Margaret Thatcher: A biography

“Thatcher served three terms as Prime Minister and held the office consecutively for eleven and a half years, a unique achievement in twentieth century British political history. ”

Early life and career

Margaret Thatcher was born in the small Lincolnshire market town of Grantham in October 1925, the second daughter of Alfred and Beatrice Roberts. Her parents owned and ran a grocery. They were strong Methodists and Thatcher’s early life was shaped by the church and the society of its small congregation: she grew up in a strong and watchful community, a place of duty, order, unsparing honesty, and charitable giving. Her father was a lay preacher and during her childhood became a prominent figure in the town, serving for many years on the finance committee of the council and holding the office of mayor in 1945/46. He had been brought up a Liberal and though an opponent of the local Labour Party, he never publicly described himself as a Conservative. He read widely and seriously, acquiring a great store of political knowledge: his daughter later joked that while Chancellors of the Exchequer and Treasury officials often talked to her about the Bank of England’s “fiduciary issue”, her father was the only man she had ever met who could actually define the term.

From a local state school Thatcher won a place to read chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied between 1943 and 1947. Her college tutor was Dorothy Hodgkin, a brilliant crystallographer who later won a Nobel Prize. Thatcher’s years at Oxford launched her political career. She was active in the Oxford University Conservative Association, becoming its president and meeting many of the party’s most prominent figures, who thought it worth cultivating the hopeful young men and women of that university. Her first political speech was made during the 1945 General Election campaign.

Graduating in 1947, Thatcher began a brief career as a research chemist, moving to Colchester and then to Dartford, where she was selected as the Conservative candidate at the General Election of 1950. The seat was unwinnable for a Conservative at that time, but she hugely enjoyed the experience, showing characteristic energy and determination. As the youngest female candidate at the election (and one of the most attractive) she and her campaign achieved national attention in the press. The Dartford candidacy also brought her into the company of Denis Thatcher, a local businessman. They married in December 1951 to become one of the best-matched and happiest of political couples, a source of great strength in her subsequent career. Politics was from the very beginning a demanding presence in their relationship; it was perhaps a warning of the life to come when (without asking them) the local party agent leaked the news of their engagement, timing it for maximum political advantage.

In her early years as a married woman Thatcher trained as a barrister, specialising in tax law. In 1953 she became the mother of twins, Mark and Carol. Her efforts to win the candidature of a safe Conservative seat suffered from the perception that her proper place was in the home and she came close to abandoning the attempt, removing her name from the party’s list of approved candidates. But politics held an overwhelming attraction for her and she had impressed influential figures in the party machine. She secured the candidature of a safe seat in North London – Finchley – in time to enter Parliament at the 1959 General Election, which was won by the Conservatives under the leadership of Harold Macmillan with a majority of 100.

Political life 1959-75

Once elected to the House of Commons, Thatcher rapidly made her way. She had a little luck: in her first session she won the right by ballot to introduce a private member’s bill, which with skill and the help of several ministers she saw through the long parliamentary process into law. In 1961 she was invited to join the government as a junior minister at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. She became a skilful defender of policies before Parliament, marshalling arguments and statistics with effect. It was a style of speaking that fell short of high rhetoric; she might silence an opponent, but throughout her career as a Conservative frontbencher this most influential of politicians rarely sought to charm an audience and made few concessions to the growing political fashion for wearing hearts on sleeves. Instead she became the archetypal conviction politician, at her best speaking off the cuff, or thinking on her feet in a television interview in combative and plain-spoken style.

In her early years in Parliament, as at the General Election of 1950, Thatcher in some respects found her gender a political advantage. Politics was overwhelmingly the preserve of men when she began her career, and no woman had ever held the highest offices of state, let alone the Premiership. But the major parties needed at least one prominent woman in a leading position. Thatcher was quickly understood to be the most talented Conservative woman in the Commons, and as such was likely to reach cabinet rank. She remained a frontbencher after Labour won the 1964 General Election and entered the shadow cabinet in 1967, following two successful and happy years as deputy to the Shadow Chancellor, Iain Macleod. But her relations with the party leader of the day, Edward Heath, were never good, and she was sometimes dismissed as “the token woman”, not least by some of her colleagues. When the Conservatives won the 1970 General Election she entered the Cabinet as Education Secretary, a post thought appropriate for a woman, which she held for the entire term of the Heath government.

