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Margaret Thatcher

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Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Margaret Thatcher

Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Margaret Thatcher in Brief:

Margaret Thatcher was the first female British Prime Minister. The leader of the Conservative Party, she won three consecutive terms of office (the only British PM in the twentieth century to do so), transformed the nation and at the time was the longest serving PM since 1827, governing from 1979 - 90. She was also the most divisive PM of the century, earning both great reverence but also deep hatred from the divided public, particularly for her treatment of trade unions.

Early Life of Margaret Thatcher:

Margaret Thatcher was born on October 13th 1925 in Grantham to Alfred Roberts, who was a grocer, lay preacher and local mayor. She developed an early interest in politics and, when studying chemistry at Oxford, became president of the Oxford Conservative Association (the Conservative being one of Britain’s main political parties). She graduated in 1946 and worked for four years as a research chemist, but she studied law when not in work and became a barrister in 1954. In 1951 she married Denis Thatcher, having two twin children by him.

Early Political Life:

Thatcher first stood for Parliament in 1950, but won her first election campaign in 1959, winning the "seat" of Finchley in London, which she held until she retired in 1992. She rose within the ranks of the Conservative Party, holding a variety of positions, and entered the Shadow Cabinet in 1967. In 1970 she became the Minister for Education, advocating an increase in spending on education and the creation of more comprehensive schools, but she rose to public prominence after cancelling a programme providing free milk to primary school children which led to the nickname 'Thatcher the Milk Snatcher'.

Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister:

When Conservative Party leader Edward Heath lost two General Elections in 1974, Margaret Thatcher became the only cabinet minister prepared to challenge him for the leadership of the party; she was in practical terms the candidate of disaffected right wing MPs. She won, surprisingly, by 130 votes to 119, though she only gained one vote from her Shadow Cabinet colleagues. She led the party in opposition and then in the 1979 elections, winning largely because the opposition was so divided and unpopular, and because of a series of major strikes the winter before; hers was the lowest margin of victory since 1922.

Margaret Thatcher's First Term:

Britain’s economy in 1979 was in a poor state, and Thatcher’s first term in office saw her and her chancellor adopt an economic theory known as Monetarism, while stripping away government regulations on business and subsidies. Many inefficient businesses failed as a result, leading to a rise in unemployment and inflation doubled. This she countered with a rise in taxes and a change in the money supply, bringing both a sharp fall in inflation and opposition from economists and the public.

The Falklands War and a Second Victory:

At this point the Thatcher government was deeply unpopular. Then, Argentina invaded the Falklands, a British island in the southern hemisphere. The ensuing Falklands War, which Thatcher ran victoriously with great patriotic fervour, boosted the popularity of her government hugely, leading, along with deep division among the Labour Party (the main political opposition), to the Conservatives winning a large majority at the General Election in 1983. More on the Falklands War.

Thatcherism: the Policies and Style of Margaret Thatcher:

Critics have accused Margaret Thatcher of lacking a unified set of policies for much of her rule, but a set of practices and ideals have become identified with both her and her government: these are known as Thatcherism. The Thatcher government set about privatising most of the industries run by the government, including water, electricity and the trains, selling them off relatively cheaply to new private companies. She also clamped down heavily on trade unions, passing laws designed to curb strikes, closed shops and sympathy strikes.

One of the pivotal events of her government occurred in 1984: the Miners Strike. Britain’s miners protested the government closure of “uneconomic” pits. Thatcher organised Britain around the striking miners and forced them back into work with no concessions. Other aspects of Thatcherism included selling council houses to tenants, reducing social service expenses, limits on print money and a dislike of growing European federalism. She also lowered taxes. A fierce, combative approach, a strong individualism and other aspects of her personal style became closely identified with her politics.

The "Iron Lady": Margaret Thatcher and the Cold War:

Forging a close relationship with US President Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher expressed a strong anti-communism and portrayed the USSR as an evil which should be opposed; she has been criticised for firmly keeping the Cold War alive by this approach until Gorbachev arrived in Russia to end it. However, she received Gorbachev warmly. A 1976 speech from before she became Prime Minister, in which she roundly condemned communism, earned her the nickname "The Iron Lady" in the Soviet media, and the west soon adopted it.

Third Office and Defeat:

In 1984 Margaret Thatcher narrowly survived the IRA bombing of a hotel in Brighton, part of a larger campaign by the IRA for a united and independent Ireland which was, in turn, part of the larger political unrest and violence over British controlled Northern Ireland. The bombing earned her some sympathy from the British public; indeed, her second term had strongly polarised the UK, and her victory in the General Election of 1987 revealed a nation deeply divided, with almost no Tory support in inner cities. Her third term was marked by two chief friction points: a strong opposition to European union, which divided her party, and the "Community Charge", otherwise known as the "Poll Tax", which was so unpopular it caused riots in the streets.

With the economic situation worsening in 89-90 – there was recession and high unemployment - and Thatcher undermined by the poll tax, there were doubts within the party whether Thatcher could win a fourth election. A more pro-European member of the Conservative Party called Michael Heseltine challenged Thatcher for leadership of the party. Thatcher won more votes than Heseltine, but was four votes short of outright victory and was pressurised by the party into resigning. In 1992 she left her parliamentary seat and became Baroness of Kestevan, taking a place in the House of Lords, as well as speaking publicly round the world. Her influence was felt for some time afterward, often to the frustration of her successors. In 1995 she became a member of the Order of the Garter. A series of minor strokes caused her to retire from public speaking in 2002, and she died in 2013 at the age of 87 from a stroke.

Impact:

It isn’t an overstatement to say that almost every aspect of life was affected by the policies of the Thatcher government during her years in power, as the economic and social fabric of Britain changed. Whether it changed for the better or worse largely depends on your political persuasion, and there are still huge divisions in how people see Thatcher, some criticizing her for tearing the social heart out of Britain, others for modernising the nation. She was both loved and hated.
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