Margaret Thatcher

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The Rt Hon. Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

In office
4 May 1979 –  28 November 1990
Monarch Elizabeth II
Deputy William Whitelaw (1979 - 1988)
Geoffrey Howe (1989 - 1990)
Preceded by James Callaghan
Succeeded by John Major

Born 13 October 1925 (1925-10-13) (age 81)
Flag of England Grantham, Lincolnshire, England
Political party Conservative
Spouse Sir Denis Thatcher, Bt.
Alma mater Somerville College, Oxford
Profession Research chemist, Lawyer
Religion Methodist

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC (born Margaret Hilda Roberts on 13 October 1925) is a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in office from 1979 to 1990. She was leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 until 1990. She is the only woman to have held the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Thatcher was the longest-serving British Prime Minister since Lord Salisbury and had the longest continuous period in office since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th century. She was the first woman to lead a major political party in the UK, and the first of only two women to have held any of the four great offices of state.

Early life and education

Thatcher was born in the town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, England. Her father, Alfred Roberts, owned a grocer's shop in the town and was active in local politics and religion, serving as an Alderman and Methodist lay preacher. Roberts came from a Liberal family but stood—as was then customary in local government—as an Independent. He lost his post as Alderman in 1952 after the Labour Party won its first majority on Grantham Council in 1950. He married Beatrice Roberts, née Stephenson, and they had two daughters (Thatcher and her older sister Muriel (1921-2004)). Thatcher was brought up a devout Methodist and has remained a Christian throughout her life. Thatcher performed well academically, attending Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School and subsequently attending Somerville College, Oxford in 1944 to study Chemistry, specifically crystallography. She became President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946, the third woman to hold the post. She graduated with a degree and worked as a research chemist for British Xylonite and then J. Lyons and Co., where she helped develop methods for preserving ice cream. She was a member of the team that developed the first soft frozen ice cream. Thatcher was also a member of the Association of Scientific Workers.

Political career between 1950 and 1970

At the 1950 and 1951 elections, Margaret Roberts fought the safe Labour seat of Dartford, and was at the time the youngest ever female Conservative candidate for office. While active in the Conservative Party in Kent, she met Denis Thatcher, whom she married in 1951. Denis was a wealthy divorced businessman and he funded his wife's studies for the Bar. She qualified as a barrister in 1953, the same year that her twin children Carol and Mark were born. As a lawyer she specialised in tax law.

Thatcher then began to look for a safe Conservative seat and was narrowly rejected as candidate for Orpington in 1954. She had several other rejections before being selected for Finchley in April 1958. She won the seat easily in the 1959 election and took her seat in the House of Commons. Unusually, her maiden speech was in support of her Private Member's Bill ( Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960) to force local councils to hold meetings in public, which was successful. In 1961 she went against the Conservative Party's official position by voting for the restoration of birching.

She was given early promotion to the front bench as Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in September 1961, retaining the post until the Conservatives lost power in the 1964 election. When Sir Alec Douglas-Home stepped down Thatcher voted for Edward Heath in the leadership election over Reginald Maudling, and was rewarded with the job of Conservative spokesman on Housing and Land. In this role she adopted the policy of allowing tenants to buy their Council Houses, an idea first developed by her colleague James Allason. The policy would prove popular. She moved to the Shadow Treasury team after 1966.

Thatcher was one of few Conservative MPs to support Leo Abse's Bill to decriminalise male homosexuality, and she voted in favour of David Steel's Bill to legalise abortion. She supported retention of capital punishment and voted against loosening the divorce laws. Thatcher made her mark as a conference speaker in 1966, with a strong attack on the high-tax policies of the Labour Government as being steps "not only towards Socialism, but towards Communism". She won promotion to the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Fuel Spokesman in 1967, and was then promoted to shadow Transport and, finally, Education before the 1970 election.

In Heath's Cabinet

When the Conservative party under Edward Heath won the 1970 general election, Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education and Science. In her first months in office, forced to administer a cut in the Education budget, she was responsible for the abolition of universal free milk for school-children aged seven to eleven (Labour had already abolished it for secondary schools). This provoked a storm of public protest, and led to one of the more unflattering names for her: "Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher". However, papers later released under the Thirty Year Rule show that she spoke against such a move in Cabinet, but was forced, due to the concept of collective responsibility, to implement the will of her fellow ministers. She also successfully resisted the introduction of library book charges.

Her term was marked by support for several proposals for more local education authorities to close grammar schools and adopt comprehensive secondary education, even though this was widely perceived as a left-wing policy. Thatcher also saved the Open University from being abolished. The Chancellor Anthony Barber actually wanted to abolish it as a budget-cutting measure, for he viewed it as a gimmick by Harold Wilson. Thatcher believed it was a relatively inexpensive way of extending higher education and insisted that the University should experiment with admitting school-leavers as well as adults. In her memoirs, Thatcher wrote that she was not part of Heath's inner circle, and had little or no influence on the key government decisions outside her department.

After the Conservative defeat in February 1974, Heath appointed her Shadow Environment Secretary. In this position she promised to abolish the rating system that paid for local government services, which proved a popular policy within the Conservative Party.

