Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG OM PC FRS (October 13, 1925 April 8, 2013) served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. She is widely considered the most divisive figure in recent British political history. To adherents of Neoclassical economics, she is a deity second only to Saint Reagan; to adherents of Keynesian economics, her tenure was among the most damaging to the British economy and society in a century (up there with The Great Depression and The Blitz); to The North and Wales, she is the Devil incarnate. The only things everyone can agree on are that she was an ideologue who truly believed that she was doing what was best for the country, and that she had the most impact on Britain of any PM since Clement Attlee.
She is often compared◊ with Ronald Reagan, but despite their similar ideals they had very different policies: Reagan was freer to make his dream society a reality. Both crushed unions, deregulated finance, cut taxes for corporations and the rich, increased spending (by borrowing, increasing the national debt), profited from selling to both sides in the IranIraq War, reduced government 'handouts' to working-class 'welfare queens'/'dole bludgers', and let the AIDS epidemic continue until attrition and spread meant that it primarily affected straight people. But only Reagan could end the USA's de facto universal healthcare (negotiated with employers through unions, so ending those killed two birds with one stone) and increase corporate welfare. Instead, Thatcher was forced to continue accepting the existence of the NHS. This made Thatcher a 'Third Way' neoliberal like Blair, forced at least temporarily to accept the existence of some programs that her beliefs told her should end.
Likewise, personally, they presented themselves very differently. Reagan's greatest weapon was the front of affability that his acting career had gifted him: the traits people often associated with him were "sunny optimism", sense of humour, charisma, etc. Political and even geopolitical enemies (like Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev) were often charmed by Reagan in official negotiations and especially when "off the clock". Margaret Thatcher, by contrast, thrived on confrontation and was always up for a fight, believing that a hard line was needed so as not to be seen as weak: "You know, if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything, wouldn't you, at any time? And you would achieve nothing!"
This attitude likely stemmed from her first government role, as the education secretary in Edward Heath's government. Not long into the role, she was vilified in the press and working class for putting an end to free milk in schools, earning herself the nickname "Milk Snatcher". In fact, Heath's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, had the idea, and while Thatcher did agree with it from an ideological standpoint, she could tell that it would go over like a lead balloon with the electorate. The fact that she ended up getting so much hatred over a policy that wasn't even originally her idea quickly persuaded her that being liked should be secondary to actually getting things done.
The Iron Lady's premiership is notable for the radical economic changes that were enacted. Since the end of the Second World War, both Labour and Conservative governments had followed the consensus politics of Keynesian evidence-based economics. This era was known for price controls and protectionism, with a lot of effort being put into reconstruction and market planning. The emphasis of most governments was on security rather than growth, and unemployment was negligible throughout most of the fifties and sixties. The downside of this was common across the NATO countries and Warsaw Pact, namely high inflation consistently over 5% year-on-year. This was caused by the ability of the working class to buy goods and services, since they were all employed and had good incomes due to union power and government policy. This inflation eroded business profits and therefore the incomes of landowners, landlords, major shareholders, and so on. The Oil Crises of 1973 and 1976 (Iran-Iraq etc. reduced oil production to punish NATO for supporting Israel's Yom Kippur War) meant that too much demand was chasing too little supply, and the correct Keynesian solution of artificially inducing a recession (reducing wages, forcing people to save, or both to reduce demand to a level which matched supply) was not applied. This created yearly inflation in excess of 8%, which reduced the upper class' incomes from economic rent (e.g. literal rental property rent and bank loans with interest rates below 8%) to little or nothing. This induced them to increase their investments in influencing politics, to protect and advance their interests before it was too late.
Worse, the country's historically confrontational capital-labour relations had led to underinvestment in the future of mining and other industries, which had not adopted the new tools or methods or skills used by international competitors and thereby become inefficient. Before World War II, these had been run for the maximum possible short-term return to capital (profit of the owners). During and afterward, these were run for the maximum possible short-term returns to labour (income of the workers). Unlike in South Korea or Germany, capital-labour relations had historically been — and continued to be — too acrimonious for them to cooperate and and negotiate about ensuring the future of the industry by mechanising the mining and production processes and up-skilling workers while gradually reducing the intake of new workers and retiring old ones to ensure that the reduced employee numbers would cause the least possible lifestyle disruption. The result was disastrous as it allowed entire sectors of the economy to slip into obsolescence as other countries' surged ahead. In 1940 90% of the nation's 2 million coal miners had toiled using hand tools in pits worked by fewer than 100 miners, to produce less than 10% of the total coal output (much of this in the semi-rural north, e.g. Lancashire). Even then, the other 90% of output had been produced by less than 10% of the workforce. Three decades later, in 1970 this had barely changed despite the mechanisation of pits in the Ruhr and elsewhere.
The high inflation, stagnant GDP, general sense of inefficiency (as seen in things like Yes, Minister's empty hospital), final collapse of The British Empire and sinking of the UK's position internationally created an impression that politics was all about managing decline.
