly warned Hussein that he and his army would pay a steep price if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait. When Hussein ignored these threats, she approved a major transfer of British firepower—including elements of the country's army, air force, and navy—to Saudi Arabia, where they joined coalition forces from the United States and other nations.
Thatcher believed that if Hussein was not punished for his actions, the world would become a much more unstable and dangerous place. "Aggression must be stopped," she later told the PBS program "Frontline." "That is the lesson of this century. And if an aggressor gets away with it, others will want to get away with it too, so he must be stopped, and turned back. You cannot gain from your aggression." In addition, she pointed out that if Iraq was not stopped, it would be in a position to seize control of many of the world's oil reserves. "Oil is vital to the economy of the world," she said. Thatcher continued:
If you didn't stop [Hussein], and didn't turn him back, he would have gone over the border to Saudi Arabia, over to Bahrain, to Dubai ... and right down the west side of the Gulf and in fact could have got access and control to 65 percent of the world's oil reserves, from which he could have blackmailed every nation. So there were two things, aggressors must be stopped and turned back, and he must not get control of this enormously powerful economic weapon.
As the weeks passed, Thatcher urged President Bush and other coalition members to maintain their tough stance toward Iraq. "Don't forget I'd had all the experience of the Falklands [War] and so I had no doubt what you had to do to deal with an aggressor," she told "Frontline." With each passing day, she became more convinced that the best way to deal with the crisis was to attack Iraq's military and crush it, removing Hussein from power in the process.
In November 1990, however, Thatcher's political difficulties at home convinced her to resign from office. With popular support within her own Conservative Party in decline, she gave up the prime minister post to another party leader, John Major. As a result, she watched the rest of the Persian Gulf War from the political sidelines.
Questions U.S. strategy at end of war
On January 16, 1991, President Bush approved the launch of Operation Desert Storm, a major bombing campaign against Iraqi military positions in Kuwait and Iraq. The American-led bombing campaign lasted for thirty-eight days before giving way to a ground assault on Iraqi positions in Kuwait and southern Iraq. This ground attack pounded Iraq's remaining military forces in less than one hundred hours. As Iraq's battered forces retreated to Baghdad, Iraq's capital city, Bush decided to call off the attack. A short time later, Iraq agreed to all of the coalition demands, including its claim to Kuwait.
John Major, British Prime Minister, 1990–97
John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister in November 1990, during a period of rising tensions between Iraq and the coalition countries led by the United States and Great Britain. Upon taking office, Major voiced firm support for the coalition's demand that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, and he confirmed that England was ready to go to war. A few months later, the coalition's offensive, known as Operation Desert Storm, swept Iraq out of Kuwait, handing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a decisive defeat.
John Roy Major was born on March 29, 1943, in London, England. His parents were Gwendolyn and Thomas Major. The elder Major supported his family with a career that included years as a circus acrobat, mercenary soldier, and manufacturer of garden ornaments. During Major's youth, his family suffered a number of severe financial setbacks, and he developed an intense dislike for school. He dropped out of school at age fifteen, taking a series of jobs. By the early 1960s he had found a career in the banking industry, but he left England in the mid-1960s for several years of community work in the impoverished African country of Nigeria.
When Major returned to England, he decided to dive into the world of politics. Beginning as a local councilman in 1968, he became a Conservative member of Parliament in 1979. In 1970 he married Norma Johnson, with whom he eventually had two children.
During the 1980s, Major steadily rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party's leadership. He attracted the notice of Thatcher, who appreciated his calm and self-confident style as well as his conservative views on economic issues. In July 1989 Thatcher appointed him foreign secretary, one of the top positions in the British government. Major admitted that the promotion "totally astonished" him, but he had little opportunity to acquaint himself with his new responsibilities. In October 1989 Thatcher made Major chancellor of the exchequer, a position that gave him significant authority over England's economy.
In November 1990 Thatcher resigned as prime minister when it became clear that she no longer had the full support of her own Conservative Party. Major quickly mounted a campaign to succeed her as leader of the party and Britain's new prime minister. His bid was supported by Thatcher as well as many other Conservatives who hailed his expertise on economic issues. He won the Conservative Party's leadership election on November 27, 1990, and became prime minister one day later.