As Leader of the Opposition

Margaret Thatcher as Leader of the Opposition in 1975
Margaret Thatcher as Leader of the Opposition in 1975

Thatcher agreed with Sir Keith Joseph and the CPS that the Heath Government had lost control of monetary policy — and had lost direction — following its 1972 U-turn. After her party lost the second election of 1974, Joseph decided to challenge Heath's leadership but later withdrew. Thatcher then decided that she would enter the race on behalf of the Josephite/CPS faction. Unexpectedly she out-polled Heath on the first ballot, forcing him to resign the leadership. On the second ballot, she defeated Heath's preferred successor William Whitelaw, by 146 votes to 79, and became Conservative Party leader on 11 February 1975. She appointed Whitelaw as her deputy. Heath remained bitter towards Thatcher to the end of his life for what he perceived as her disloyalty in standing against him.

On 19 January 1976, she made a speech in Kensington Town Hall in which she made a scathing attack on the Soviet Union. The most famous part of her speech ran:

"The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet Politburo do not have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns."

In response, the Soviet Defence Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (" Red Star") gave her the nickname " Iron Lady", which was soon publicised by Radio Moscow. She took delight in the name and it soon became associated with her image as having an unwavering and steadfast character. Her reaction to her other chief nickname, "Attila the Hen" (thought to have been coined by Tory grandee Sir Ian Gilmour) is unrecorded.

Thatcher appointed many Heath supporters to the Shadow Cabinet, for she had won the leadership as an outsider and had little power base of her own within the party. One, James Prior got the vital brief of shadow Employment Secretary. Thatcher had to act cautiously to convert the Conservative Party to her monetarist beliefs. She reversed Heath's support for devolved government for Scotland. In an interview for Granada Television's World in Action programme in January 1978, she said "people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture", arousing particular controversy at the time. She received 10,000 letters thanking her for raising the subject and the Conservatives gained a lead against Labour in the opinion polls, from both parties at 43% before the speech to 48% for Conservative and 39% for Labour immediately after.

The Labour Government ran into difficulties with the industrial disputes, strikes, high unemployment, and collapsing public services during the winter of 1978-9, dubbed the ' Winter of Discontent'. The Conservatives used campaign posters with slogans such as "Labour Isn't Working" to attack the government's record over unemployment and its over-regulation of the labour market.

James Callaghan's Labour government fell after a successful Motion of No Confidence in spring 1979.

In the run up to the 1979 General Election, most opinion polls showed that voters preferred James Callaghan as Prime Minister even as the Conservative Party maintained a lead in the polls. The Conservatives would go on to win a 44-seat majority in the House of Commons and Margaret Thatcher became the United Kingdom's first female Prime Minister. On arriving at 10 Downing Street, she famously said, in a paraphrase of St. Francis of Assisi:

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

As Prime Minister


Thatcher became Prime Minister on 4 May 1979, with a mandate to reverse the UK's economic decline and to reduce the role of the state in the economy. Thatcher was incensed by one contemporary view within the Civil Service, that its job was to manage the UK's decline from the days of Empire, and she wanted the country to assert a higher level of influence and leadership in international affairs. She was a philosophic soul-mate of Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in the United States, and to a lesser extent Brian Mulroney, who was elected in 1984 in Canada. Conservatism now became the dominant political philosophy in the major English-speaking nations, apart from Australia. In contrast her relationship with Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was rather strained due to their contrasting views on South Africa and the Commonwealth (Hawke was a republican), and Thatcher did not endorse previous Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as Secretary General of the Commonwealth.

In May 1980, one day before she was due to meet the Irish Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to discuss Northern Ireland, she announced in the House of Commons that "the future of the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, this government, this parliament, and no-one else."

In 1981, a number of Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison (known in Northern Ireland as 'Long Kesh', its previous official name) went on hunger strike to regain the status of political prisoners, which had been revoked five years earlier under the preceding Labour government. Bobby Sands, the first of the strikers, was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone a few weeks before he died.

Thatcher refused at first to countenance a return to political status for republican prisoners, famously declaring "Crime is crime is crime; it is not political." However, after nine more men had starved themselves to death and the strike had ended, some rights relating to political status were restored to paramilitary prisoners.

Thatcher's public hard line on the treatment of paramilitaries was reinforced during the 1981 Iranian Embassy Siege where for the first time in 70 years British armed forces were authorised to use lethal force in Great Britain.

Thatcher also continued the policy of " Ulsterisation" of the previous Labour government and its Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Roy Mason, believing that the Unionists of Northern Ireland should be at the forefront in combating Irish republicanism. This meant relieving the burden on the mainstream British army and elevating the role of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

As a monetarist, Thatcher started out in her economic policy by increasing interest rates to slow the growth of the money supply and thus lower inflation. She had a preference for indirect taxation over taxes on income, and value added tax (VAT) was raised sharply to 15%, with a resultant actual short-term rise in inflation. These moves hit businesses -- especially the manufacturing sector -- and unemployment quickly passed two million, doubling the one million unemployed under the previous Labour government.

Political commentators harked back to the Heath Government's "U-turn" and speculated that Mrs Thatcher would follow suit, but she repudiated this approach at the 1980 Conservative Party conference, telling the party: "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch-phrase—the U-turn—I have only one thing to say: you turn if you want to; the Lady's not for turning." That she meant what she said was confirmed in the 1981 budget, when, despite concerns expressed in an open letter from 364 leading economists, taxes were increased in the middle of a recession. In January 1982, the inflation rate had dropped back to 8.6% from earlier highs of 18%, and interest rates were then allowed to fall. Unemployment continued to rise, reaching an official figure of 3.6 million — although the criteria for defining who was unemployed were amended allowing some to estimate that unemployment in fact hit 5 million. However, Norman Tebbit has suggested that, due to the high number of people claiming unemployment benefit whilst working, unemployment never reached three million. By 1983, manufacturing output had dropped 30% from 1978.