After this all culminated in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent which brought down James Callaghan's government, Thatcher came to power promising to turn things around. The Callaghan government had already been influenced by supply-side Monetarist assumptions, but Thatcher fully embraced the movement and ended Britain's Keynesian era. This ended the emphasis on minimising wasteful economic rent-seeking activity, chiefly through selling natural monopolies (sectors which function most cheaply, safely, and effectively for the consumer as monopolies under effective government supervision or control) such as British Telecommunications and other state-owned enterprises to private companies at low prices. The family silver was sold off by the truckload. The trade unions, which had dominated British politics in the sixties and seventies (often appearing to be more powerful than the governments themselves) were crushed in actions such as the 1984 Battle of Orgreave (an unprovoked cavalry charge on miners ordered by Lancashire police commanders also responsible for causing and covering up the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster). She also ended the practice of the government keeping afloat 'unprofitable' state-owned enterprises (such as the coal mines and British Leyland), many of which were sold to foreign companies or even closed altogether.
How this era is remembered varies considerably by where you live: In the south of England, she is fondly remembered as the hero who saved the country from socialist deterioration and Made Britain Great Again. In the north, and especially Scotland, she ranks somewhere between Hitler and the Antichrist. There is also an occupational divide: private-sector professionals applaud her promotion of 'efficiency', while those from the public sector (and formerly state-owned industries) loathe her for the unnecessary destruction of professions and communities that they had taken pride in (Germany still has a coal-mining sector, for instance, but Britain does not despite the two having similarly rich coking coal deposits). The coal miners in particular have an immense hatred for her in no small part because of the 1984-85 strike, which they organized to help keep their jobs, backfired against them. This was only partially due to a more effective system of rapidly transporting police reserves to achieve numerical superiority over the strikers and crush them, but also because the government had created large and decentralised coal stockpiles across the country. This in turn was made easier by the fact that it had become cheaper to import it from countries with cheaper workforces such as South Africa (the Apartheid regime didn't deter British businessmen at all, including Maggie's husband Denis).note An important part of Thatcherism was the belief that jobs of new industries would pop up to replace old ones, but for many people, especially in North England and South Wales, this has never happened.
Many today look back at the Thatcher era as the root of the current disunity between Britain's constituent nations: To this day many Scottish people won't contemplate supporting the Conservative Party (which between 1997 and 2017 never had more than one MP in Scotland) because they still have not forgiven it for Thatcherism; Welsh voters feel a similar sentiment where there are few Tory MPs. Tony Blair's move towards devolution in 1998 was welcomed on the basis that it would prevent any future Tory government from having direct control over Scotland. In fact, the modern Scottish Independence movement is driven largely by a desire not to be part of a country where Thatcher's party might be in power. In the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, the Conservative Party has seen something of a resurgence and has begun to promote itself as the natural party of Scotland's Unionist community. In the 2016 election it achieved 22% of the vote and formed the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament with 31 seats to the SNP's 63.
Of course, New Labour under Tony Blair upheld the ideological adherence to the Neoliberal-Neoclassical socioeconomic consensus Thatcher established. In 1997 Blair was keen to criticise her successor, John Major, but not Thatcher herself with the result that Thatcher actually said "the country is safe in his hands,"Fun fact and the politics of Britain in the twenty-first century are sometimes described as the Thatcherite Consensus in that most people accept it as natural that the economy rent-seeking activity on the logic that the profits reaped from the masses shall trickle back down to them in the form of jobs created to maximise profits further somehow (at least until Jeremy Corbyn hit the national stage big-time by calling shenanigans).
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. This was helped by the disarray, entryism, and militancy that crippled the Labour Party throughout the 1980s. Under Michael Foot things got so bad that the Gang of Four moderate members split off to form the Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance with the Liberals (the remains of Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George's party, reduced since World War II to a dozen seats or so), and for a while it looked as if the Alliance would replace Labour as the main opposition. They eventually fell away (and morphed into the modern day Liberal Democrats), but it highlighted an interesting quirk of the British political system: the more split the left vote, the more favourable the proportion of Conservative votes that translate into Tory MPs become. This allowed the Conservatives, on a reduced voting outcome, to keep grabbing dozens of formerly safe Labour constituencies, and actually increase the number of MPs they had.
Finally in 1990, after more than eleven years in power, Margaret Thatcher was brought down by a coup from within the Conservative Party. There were two main triggers of her downfall:
- Her government introduced the Community Charge, which was almost universally derided as a Poll Tax.note The implementation (in 1989 for Scotland, and 1990 for England and Wales) was disastrous. Landlords and local councils could not keep track of who was living where at what time, let alone which rate each was supposed to pay (there were different rates for those in employment and those out). Putting together a reliable register of occupants was impossible, and so the Charge could never be properly enforced, with large scale evasion, organised resistance to the policy and even riots in March 1990 quickly proving an insurmountable barrier.