As prime minister, Major quickly declared his belief that if Iraq did not voluntarily leave Kuwait, it should be removed by force. He thus offered strong support to the United States throughout the Persian Gulf crisis, and he expressed delight when the U.S.-led coalition forces defeated Iraq in February 1991. Major served as prime minister of Great Britain until 1997, when his Conservative Party was defeated by the Labour Party and its leader, Tony Blair, who became the new prime minister.
Sources: "John Major." In Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003; Major, John. John Major: The Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 1999; Pearce, Edward. The Quiet Rise of John Major. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.
But while the Persian Gulf War forced Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait and badly damaged Iraq's military, Thatcher believes that the United States ended the war too quickly. In her "Frontline" interview, she explained:
It's not enough just to reverse the invasion. You've got to destroy their army. We couldn't bring down Saddam Hussein. What I thought it was our job to do, was to make it quite clear to the world and particularly the people who'd been wronged, that he'd been totally and utterly defeated and his army had been totally and utterly defeated.... And it didn't seem to me that that part of it was fully achieved.
Thatcher admitted that she was surprised when Bush called an end to the assaults on Iraq's fleeing army. She also believes that if Iraq's army had been totally destroyed, Hussein probably would not have been able to retain power. "These people [Iraq's army] should have been seen to have been defeated, they should have surrendered their equipment and their armed forces," she told "Frontline." "I just didn't understand it, this is how we'd done it in the Falklands.... So the people of Iraq never saw this dictator, humiliated and beaten."
Thatcher retires from political office
On March 7, 1991, Thatcher received the U.S. Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honors bestowed by the United States, in recognition of the strong friendship she had established with the United States during her long tenure as prime minister of Great Britain. A few months later, on June 28, 1991, she announced that she would not attempt to retain her seat in the House of Commons in the next election, which was to be held the following year. In July 1992 she formally brought her remarkable thirty-two-year career in British politics to a close.
Even after leaving Parliament, however, Thatcher remained keenly interested in British politics and world affairs. She spent much of the 1990s giving lectures and writing columns on various issues. In addition, she wrote two volumes of memoirs detailing her life in politics, The Downing Street Years (1993) and The Path to Power (1995).
Where to Learn More
Bierman, John. "The Forging of the Iron Lady." Maclean's, May 8, 1989.
Dale, Iain, ed. Memories of Maggie: A Portrait of Margaret Thatcher. London: Politico's Publishing, 2000.
"Interview with Margaret Thatcher." Frontline: The Gulf War. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/gulf/oral/thatcher/1.html (accessed on March 30, 2004).
Lewis, Russell. Margaret Thatcher: A Personal and Political Biography. London and Boston: Routledge 8 Kegan Paul, 1984.
"Margaret Thatcher." Current Biography, November 1989.
"Margaret Thatcher." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
"Margaret Thatcher." Historic World Leaders, 1994. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
Thatcher, Margaret. "Don't Go Wobbly." Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2002.
Thatcher, Margaret. The Path to Power. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Born October 13, 1925
Grantham, Lincolnshire, England
British prime minister
I t was in May 1979 that Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first female prime minister. She would be reelected in 1983 and again in 1987 to become the first British prime minister of the twentieth century to win three consecutive general elections. Thatcher served for eleven-and-a-half years until her resignation in November 1990. Her Conservative Party victory in 1979 was a major triumph over the Labor Party, which had held power for much of the previous fifty years.
The perceived threat of the communist Soviet Union had come to be a dominant concern of the Western world at the time. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance of Western-styled democracies, was founded in 1949 at the key instigation of Great Britain. It was a response to the growing efforts by the Soviets to control Eastern European countries. This international cooperation between the United States and Western European countries proved far more effective in responding to the Soviet threat than the United Nations, which also included the Soviets and other nations under Soviet control.
By December 1979, six months after Thatcher took office, NATO agreed to deploy medium-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe. This put the Soviet Union on the defensive and forced it to decide how to react to NATO's move. The Soviets could no longer be confident of overcoming NATO at one level of weaponry without triggering a response at a higher level that could lead to a full-scale nuclear war. Thatcher was immediately thrust into a situation of rapidly declining relations between the Soviets and the West.
Born Margaret Hilda Roberts, Thatcher was was the second daughter born to Alfred Roberts and Beatrice Ethel Stephenson. Her sister, Muriel, was born four years before Margaret, in May 1921. Their father was a grocer who became active in local politics. He ultimately became mayor of Grantham. Margaret was especially close to her father and spoke of him as a major influence in her life.