The Falklands

On 2 April 1982, a ruling military junta in Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory that Argentina had claimed since an 1830s dispute on their British settlement. Within days Thatcher sent a naval task force to recapture the islands. Despite the huge logistical difficulties the operation was a success, resulting in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm and support for her government at a time when Thatcher's popularity had been at an all-time low for a serving Prime Minister, with The Sun newspaper declaring "The Empire Strikes Back".

1983 General Election

The 'Falklands Factor', along with an economic recovery in early 1983, bolstered the government's popularity. The Labour party at this time had split, and there was a new challenge in the SDP-Liberal Alliance, formed by an electoral pact between the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party. However, this grouping failed to make its intended breakthrough, despite briefly holding an opinion poll lead. In the June 1983 general election, the Conservatives won 42.4% of the vote, the Labour party 27.6% and the Alliance 25.4% of the vote. Although the Conservatives' share of the vote had fallen slightly (1.5%) since 1979, Labour's vote had fallen by far more (9.3%) and in Britain's first past the post system, the Conservatives won a landslide victory. Under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives now had an overall majority of 144 MPs.


Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trades unions but, unlike the Heath government, adopted a strategy of incremental change rather than a single Act. Several unions launched strikes in response, but these actions eventually collapsed. Gradually, Thatcher's reforms reduced the power and influence of the unions. The changes were chiefly focused upon preventing the recurrence of the large-scale industrial actions of the 1970s, but were also intended to ensure that the consequences for the participants would be severe if any future action was taken. The reforms were also aimed, Thatcher claimed, to democratise the unions, and return power to the members. The most significant measures were to make secondary industrial action illegal, to force union leadership to first win a ballot of the union membership before calling a strike, and to abolish the closed shop. Further laws banned workplace ballots and imposed postal ballots.

The confrontation over strikes carried out in 1984-85 by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in opposition to proposals to close a large number of mines proved decisive. The government had made preparations to counter a strike by the NUM long in advance by building up coal stocks, ensuring that cuts in the electricity supply — the legacy of the industrial disputes of 1972 — would not be repeated.

Police tactics during the strikes came under criticism from civil libertarians, but the images of crowds of militant miners attempting to prevent other miners from working proved a shock even to some supporters of the strikes. The mounting desperation and poverty of the striking families led to divisions within the regional NUM branches, and a breakaway union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM), was soon formed. A group of workers, resigned to the impending failure of the actions and worn down by months of protests, began to defy the Union's rulings, starting splinter groups and advising workers that returning to work was the only viable option.

The Miners' Strike lasted a full year before the NUM leadership conceded without a deal. The Conservative government proceeded to close all but 15 of the country's pits, with the remaining 15 being sold off and privatised in 1994. Private companies have since then acquired licences to open new pits and open-cast sites, with the majority of the original mines destroyed and the land redeveloped. The defeat of the miners' strike led to a long period of demoralization in the whole of the trade union movement.

At the end of March 1984, four South Africans were arrested in Coventry, remanded in custody, and charged with contravening the UN arms embargo, which prohibited exports to apartheid South Africa of military equipment. Mrs Thatcher took a personal interest in the Coventry Four, and 10 Downing Street requested daily summaries of the case from the prosecuting authority, HM Customs and Excise. Within a month, the Coventry Four had been freed from jail and allowed to travel to South Africa – on condition that they returned to England for their trial later that year. In April 1984, Thatcher sent senior British diplomat, Sir John Leahy, to negotiate the release of 16 Britons who had been taken hostage by the Angolan rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi. At the time, Savimbi's UNITA guerrilla movement was financed and supported militarily by the apartheid regime of South Africa. On April 26, 1984 Leahy succeeded in securing the release of the British hostages at the UNITA base in Jamba, Angola. In June 1984 Thatcher invited apartheid South Africa's president, P. W. Botha, and foreign minister, Pik Botha, to Chequers in an effort to stave off growing international pressure for the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa, where Britain had invested heavily. She reportedly urged President Botha to end apartheid; to release Nelson Mandela; to halt the harassment of black dissidents; to stop the bombing of African National Congress (ANC) bases in front-line states; and to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and withdraw from Namibia. However Botha ignored these demands. In an interview with Hugo Young for The Guardian in July 1986, Thatcher expressed her belief that economic sanctions against South Africa would be immoral because they would make thousands of black workers unemployed. In August 1984, foreign minister, Pik Botha, decided not to allow the Coventry Four to return to stand trial, thereby forfeiting £200,000 bail money put up by the South African embassy in London. The Coventry Four affair, and Mrs Thatcher's alleged involvement in it, would hit the headlines four years later when British diplomat, Patrick Haseldine, wrote a letter to the Guardian newspaper.

