Thatcher, Margaret (1925—)

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Thatcher, Margaret (1925—)

Britain's first female Conservative Party leader and prime minister from 1979 until 1990. Name variations: Margaret Roberts; Mrs. Thatcher; Lady Thatcher. Born Margaret Roberts in Grantham, England, on October 13, 1925; daughter of Alfred Roberts (a shopkeeper and local politician) and Beatrice Roberts; attended Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, 1936–43, Somerville College, Oxford, 1943–47; married Denis Thatcher (a London businessman), in December 1951; children: (twins) Carol and Mark (b. 1953).

Worked as a research chemist (1947–51); practiced law (1954–59); elected Conservative member of Parliament (1959); served as secretary of state for Education and Science (1970–74); elected Conservative Party leader (1975); elected prime minister (1979); reelected prime minister (1983 and 1987); resigned as prime minister (1990); made Lady Thatcher (1992); published memoirs The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993) and The Path to Power (HarperCollins, 1995).

Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a provincial English grocer, rose to the heights of political power through hard work, ambition, and absolute single-mindedness. She won three consecutive general elections, which no British premier had done since the early 19th century, and dominated her party more completely than any other politician of the century. Contemptuous of feminism, she surrounded herself with strong and effective men but allowed none of them to rival her own power.

She was born Margaret Roberts in 1925 in Granthan, Lincolnshire. As a schoolgirl, she took elocution lessons, in which she began to learn the brittle, precise, and sometimes condescending tones of her adult oratory. She played field hockey, sang in the school choir, and studied hard, but had few close friends. Her father, an ambitious corner shopkeeper and Methodist lay preacher, became mayor of Grantham in 1943 and was chair of the board of Margaret's school. Finishing school with distinction in examinations, she won a place at Somerville College, Oxford, one of the few women's colleges at the elite university. There she studied chemistry without great distinction but, showing an early political commitment, became president of the University's Conservative Association—the first woman to hold that office. The Conservatives suffered a stunning loss in the General Election of 1945 which ejected Britain's war leader, Winston Churchill, in favor of the Labour Party leader Clement Attlee. Thatcher's political convictions were already fully shaped although she was only 20, and she campaigned in Grantham that year for the unsuccessful Conservative candidate.

Graduating with a second class degree, she became a research and development chemist with a plastics firm near London but longed to get more directly involved in politics. She believed it would help her to become a lawyer, since scientists play a negligible role in British politics, but for the moment she could not afford the price of a judicial education. She first tried to win a seat in Parliament in 1950, in the strongly pro-Labour constituency of Dartford, Kent. Although she managed to erode the Labour MP's majority among the voters, she could not displace him.

In 1951, she married Denis Thatcher, a prosperous London business executive who, already well established, provided her with complete financial security for her future career and enabled her to turn to legal studies. As her career advanced, Denis Thatcher became a figure of fun in much of the British press, but he appears to have been an intelligent and capable man. He shared his wife's fierce conservative convictions from the start and provided a stable home environment, but was careful not to intervene in her political life. She gave birth to twins, Carol and Mark, in 1953, but when they were just one year old she passed the bar and began to practice as an attorney, concentrating on tax cases. It was unusual for well-to-do British wives to work during the 1950s, but Thatcher seems never to have doubted that she had a future in politics.

After several more unsuccessful bids for a parliamentary seat, she won the position of MP for Finchley (part of north London) in 1959, when the Conservatives were once more in power. Only two years later, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed her junior minister in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, where, despite her relative political inexperience, she was soon a dominant presence. Her senior, John Boyd-Carpenter, recalled: "Once she got there she very very quickly showed a grip on the highly technical matters of social security—and it's an extraordinarily technical, complex subject—and a capacity for hard work which she's shown ever since. It quite startled the civil servants and certainly startled me."

The Conservatives lost the General Election of 1964 and for the following six years Thatcher, now in her early and mid-40s, was parliamentary opposition speaker first on Pensions, then on Housing, Finance, Transport, and finally Education. In these years, she learned her way around many of the principal departments of government, experience which was to prove valuable later. Her Finchley seat was secure despite national Labour dominance, and she won it again in 1970, when the Conservatives returned to power under the leadership of Edward Heath.