Like most everyone at the time, Thatcher's life was transformed by World War II (1939–45). It overshadowed her entire adolescence from the ages of fourteen to nineteen. A life of thriftiness was the rule, as food and goods were strictly rationed. Thatcher was an excellent student with a competitive nature. She knew education was the key to escape life in the small town where she had grown up. Her social life in Grantham was centered around church, school, and her home life.
Young Margaret came to political awareness just as an international crisis began to dominate the news. There were twenty-one German air raids on the town of Grantham alone, and many bombs fell close to her home and school. She worked as a volunteer during the war and carried a gas mask with her to school. The war influenced Thatcher's political development and specifically her approach to international relations.
Thatcher was educated at Kesteven and Grantham's all-girls high school, winning a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. This was a major accomplishment for a woman in the early 1940s from a small town. She received a degree in chemistry and another in law. She also received a master's degree from Oxford. While an under-graduate, she served as president of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
Upon graduation, Thatcher went to work as a research chemist for an industrial firm for four years, from 1947 to 1951. She continued her interest in politics by running in two parliamentary elections in 1950 and 1951. She lost both races. In 1951, she married Denis Thatcher, whom she had met through their common interest in politics. They became parents in 1953 with the birth of their twins, Carol and Mark.
In 1959, Thatcher was elected to one of the best Conservative Party seats in the country as a member of Parliament for Finchley, in north London. Thatcher had achieved her goal of becoming a member of the House of Commons. She was to retain this position for twenty years, through six parliaments, until she became prime minister.
Thatcher's first ministerial appointment (administrative head of a department) came in 1961, and she rose quickly through the ranks to the position of education minister in 1970. In 1974, she also worked on environmental issues and then treasury matters as part of the British Cabinet. In 1975, Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party. This made her leader of the opposition (the party not in power) and the first woman to head a political party in Great Britain. She remained head of the Conservative Party for fifteen years until her retirement in 1990.
At the top
When she won her first general election in 1979, Thatcher inherited two primary challenges as the new prime minister. The first issue was the long-term economic decline in Great Britain, largely owing to over thirty years of socialism (government control of industry and extensive social welfare programs) in her country. The other issue was the growing Soviet threat to Europe and the world.
Regarding the Soviet threat, Thatcher repeatedly tried to resolve five different objectives during her time in office. First, there were only limited resources available for defense, particularly with the British economy growing slowly or not at all. This meant that if the defense expenditure was increased, it was vital that a more efficient use of government funds on domestic programs be achieved. Second, Britain needed to maintain its own interests in the world on a regular basis. Third, Britain had to help ensure that NATO responded effectively to the steadily increasing Soviet military threat. Fourth, as part of her third objective, it was vital to maintain Western unity behind American leadership. Britain, among European countries, and Thatcher, among European leaders, were uniquely placed to do that. Britain had always maintained a close relationship with the United States. Lastly, nowhere more than in defense and foreign policy did her own "Thatcher's Law" apply—that in politics, the unexpected always happens. Thatcher believed one must always be prepared and able to face whatever happened to come one's way.
The Soviet Union
When Thatcher came to power, the Cold War was at its height and she inherited Britain's "dual track" agreement with NATO in dealing with it. The Cold War was not so much a fighting war, but primarily a battle of ideologies (ideas or opinions) between the communist Soviet Union and the democratic, capitalist United States. The agreement relied on modernizing NATO's medium-range weapons while at the same time engaging in talks with the Soviet Union on arms control. The question in Western Europe was always about which should come first.
Thatcher felt the Soviet Union could not be trusted to stop seeking an expanded influence in Europe, as they had in the Third World throughout the 1970s. (Third World refers to poor underdeveloped or economically developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.) By 1980, nuclear weapons were seen as a deterrent, or obstacle, to war, not a means of waging war. Thatcher knew that the essence of deterrence was
its ability to pose a serious threat of retaliation to the Soviets. The Soviets had nuclear weapons targeted on every major European and British city. Britons were vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. If the Soviets doubted America's willingness to launch strategic nuclear weapons in defense of Britain, they would never doubt that the Conservative Party-led British government would do so.