On the early morning of 12 October 1984, the day before her 59th birthday, Thatcher escaped injury in the Brighton hotel bombing during the Conservative Party Conference when her hotel room was bombed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Five people died in the attack, including Roberta Wakeham, wife of the government's Chief Whip John Wakeham, and the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry. A prominent member of the Cabinet, Norman Tebbit, was injured, and his wife Margaret was left paralysed. Thatcher herself would have been injured if not for the fact that she was delayed from using the bathroom (which suffered more damage than the room she was in at the time the IRA bomb detonated). Thatcher insisted that the conference open on time the next day and made her speech as planned in defiance of the bombers, a gesture which won widespread approval across the political spectrum.

On 15 November 1985, Thatcher signed the Hillsborough Anglo-Irish Agreement with Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, the first time a British government gave the Republic of Ireland a say (albeit advisory) in the governance of Northern Ireland. The agreement was greeted with fury by Northern Irish unionists. The Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists made an electoral pact and on 23 January 1986, staged an ad-hoc referendum by resigning their seats and contesting the subsequent by-elections, losing only one, to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). However, unlike the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974, they found they could not bring the agreement down by a general strike. This was another effect of the changed balance of power in industrial relations.

Thatcher's political and economic philosophy emphasised reduced state intervention, free markets, and entrepreneurialism. Since gaining power, she had experimented in selling off a small nationalised company, the National Freight Company, to its workers, with a surprisingly positive response. After the 1983 election, the Government became bolder and, starting with British Telecom, sold off most of the large utilities which had been in public ownership since the late 1940s. Many people took advantage of share offers, although many sold their shares immediately for a quick profit and therefore the proportion of shares held by individuals rather than institutions did not increase. The policy of privatisation, while anathema to many on the left, has become synonymous with Thatcherism and has also been followed by Tony Blair's government. Wider share-ownership and council house sales became known as " popular capitalism" to its supporters (a term coined by John Redwood). By 1987, inflation had fallen further to 4.2%.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at Camp David, 1986.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at Camp David, 1986.

In the Cold War, Mrs. Thatcher supported United States President Ronald Reagan's policies of deterrence against the Soviets. This contrasted with the policy of détente which the West had pursued during the 1970s, and caused friction with allies who still adhered to the idea of détente. US forces were permitted by Mrs. Thatcher to station nuclear cruise missiles at British bases, arousing mass protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, she later was the first Western leader to respond warmly to the rise of the future reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring that she liked him and describing him as "a man we can do business with" after a meeting in 1984, three months before he came to power. This was a start of a move by the West back to a new détente with the USSR under Gorbachev's leadership, which coincided with the final erosion of Soviet power prior to its eventual collapse in 1991. Thatcher outlasted the Cold War, which ended in 1989, and those who share her views on it credit her with a part in the West's victory, by both the deterrence and détente postures.

In 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford voted to refuse her an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education. This award had always previously been given to all Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.

In the aftermath of a series of terrorist attacks on U.S. military personnel in Europe, which were believed to have been executed at Colonel Qaddafi's command, President Reagan decided to carry out a bombing raid on Libya. Both France and Spain refused to allow U.S. aircraft to fly over their territory for the raid. Thatcher herself had earlier expressed opposition to "retaliatory strikes that are against international law" and had not followed the U.S. in an embargo of Libyan oil. However Thatcher felt that as the U.S. had given support to Britain during the Falklands War but she had opposed the U.S. invasion of Grenada and that America was a major ally against a possible Soviet attack in Western Europe, she felt obliged to allow U.S. aircraft to use bases situated in Britain. Later that year in America, President Reagan persuaded Congress to approve of an extradition treaty which closed a legal loophole by which IRA members/ Volunteers escaped extradition by claiming their murders were "political". This had been previously opposed by Irish-Americans for years but was passed after Reagan used Thatcher's support in the Libyan raid as a reason to pass it.

Her liking for defence ties with the United States was demonstrated in the Westland affair when she acted with colleagues to allow the helicopter manufacturer Westland, a vital defence contractor, to refuse to link with the Italian firm Agusta in order for it to link with the management's preferred option, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation of the United States. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had pushed the Agusta deal, resigned in protest after this, and remained an influential critic and potential leadership challenger. He would eventually prove instrumental in Thatcher's fall in 1990.

In 1986, her government controversially abolished the Greater London Council (GLC), then led by the strongly left-wing Ken Livingstone, and six Metropolitan County Councils (MCCs). The government claimed this was an efficiency measure. However, Thatcher's opponents held that the move was politically motivated, as all of the abolished councils were controlled by Labour, had become powerful centres of opposition to her government, and were in favour of higher local government taxes and public spending. Several of them had however rendered themselves politically vulnerable by committing scarce public funds to causes widely seen as political and even extreme.

Thatcher had two notable foreign policy successes in her second term.

  • In 1984, she visited China and signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Deng Xiaoping on 19 December, which committed the People's Republic of China to award Hong Kong the status of a "Special Administrative Region". Under the terms of the One Country, Two Systems agreement, China was obliged to leave Hong Kong's economic status unchanged after the handover on 1 July 1997 for a period of fifty years – until 2047.
  • At the Dublin European Council in November 1979, Mrs. Thatcher argued that the United Kingdom paid far more to the European Economic Community than it received in spending. She famously declared at the summit: "We are not asking the Community or anyone else for money. We are simply asking to have our own money back". Her arguments were successful and at the June 1984 Fontainbleau Summit, the EEC agreed on an annual rebate for the United Kingdom, amounting to 66% of the difference between Britain's EU contributions and receipts. This still remains in effect, although Tony Blair later agreed to significantly reduce the size of the rebate. It periodically causes political controversy among the members of the European Union.


