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Margaret Thatcher

British Prime Minister 1979 - 1990

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Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 1980

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 1980

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Margaret Thatcher 1950

Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher), Conservative MP election, 1950

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher, 1985

Margaret Thatcher, 1985

David Montgomery / Getty Images

Known for:

  • still the only woman prime minister of the United Kingdom
  • dismantling nationalized industries and social services, weakening union power
  • first woman prime minister in Europe
  • first in-office prime minister in the UK removed on a vote of their own party
  • ally of US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush

Dates: October 13, 1925 - April 8, 2013

Occupation: politician, research chemist

Learn more: Margaret Thatcher Basic Facts | Margaret Thatcher Quotes

Roots

Born Margaret Hilda Roberts to a solidly middle class family -- neither rich nor poor -- in the small town of Grantham, noted for manufacturing railroad equipment. Margaret's father Alfred Roberts was a grocer and her mother Beatrice a homemaker and dressmaker. Alfred Roberts had left school to support his family. Margaret had one sibling, an older sister Muriel, born in 1921. The family lived in a 3-story brick building, with the grocery on the first floor. The girls worked in the store, and the parents took separate vacations so that the store could always be open. Alfred Roberts was also a local leader: a lay Methodist preacher, a member of the Rotary Club, an alderman and the town's mayor. Margaret's parents had been liberals who, between the two world wars, voted conservative. Grantham, an industrial city, experienced heavy bombing during World War II.

Margaret attended Grantham Girls' School, where she focused on science and math. By age 13, she already had expressed her goal of becoming a member of Parliament.

From 1943 to 1947, Margaret attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she received her degree in chemistry. She taught during summers to supplement her partial scholarship. She was also active in conservative political circles at Oxford; from 1946 to 1947, she was the president of the University Conservative Association. Winston Churchill was her hero.

Early Political and Personal Life

After college, she went to work as a research chemist, working for two different companies in the developing plastics industry.

She stayed involved in politics, going to the Conservative Party Conference in 1948 representing Oxford graduates. In 1950 and 1951, she unsuccessfully stood for election to represent Dartford in North Kent, running as a Tory for a safe Labour seat. As a very young woman running for office, she received media attention for these campaigns.

During this time, she met Denis Thatcher, a director of his family's paint company. Denis came from more wealth and power than Margaret had; he had also been briefly married during World War II before divorcing. Margaret and Denis were married on December 13, 1951.

Margaret studied law from 1951 to 1954, specializing in tax law. She later wrote that she was inspired by a 1952 article, "Wake Up, Women," to pursue a full life with both family and a career. In 1953, she took the Bar Finals, and gave birth to twins, Mark and Carol, six weeks prematurely, in August.

From 1954 to 1961, Margaret Thatcher was in private law practice as a barrister, specializing in tax and patent law. From 1955 to 1958, she tried, unsuccessfully, several times to be selected as a Tory candidate for MP.

Member of Parliament

In 1959, Margaret Thatcher was elected to a rather safe seat in Parliament, becoming the Conservative MP for Finchley, a suburb north of London. With Finchley's large Jewish population, Margaret Thatcher developed a long-term association with conservative Jews and support for Israel. She was one of 25 women in the House of Commons, but she received more attention than most because she was the youngest. Her childhood dream of becoming an MP was achieved. Margaret put her children in boarding school.

From 1961 to 1964, having left her private law practice, Margaret took the minor office in Harold Macmillan's government of Joint Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. In 1965, her husband Denis became the director of an oil company which had taken over his family's business. In 1967, opposition leader Edward Heath made Margaret Thatcher the opposition's spokesperson on energy policy.

In 1970, the Heath government was elected, and thus the Conservatives were in power. Margaret served from 1970 to 1974 as the Secretary of State for Education and Science, earning by her policies the description in one newspaper of "the most unpopular woman in Britain." She abolished free milk in school for those over age seven, and was called for this "Ma Thatcher, Milk Snatcher." She supported funding for primary education but promoted private funding for secondary and university education.

Also in 1970, Thatcher became the privy councillor and co-chair of the Women's National Commission. Though unwilling to call herself a feminist or associate with the growing feminist movement, or credit feminism with her success, she supported women's economic role.

In 1973, Britain joined the European Economic Community, an issue about which Margaret Thatcher would have much to say during her political career. In 1974, Thatcher also became the Tory spokesperson on the environment, and took a staff position with the Centre for Policy Studies, promoting monetarism, Milton Friedman's economic approach, as contrasted with the Keynesian economic philosophy.

In 1974, the Conservatives were defeated, with the Heath government in increasing conflict with Britain's strong unions.