Britain, however, was far behind its industrial competitors in maintaining a suitable defense. Needing modern nuclear weapons in place immediately, Thatcher formed a renewed partnership with America under U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89; see entry) to acquire them as part of the Trident project. Meanwhile, the Soviets wanted to split the alliance of NATO. They used propaganda (giving out information to support an idea) to achieve this end. As a result, Thatcher's main emphasis came to be on keeping the alliance together, united behind America's leadership. It was very important that American public opinion remain committed to Western Europe. Britain's security and the free West's interests depended on the continued long-term relationship between the United States and Britain. Thatcher's foreign policy was centered on dealing with the Soviet Union.
Setting the world right
By the early 1980s, the Soviets were at the limit in their expenditure on defense. Internal economic difficulties were increasingly evident, and they could not keep up with the United States in a nuclear arms race much longer. If they could not keep up in weaponry, then the other primary option for remaining equal in world prominence was through arms control and economic trade negotiations.
Thatcher made an effort to establish a realistic relationship with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had reason to do business with her because it had been clearly demonstrated Thatcher had influence with Reagan. She had become Reagan's chief ally in NATO. Invited to visit the Soviet Union, Thatcher visited and returned to the Soviet Union on several occasions. It was there she met new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; see entry) in 1985.
Gorbachev's steady rise to power and the effects of his economic and political reforms were what ultimately unleashed the forces that swept away the Soviet communist system, and as a result, the Soviet Union itself. The Soviets could not control the public demand for major social reform within the Soviet Union's fifteen republics and in Eastern Europe. A cascade of events beginning in 1989 led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Margaret Thatcher played a unique role in the world changes leading up to the twenty-first century. She sparked the triumph of capitalism and the collapse of Soviet communism in promoting free economic markets and freedom of thought and speech. Thatcher resigned as prime minister of Great Britain in 1990, however, after losing support of the Conservative Party over differences concerning post–Cold War European policy. Thatcher left public life in 2002.
For More Information
Campbell, John. Margaret Thatcher. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.
Thatcher, Margaret. The Path to Power. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.
Time/CBS News. People of the Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Zilboorg, Caroline, ed. Women's Firsts. Detroit: Gale, 1997.
The British media loved to dwell on the "feminine factor" during Margaret Thatcher's time in office. They often reported on supposed clashes between the prime minister and the queen of England. Thatcher tried to handle it all with a sense of humor. "I would always be asked how it felt to be a woman prime minister. I would reply: I don't know: I've never experienced the alternative."
Books Published by Margaret Thatcher
In Defence of Freedom. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1987.
The Downing Street Years. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
The Path to Power. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher. Edited by Robin Harris. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher
Conservative Party leader for 15 years, Margaret Hilda Thatcher (born 1925) became the first female prime minister of Great Britain and served in that post from 1979 to 1990, longer than any other British prime minister in the 20th century.
Margaret Thatcher was born to grocery shop keepers in the small railroad equipment manufacturing town of Grantham. Alfred and Beatrice, her parents, were hard workers and careful savers, living over their shop and taking separate vacations so that the grocery would not be left unattended. Her father co-founded the Grantham Rotary Club, became president of the town Grocers' Association, local head of the National Savings Movement, and a member of both the boys' and girls' schools of Grantham. He served for 25 years on the Borough Council, beginning in 1927, and became chairman of its finance committee. For nine years, he was a town alderman, and became the mayor in 1943, as well as a justice of the peace at quarter sessions. He was also a Methodist lay preacher. Beatrice kept the house, sewed, baked, and helped to run the store. Thatcher's childhood family life revolved around the Methodist church, attending services three times a week, saying grace before every meal, and strictly observing the Sabbath. From age five to fifteen, Thatcher took piano lessons and sang in the church choir.
In October 1943, Thatcher was admitted to Somerville College to study chemistry at Oxford. After winning a second-class degree, Thatcher found employment as a research chemist. In 1950 and 1951, she studied to become a barrister and ran as the Conservative candidate in industrial Dartford in North Kent. During this campaign she met Denis Thatcher, who managed his family's company in North Kent. The two were married on December 13, 1951 and became the parents of twins, Mark and Carol, in August 1953.