By leading her party to victory in the 1987 general election with a 102 seat majority, riding an economic boom against a weak Labour opposition advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, Margaret Thatcher became the longest continuously serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since Lord Liverpool (1812 to 1827), and the first to win three successive elections since Lord Palmerston in 1865. Most United Kingdom newspapers supported her—with the exception of The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Independent—and were rewarded with regular press briefings by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham. She was known as "Maggie" in the tabloids, and her opponents chanted the well-known protest slogan " Maggie Out!". Her unpopularity on the left is evident from the lyrics of several contemporary pop-music songs (see below: Margaret Thatcher in popular culture)

Though an early backer of decriminalization of male homosexuality (see above), Thatcher, at the 1987 Conservative party conference, issued the statement that "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay". Backbench Conservative MPs and Peers had already begun a backlash against the 'promotion' of homosexuality and, in December 1987, the controversial ' Section 28' was added as an amendment to what became the Local Government Act 1988. This legislation has since been abolished by Tony Blair's Labour administration.

Welfare reforms in her third term created an adult Employment Training system that included full-time work done for the dole plus a £10 top-up, on the workfare model from the US.

Thatcher, the former chemist, became publicly concerned with environmental issues in the late 1980s. In 1988, she made a major speech accepting the problems of global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain. In 1990, she opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research. . In her book Statecraft (2002), she described her later regret in supporting the concept of human-induced global warming, outlining the negative effects she perceived it had upon the policy-making process. "Whatever international action we agree upon to deal with environmental problems, we must enable our economies to grow and develop, because without growth you cannot generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment" .

At Bruges, Belgium, in 1988, Thatcher made a speech in which she outlined her opposition to proposals from the European Community for a federal structure and increasing centralisation of decision-making. Although she had supported British membership, Thatcher believed that the role of the EC should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition, and feared that new EC regulations would reverse the changes she was making in the UK. "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels". She was specifically against Economic and Monetary Union, through which a single currency would replace national currencies, and for which the EC was making preparations. The speech caused an outcry from other European leaders, and exposed for the first time the deep split that was emerging over European policy inside her Conservative Party.

Thatcher's popularity once again declined, in 1989, as the economy suffered from high interest rates imposed to temper a potentially unsustainable boom. She blamed her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who had been following an economic policy which was a preparation for monetary union; in an interview for the Financial Times, in November 1987, Thatcher claimed not to have been told of this and did not approve.

At a meeting before the Madrid European Community summit in June 1989, Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe forced Thatcher to agree to the circumstances under which she would join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a preparation for monetary union and the abolishment of the Pound Sterling. At the meeting, they both claimed they would resign if their demands were not met. Thatcher responded by demoting Howe and by listening more to her adviser Sir Alan Walters on economic matters. Lawson resigned that October, feeling that Thatcher had undermined him.

That November, Thatcher was challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer. As Meyer was a virtually unknown backbench MP, he was viewed as a " stalking horse" candidate for more prominent members of the party. Thatcher easily defeated Meyer's challenge, but there were sixty ballot papers either cast for Meyer or abstaining, a surprisingly large number for a sitting Prime Minister. Her supporters in the Party, however, viewed the results as a success, claiming that after ten years as Prime Minister and with approximately 370 Conservative MPs voting, the opposition was surprisingly small.

Thatcher's new system to replace local government taxes, outlined in the Conservative manifesto for the 1987 election, was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990. The rates were replaced by the Community Charge (more widely known as the " poll tax"), which applied the same amount to every individual resident, with discounts for low earners. This was to be the most universally unpopular policy of her premiership and had the effect of limiting the number of people on the electoral register.

Additional problems emerged when many of the tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than earlier predicted. Opponents of the Community Charge banded together to resist bailiffs and disrupt court hearings of Community Charge debtors. The Labour MP, Terry Fields, was jailed for 60 days for refusing on principle to pay his Community Charge. As the Prime Minister continued to refuse to compromise on the tax, up to 18 million people refused to pay, enforcement measures became increasingly draconian, and unrest mounted and culminated in a number of riots. The most serious of these happened in London on 31 March 1990, during a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, which more than 200,000 protesters attended. The huge unpopularity of the tax was seen as a major factor in Thatcher's downfall.

One of Thatcher's final acts in office was to put pressure on US President George H. W. Bush to deploy troops to the Middle East to drive Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Bush was somewhat apprehensive about the plan, but Thatcher famously told him that this was "no time to go wobbly!"

On the Friday before the Conservative Party conference in October 1990, Thatcher ordered her new Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major to reduce interest rates by 1%. Major persuaded her that the only way to maintain monetary stability was to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism at the same time, despite not meeting the 'Madrid conditions'. The Conservative Party conference that year saw a large degree of unity; few who attended could have imagined that Mrs Thatcher had only a matter of weeks left in office.

Fall from power

Mrs. Thatcher's political "assassination" was, according to witnesses such as Alan Clark, one of the most dramatic episodes in British political history. The idea of a long-serving prime minister — undefeated at the polls — being ousted by an internal party ballot might at first sight seem bizarre. However, by 1990, opposition to Thatcher's policies on local government taxation, her Government's perceived mishandling of the economy (in particular the high interest rates of 15% that eroded her support among home owners and business people), and the divisions opening in the Conservative Party over European integration made her seem increasingly politically vulnerable and her party increasingly divided. Her distaste for consensus politics and willingness to override colleagues' opinions, including that of Cabinet, emboldened the backlash against her when it did occur.