- Thatcher's relations with the European Economic Community (which was on the brink of becoming the The European Union) were turning sour. Having campaigned in the 1975 referendum to keep Britain in the common market, during her later premiership she became increasingly Euroskeptic as she found that the EEC was putting blocks on Thatcherism and frustrating her attempts to take the economy the way she wanted it. She developed a habit of publicly badmouthing other European leaders and announcing things that went against what her foreign office had agreed in negotiations without consulting anyone else in the government. This eventually culminated in Sir Geoffrey Howe, her Deputy Prime Minister, resigning in a Commons speech that devastated his former boss and resulted in her facing the second leadership challenge in just over a year.note
A combination of members losing confidence in their leader and complacency among the staff running campaign meant that although she did beat Michael Heseltinenote in the first ballot, it was not by the 15% margin necessary to prevent another round of voting (she was four votes short). Initially she announced her intention to stand for another ballot, but after consulting her cabinet ministers (who were getting tired of her autocratic leadership style) one by one, it became clear that she could not win note . She therefore withdrew her candidacy (effectively conceding defeat) and put her support behind her Chancellor, John Major, to succeed her. He won, and on 28 November 1990 Thatcher tearfully left Downing Street as the Queen appointed Major to be the new Prime Minster.
After seventeen months as a backbench MP, Thatcher stood down from the Commons in the 1992 General Election, and entered the House of Lords after being listed in the Dissolution Honours. In her maiden speech from the red benches, she savaged Major's government over the Maastricht Treaty. In the new millennium, she largely retired from public life and increasingly suffered mental health problems after the death of her husband, Sir Denis (this is the subject of the 2011 film, The Iron Lady).
When she finally died in April 2013, there was a simultaneous outpouring of tearful grief and ecstatic celebration, with the song Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead! from The Wizard of Oz having a sudden, controversial surge in popularity. The Baroness' body was given a ceremonial funeral in St. Paul's cathedral, attended by the Royal Family, several generations of British politicians and some visiting foreign statesmen. There were rumours about protesters disrupting the proceedings (angry at the £10m cost and the fact she was being given a state funeral at all), but they came to nothing and her coffin was pulled through the streets in near-total silence. Even Big Ben's chimes were suspended for the duration.
Over in Los Angeles, the singer Cher was surprised to be asked how she felt about being dead. This was due to a confusion on Twitter; the hashtag "#nowthatcherisdead" was misinterpreted as "now that Cher is dead". One Direction member Harry Styles also infamously tweeted RIP Baroness Thatcher to a fanbase who responded with blank stares.
One would be remiss to leave out Thatcher's foreign policies, which (if even more than her domestic policies) were controversial then and remain so now: A staunch anti-communist, Thatcher was a dear friend of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, criticized the ANC (the anti-apartheid party of which Nelson Mandela was a member), opposed sanctions on South Africa even when every other Commonwealth country supported them, and sent SAS commandos to train the Red Khmers in Cambodia. Of historic interest, here's a video of Thatcher explaining to school children who watch the UK program Blue Peter how Pol Pot is "bad" Khmer Rouge and how there exists "good" Khmer Rouge. She also receives criticism for Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned state schools from promoting homosexual relationships (although this proved largely symbolic, as no actual offence was created or penalty specified, the legislation scared many LGBT student support groups into closing themselves) or of publishing materials with that intention. On the other hand, she was an early herald of the dangers of climate change and environmental pollution (though many in her party today like to ignore this part of her legacy).
Ironically, Thatcher's nickname of "the Iron Lady" originated from the Soviet military newspaper Red Star, which it bestowed on her for an anti-communist speech in 1976, not intended as a compliment. Never one to let a newspaper get one over on her, Thatcher simply embraced the 'insult', embodied it, and eventually had a movie (The Iron Lady) named after it while everybody knew exactly who it was. Whatever people think of her, no one denies that she was a strong leader, able to steer a cabinet of men for 11 years. She was not only the first female Prime Minister, but the first female leader of the Conservative Party, a body not particularly noted as a bastion of female empowerment. Thus, she is always the cited comparison for any other female leader in any other country, however tenuous the comparison. On the other hand, she deserves her share of credit for founding the model of presidential leadership followed by Tony Blair and for practically inventing the entire economic environment of modern Britain. Few today could imagine returning to the politics and economics of the seventies. As with most things about Thatcher, whether this is good or bad remains a topic of heated debate.
She was also trained as a research chemist, although the oft-touted belief that she was part of the team that invented emulsifiers for soft-serve ice-cream lacks credible evidence, as noted by both the media and the Royal Society.
The subject of Margaret Thatcher in Fiction is large enough to get a page to itself!
Since Theresa May assumed the office in 2016, Thatcher is no longer the only Woman of Downing Street.