The Iron Lady
Margaret Thatcher was the Conservative Party leader from 1975 to 1990, and the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister from 1979 to 1990.1 Not only was she the first woman to hold office, but also the longest-serving prime minister with three terms, since 1827. Known as the “Iron Lady”, Thatcher was uncompromising in her politics and leadership style, especially when it came to communism in the Soviet Union. Her convictions, decisions, and overall leadership style have become known as Thatcherism; a realignment toward neolobiral policies in the United Kingdom.
Thatcher’s philosophies and policies emphasized financial deregulation, reducing the power afforded to trade unions, and the privatization of state-owned enterprises.2 She led the country to its 1982 victory in the Falklands War and revived its economy which had been declining since WWII. Beyond the specifics of her political achievements, Thatcherism included fierce nationalism, a combative approach to achieving political goals, and a fervent regard for individual interests. Thatcher’s political career was perhaps one of the most controversial during modern times: she passed away in 2013 but her legacy today remains one of the most influential and debated of contemporary political leaders.
Margaret Thatcher’s legacies are rooted in her economic and political ideology, which is now known as Thatcherism. Thatcherism represents a belief in greater independence of the individual from the state, including an end to excessive government interference in the economy, reductions in expenditures on social services, and legal restrictions on trade unions.2
In terms of decision making, this meant a systematic, decisive rejection and reversal of the post-war consensus, which agreed on the Keynesian themes of deficit spending during periods of high unemployment, close regulation of the economy and government ownership of businesses.2 Thatcher did not necessarily reject the welfare state, but she was concerned about abuse of the system and dependency culture.3 Thus, her policies worked to emphasize free markets with restrained government spending and tax cuts.2 Thatcherism also incorporated an ethical outlook which influenced decision making, such as nationalism, and interest in the individual, and moral absolutism (a view that holds that all actions are intrinsically right or wrong). This solidified her unwavering approach for achieving her political goals, driven by what was right or wrong.
Thatcher saw herself as creating a libertarian movement, seeking to maximize autonomy and political freedom, emphasizing individualism. The concepts associated with Thatcherism were mostly a result of post-war ideologies, which the female prime minister acted upon during her time in office. Although “Thatcherism” has mostly been used by others to describe Margaret Thatcher’s ideologies, she once used the term during a campaign in 1987: when describing her economic successes, she said, “That’s what I call Thatcherism.” 5 Ultimately under Thatcherism, the role of the government was to stand out of the way so people could regulate their own businesses and lives: the government should only be involved in national defence and currency.
A core example of Thatcherist ideology can be seen in her drive for privatisation.6 To her, privatisation was one of the issues associated with excessive government regulation, interfering with autonomy. Beyond that, many existing state-owned businesses had inflated costs and inefficient operations. Thatcher worked to privatize state-owned industries and public services such as television and radio, water, aerospace, gas and electricity.2 By the end of the 1980s, individual stockholders had tripled in numbers and the government had sold 1.5 million publicly owned residential units to tenants. Through her privatisation efforts, Thatcher changed attitudes so that private ownership of public utilities moved from the far right to the centre of politics.
Thatcher’s governments encouraged the growth of free markets, strengthening political and economic freedom. Spurred by the success of Thatcher’s privatisation reforms, similar changes swept through Europe and Latin America.7 Other nations followed suit due to disillusionment with the generally poor performance of state-owned businesses, and a desire to improve efficiency of often failing companies. Privatisation itself has had a huge impact on the global economy, spurring growth and improving living standards since privatised businesses cut costs and increased quality of service. Aside from such economic successes, Thatcher has also been criticized for ignoring social justice, equity, and inclusiveness.8 Believing that conventional marriage and that a nuclear family were the building blocks to improve society, discussing homosexuality was banned in schools and gay marriage was not legal.9 Thatcher has also been criticized for not advancing the political cause of women: while she struggled against sexist prejudices, she did little to ease the path for others, since she did not regard women’s rights as requiring much attention in her policies.10
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on October 13, 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England.2 The daughter of a grocer, Margaret formed an early desire to be a politician – and her humble beginnings would shape her future political campaigns. Her father was also a local councillor who discussed Conservative politics with Margaret.11 Her political convictions were influenced by her Methodist parents who lived closely with the community of their local congregation, bounded by traditions of charitable work, truthfulness, and self-help. Margaret’s academic achievements led her to Oxford University, where she studied Chemistry from 1943-47.11 She was also elected president of the student Conservative Association at Oxford, through which she met prominent politicians. Her political interests exceeded her scientific ones, and Margaret ran for parliament in 1950 in the Labour-dominated constituency of Dartford.1 While she lost that year and again in 1951, she received more votes than prior Conservative candidates.
Moving past her political losses, Margaret married wealthy businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951 and started practicing as a barrister.2 She soon gave birth to two twins while studying for her bar exams, which she passed in early 1954. She spent the next few years practicing tax law while looking for a winnable constituency. At this point, Margaret Thatcher ran for parliament again in 1959, this time in the Conservative-dominated constituency of Finchley – and won the seat.1 The first bill she introduced gave the media the right to cover local government meetings: when speaking about the bill, she pushed for the need to limit wasteful government expenditures. This would be a common theme throughout the rest of her political career.