Thatcher’s years at Education proved a painful, indeed at times a shattering, experience. She was out of sympathy with some of the principal education policies of her party, notably its acquiescence in Labour’s drive to end selection in secondary education by the “11-plus” exam. And in a period of rising student militancy and political ill-feeling in Britain, she quickly became a special target for attack from the left in politics and the media. In 1971 the abolition of free school milk for pupils over the age of 7 caused her to be dubbed “milk-snatcher” at the Labour Party Conference and she was endlessly mocked for her clothes and her voice, for her middle class manner and appearance. By the end of that year she often found it difficult to get a hearing when she visited schools and universities. She had become a hate figure for many of her opponents. Thatcher withstood the pressure and emerged significantly toughened. However, the impression left on opponents – and even on some Conservatives – that her character was harsh and unfeeling, even un-feminine, had an enduring effect on her career.

The Heath Government marked her in other ways. The rightward-leaning economic policies it had pursued in its first year were largely abandoned in the “U-turn” of 1972. A prices and incomes policy was introduced, which the trade unions met with hostility. A miners’ strike in early 1974 prompted the government to call an early election on the theme “Who governs Britain?”, a campaign fought against the background of power cuts and a three-day working week. The election was lost and the Conservatives returned to Opposition. In some respects Thatcher spent the rest of her career attempting to make good what she saw as the mistakes and failures of those years.

Heath remained Conservative leader a year longer, a man uncomfortable in Opposition. A second General Election was lost in October 1974 and he was pressured into offering himself for re-election as leader. Thatcher was by now plainly identified as one of the rising stars on the right wing of the party, but emerged as a candidate for the leadership only after her close friend and colleague, Sir Keith Joseph, declined to stand. Her campaign was well-managed and took full advantage of Heath’s weakened position. To widespread public surprise, she beat him on the first ballot and in February 1975 defeated his principal lieutenants in a second ballot to become the first female party leader of any major western democracy.

As Leader of the Opposition, 1975-79, Thatcher’s political position was rarely strong. She had little choice but to keep many of Heath’s closest allies in her shadow cabinet and there were bitter doctrinal quarrels as “Thatcherism” began to be born, a programme of national recovery resting on a marriage of economic liberalism and strong government. In this period Thatcherism was often defined, sometimes provocatively, as an antidote to the supposed failings of the Heath Government, as well as to those of the Labour Government of the day. However, after years of stalemate on the most important questions of policy, fortune favoured Thatcher during the winter of 1978/79. A crop of strikes badly damaged the credibility of the Labour government and gave her the chance to strengthen the Conservative line on reform of the trade unions. As often before, she was skilful in making the best use of her opportunities. In the election that followed, Thatcher led her party to a majority of 43, becoming Britain’s first woman Prime Minister on 4 May 1979.

Premiership 1979-90

Thatcher served three terms as Prime Minister and held the office consecutively for eleven and a half years, a unique achievement in twentieth century British political history. In that period she overturned many (but by no means all) of the policies that had dominated British public life since the end of the Second World War. She moved economic policy significantly to the right, in which respect her governments anticipated and helped to set in motion international trends during the 1980s. The large state sector was progressively slimmed by “privatisation”, with the state airline, the steel, telecommunications, gas, electricity and water industries all sold by share offer. The control of inflation took primacy in economic policy and by the end of her term few argued that by tolerating higher inflation one could reduce unemployment. Direct taxes were cut and the growth of public expenditure controlled, aiming to reduce the proportion of national income spent by the state. A culture shift took place in which business and entrepreneurship became more highly valued, while the power of trade unions was reduced by a series of legislative acts opening them up to civil action in the courts (from which they had been exempted since the beginning of the century). Over the whole term of the Thatcher governments, 1979-90, there were marked improvements in some key economic measures, such as labour productivity, and the business environment was changed sufficiently to make Britain a favoured destination for foreign investment in Europe.