On 1 November 1990, Sir Geoffrey Howe, one of Thatcher's oldest and staunchest supporters, resigned from his position as Deputy Prime Minister in protest at Thatcher's European policy. In his resignation speech in the House of Commons two weeks later, he suggested that the time had come for "others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties" with which he stated that he had wrestled for perhaps too long. Her former cabinet colleague Michael Heseltine subsequently challenged her for the leadership of the party, and attracted sufficient support in the first round of voting to prolong the contest to a second ballot. Though she initially stated that she intended to contest the second ballot, Thatcher decided, after consulting with her Cabinet colleagues, to withdraw from the contest. On 22 November, at just after 9.30 a.m., she announced to the Cabinet that she would not be a candidate in the second ballot. Shortly afterwards, her staff made public what was, in effect, her resignation statement:

Having consulted widely among my colleagues, I have concluded that the unity of the Party and the prospects of victory in a General Election would be better served if I stood down to enable Cabinet colleagues to enter the ballot for the leadership. I should like to thank all those in Cabinet and outside who have given me such dedicated support.

Neil Kinnock, Leader of the Opposition, proposed a motion of no confidence in the government, and Margaret Thatcher seized the opportunity this presented on the day of her resignation to deliver one of her most memorable performances:

...a single currency is about the politics of Europe, it is about a federal Europe by the back door. So I shall consider the proposal of the Honourable Member for Bolsover ( Mr. Skinner). Now where were we? I am enjoying this."

She supported John Major as her successor and he duly won the leadership contest, although in the years to come her approval of Major would fall away. After her resignation a MORI poll found that 52% agreed that "On balance she had been good for the country", with 48% agreeing that she had been "bad". In 1991, she was given a long and unprecedented standing ovation at the party's annual conference, although she politely rejected calls from delegates for her to make a speech. She did, however, occasionally speak in the House of Commons after she was Prime Minister. She retired from the House at the 1992 election, at the age of 66 years. Her continued presence in the House of Commons after the resignation was thought to be a destabilising influence on the Conservative government.

Post-political career

In 1992, Margaret Thatcher was raised to the House of Lords by the conferment of a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire. She did not take an hereditary title, as she had recommended for Harold Macmillan, later Earl of Stockton, on his ninetieth birthday in 1984. She has explained that she thought she hadn't sufficient financial means to support an hereditary title. By virtue of the life barony, she entered the House of Lords. She made a series of speeches in the Lords criticising the Maastricht Treaty, describing it as "a treaty too far" and in June 1993 told the Lords: "I could never have signed this treaty". She had also advocated a referendum on the treaty when she returned to the backbenches in 1991, citing A. V. Dicey, since all three main parties were in favour of it and that therefore the people should have their say.

In August 1992, she called for NATO to stop the Serbian assault on Gorazde and Sarajevo in order to end ethnic cleansing and to preserve the Bosnian state. She claimed what was happening in Bosnia was "reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Nazis". In December of that same year she warned that there could be a "holocaust" in Bosnia and, after the first massacre at Srebrenica in April 1993, Thatcher thought it was a "killing field the like of which I thought we would never see in Europe again". She reportedly said to Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary: "Douglas, Douglas, you would make Neville Chamberlain look like a warmonger".

Margaret Thatcher had already been honoured by the Queen in 1990, shortly after her resignation as Prime Minister, when awarded the Order of Merit, one of the UK's highest distinctions. In addition, her husband, Denis Thatcher, had been given a baronetcy in 1991 (ensuring that their son Mark would inherit a title). This was the first creation of a baronetcy since 1965. In 1995, Thatcher was raised to the Order of the Garter, the United Kingdom's highest order of Chivalry.

In July 1992, she was hired by tobacco company Philip Morris Companies, now the Altria Group, as a "geopolitical consultant" for US$250,000 per year and an annual contribution of US$250,000 to her Foundation.

From 1993 to 2000, she served as Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, Virginia, USA, which was established by Royal Charter in 1693. She was also Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the UK's only private university. She retired from the post in 1998.

She wrote her memoirs in two volumes, The Path to Power and The Downing Street Years. In 1993 The Downing Street Years were turned into a documentary series by the BBC, in which she described the Cabinet rebellion that brought about her resignation as "treachery with a smile on its face".

Although she remained supportive in public, in private she made her displeasure with many of John Major's policies plain, and her views were conveyed to the press and widely reported. She was critical of the rise in public spending under Major, his tax increases, and his support of the European Union. After Tony Blair's election as Labour Party leader in 1994, Thatcher gave an interview in May 1995 in which she praised Blair as "probably the most formidable Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell. I see a lot of socialism behind their front bench, but not in Mr Blair. I think he genuinely has moved".

In the Conservative leadership election in the aftermath of the Conservatives' landslide defeat at the hands of New Labour, Thatcher voiced her support for William Hague after Kenneth Clarke entered into an alliance with John Redwood. Thatcher reportedly then toured the tea room of the House of Commons, urging Conservative MPs to vote for Hague.

