Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, served from 1979 until 1990. During her time in office, she reduced the influence of trade unions, privatized certain industries, scaled back public benefits and changed the terms of political debate, much like her friend and ideological ally, U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Nicknamed the “Iron Lady,” she opposed Soviet communism and fought a war to maintain control of the Falkland Islands. The longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, Thatcher was eventually pressured into resigning by members of her own Conservative Party
Margaret Thatcher: The Early Years
Margaret Hilda Roberts, later Margaret Thatcher, was born on October 13, 1925, in Grantham, a small town in Lincolnshire, England. Her parents, Alfred and Beatrice, were middle-class shopkeepers and devout Methodists. Alfred was also a politician, serving as a town council member for 16 years before becoming an alderman in 1943 and mayor of Grantham from 1945 to 1946.
Thatcher matriculated at Oxford University in 1943, during the height of World War II. While there she studied chemistry and joined the Oxford Union Conservative Association, becoming president of the organization in 1946. After graduation she worked as a research chemist, but her real interest was politics. In 1950 she ran for parliament in the Labour-dominated constituency of Dartford, using the slogan “Vote Right to Keep What’s Left.” She lost that year and again in 1951, but received more votes than previous Conservative Party candidates.
Margaret Thatcher Enters Parliament
In December 1951 Margaret married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman. Less than two years later she gave birth to twins, Carol and Mark. Meanwhile, she was studying for the bar exams, which she passed in early 1954. She then spent the next few years practicing law and looking for a winnable constituency.
Thatcher ran for parliament once more in 1959—this time in the Conservative-dominated constituency of Finchley—and easily won the seat. The first bill she introduced affirmed the right of the media to cover local government meetings. Speaking about the bill in her maiden speech, she focused not on freedom of the press but instead on the need to limit wasteful government expenditures—a common theme throughout her political career.
By 1961 Thatcher had accepted an invitation to become parliamentary undersecretary in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. She then steadily moved up the ministerial ranks, becoming secretary of state for education and science when the Conservatives retook power in 1970. The following year she was demonized by her Labour Party opponents as “Thatcher the milk snatcher” when she eliminated a free milk program for schoolchildren. Nonetheless, she was able to keep her job, and in 1975, with the Conservatives back in the opposition, she defeated former Prime Minister Edward Heath to take over leadership of the party.
Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister
Thatcher was now one of the most powerful women in the world. She rejected the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, who advocated deficit spending during periods of high unemployment, instead preferring the monetarist approach of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. At her first conference speech, she chastised the Labour Party on economic grounds, saying, “A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master—these are the British inheritance.” Soon after, she attacked the Soviet Union as “bent on world dominance.” A Soviet army newspaper responded by calling her “the Iron Lady,” a nickname she immediately embraced.
The Conservatives, helped out by a “winter of discontent” in which numerous unions went on strike, won the 1979 election, and Thatcher became prime minister. During her first term, the government lowered direct taxes while increasing taxes on spending, sold off public housing, put in austerity measures and made other reforms, even as rising inflation and unemployment caused Thatcher’s popularity to temporarily wane. In April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a sparsely populated British colony located 300 miles from Argentina and 8,000 miles from the United Kingdom. Thatcher dispatched troops to the area. On May 2, a British submarine controversially sank an Argentine cruiser that was outside of an official exclusion zone, killing over 300 people on board. Later in the month, British troops landed near San Carlos Bay in East Falkland and, despite persistent air attacks, were able to capture the capital of Port Stanley and end the fighting.
The war and an improving economy propelled Thatcher to a second term in 1983. This time around, her government took on the trade unions, requiring them to hold a secret ballot before any work stoppage and refusing to make any concessions during a yearlong miners’ strike. In what became a key part of her legacy, Thatcher also privatized British Telecom, British Gas, British Airways, Rolls-Royce and a number of other state-owned companies.
On the foreign policy front, Thatcher often found herself allied with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whom she later described as “the supreme architect of the West’s Cold War victory.” Her relationship with her own continent’s leaders was more complicated, particularly since she believed the Europe Union should be a free-trade area rather than a political endeavor.
“That such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era,” she wrote in her 2002 book Statecraft. In Asia, meanwhile, she negotiated the eventual transfer of Hong Kong to the Chinese. In Africa she had a mixed record, facilitating the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe but opposing sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
Margaret Thatcher’s Fall From Power
After Thatcher was elected to a third term in 1987, her government lowered income tax rates to a postwar low. It also pushed through an unpopular “community charge” that was met with street protests and high levels of nonpayment. On November 14, 1990, former Defense Minister Michael Heseltine challenged her for leadership of the party, partly due to differences of opinion on the European Union.
Thatcher won the first ballot but by too small of a margin for outright victory. That night, her cabinet members visited her one by one and urged her to resign. She officially stepped down on November 28 after helping to assure that John Major and not Heseltine would replace her.
Thatcher remained in parliament until 1992, at which time she entered the largely ceremonial House of Lords and began to write her memoirs. Though she stopped appearing in public after suffering a series of small strokes in the early 2000s, her influence remained strong. In fact, many of her free market policies have since been adopted, not only by Conservatives, but also by Labour Party leaders like Tony Blair. In 2011, the former prime minister was the subject of an award-winning (and controversial) biographical film, “The Iron Lady,” which depicted her political rise and fall. Margaret Thatcher died on April 8, 2013, at the age of 87.