Conservative Party Leader

In the wake of Heath's defeat, Margaret Thatcher challenged him for leadership of the party. She won 130 votes on the first ballot to Heath's 119, and Heath then withdrew, with Thatcher winning the position on the second ballot.

Denis Thatcher retired in 1975, supporting his wife's political career. Her daughter Carol studied law, became a journalist in Australia in 1977; her son Mark studied accounting but failed to qualify in the exams; he became something of a playboy and took up automobile racing.

In 1976, a speech by Margaret Thatcher warning of the aim of the Soviet Union for world domination earned Margaret the sobriquet "the Iron Lady," given to her by the Soviets. Her radically conservative economic ideas earned the name for the first time, that same year, of "Thatcherism." In 1979, Thatcher spoke against immigration to the Commonwealth countries as a threat to their culture. She was known, more and more, for her direct and confrontational style of politics.

The winter of 1978 to 1979 was known in Britain as "the Winter of Their Discontent." Many union strikes and conflicts combined with the effects of harsh winter storms to weaken confidence in the Labour government. In early 1979, the conservatives won a narrow victory.

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister

Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the United Kingdom on May 4, 1979. She was not only the UK's first woman prime minister, she was the first woman prime minister in Europe. She brought in her radical right-wing economic policies, "Thatcherism," plus her confrontational style and personal frugality. During her time in office, she continued to prepare breakfast and dinner for her husband, and even to do grocery shopping. She refused part of her salary.

Her political platform was that of limiting government and public spending, letting market forces control the economy. She was a monetarist, a follower of Milton Friedman's economic theories, and saw her role as eliminating socialism from Britain. She also supported reduced taxes and public spending, and the deregulation of industry. She planned to privatize Britain's many government-owned industries and to end government subsidies to others. She wanted legislation to seriously restrict union power and abolish tariffs except to non-European countries.

She took office in the middle of a world-wide economic recession; the result of her policies in that context was serious economic disruption. Bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures increased, unemployment increased and industrial production fell considerably. Terrorism around Northern Ireland's status continued. A 1980 steelworkers' strike disrupted the economy further. Thatcher refused to allow Britain to join the EEC's European Monetary System. North Sea windfall receipts for off-shore oil helped lessen the economic effects.

In 1981 Britain had its highest unemployment since 1931: 3.1 to 3.5 million. One effect was the rise in social welfare payments, making it impossible for Thatcher to cut taxes as much as she'd planned. There were riots in some cities. In the 1981 Brixton riots, police misconduct was exposed, further polarizing the nation. In 1982, those industries still nationalized were forced to borrow and thus had to raise prices. Margaret Thatcher's popularity was very low. Even within her own party, her popularity waned. In 1981 she began replacing more traditional conservatives with members of her own more radical circle. She began to develop a close relationship with the new USA president, Ronald Reagan, whose administration supported many of the same economic policies hers did.

And then, in 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, perhaps encouraged by the effects of military cutbacks under Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher sent 8,000 military personnel to fight a much larger number of Argentinians; her win of the Falkland's War restored her to popularity.

The press also covered the 1982 disappearance of Thatcher's son, Mark, in the Sahara Desert during an automobile rally. He and his crew were found four days later, considerably off course.

Re-election

With the Labour Party still deeply divided, Margaret Thatcher won re-election in 1983 with 43% of the vote for her party, including a 101 seat majority. (In 1979 the margin had been 44 seats.)

Thatcher continued her policies, and unemployment continued at over 3 million. The crime rate and prison populations grew, and foreclosures continued. Financial corruption, including by many banks, was exposed. Manufacturing continued to decline.

Thatcher's government attempted to reduce the power of local councils, which had been the means of delivery of many social services. As part of this effort, the Greater London Council was abolished.

In 1984, Thatcher first met with Soviet reform leader Gorbachev. He may have been drawn to meet with her because her close relationship with President Reagan made her an attractive ally.

Thatcher that same year survived an assassination attempt, when the IRA bombed a hotel where a Conservative Party conference was held. Her "stiff upper lip" in responding calmly and quickly added to her popularity and image.

In 1984 and 1985, Thatcher's confrontation with the coal miners union led to a year-long strike which the union eventually lost. Thatcher used strikes in 1984 through 1988 as reasons to further restict union power.

In 1986, the European Union was created. Banking was affected by European Union rules, as German banks funded the East German economic rescue and revival. Thatcher began to pull Britain back from European unity. Thatcher's defense minister Michael Heseltine resigned over her position.

