"To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."
— Margaret Thatcher
British Prime Minister (and the only woman to hold that position - so far, at least) for 11 years, Margaret Hilda Thatcher
, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS
(October 13, 1925 — April 8, 2013) is the most divisive figure in recent British political history. Think Ronald Reagan
, but British
, and not particularly cuddly
, and you have a fuzzy concept of her.
When she entered Number 10 in 1979, it was with a mandate to reverse the UK's economic decline. She did this by reducing government spending, encouraging entrepreneurs, moving towards a more free market and selling off a lot of government-owned industries and enterprises, although all these measures pale in comparison to the biggest change of all: the central bank's very conservative monetary policy, which raised interest rates to extremely high levels. This single measure is the most responsible for both the low inflation and the large unemployment of the 1980s.
On the other hand, her economic policies came under fire - and not just from her opponents. Her policies had the initial effect of exacerbating the early 1980s recession. Unemployment rose to its highest level since the Great Depression; the unemployment rate more than doubled what it was when she entered office in just less than two years' time, peaked at an astounding 14% in mid-1982, and hovered above the 10% mark for nearly seven straight years from 1981 to 1987. Three hundred and sixty-four leading economists released a statement in 1981, criticising her handling of the economy. Even when the economy began to recover, unemployment still hovered around the three million mark and the British heavy industrial sector took a major hit, with manufacturing output declining by 30% since 1978. If it was not for the outbreak of The Falklands War
, Thatcher probably wouldn't have been re-elected.
She ordered the liberation of The Falkland Islands
from Argentina, weakened the power of British trade unions, survived an assassination attempt by the IRA (she'd left the room shortly before the bomb went off), forced the EU to give the UK a rebate due to the vast amounts of subsidies other nations got, and was an ardent opponent of communism and the Soviet Union. Her 11 year term was the longest in over 150 years, but towards the end, her popularity began to plummet. Many people will still refuse to vote Tory based on her policies and the results of which are debated as Flame Bait
What can be said is her time as Prime Minister resulted in a significant disembowelment of the trade union movement. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on what your views on unions are. Similarly, Britain's heavy industry sector was sidelined, and the UK became a net importer of goods for the first time in modern history. Again, whether you think this is good or not depends on whether you think the UK should have a manufacturing economy or a service economy. As you can imagine, she's very
divisive. The only thing everybody can agree is that she had the most impact on Britain of any PM since Clement Attlee
, regardless of whether you consider that impact positive or negative. Paradoxically, Thatcher had the lowest average approval rating of any Prime Minister and yet still managed to win two landslide election victories
in 1983 and 1987. Truth is, for most of her premiership, Thatcher was only popular with hardcore Tories - it was the Conservative Party as a whole that was actually popular, not its polarizing leader.
Her downfall came in November 1990 after Michael Heseltine (one of her former ministers) challenged her for the party leadership. Although Thatcher could have stayed on to win the leadership election, it revealed that she was losing support in her own party. Discontent in the Conservative Party had been brewing for several reasons. The economy had gone back into recession, high inflation had returned, Labour had a massive poll lead and many Europhile Tories disagreed with her views on the EU; others were growing to dislike her centralised style of government. And then there was the Community Charge. Previously, local government was funded by the rates, a tax based on how much home properties were worth. While there were some genuine concerns over the effectiveness of this policy, Thatcher's solution was spectacularly mismanaged. The new Community Charge, widely known as a poll tax, was a flat tax where all adult citizens had to pay the same amount. The policy was widely unpopular (only 12% of the population supported it, and by this time her approval rating was 20%) and in 1990, there were protests and even riots all across England. Not long after he entered office, her successor John Major
replaced the poll tax with the modern Council Tax, which looked suspiciously similar to the previous rates system.
Thatcher's nickname of "the Iron Lady
" originated from the Soviet military newspaper Red Star
, bestowed on her for an anti-communist speech in 1976 and not intended as a compliment
. Whatever you think of her, no one can deny that she was a strong leader, able to steer a cabinet of men for 11 years. She was not only the first and only female Prime Minister, but the first and only female leader of the Conservative Party, a body not particularly noted as a bastion of female empowerment. Thus it is ironic that she is always
the cited comparison for any other female leader in any other country, regardless of how tenuous the comparison. There were elected female leaders before her (such as India's Indira Gandhi and Israel's Golda Meir), but Thatcher was Europe's first, which is part of the reason why she's more well-known than those before her.