Thatcher became the youngest woman in the House of Commons in 1959, at the age of 34. She became known for sticking to her deeply felt, but unpopular beliefs which included quality, standards, and choice in education, for equal opportunity, and for aligning universities with industry. Thatcher ran against Ted Heath in 1975, winning the second ballot to lead the Conservatives with 146 votes. She became prime minister in May 1979, when the Conservatives won the majority of seats. In June 1987, her Conservative Party won its third consecutive general election victory. Thatcher appeared likely to continue as prime minister for many years. In the election, she had turned back a strong challenge from the Labour Party by renewing her commitment to conviction politics. She had boasted of the economic successes of her two previous governments as well as her strong foreign and defense policies. Yet Thatcher's third term was to be her least productive. With public opinion turning decisively against her, she was forced to resign from office in November 1990 after a struggle for leadership within the Conservative Party. She was succeeded by John Major, the chancellor of the exchequer since October 1989, who was a supporter of her policies.
Thatcher's third term was marked by controversy from the outset. She pursued a radical conservative agenda, in line with her earlier policies. Her aim was to promote individualism through a further dismantling of state controls. Before 1987 several key industries and public utilities had been transferred to private ownership, including the telephone system, the ports, British Gas, and British Airways. Thatcher continued this policy of privatization, notably in two key areas: water and electricity. Legislation was passed setting up private companies and selling stock in them to the public. This had the double advantage of producing short-term financial gains for the government and helping to create what Thatcher referred to as a property-owning democracy.
Similarly, the sale of council houses to their tenants, begun in 1980, proved to be a controversial if popular measure. By 1988 nearly one million municipal properties were in private hands. The private ownership of homes in Britain was about 70 percent in 1990, one of the highest figures in the world.
Thatcher's government also initiated dramatic changes in the National Health Service, established in 1948. Thatcher favored a significant increase in private medical care and insurance to complement the state-run system. Some of her plans had to be modified, but a major reorganization of the N.H.S. was commenced in 1989 after the publication of a White Paper at the beginning of the year. Market principles were introduced into the N.H.S. Family doctors were given control over their budgets and hospitals were encouraged to opt out of local health authority administration.
Similar market provisions were introduced into state education. Schools were given the power to free themselves from local authority control and to make budgetary decisions, while a national curriculum was developed. The principle of free higher education was virtually abandoned, with universities being encouraged to seek private support. While local authorities continued to provide mandatory stipends to university students, a system of supplementary loans, based on American ideas, was adopted.
Thatcher likewise sought to reduce monopoly control of the professions. Legal reforms were initiated with the intent of lessening the traditional division of functions between solicitors and barristers. Solicitors previously had lost their exclusive power to conduct real estate transactions. Further legislation gave them the right to try cases in the higher courts along with barristers.
The reform that turned public opinion against Thatcher and ultimately led to her downfall was the introduction of the poll tax, or community charge, in 1988. This tax was levied on individuals in a particular district at the same rate, although rebates were available for the poor. It was intended to replace property taxes, hitherto the mainstay of local finance. Since local councils determined the rate of the tax, Thatcher believed that voters would repudiate the higher-spending councils dominated by the Labour Party. There were violent demonstrations against the poll tax in London and other cities, and opposition to it developed within the Conservative Party itself. Major, the new prime minister in 1990, promised to take steps to make the tax more equitable.
Thatcher's economic policies also began to fail during her third term. Her chief successes had been a significant reduction in income tax and a lessening of inflation, from more than 21 percent annually in 1980 to under 3 percent in 1986. However, inflation began to increase again, and by 1990 it had exceeded 10 percent. When combined with a persistently high level of unemployment and a severe downturn in the balance of payments, the economic gains of the Thatcher era began to be called into question. Her solution of attacking inflation by maintaining high interest rates only made matters worse for ordinary people because it increased their monthly mortgage payments.
Opposition to European Integration
The immediate issue that brought about Thatcher's resignation as prime minister was her unyielding opposition to European integration. Britain had joined the European Community in 1973 when Edward Heath was prime minister. Although Thatcher supported integration at the time, in subsequent years she turned down every proposal that seemed to bring the concept of a federal Europe closer to reality. She aligned her foreign policy with Washington rather than Europe in the belief that a special relationship existed with the United States. In economic matters, she firmly rejected proposals for a single European currency.