In 1987, with unemployment at 11%, Thatcher won a third term as prime minister -- the first twentieth century UK prime minister to do so. This was a much less clear win, with 40% fewer Conservative seats in Parliament. Thatcher's response was to become even more radical.

Privatization of nationalized industries provided a short-term gain for the treasury, as stock was sold to the public. Similar short-term gains were realized by selling state-owned housing to occupants, transforming many to private owners.

A 1988 attempt to establish a poll tax was highly controversial, even within the Conservative Party. This was a flat rate tax, also called the community charge, with every citizen paying the same amount, with some rebates for the poor. The flat rate tax would replace property taxes which were based on the value of property owned. Local councils were given the power to levy the poll tax; Thatcher hoped that popular opinion would force these rates to be lower, and end Labour Party domination of the councils. Demonstrations against the poll tax in London and elsewhere sometimes turned violent.

In 1989, Thatcher led a major overhaul of the finances of the National Health Service, and accepted that Britain would be part of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. She continued to try to fight inflation through high interest rates, despite continued problems with high unemployment. A worldwide economic downturn aggravated economic problems for Britain.

Conflict within the Conservative Party increased. Thatcher was not grooming a successor, though in 1990 she had become the prime minister with the longest continuous term in the UK's history since the early 19th century. By that time, not a single other cabinet member from 1979, when she was first elected, was still serving. Several, including Geoffrey Howe the party's deputy leader, resigned in 1989 and 1990 over her policies.

In November of 1990, Margaret Thatcher's position as head of the party was challenged by Michael Heseltine, and thus a vote was called. Others joined the challenge. When Thatcher saw that she had failed on the first ballot, though none of her challengers won, she resigned as party head. John Major, who had been a Thatcherite, was elected in her place as prime minister. Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for 11 years and 209 days.

After Downing Street

The month after Thatcher's defeat, Queen Elizabeth II, with whom Thatcher had met weekly during her time as prime minister, appointed Thatcher a member of the exclusive Order of Merit, replacing the recently deceased Laurence Olivier. She granted Denis Thatcher a hereditary baroncy, the last such title granted to anyone outside the royal family.

Margaret Thatcher founded the Thatcher Foundation to continue to work for her radically conservative economic vision. She continued to travel and lecture, both within Britain and internationally. A regular theme was her criticism of the European Union's centralized power.

Mark, one of the Thatcher twins, married in 1987. His wife was an heiress from Dallas, Texas. In 1989, the birth of Mark's first child made Margaret Thatcher a grandmother. His daughter was born in 1993.

In March, 1991, US President George H. W. Bush awarded Margaret Thatcher the US Medal of Freedom.

In 1992, Margaret Thatcher announced she would no longer run for her seat in Finchley. That year, she was made a life peer as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, and thus serves in the House of Lords.

Margaret Thatcher worked on her memoirs in retirement. In 1993 she published The Downing Street Years 1979-1990 to tell her own story about her years as prime minister. In 1995, she published The Path to Power, to detail her own early life and early political career, before becoming prime minister. Both books were best sellers.

Carol Thatcher published a biography of her father, Denis Thatcher, in 1996. In 1998 Margaret and Denis' son Mark was involved in scandals involving loan sharking in South Africa and US tax evasion.

In 2002, Margaret Thatcher had several small strokes and gave up her lecture tours. She also published, that year, another book: Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World.

Denis Thatcher survived a heart-bypass operation in early 2003, seeming to make a full recovery. Later that year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died on June 26.

Mark Thatcher inherited his father's title, and became known as Sir Mark Thatcher. In 2004 Mark was arrested in South Africa for attempting to assist in a coup in Equatorial Guinea. As a result of his guilty plea, he was given a large fine and suspended sentence, and permitted to move in with his mother in London. Mark was unable to move to the United States where his wife and children moved after Mark's arrest. Mark and his wife divorced in 2005 and both remarried others in 2008.

Carol Thatcher, a freelance contributor to the BBC One program since 2005, lost that job in 2009 when she referred to an aboriginal tennis player as a "golliwog," and refused to apologize for use of what was taken as a racial term.

Carol's 2008 book about her mother, A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir, dealt with Margaret Thatcher's growing dementia. Thatcher was unable to attend a 2010 birthday party for her, organized by Prime Minister David Cameron, the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011, or a ceremony unveiling a statue of Ronald Reagan outside the American Embassy later in 2011. When Sarah Palin told the press that she would visit Margaret Thatcher on a trip to London, Palin was advised that such a visit would not be possible.

On July 31, 2011, Thatcher's office in the House of Lords was closed, according to her son, Sir Mark Thatcher. She died on April 8, 2013, after suffering another stroke.

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