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Summary Article: Thatcher, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness
From Chambers Biographical Dictionary




♦ English Conservative politician, the first woman to be prime minister of Great Britain (1979-90)

Margaret Thatcher was born in Grantham, the daughter of Alderman Alfred Roberts, a grocer and Methodist lay minister. She was educated at Grantham High School and at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read chemistry. She stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate for Dartford in 1950 and 1951, and in 1951 she married businessman Denis Thatcher (1915-2003). She qualified as a barrister in 1953, and specialized in tax law.

In 1959 she was elected MP for Finchley, and from 1961 to 1964 she was joint parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. She joined the shadow Cabinet in 1967. As Secretary of State for Education and Science (1970-74) she caused some controversy by abolishing free milk for schoolchildren over the age of eight. From 1974 to 1975 she was joint shadow Chancellor, and in 1975 was elected leader of the Conservative Party, defeating Edward Heath to become the first woman party leader in British politics.

The Conservative Party was elected to government in May 1979 with a majority of 43 and devoted its energies to combating inflation, achieved at the cost of high unemployment (which doubled from 1979 to 1980) and reduced manufacturing output. Thatcher was re-elected with a majority of 144 in June 1983, her personal popularity having been greatly boosted by the recapture of the Falkland Islands from Argentina the previous year, and by the disarray in the opposition parties. In 1983 she was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

During their second term under her leadership, the Conservatives moved towards a more right-wing position, placing considerable emphasis on the market economy and the shedding of public sector commitments through an extensive privatization programme, including British Telecom, British Airways and Rolls-Royce. Major legislation to reduce the power of the unions followed: union leaders were to ballot members on strike action, unions were to be responsible for the actions of their members, and sympathy strikes and the closed shop were banned. A miners' strike that began in the early part of 1984 lasted for twelve months without success, because the government had foreseen it and taken extensive precautionary measures.

In October 1984, an IRA bomb exploded at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton; Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, but four other people were killed. She went on to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. That same year, the University of Oxford decided by a vote of Congregation not to award her a proposed honorary degree, as a protest against the effects of Thatcherism on further education. Her reputation for intransigence was strengthened by the dramatic resignation in 1986 of Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine.

Despite these difficulties, Thatcher was returned for a third term in the 1987 general election with a majority of 102. After ten years in office she had established a personal political philosophy based on individualism, the operation of market forces, and minimum intervention by (and support from) the state in people's lives, all forced through with a resolution that overrode objections from her critics and doubts among her supporters. In 1988 she became Britain's longest-serving prime minister of the century.

On the international stage, her friendship with Ronald Reagan survived the US invasion of the British dependency of Grenada in 1983, and in 1986 she allowed him to use British air bases to launch a reprisal attack on Libya, a move which caused storms of public protest. In the USSR, where she had been dubbed "the Iron Lady" in 1976 for her denunciation of Communism, she now won the admiration of Mikhail Gorbachev for her resoluteness. She was credited with helping to end the Cold War.

From 1989 the tide of events turned against her. The introduction of the community charge (popularly known as the poll tax) was widely unpopular, and led to public demonstrations. The same year, her resistance to the growing influence of other EC member states over the UK economy, and to their plans for economic union, led to the resignation of Chancellor Nigel Lawson (after hostile statements by Sir Alan Walters, her economic adviser, who also subsequently resigned) and of Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in 1990. Howe's resignation speech in the Commons was a bitter attack on the prime minister which effectively sealed her fate. Her leadership was challenged, and in November 1990 she resigned as leader and was succeeded by John Major.

In 1992 she declined to stand again for parliament in the general election, and she was created a life peer. She turned instead to extra-parliamentary activities, launching the Thatcher Foundation to promote free enterprise and democracy thoughout the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. Much of her economic legacy became common ground between the UK's main political parties after Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994. In 2002 she published Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World; that same year, health problems led her to largely withdraw from public life. A bronze statue of her was unveiled in Parliament in 2007.

Margaret Thatcher's memoirs have been published in two volumes: The Downing Street Years 1979-90 (1993) and The Path to Power (1995), which deals with her earlier years. See also H Young, The Iron Lady (1989) and K Harris, Thatcher (1988).

"No woman in my time will be prime minister. … Anyway, I would not want to be prime minister."

- On her appointment in 1969 as junior education minister; quoted in the Sunday Telegraph, 26 October 1969.

"It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands, when you have spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment."

- Of the Falklands conflict, in a speech to the Scottish Conservative Party conference, 14 May 1982.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2011

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