Thatcher's "Little England" feelings towards Europe antagonized many voters, including a large number of Conservatives. Three leading politicians in her party resigned from office over matters related to Europe: Michael Heseltine, her defense minister, in 1986; Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the exchequer, in 1989; and Geoffrey Howe, the deputy leader of the party, in November 1990. It was Howe's resignation that produced the leadership crisis and Major's emergence as prime minister. The issue of European integration was closely related to Thatcher's other policies. Once again she championed individual sovereignty, while arguing vehemently against the encroaching bureaucratization of government.
Thatcher's 11½ years as prime minister were remarkable. She held office longer than any other prime minister in the 20th century. She impressed her vision upon Britain in a distinctive way, making the word "Thatcherism" a part of that nation's political vocabulary. By her attacks upon central government and the welfare state she undermined a political consensus that had existed since the 1950s. She helped to invigorate the economy, particularly by encouraging small businesses to develop. She challenged powerful institutions and brought about necessary reforms in industrial relations.
Yet the case against Thatcher is a strong one. She was a divisive leader, as on the issues of the poll tax and European integration. Her strident attitudes on social issues upset many people. Economic inequality increased under Thatcher, as did homelessness, and many social services deteriorated. She was accused of weakening basic civil liberties. Her foreign policy, though defined by a spectacular victory over Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982, was marked by Cold War rhetoric which seemed increasingly outdated by her third term in office. Ironically, the Soviet Union gave Thatcher the nickname she was best known by: the Iron Lady. She was proud of it, and her policies, though controversial, reflect a determination and consistency of vision that few political leaders can hope to equal.
In the month following the Thatcher resignation Queen Elizabeth II appointed the former prime minister a member of the Order of Merit, one of only 24 members (a vacancy occurred with the 1989 death of Laurence Olivier). The new Lady Thatcher's husband, Denis, received a baronetry (to become Sir Denis). A second honor came March 7, 1991, when Thatcher received the U.S. Medal of Freedom from President Bush. Although she was no longer prime minister, Thatcher remained politically active. She became president of the Bruges Group of British lawmakers opposed to a full political union with Europe, as well as of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, designed to help bring order to the world.
On June 28, 1991, Thatcher wound up 32 years of a legislative career by announcing she would not seek to retain her seat in the House of Commons at the next election (which was called in July 1992). She had been MP for Barnet, Finchley, two suburbs northwest of London. She has remained active with lectures and appearances over the entire world, and somehow found the time to write her memoirs.
Margaret Thatcher wrote her memoirs in two volumes: The Downing Street Years (1993) and The Path to Power (1995). Two previous biographies of Thatcher are particularly worthwhile: Kenneth Harris, Thatcher (1988), and Hugo Young, The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher 1989; (published in Britain under the title One of Us). Both books are by journalists who offer balanced, if critical, accounts of the Thatcher years. A number of recent studies focus on the events of the Thatcher era rather than her personality. The best of these is Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of Consensus?, 2nd edition (1990), by Dennis A. Kavanagh. More sympathetic to Thatcher than Kavanagh's volume is The Thatcher Decade: How Britain Has Changed During the 1980s by Peter Riddell (1989). Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon have edited a stimulating collection of essays titled The Thatcher Effect (1989), which includes contributions by leading scholars and journalists. Yet another perceptive work is Mrs. Thatcher's Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era (1987) by Peter Jenkins, who maintains that Thatcher destroyed the political order prevailing in Britain since the late 1950s. The so-called special relationship between Britain and the United States is ably covered by Geoffrey Smith in Reagan and Thatcher (1991). Thatcher's press secretary and long-time retainer, Bernard Ingham, gives a favorable account of Thatcher in his memoir Kill the Messenger (1991). □
Thatcher, Margaret 1925–
Margaret Thatcher’s political career was marked by a series of “firsts.” In June 1979 she became the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom. She was the first U.K. prime minister in the twentieth century to win three consecutive general elections (1979, 1983, and 1987), and upon her resignation in November 1990, she had become Britain’s longest continuously serving prime minister since 1827.
Thatcher was also unique in having her name associated with a set of ideas, policies, and style of governance known as Thatcherism. Yet the extent to which Thatcherism as an ideology guided the policies of Thatcher’s governments in office has been disputed. What is not in dispute is that these policies fundamentally altered the trajectory of the United Kingdom’s economy, society, and polity and continued to impact upon policy outputs, political discourse, and electoral competition long after the demise of the Thatcher government.
