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.
Further Reading on Margaret Hilda Thatcher
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).