Thatcher rose quickly across the ministerial ranks and became secretary of state for education and science when the Conservatives regained power in 1970.1 When the Conservatives returned to the opposition in 1975, Thatcher defeated former prime minister Edward Heath and took over leadership. Thatcher soon attacked the Soviet Union as “bent on world dominance”, with a Soviet army newspaper responding by calling her the “Iron Lady”. Thatcher embraced this name. Throughout her three terms, Thatcher’s ideology followed those of Thatcherism, which caused her popularity to wane. Had it not been for the 1982 victory in Falklands War – when Argentina invaded a British colony – Thatcher may not have been re-elected for her second term.2 It was this foreign affair that showed her significant relationship with Ronald Reagan, who was president of the United States from 1981-89. The two have been cited together as making the 1980s the decade of conservatism, sharing a common vision in which the Soviet Union was the enemy.
Among others, one of Thatcher’s most well-known actions was her promise to curb the power of unions.2 Her government enacted a series of measures to undermine unions’ abilities to organize and stage strikes and in 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers began a nationwide strike to prevent the closure of 20 coal mines that had been deemed unproductive by the government. The walkout lasted almost a year and became symbolic of the struggle for power between the trade union movement and the Conservative government. However, Thatcher continued to refuse to meet the unions’ demands and the miners ultimately returned to work without gaining a single concession.
In her third term, Thatcher implemented a poll tax in 1989 that lowered income tax rates to a post-war low, which resulted in street violence.1 Influenced by public disapproval, Conservative members of Parliament moved for her removal on November 14, 1990. On November 28, Thatcher stepped down as both Conservative Party leader and prime minister. Even in retirement, she influenced internal Conservative Party politics and Thatchersim shaped the priorities of the Labour Party.1 She remained a member of Parliament until 1992, when she was given the title of Baroness in the House of Lords. Despite the polarizing nature with which Margaret Thatcher is viewed, critics and supporters alike recognize her premiership as a period of fundamental importance in British history.11
“I place a profound belief – indeed a fervent faith – in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence. On these is founded the whole case for the free society, for the assertion that human progress is best achieved by offering the freest possible scope for the development of individual talents, qualified only by a respect for the qualities and freedoms of others
-Margaret Thatcher in her speech to Conservative Central Council, March 1975
“I love argument. I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me – that’s not their job.”
“What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.”
“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher (1993). Thatcher covers the formation of her goals in the early 1980s, the Falklands War, her electoral victories of 1983 and 987, and eventually, her fall from power. She also provides detailed accounts of her dealings with foreign statesmen and her own ministers.
The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher (1995). Thatcher covers her life from birth until she became prime minister in 1979, in this international bestseller. Recounting her early years, Thatcher considers how they influenced her political career.
Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World by Margaret Thatcher (2002). Thatcher’s final work, this book is a reflection on international politics. She outlines the foundation of U.S. dominance in the Cold War – as witnessed through her relationship with Reagan – and other global incidents.
A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl by Carol Thatcher (2009). This memoir by Margaret Thatcher’s daughter reflects on her environment growing up and discusses how her mother started showing symptoms of progressive dementia in 2000.
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography by Charles Moore (2013). The official biography of Margaret Thatcher comes from an author that had complete access, ranging from all cabinet papers to everyone who ever met her. This is a biography with three volumes that focuses on her decision making processes: the first covers her early life until her initial period as prime minister; the second covers her at the “peak” of her power, looking at the years between the Falklands War and the 1987 election victory; and the third follows her last term and its subsequent decades.
Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris (2013). As someone who helped Thatcher write all her memoirs and wrote all her speeches, Harris spent years alongside the first female prime minister. His single volume biography offers a unique and more authentic characterization of Thatcher, for those who may want a bit less detail than that provided by Moore.
The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher by Margaret Thatcher (1998). This collection of Margaret Thatcher’s major speeches reveal how she developed her political vision and shaped international politics in the late 20th century.
Margaret Thatcher lecture by Lord Powell of Bayswater. As the foreign affairs private secretary to Thatcher, Lord Powell was her right-hand man for almost 8 years and his lecture given at Oxford University in 2017 explores whether or not Thatcher’s legacy on Europe was a positive or negative one.
- Margaret Thatcher. (2009, November 9). History Canada. https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/margaret-thatcher
- Young, H. (2020, October 9). Margaret Thatcher. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Margaret-Thatcher
- Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, F. (2013, April 15). Margaret Thatcher, individualism and the welfare state. History & Policy. https://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/margaret-thatcher-individualism-and-the-welfare-state
- Shankardass, R. D. (1989). Ten years of Thatcherism in historical perspective: Conservatism in Britain. Economic and Political Weekly, 24(51/52), 2849-2858.
- Campbell, J. (2011). Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady. Random House.
- Gamble, A. (1988). Privatization, Thatcherism, and the British State. Journal of Law and Society, 16(1), 1-20.
- Edwards, C. (2017, February 22). Thatcher’s golden legacy of privatisation. CapX. https://capx.co/thatchers-golden-legacy-of-privatisation/
- Vidal, J., Ncube, M., Bromund, T. R., & Ghosh, J. (2013, April 16). Margaret Thatcher: Her impact and legacy in global development. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/apr/16/margaret-thatcher-impact-legacy-development
- What is Thatcherism? (2013, April 10). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-22079683
- Gelb, J. (1989). Feminism and Politics: A Comparative Perspective. University of California.
- Biography. (2021). Margaret Thatcher Foundation. https://www.margaretthatcher.org/essential/biography