In 1998, Thatcher made a controversial visit to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, while he was under house arrest in Surrey. Pinochet was fighting extradition for human rights abuses committed during his tenure as President. Thatcher expressed her support and friendship . She remembered that Pinochet had been a key ally of Britain during the Falklands War but preferred to forget the tyranny, torture and mass-murder committed by his regime. Also in 1998, she made a £2,000,000 donation to Cambridge University for the endowment of a Margaret Thatcher Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies. She also donated the archive of her personal papers to Churchill College, Cambridge where the collection continues to be expanded.

Margaret Thatcher actively supported the Conservative general election campaign in 2001. In the Conservative leadership election shortly after, Lady Thatcher came out in support of Iain Duncan Smith because she believed he would "make infinitely the better leader" than Kenneth Clarke due to Clarke's "old-fashioned views of the role of the state and his unbounded enthusiasm for European integration".

In 2002, she published Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World detailing her thoughts on international relations since her resignation in 1990. The chapters on the European Union were particularly controversial; she called for a fundamental renegotiation of Britain's membership to preserve the UK's sovereignty and, if that failed, for Britain to leave and join NAFTA. These chapters were serialised in The Times on Monday, 18 March and caused a political furor for the rest of the week until Friday, 22 March when it was announced she had been advised by her doctors to make no more public speeches on health grounds, having suffered several small strokes. According to her former press spokesman Bernard Ingham, Thatcher has no short-term memory as a result of the strokes.

She remains active in various groups, including Conservative Way Forward, the Bruges Group and the European Foundation. She was widowed on 26 June 2003.

On 11 June 2004, Thatcher attended the funeral of, and delivered a tribute via videotape to, former United States President Ronald Reagan at his state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Thatcher then flew to California with the Reagan entourage, and attended the memorial service and internment ceremony for President Reagan at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Thatcher attends the official Washington, D.C. memorial service marking the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, pictured with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney.
Thatcher attends the official Washington, D.C. memorial service marking the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, pictured with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney.

In December 2004, it was reported that Thatcher had told a private meeting of Conservative MPs that she was against the British Government's plan to introduce identity cards. She is said to have remarked that ID cards were a "Germanic concept and completely alien to this country".

On 13 October 2005, Thatcher marked her 80th birthday with a party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hyde Park where the guests included Queen Elizabeth II, The Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Alexandra, The Honourable Lady Ogilvy. There, Geoffrey Howe, now Lord Howe of Aberavon, commented on her political career: "Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible."

In September, 2006, Thatcher attended the official Washington, D.C. memorial service marking the 5th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks . She attended as a guest of the U.S. Vice President, Dick Cheney, and met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit. It marked her first visit to the United States since the funeral for former U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in April 2006.

On 12 November 2006, she appeared at the Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph in London, leaning heavily on the arm of former Prime Minister, John Major. One week later, she released an effusive statement of condolence on the death of her friend and economic mentor, Milton Friedman, the man often described as the inspiration behind Thatcherism. On 10 December she announced she was 'deeply saddened' by the death of the former Chilean dictator General Pinochet .

On 21 February 2007 as a statue of her was unveiled in the UK Parliament, Lady Thatcher made a rare and brief speech in the members' lobby of the House of Commons. She said: "I might have preferred iron - but bronze will do... It won't rust. And, this time I hope, the head will stay on." (A previous statue in stone had been attacked and decapitated while on public exhibition.).


Margaret Thatcher has undoubtedly made a great impact on British and global politics. Her policies were emulated around the world, and, though divisive, even left-wing politicians such as Tony Benn have stated their admiration for the straight-forward, unflinching way in which she conducted her policies. The first woman to hold the post of Prime Minister, she was also one of the longest serving Prime Ministers ranking with the likes of the Lord Salisbury. Her departure was one of the most dramatic events in British political history.

She has been credited for her macroeconomic reforms with "rescuing" the British economy from the stagnation of the 1970s, and is admired for her committed radicalism on economic issues. She was a divisive figure, and some still hold her responsible for destroying much of the UK's manufacturing base, consigning many to long-term unemployment (reaching 4 million in the decade she was in power). However, supporters of privatisation and of the free market cite the recovery of the economy during the mid-1980s and the present-day success of the British economy, with its relatively low unemployment and structural shift away from manufacturing towards the service sector. An unfortunate effect of her policies was that many of the publicly supported industries and industrial plants that shrank or closed down were the predominant employers in their areas, thus causing pockets of very high unemployment, while the growth of new services and technologies normally took place in other usually more prosperous areas.

When Thatcher took over in 1979, Britain was sometimes nicknamed as the " sick man of Europe" in the 1970s. Arguably, the UK emerged from the 1980s as one of the more successful economies in Europe. While the unemployment rate did eventually come down, it came after initial job losses and radical labour market reforms. These included laws that weakened trade unions and the deregulation of financial markets, which certainly played a part in returning London to a leadership position as a European financial centre, and her push for increased competition in telecommunications and other public utilities.

Perceptions of Margaret Thatcher are mixed among the British public. Few would argue that there was any woman who played a more important role on the world stage in the 20th century. In perhaps the sincerest form of flattery, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, himself a thrice-elected Prime Minister, has acknowledged her importance. Thatcher herself indirectly acknowledged Blair during a Conservative leadership contest when she said "The Conservative Party doesn't need someone that can beat Mr Blair. They need someone like Mr Blair." 