Heath appointed Thatcher minister of Education and Science and at once she became a dominant—some said domineering—presence at the ministry. The British ministries are run by permanent staffs of civil servants who are expected to obey whichever party is in office. Thatcher suspected that, unless she watched them closely, her civil servants would go their own way rather than energetically enact her policies. Then and subsequently, she favored a confrontational style, making sure that everyone knew she was in charge, that all business passed through her hands, and that she would never be taken by surprise by events in her ministry. A prodigiously hard worker, she slept little, learned complex sets of facts and figures, was reluctant to delegate responsibility, and in parliamentary speeches could often overwhelm challengers with her mastery of detail.

For the first time, she became nationally famous when she decreed that, as part of an economy drive, government-run schools should no longer give free milk to every child (a policy enacted decades earlier when many urban children suffered from poor nutrition). A press campaign labeled her: "Thatcher, the milk snatcher," and she now had to endure heckling and public insults when she went to open new schools or give speeches in colleges. The National Union of Students, dominated by the radical left in the early 1970s, treated her with contempt when she tried to restrict its access to government subsidies. Local Labour councils opposed her plan to preserve selective grammar schools of the sort she had attended rather than hasten a nationwide change to universal "comprehensive" schools.

Edward Heath's premiership was marred by a long succession of bitter industrial strikes and a severe period of inflation. When he called a general election in 1974, hoping to increase his parliamentary majority, he lost, and Labour leader Harold Wilson became prime minister once more. Heath's defeat discredited him as Conservative Party leader and in the leadership struggle which followed Thatcher emerged as a prominent candidate. She was not widely liked by her fellow Conservatives. Many of them came from rich or aristocratic backgrounds, their party was notoriously snobbish, and she carried the stigma of being a provincial tradesman's daughter with an artificial accent and a frosty manner. On the other hand, she was fearless, decisive, and hard-working. One prominent Conservative leader, Airey Neave, a hero of World War II, pushed her candidacy against several male rivals and in the balloting of February 1975 she won.

In the following four years, Thatcher gained international prominence as an outspoken leader of the opposition. Like Golda Meir in Israel and Indira Gandhi in India, she gave no one the chance to rebuke her for feminine weakness. At the same time, she was contemptuous of the feminist movement and believed that any woman with energy to match her own could succeed. At the next general election, in May 1979, she benefited from Labour's economic crisis, won a resounding victory, and became prime minister, the first woman to hold Britain's highest political office. In the following decade, she carried out a conservative revolution even more dramatic than that of her American friend and counterpart President Ronald Reagan. From "milk snatcher," she graduated to a sterner nickname, "The Iron Lady," created by the Soviet press but soon picked up at home, which stayed with her for the next decade. Despite high levels of unemployment and the continued challenge of Britain's overmighty trade unions, she was to win re-election twice more and remain in power longer than any other 20th-century prime minister.

Since World War II, most of Britain's major industries, including coal, steel, railways, telephones, water, gas, and electricity, had been nationalized. Many of them ran at a loss, and were subsidized by heavy taxes. Thatcher, a dedicated free marketeer, was determined to end economic inefficiencies, and under her supervision these primary industries were, one by one, denationalized. Citizens were encouraged to become shareholders, and Thatcher warned management that if they could not turn a profit, they would have to face the vicissitudes of the marketplace like any other businessman. The National Health Service, however, had so much support from all sides that she did not seriously consider dismantling it. She also struck hard against the power of trade unions, organizing Acts of Parliament in 1980, 1982, and 1984 which curbed union power and outlawed the closed shop. Facing up to a yearlong coalminer's strike (March 1984–March 1985) in what the press dubbed the "Winter of Discontent," she won the affection of most middle-class voters but the undying hatred of union stalwarts.