Thatcherite economic policies were broadly labeled monetarist even though, technically, a monetarist strategy was only pursued for a limited initial period. In an attempt to reverse Britain’s long-term economic decline, Thatcher challenged the basis of the postwar Keynesian social democratic consensus by attempting to restructure patterns of property ownership, taxation, and social attitudes toward welfare. An ambitious program of privatization transferred major state-owned industries and public services into the private sector, and 1.5 million public-sector houses were sold to their tenants. A parallel program of marketization promoted the use of market criteria by public-sector service providers—especially local authorities and the National Health Service. Taxation policies sought to reward “initiative” and “enterprise” through reduced rates of income tax. In parallel, welfare and social benefits were restructured, reduced, and increasingly means tested; and social attitudes toward collective welfare provision were challenged, most famously in Thatcher’s phrase “there is no such thing as society” (from an interview with Douglas Keay, 1987).
A hallmark of Thatcher’s period in office was her style of governance. She confronted most of the powerful social and political institutions in the United Kingdom. Major state institutions—most particularly the civil service and local government—were reformed, and a wide range of regulatory bodies was introduced. A “community charge” (known as the poll tax) was imposed to reform the system of local government financing. This tax was extremely unpopular and prompted widespread nonpayment and, ultimately, riots in London in November 1990. The legal position and standing of trade unions was altered radically by five major legislative acts. Thatcher’s foreign policies also revealed her combative nature. Her condemnation of Soviet-style communism earned her the epithet “the Iron Lady” in the Soviet press. Her support for Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), and for a close relationship with the United States, was reflected in mutual transatlantic perspectives on the cold war. Her general hostility to further European integration and her specific resistance to the creation of a federal European Union earned the United Kingdom the title “the awkward partner.” However, the Falklands War, waged in 1982 against Argentina, secured Thatcher’s status as a “warrior queen” in the popular press in the United Kingdom. The war lasted for seventy-four days, between April and June, and ended when British troops successfully reclaimed the British dependency of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic after an invasion by Argentina. Thatcher’s image as a decisive war leader strengthened her poll ratings and was emphasized successfully in the Conservative Party’s 1983 election slogan “the resolute approach.”
After her resignation in 1990, Thatcher remained a member of Parliament until the 1992 general election. Thereafter she joined the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher, and after a series of strokes she retired from public speaking in 2002. However, the legacy of Thatcher was profound, not least because of her impact upon her political opponents. Indeed the policies pursued by the Labour Party under Tony Blair were variously described as sub-Thatcherite, neo-Thatcherite, or simply Thatcherite.
SEE ALSO Blair, Tony; Conservative Party (Britain); Economics, Keynesian; European Union; Falkland Islands War; Inequality, Political; Labour Party (Britain); Monetarism; Nationalism and Nationality; Neoconservatism; Privatization; Reagan, Ronald
Campbell, John. 2000. The Grocer’s Daughter. Vol. 1 of Margaret Thatcher. London: Cape.
Campbell, John. 2003. The Iron Lady. Vol. 2 of Margaret Thatcher. London: Cape.
Keay, Douglas. 1987. AIDS, Education, and the Year 2000. Woman’s Own. (October 31): pp. 8–10. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument. asp?docid=106689.
Mrs Thatcher was educated at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School and Somerville College, Oxford, and entered Parliament in 1959. Beforehand she had been a research chemist (1947–54) and a lawyer (she was called to the bar in 1954). Between 1970 and 1974 she was secretary of state for education, a position in which she earned the sobriquet of ‘ Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher’ for abolishing the free supply of milk to schoolchildren. This was mild compared to the abuse she endured later.
As leader of the opposition, between 1975 and 1979, she repudiated the legacy of her predecessor as Tory leader, Edward Heath, and, under the influence of Sir Keith Joseph, a former colleague in Heath's cabinet, moved towards that ideal of political patriotism, low taxes, private ownership, balanced budgets, and individual initiative which later became known as Thatcherism. However, if the goal was financial stability, permanently low inflation, reduced government spending, and lower taxes, it proved illusory. Her record as prime minister began and ended with severe recessions (the worst since the 1930s) leading to a reduced industrial base and very low overall growth rates. She failed to reverse Britain's relative decline, although for a few years, until Nigel Lawson and John Major threw it away, it looked as if she had established the right conditions for doing so. The trade unions were tamed; Arthur Scargill's miners went down to defeat after a year-long strike aimed at overthrowing the government; most state-owned companies were privatized; and income tax was significantly lowered. However, rising indirect taxes, rising interest rates, rising inflation, plus the introduction of the hugely unpopular poll tax, meant that when a crisis erupted over Europe in 1990, Mrs Thatcher lacked the political support needed to survive.