Not everything went as Thatcher would have wished. Unemployment rose sharply during her first government, reaching more than 3 million in 1981. It did not begin to fall until 1986, more than half way through her term. The “milk snatcher” image remained a problem, now updated and generalised into the charge that under her supposedly unfeeling leadership the government was neglecting public services (or worse). The public’s affection for the National Health Service remained particularly strong and such criticisms were a source of continuing weakness to Thatcher. Thus her determination to revive “Victorian values” in Britain, a phrase she first used in 1981, achieved less in the sphere of social policy than in economic. When she turned her attention to social policy in her third term, the political fall-out of her reforms of the NHS, education and local government finance was largely negative, despite large increases in national expenditure in all three areas.

Developments in foreign affairs had a large impact on domestic politics. Thatcher might not have won re-election in 1983 had it not been for the Falklands War (March-June 1982), the Argentine invasion of the islands dramatically altering the national mood. As a war leader, Thatcher proved impressive to the electorate, and aided by the skill and courage of the armed services, she gained a political victory almost as complete as the military. In the years that followed, the close relationship that developed between Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, US President 1980-89, placed her at the centre of the resolution of the Cold War and she played an important part in creating a new era of détente with the Soviets in her dealings with Mikhail Gorbachev. This was another opportunity quickly grasped, and arguably it was an opportunity only available to a politician with impeccable anti-Soviet credentials. Thatcher had acquired that status as early as 1976 when the Soviets obligingly dubbed her the “Iron Lady”, a politically helpful label the accuracy of which her subsequent career confirmed.

As Thatcher’s premiership progressed, the Conservative Party was often said to be increasingly Thatcherite in its policies. But her relationship with colleagues in the collective leadership of the party was never easy. In the early 1980s she had struggled in cabinet against critics of her economic policy – “the wets” – and in January 1986 her leadership was threatened as never before by the resignation of Michael Heseltine during the Westland affair. In the years that following she found herself at odds with other colleagues, including some of her closest allies in earlier quarrels, notably Sir Geoffrey Howe, Foreign Secretary 1983-89. Issues of personality formed part of the problem, but there were also large differences of substance between them, especially on policy towards the European Union. In September 1988 in a speech at Bruges, Thatcher launched an open assault on what she believed to be the threat to British interests constituted by further European integration. The speech opened public divisions among Conservatives at every level of politics and began the process of overturning the political axiom, dating from the days of Harold Macmillan, that the party was “pro-European”.

Eventually personal and political differences within the leadership proved politically fatal to Thatcher. Party rules dating from the end of Heath’s leadership provided for annual elections to the post and in November 1990 a contest was triggered by Michael Heseltine, following the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe over European policy. Although Thatcher won a majority of the vote, under party rules the majority was not sufficient to avert a second ballot. Faced with the possibility of defeat and discovering that she lacked the full-hearted support of many cabinet colleagues, she resigned as party leader and as Prime Minister.

Thatcher’s achievement as party leader was remarkable in many respects. Few doubt her impact, whether they think it good or ill. She rehabilitated the idea of political leadership in Britain, discarding and in fact making ridiculous the conventional wisdom of the 1970s that the country had become “ungovernable”. Under her leadership fashionable pessimism ceased to be fashionable and talk of national decline largely faded. She put in its place a dynamic style of government, unfamiliar to Conservatives and Labour alike, but sufficiently compelling to encourage her opponents to ape the style in which she led and even to present themselves as her natural successors in fiscal rigour and business sense. She became the first British politician since Churchill to achieve significant international standing and remains one of the most newsworthy individuals on the planet.