British Conservative Party politician and prime minister (1979–90), Europe’s first woman prime minister. The only British prime minister in the 20th century to win three consecutive terms and, at the time of her resignation, Britain’s longest continuously serving prime minister since 1827, she accelerated the evolution of the British economy from statism to liberalism and became, by personality as much as achievement, the most renowned British political leader since Winston Churchill.
The daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and local alderman (and later mayor of Grantham), and Beatrice Ethel Stephenson, Thatcher formed an early desire to be a politician. Her intellectual ability led her to the University of Oxford, where she studied chemistry and was immediately active in politics, becoming one of the first woman presidents of the Oxford University Conservative Association. After graduating in 1946 she worked for four years as a research chemist, reading for the bar in her spare time. From 1954 she practiced as a barrister, specializing in tax law. In 1951 she married a wealthy industrialist, Denis Thatcher (b. 1915—d. 2003), who supported her political ambition. The couple had twins, a son and a daughter, in 1953.
Thatcher first ran for Parliament in 1950 but was unsuccessful, despite increasing the local Conservative vote by 50 percent. In 1959 she entered the House of Commons, winning the “safe” Conservative seat of Finchley in northern London. She rose steadily within the party, serving as a parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (1961–64), as chief opposition spokesman on education (1969–70), and as secretary of state for education and science (1970–74) in the Conservative government of Edward Heath. While a member of the Heath cabinet (Thatcher was only the second woman to hold a cabinet portfolio in a Conservative government), she eliminated a program that provided free milk to schoolchildren, provoking a storm of controversy and prompting opponents in the Labour Party to taunt her with cries of “Thatcher the milk snatcher.” She also created more comprehensive schools—introduced by the Labour Party in the 1960s to make rigorous academic education available to working-class children—than any other education minister in history, though they were undermined during her tenure as prime minister. After Heath lost two successive elections in 1974, Thatcher, though low in the party hierarchy, was the only minister prepared to challenge him for the party leadership. With the backing of the Conservative right wing, she was elected leader in February 1975 and thus began a 15-year ascendancy that would change the face of Britain.
Thatcher led the Conservatives to a decisive electoral victory in 1979 following a series of major strikes during the previous winter (the so-called “Winter of Discontent”) under the Labour Party government of James Callaghan. As a prime minister representing the newly energetic right wing of the Conservative Party (the “Dries,” as they later called themselves, as opposed to the old-style moderate Tories, or “Wets”), Thatcher advocated greater independence of the individual from the state; an end to allegedly excessive government interference in the economy, including privatization of state-owned enterprises and the sale of public housing to tenants; reductions in expenditures on social services such as health care, education, and housing; limitations on the printing of money in accord with the economic doctrine of monetarism; and legal restrictions on trade unions. The term Thatcherism came to refer not just to these policies but also to certain aspects of her ethical outlook and personal style, including moral absolutism, fierce nationalism, a zealous regard for the interests of the individual, and a combative, uncompromising approach to achieving political goals.
The main impact of her first term was economic. Inheriting a weak economy, she reduced or eliminated some governmental regulations and subsidies to businesses, thereby purging the manufacturing industry of many inefficient—but also some blameless—firms. The result was a dramatic increase in unemployment, from 1.3 million in 1979 to more than double that figure two years later. At the same time, inflation doubled in just 14 months, to more than 20 percent, and manufacturing output fell sharply. Although inflation decreased and output rose before the end of her first term, unemployment continued to increase, reaching more than three million in 1986.
Thatcher embarked on an ambitious program of privatization of state-owned industries and public services, including aerospace, television and radio, gas and electricity, water, the state airline, and British Steel. By the end of the 1980s, the number of individual stockholders had tripled, and the government had sold 1.5 million publicly owned housing units to their tenants.
Nonetheless, rising unemployment and social tensions during her first term made her deeply unpopular. Her unpopularity would have ensured her defeat in the general election of 1983 were it not for two factors: the Falkland Islands War (1982) between Britain and Argentina, over possession of a remote British dependency in the South Atlantic, and the deep divisions within the Labour Party, which contested the election on a radical manifesto that critics dubbed the “longest suicide note in history.” Thatcher won election to a second term in a landslide—the biggest victory since Labour’s great success in 1945—gaining a parliamentary majority of 144 with just over 42 percent of the vote.