Just as she had not been expected to win the Tory Party leadership in 1975, her rapid rise to international fame took many by surprise. There had been little in her record to suggest that she had any talent for diplomacy, yet from the start of her premiership, she made her mark in international affairs. In 1979 a peace settlement was negotiated at Lancaster House which ended the Rhodesian question and paved the way for an independent Zimbabwe. Such a settlement had eluded international negotiators since 1965, although it must be conceded that events in Africa, plus Lord Carrington's diplomacy, had more to do with the success than Mrs Thatcher's personal input. Her own triumph, which made her an international celebrity, came with victory over Argentina in the Falklands War of 1982, when, having been taken by surprise by the Argentine invasion (Carrington resigned), Mrs Thatcher dispatched a battle fleet to the South Atlantic, which recaptured the colony. The bravery and efficiency displayed by the armed forces, the collapse of the reactionary Argentine dictatorship, and the leadership provided by the prime minister, enabled Mrs Thatcher to win a remarkable triumph in the 1983 general election. Thereafter she developed a ‘very, very special relationship’ with the US president, Ronald Reagan, and despite some differences (the Soviet oil pipeline, Grenada, nuclear disarmament) worked very closely with him to end the Cold War. She also managed to develop a close relationship with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, of whom she remarked, after they first met: ‘That is a man I can do business with.’ British contacts with eastern Europe intensified and Gorbachev, like western leaders, used Mrs Thatcher as an intermediary with President Reagan. When she finally visited Moscow, she received a triumphal welcome. Other aspects of her diplomacy were more controversial. These included the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, the joint agreement with Peking over the future of Hong Kong (1984), her resistance to economic sanctions against South Africa, and the scepticism with which she greeted the prospect of German re-unification.
Her policy towards the European Community was, however, most controversial of all. Her first instincts had been conventional. She had campaigned enthusiastically for a Yes vote in the 1975 referendum and always believed that her approach was constructive. She helped achieve closer co-operation on foreign policy, and the Single European Act which was signed in 1986 received her full backing as a means of extending Thatcherite free enterprise across a European single market, despite the concessions involved to majority voting. On the other hand, she had had to battle mightily in order to secure the annual British rebates agreed on in the Fontainebleau accord (1984) and was horrified by Jacques Delors's ideas regarding a European Social Charter, and even more so by European economic and monetary union. In her famous Bruges speech (1988), she declared her opposition to future integration, although she was persuaded by her cabinet colleagues Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson to promise to enter the exchange rate mechanism, a move which came under John Major as chancellor and which proved a disaster. By 1990, however, after having rejected economic and monetary union at a summit in Rome, she was deserted by Sir Geoffrey Howe, who, bitter at having been dismissed as foreign secretary, and fearful lest his long-standing federalism be rendered futile, resigned from her government and challenged Michael Heseltine to contest the party leadership. In the ensuing contest, Mrs Thatcher won the first round, but was deserted by her cabinet—over whom she had never exercised full control and who were weary of her autocratic style—and withdrew from the leadership race. She was succeeded by John Major as Tory leader.
She was accused by many of having broken with the post-war consensus in British politics and, indeed, she herself regularly denounced the concept. In fact, she had responded to a changing consensus and had influenced that change by her personality and policies. The high unemployment of her years in power had not been intended. The welfare state had grown under her as never before. Her defence and foreign policies had been totally conventional. She had made no constitutional innovations and had if anything been slow to dismiss her cabinet critics. Privatization had proved popular. So too had trade union reform. In the end she contributed to her own undoing by retaining key ministers whose policies, priorities, and philosophies were fundamentally different from her own. In this sense, the Iron Lady proved an unexpectedly weak prime minister.
Campbell, J. , Margaret Thatcher (2000);
Harris, K. , Thatcher (1988).
Thatcher, Margaret Hilda, Baroness