Through the Common Agricultural Policy, British agriculture was (and remains) heavily subsidised while other failing parts of the economy did not receive similar tax revenue support. This geographical imbalance in Thatcher's support contributed directly to the growth of devolution movements in those areas.

Perceptions abroad broadly follow the same political divisions. Critical satirists have often caricatured her. For instance, French singer Renaud wrote a song, Miss Maggie, which lauded women as refraining from many of the silly behaviours of males – and every time making an exception for "Mrs Thatcher". She may be remembered most of all for her remark "There is no such thing as society" to the reporter Douglas Keay, for Woman's Own magazine, 23 September 1987. This remark has frequently been quoted out of its full context and the surrounding remarks were as follows:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first."

In 1996, the Scott Inquiry into the Arms-to-Iraq affair investigated the Thatcher government's record in dealing with Saddam Hussein. It revealed how £1bn of Whitehall money was used in soft loan guarantees for British exporters to Iraq. The judge found that during Baghdad's protracted invasion of Iran in the 1980s, officials destroyed documents relating to the export of Chieftain tank parts to Jordan which ended up in Iraq. Ministers clandestinely relaxed official guidelines to help private companies sell machine tools which were used in munitions factories. The British company Racal exported sophisticated Jaguar V radios to the former Iraqi dictator's army on credit. Members of the Conservative cabinet refused to stop lending guaranteed funds to Saddam even after he executed a British journalist, Farzad Bazoft, Thatcher’s cabinet minuting that they did not want to damage British industry.

Many on both the right and left agree that Thatcher had a transformative effect on the British political spectrum and that her tenure had the effect of moving the major political parties rightward. Will Hutton, author of the best selling The State We're In, argues that her necessary economic changes could have been achieved with more consensus and less hardship by a leader less enamoured of US hegemonic power.

New Labour and Blairism have incorporated much of the economic, social and political tenets of "Thatcherism" in the same manner as, in a previous era, the Conservative Party from the 1950s until the days of Edward Heath accepted many of the basic assumptions of the welfare state instituted by Labour governments. The curtailing and large-scale dismantling of elements of the welfare state under Thatcher have largely remained. As well, Thatcher's program of privatising state-owned enterprises has not been reversed. Indeed, successive Tory and Labour governments have further curtailed the involvement of the state in the economy and have further dismantled public ownership.

Thatcher's impact on the trade union movement in Britain has been lasting, with the breaking of the miners' strike of 1984-1985 seen as a watershed moment, or even a breaking point, for a union movement which has been unable to regain the degree of political power it exercised up through the 1970s. Unionisation rates in Britain have permanently declined since the 1980s, and the legislative instruments introduced to curtail the impact of strikes have not been reversed. Instead, the Labour Party has worked to loosen its ties to the trade union movement. While industrial action does still occur, there is no longer the kind of mass economic disruption seen in the 1970s, and the closed shop remains illegal.

Thatcher's legacy has continued strongly to influence the Conservative Party itself. Successive leaders, starting with John Major, and continuing in opposition with William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, have struggled with real or perceived factions in the Parliamentary and national party to determine what parts of her heritage should be retained or jettisoned. One cannot yet determine what the role of Thatcherism will be under the leadership of David Cameron.

Thatcher is credited by Ronald Reagan with persuading him that Mikhail Gorbachev was sincere in his desire to reform and liberalize the Soviet Union. The resulting thaw in East-West relations helped to end the Cold War. In recognition of this, Lady Thatcher was awarded the 1998 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award by Mrs. Nancy Reagan. The award is only given to those who "have made monumental and lasting contributions to the cause of freedom worldwide," and "embody President Reagan's life long belief that one man or woman can truly make a difference." President Ronald Reagan, who was not able to attend the ceremony, was a longtime friend of Lady Thatcher.

In a list compiled by the centre-left publication New Statesman in 2006, she was voted fifth in the list of "Heroes of our time". She was also named a "Hero of Freedom" by the libertarian magazine Reason.

In February 2007, she became the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to be honoured with a statue in the House of Commons while still alive. The statue is made of bronze and stands opposite her political hero and predecessor, Winston Churchill. The statue, by sculptor Antony Dufort, shows her in a typical lively and swashbuckling posture, as though she is addressing the House of Commons, with her right arm outstretched. Thatcher said she was thrilled with it.

Titles and honours

Titles from birth

Titles Baroness Thatcher has held from birth, in chronological order:

  • Miss Margaret Roberts ( 13 October 1925 – 13 December 1951)
  • Mrs Denis Thatcher ( 13 December 1951 – 8 October 1959)
  • Mrs Denis Thatcher, MP ( 8 October 1959 – 22 June 1970)
  • The Rt Hon. Margaret Thatcher, MP ( 22 June 1970 – 7 December 1990)
  • The Rt Hon. Margaret Thatcher, OM, MP ( 7 December 1990 – 4 February 1991)
  • The Rt Hon. Lady Thatcher, OM, MP ( 4 February 1991 – 16 March 1992)
  • The Rt Hon. Lady Thatcher, OM ( 16 March 1992 – 26 June 1992)
  • The Rt Hon. The Baroness Thatcher, OM, PC ( 26 June 1992 – 22 April 1995)
  • The Rt Hon. The Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC ( 22 April 1995 – )


Foreign honours

  • Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Republican Senatorial Medal of Freedom
  • Patron of the Heritage Foundation
  • Ronald Reagan Freedom Award

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