A policy related to denationalization was Thatcher's decision to sell public-housing units (known in England as council houses) to their occupants. She believed that the government should do what it could to preside over the economy as judge and arbitrator rather than being itself a principal economic player. Selling council houses was politically beneficial too because it gave the purchasers the sense that, as property owners, they would be well served by voting Conservative from now on.

Thatcher dominated British politics and government in a fashion not witnessed since Churchill's leadership of Britain during World War II.

—E. Bruce Geelhoed

Shortly before her election victory she had told an interviewer that "as Prime Minister I couldn't waste time having any internal arguments." In the following years, she made good on that assertion, running Cabinet meetings briskly, moving quickly to prearranged decisions, and firing ministers who disagreed with her. Some ministers, notably Ian Gilmour, Francis Pym, and James Prior, favored conciliation and negotiated settlements with the trade unions. She called them the "wets" and got rid of them. She sometimes berated her associates, and as her power grew she tended increasingly to hector those who crossed her in matters both small and great. She was renowned for asking her closest associates, when a new candidate for office was under consideration, "Is he one of us?," meaning, ideologically and personally loyal to her.

The most dramatic event of Thatcher's first term of office, and one which did much to salvage her from economic and unemployment woes, was the Falkland Islands War. The corrupt Galtieri dictatorship of Argentina, hoping to distract the Argentine people from its domestic crises with a patriotic triumph, seized the South Atlantic Falkland Islands in April 1982. The islands had been a British colony for 150 years and, although they no longer had much strategic value for Britain, Thatcher took the view that Argentina could not be permitted to trample British sovereignty, especially when the population (of 1,800 farmers and fishermen) was also loyal to Britain. She therefore ordered Britain's armed forces to prepare a counterattack.

Britain's NATO allies, particularly the Americans, had mixed feelings about this venture. They agreed with her that arbitrary invasion was deplorable, but did not want to see a large military effort so far from their main theater of concern, the Iron Curtain. The Americans were also afraid that inter-American relations would be damaged if they sided too openly with an old colonial power against Argentina. In the end, however, President Reagan stood by his ally, and the U.S. Navy and Air Force refuelled the British expeditionary force as it sailed south. The invading force suffered the loss of two ships sunk and twelve others damaged, and about 250 British military personnel were killed, but within a month of the landings, the war was over. Argentinean casualties were far higher—368 died in the sinking of one ship, the General Belgrano, alone—and the end of the war presaged the end of the Galtieri dictatorship.

Labour Party leader Michael Foot, convinced that Thatcher should have tried harder to make a negotiated settlement rather than fight a costly war for an irrelevant colony, led the parliamentary opposition to Thatcher and criticized her decision to visit the island in January 1983 at a cost of £200,000 (almost half a million dollars). British popular opinion, however, supported Thatcher and, on the strength of her new image as a successful war leader, she swept back into office in the General Election of June 1983. Her campaign was helped by the disarray inside the Labour Party, badly split between its moderate and militant sides, and by Labour's pledge of unilateral nuclear disarmament, which never had wide public support. She benefited from the professional advertising campaign mounted by the Saatchi and Saatchi company, which borrowed from and improved on American political advertising methods.

The next year, at the Conservative Party's annual conference, Thatcher was attacked by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which detonated a bomb in Brighton's Grand Hotel where she and other party members were staying. The blast, coming at 2:30 in the early morning hours, killed 5 and injured 32, including her ministers John Wakeham and Norman Tebbitt. Thatcher survived; indeed, she was still awake and working on government papers and within minutes was able to appear before television cameras, outwardly calm, well dressed and composed, to denounce terrorism and reaffirm her government's Ireland policy. Her composure on this occasion fortified her reputation for inflexible determination,

though terrorism must have been a source of constant anxiety—her friend and mentor Airey Neave had died in an IRA bomb attack in 1979.