Thatcher entered office promising to curb the power of the unions, which had shown their ability to bring the country to a standstill during six weeks of strikes in the winter of 1978–79. Her government enacted a series of measures designed to undermine the unions’ ability to organize and stage strikes, including laws that banned the closed shop, required unions to poll their members before ordering a strike, forbade sympathy strikes, and rendered unions responsible for damages caused by their members. In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers began a nationwide strike to prevent the closing of 20 coal mines that the government claimed were unproductive. The walkout, which lasted nearly a year, soon became emblematic of the struggle for power between the Conservative government and the trade union movement. Thatcher steadfastly refused to meet the union’s demands, and in the end she won; the miners returned to work without winning a single concession.
A terrorist bombing at a Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984, the work of the Irish Republican Army, nearly killed Thatcher and several senior members of her government. After battling Ken Livingstone’s Labour-led London government, Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1986. By the end of Thatcher’s second term, few aspects of British life had escaped the most sweeping transformation of Britain since the postwar reforms of the Labour Party.
In foreign affairs, the Falklands War illuminated her most significant international relationship, with Ronald Reagan, president of the United States (1981–89). Thatcher and Reagan, who together made the 1980s the decade of conservatism, shared a vision of the world in which the Soviet Union was an evil enemy deserving of no compromise, and their partnership ensured that the Cold War continued in all its frigidity until the rise to power of the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. In keeping with her strong anticommunism—a 1976 speech condemning communism earned her the nickname “Iron Lady” in the Soviet press—Thatcher strongly supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, a stance that proved popular with the electorate, given the Labour Party’s repudiation of Britain’s traditional nuclear and defense policies. In Africa, Thatcher presided over the orderly establishment of an independent Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) in 1980 after 15 years of illegal separation from British colonial rule under a white minority. However, she encountered considerable criticism both at home and abroad for her opposition to international sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa.
The second half of Thatcher’s tenure was marked by an inextinguishable controversy over Britain’s relationship with the European Community (EC). In 1984 she succeeded, amid fierce opposition, in drastically reducing Britain’s contribution to the EC budget. After her third electoral victory in 1987, she adopted a steadily more hostile attitude toward European integration. She resisted “federalist” continental trends toward both a single currency and a deeper political union. Her traditionally pro-European party became divided, and a string of senior ministers left the Cabinet over the issue.
The implementation of a poll tax in 1989 produced outbreaks of street violence and alarmed the Conservative rank-and-file, who feared that Thatcher could not lead the party to a fourth consecutive term. Spurred by public disapproval of the poll tax and Thatcher’s increasingly strident tone, Conservative members of Parliament moved against her in November 1990. Although she defeated her most senior opponent, former defense minister Michael Heseltine, by 204 votes to Heseltine’s 152, her total fell four votes short of the necessary majority plus 15 percent, and she decided not to contest the election in a second ballot. On November 22 she announced her resignation as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, paving the way for her replacement by John Major six days later.
In retirement, Margaret Thatcher remained a political force. She continued to influence internal Conservative Party politics (often to the dismay of Major), and Thatcherism shaped the priorities of the Labour Party, which she had kept out of office for more than a decade. She remained a member of Parliament until the 1992 election and was subsequently elevated, as a peeress for life, to the House of Lords. She continued to speak and lecture, notably in the United States and Asia, and established the Thatcher Foundation to support free enterprise and democracy, particularly in the newly liberated countries of central and eastern Europe. In 1995 she became a member of the Order of the Garter. Following a series of minor strokes, Thatcher retired from public speaking in 2002.
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (1993, reprinted 1995), and The Path to Power (1995), are her memoirs and provide indispensable insights. Views of Thatcher by her colleagues include Nigel Lawson, The View from No. 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical (1992); Geoffrey Howe, Conflict of Loyalty (1994); and Ian Gilmour, Dancing with Dogma (1992), which analyzes the defects of Thatcherism.
Biographies include George Gardiner, Margaret Thatcher: From Childhood to Leadership (1975); Penny Junor, Margaret Thatcher: Wife, Mother, Politician (1983); Patrick Cosgrave, Thatcher: The First Term (1985); and Hugo Young, One of Us, updated ed. (1991, reissued 1993; also published as The Iron Lady, 1989).
Studies of Thatcherism include Peter Jenkins, Mrs. Thatcher’s Revolution (1987, reissued 1989), which chronicles her assault on socialism; Peter Riddell, The Thatcher Government, updated ed. (1985), and The Thatcher Decade (1989); and Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon (eds.), The Thatcher Effect (1989, reissued 1991), which provides copious assessments and statistical support.