She was the daughter of a grocer, which she mentioned from time to time. She was notorious for claiming she was a follower of classically liberal
economist Frederich von Hayek. However, unlike Hayek, she opposed the legalization of illicit drugs and denationalization of the money supply. She had also trained as a research chemist, and before embarking on a career in politics and the law, she also was part of a team that invented emulsifiers for soft-serve ice cream
. (Indeed, she was prouder of being the first PM with a science degree than of being the first woman PM.)
Some have criticized her for beginning a trend of concentrating power in the office of Prime Minister, strengthening the "elective dictatorship" innate to British politics. She was a dear friend
of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet until he died. She also criticized the ANC (the anti-apartheid party of which Nelson Mandela was a member), opposed sanctions on South Africa when every other Commonwealth country supported them
, and sent SAS commandos to train the Red Khmers in Cambodia. Thatcher was pretty much willing to excuse any injustice if the country doing it was on their side of the Cold War, really. Her support for the anti-gay policy Section 28 has also been a red mark on her historical reputation, now that same-sex marriage is legal in the UK and many people are against homophobia. One surprising thing about her, though, is that she was one of the first major world political leaders to say that global warming was likely caused by humans (towards the end of her life she regretted saying this).
On 8 April 2013 her death was announced; the cause of death was stroke. She was 87 years old. People's reactions reflects how she was viewed. Her death was met with mourning and condolences were sent in by the government, her supporters and those living in the Tory heartlands, and her funeral pulled in a large and surprisingly respectful crowd. Meanwhile, spontaneous street parties broke out in several cities
and towns across the country, particularly parts of Scotland, northern England and Wales which had been hit hard by industrial decline in the 1980s, while as reported by the Independent
, "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" shot up the charts.
Indeed, when the suggestion of a state funeral was mooted note
, there were some very unkind suggestions
for a manner of burial (including not waiting for her to die
). The student union of King's College, Cambridge
had previously voted to set aside funds for a party to celebrate her death (though they reversed the decision after a hostile reaction
). For a sourced list of reasons people are not fond of her, see here
. (If there's a list of arguments for
, that would also be nice).
The subject of Margaret Thatcher In Fiction
is large enough to get a page to itself.
Thatcher personifies the tropes of:
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: For those who support the United Kingdom, Thatcher's rule was the jumpstart for the modern Scottish independence movement, specifically the fact the highly unpopular Poll Tax was introduced in Scotland a year before England and Wales ticked off the Scots, who deeply resented being used as guinea-pigs for a highly unpopular economic policy.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure:
- Is supposed to have asked an adviser: "This Monty Python - is he one of us?" (Full story here.)
- According to Mikhail Gorbachev, she did better in other areas. When he joked that the Politiburo hadn't tasked him with recruiting her when they met at a conference, she chuckled.
- Royal "We": "We have become a grandmother."
- Shoot the Dog: Extremely fond of this or at least claiming this was what she was doing, especially during the miner strikes.
- Sugar and Ice Personality: Cold definitely, but not entirely.
- The Stoic: See above about her trip to the SAS killing house where live ammo is used and her reaction to the Brighton Hotel bombing where she was nearly killed.
- Take That: It is custom for Oxford University to grant honorary doctorates to PMs who earned their degrees there. However, in 1985 Oxford actually voted not to give her an honorary doctorate in protest at her cuts for higher education.
- With US Or Against Us: If Thatcher's social policies harmed or negatively affected a certain section of the population, she didn't care because "they were not our people" (Full story .)
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness:
- Margaret Thatcher led the Tory party to three consecutive election landslide victories, all but destroyed the labour movement and the Labour Party, and dragged British politics permanently to the right. But once she became an electoral liability, the Tories themselves were the ones who defenestrated her.
- Inverted in 1989. When the Berlin Wall was opened and Germany was on its way to being reunified, Thatcher personally called Soviet leader Gorbachev and begged him to keep the border closed. Her fear was that a unified Germany would drift more to the Soviet Union, even though the East Germans had had enough of communist rule. note