When she won a third election in 1987, against a better-organized Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, Thatcher began to seem, to her friends and enemies, unassailable, and yet in this third administration she sowed the seeds of her downfall. First, she introduced a ruinously unpopular "poll tax," changing the local taxation structure and imposing the burden less progressively than hitherto. The tax turned out to be much higher for many taxpayers than previous local taxes had been, and by 1989 one of the plan's early supporters, Sir Rhodes Boyson, admitted ruefully that "the poll tax as it now stands is a Labour Party benevolent fund." Many members of her own party were uneasy about the reform, and a massive opposition to the tax led to underreporting, evasion, and protest events. The worst of these protests turned into the London riot of March 31, 1991—the most damaging political riot in 20th-century Britain—which hastened the end of the scheme (by which time Thatcher had resigned).

Second, Thatcher remained suspicious of Britain's role in the European Economic Community. Britain had joined it late, under her Conservative predecessor Edward Heath, and much of Britain's business community believed that closer economic and political ties with Europe would benefit the nation. Thatcher feared that closer ties, especially monetary union, would compromise British sovereignty and lead to German domination of the Community. In the early years of her premiership, she had made headlines by denouncing Community financing arrangements and winning a better deal for Britain, but now she seemed to be shirking obligations to which she had already assented. The issue rankled even some of her closest associates, among them Michael Heseltine (nicknamed "Tarzan"), a conservative maverick and spellbinding speechmaker who resigned from the Cabinet in 1987, partly over European differences.

In the following years, Heseltine became the rallying point for anti-Thatcher Conservatives, whose number grew steadily. Thatcher had now fired nearly all the senior Conservative men from their ministerial positions at one time or another, replacing them with younger (and sometimes more sycophantic) alternatives. A groundswell of opposition was building among Conservatives, and she was already widely hated by Labour, Liberal, and Social Democratic politicians. By late 1990, even her loyal supporter John Major, chancellor of the exchequer, was urging her to cooperate more fully in European monetary integration. That November, Thatcher's adversaries used her unpopularity in the polls (which showed she would lose an election held just then) to force an election for party leadership. In the balloting, her chief opponent Heseltine won 152 votes to her 204. Since her majority was not sufficient to fulfil party election rules, she faced the prospect of a second ballot. But to have lost so much support showed Thatcher that her long hold on power was finally coming to an end and that she would be likely to lose later if not now, weakening the party as she did so. Accordingly she visited Queen Elizabeth II , in line with protocol, then issued a statement of resignation, weeping a little at her last Cabinet meeting but otherwise keeping a close rein on her emotions.

John Major rather than Michael Heseltine succeeded her as party leader and went on to win another Conservative election victory two years later. Thatcher herself, elevated to a life peerage, became one of the elder chiefs of state of the Western world. Highly praised by conservatives overseas, and even by Mikhail Gorbachev and the leadership of China, she made successful speaking tours in America and Japan. Few commentators could doubt, however, that it was a source of bitter regret to her that she was no longer in a position of power and authority. She had made as strong a mark on British politics as any 20th-century prime minister. As Dennis Kavanagh wrote soon afterwards: "Mrs. Thatcher … has challenged certain long-established political assumptions: that a government could not be re-elected if it presided over a massive increase in unemployment; or that a government had to govern with the consent and co-operation of the major interests, particularly business and the unions. Mrs. Thatcher has successfully defied both beliefs." She left British politics a greatly changed arena, whose old rules no longer applied.


Geelhoed, E. Bruce. Margaret Thatcher: In Victory and Downfall. NY: Prager, 1992.

Junor, Penny. Margaret Thatcher: Wife, Mother, Politician. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1983.

Kavanagh, Dennis. Thatcherism and British Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Skidelsky, Robert, ed. Thatcherism. London. Chatto & Windus, 1988.

Tebbitt, Norman. Upwardly Mobile. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988.

Watkins, Alan. A Conservative Coup: The Fall of Margaret Thatcher. London: Duckworth, 1991.

Young, Hugo, and Anne Sloman. The Thatcher Phenomenon. London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1986.

suggested reading:

Abse, Leo. Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice. London: Jonathan Cape, 1989.

Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

——. The Path to Power. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.


Hansard, British Library, British newspaper archives.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia