Prime minister who won adulation abroad but left behind a divided Britain
She ran her Cabinet with an iron hand and brooked no dissent
A portrait left by mourners is seen outside the home of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher after her death was announced in London. Photograph: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first woman prime minister and the first party leader to win three general elections in a row. For 15 years she led the Conservative Party, making it unmistakably a party of the right. The “Iron Lady” – a title bestowed upon her by the Red Army newspaper Red Star – was a single-minded conviction politician for whom all issues were black and white. Her dominance of the cabinet was supreme and rarely challenged. Ruthless and domineering, she sacked friends and foes alike as she saw fit.
Thatcher was obsessively British, flying the flag wherever she went, wearing home-produced clothes, upbraiding those who did not, and turning up her nose at French mineral water. “What’s wrong with British water?” she demanded.
A committed English nationalist, she hated socialism and scoffed at the idea of European integration. In 1982 she sent troops to remove Argentinian forces from the Falkland Islands. She confronted the miners in a bitter yearlong dispute (1984-1985). She sold off many public utilities to the private sector and stripped local government of much of its power and influence while at the same making central government more powerful. In 1984 she survived an IRA attempt to kill her.
She came to personify the radical right, giving her name to a brand of conservatism that combined the ideas of Keith Joseph, Enoch Powell, Alan Walters and Friedrich von Hayek. Thatcherism had as its goal the utopia of economic neoliberalism with, in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, “every man an entrepreneur, the triumph of the unrestricted market and the dismantling of state interference in the economy and the affairs of the private citizen”.
When Ronald Reagan became president of the United States they established an instant rapport, beginning a close and abiding friendship that survived such rocky patches as the US invasion of Grenada, a British colony. Her relationship with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was, in a different way, as warm as that with Reagan. “I can do business with him,” she once declared. Following Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait she advised president Bush in motherly fashion: “Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly.”
The adulation worldwide was remarkable. On the streets of Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest, Beijing, Mumbai and New York enthusiastic crowds poured out to greet her. In Poland and the former Czechoslovakia serious journalists asked her at news conferences whether she would take over their ramshackle governments. This was the kind of irresistible – but not bogus – flattery in which she revelled.
Suspicious of the European political class
Never an enthusiastic European, she resented the demands EU membership made on Britain and was suspicious of the European political class. She supported European unity as a bulwark against the Soviet threat but opposed political and economic union. She negotiated the Single European Act in the mid-1980s but then effectively disowned it. Her Bruges speech in 1988 was an all-out attack on federalism. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain,” she said, “only to see them reimposed at European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
For Thatcher, Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”. In 1979 she was the first British prime minister to visit south Armagh. In 1980 she led a high-powered delegation to an Anglo-Irish summit in Dublin. She and Charles Haughey agreed to a special consideration of the “totality of relationships within these islands” but she was later annoyed by Fianna Fáil’s spin on the summit. In 1982 Anglo-Irish relations were soured by the Irish government’s stance on the Falklands conflict. Thatcher responded by declaring: “No commitment exists for her majesty’s government to consult the Irish government on matters affecting Northern Ireland.”
In 1984 she rejected the report of the New Ireland Forum in remarks described by Garret FitzGerald as “gratuitously offensive”. But by February 1985 she was speaking of her “excellent relations” with FitzGerald, and later that year they signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Responding to Unionist criticism of it, she said: “I went into this agreement because I was not prepared to tolerate a situation of continuing violence.” With the return of a Haughey- led government she was angered by new extradition arrangements whereby the Irish attorney general previewed the evidence supporting each application.
She attended the memorial service for the victims of the Enniskillen bombing in 1987 and told the Tory party conference that her government would “never surrender to the IRA”. Within a week of her resignation as prime minister she paid her last visit to Northern Ireland. In her memoirs she expressed disappointment at the operation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and called for an alternative approach. In April 1998 she criticised proposals contained in the Good Friday Agreement for the early release of paramilitary prisoners.
Thatcher resigned as prime minister in November 1990, after a year of plummeting political fortunes. It was a year in which she faced a series of damaging resignations from the cabinet, in which her political judgment was called into question by her colleagues, of catastrophic byelection humiliations, internal party strife, and a sense that, after 11 years in power, the popular mood had swung against her.
Her downfall came about during the second of two challenges to her leadership. She realised that if she stayed on to take her challenger Michael Heseltine – whom she loathed – into a second ballot, he would almost certainly supplant her. That was an appalling prospect. And so, after consulting her cabinet colleagues, one by one, she decided she must go. Thatcher found some consolation in the fact that her protégé John Major succeeded her.
But a growing balance of payments deficit, an alarming inflation rate, reduced manufacturing output and rising unemployment put Thatcher’s achievements in perspective. Whole regions of Britain were in decline, while public services everywhere were cut to the bone.She did not rest on her laurels in the House of Lords. She remained a ferocious critic of the European Union, and led a crusade in the Upper House against the Maastricht Treaty.
Comfortable if joyless upbringing
She was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13th, 1925, one of the two daughters of Alfred Roberts and his wife, Beatrice (née Stephenson), in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham. She had a comfortable if joyless upbringing. The virtues of thrift, hard work, morality and patriotism were instilled in her by her father, who ran two grocers’ shops and a post office, and became mayor of the town in 1943. Alderman Roberts was a strict Methodist, a lay preacher and a self-made man. She never tired of quoting his words to her: “You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t work, girl.” She seldom referred to her mother but once said: “I loved my mother dearly but after I was 15 we had nothing more to say to each other.”
Inevitably she became head girl at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ High School. She went on a bursary to Somerville College, Oxford, where she read chemistry. Her principal at Oxford described her as “a perfectly good second-class scientist”. Her associates at school and university – she had few close friends – remember her as industrious, serious-minded, and soberly dressed, but also possessing what one of them described as “an irritating sense of her own superiority”.
However, she went on to become only the third woman president of the University’s Conservative Association. She continued to work as a chemist until 1954 when she switched to become a barrister specialising in taxation matters. Her legal training proved invaluable to her at question time in the House of Commons.
In 1951 she married Denis Thatcher, an industrialist some 10 years her senior. She launched into her battle to get into parliament by unsuccessfully fighting Dartford in 1950 and again in 1951. She finally entered the Commons in 1959 as Member for Finchley, a seat she represented throughout her career as an MP. Thatcher epitomised then, as she did throughout her career, the self-made woman.
In the final years of the Harold Macmillan-Alec Douglas-Home administrations, Thatcher was parliamentary secretary at the ministry of pensions and national insurance.
Later, Edward Heath took her into his shadow cabinet in 1966, though not without reservations. “Once she’s there,” he gloomily predicted, “we’ll never be able to get rid of her.” When the Heath administration took office in 1970, Thatcher was appointed education secretary. She was quickly branded “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher” because of her decision to stop free milk for primary schoolchildren.
Her political ambition was by now an open secret. The two general election defeats suffered by the Conservatives in February and October 1974 gave her the opportunity she sought. Capitalising on the widespread dissatisfaction with Heath, she decided to challenge him. She knocked him out in the first round of voting and won a convincing victory in the second, beating her nearest rival, William Whitelaw, by almost two to one. Whitelaw accepted her invitation to become her deputy leader.
Her principal lieutenant in that leadership election campaign was Airey Neave, who was assassinated by the INLA in March 1979, only months before she came to power. She was shattered by the news, but his death served only to strengthen her resolve to crush terrorism. She regarded terrorists as criminals, not political partisans. Later she was to say, when questioned about “political” reasons for IRA activity, “A crime is a crime is a crime.” She denounced those who gave the terrorists “the oxygen of publicity”.
First Harold Wilson and then his successor, James Callaghan, quickly found that she was an able performer at the Despatch Box. Neil Kinnock was never at ease in his dealings with her. She injected new heart into the Conservatives as Labour went from one crisis to another, winding up with the 1978-1979 “winter of discontent”.
Within months, Thatcher, aged 53, was stepping into Downing Street, reading aloud from a card the prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Thatcher set to work with fervour. As inflation continued to rise, she served notice of the strict monetary policy she was to follow. The state was to be “rolled back” in a huge programme of privatisation. Trade union power was to be curbed and new laws introduced to make it harder to take industrial action.
‘Adamant, persistent and very repetitive’
Among her first major achievements was a settlement of the Rhodesia crisis – ironically a Conservative government in Britain helped install Robert Mugabe as leader of Zimbabwe. She quickly made her presence felt with foreign leaders. Jack Lynch said with feeling after prolonged negotiations with her: “It was adamant, persistent and, if I may say so, very repetitive.”
She never had a woman in her cabinet who wielded any influence whatever. She could not handle women but shamelessly exploited her femininity as well as her innate dominance. Her description of herself as “the strongest man” in her cabinet echoed Barbara Castle’s assessment of her.
Meanwhile, Thatcher rejected demands for increased public spending in the face of world recession, remained unmoved by bloody inner city riots and refused to make any concessions to the H-Blocks hunger strikers. She took pride in her obstinacy, telling the Tory conference in 1980: “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.”
A formidable test came in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falklands. A huge task force was soon speeding south, determined to retake the islands. Later, announcing the ceasefire, she proclaimed: “We knew what we had to do and we went about it and did it. Great Britain is great again.” But there was criticism of her haste in going to war, and she was revealed to have made misleading statements about the sinking of the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano .
When she sought a fresh mandate in 1983 the electorate returned her to office with an overall majority of more than 140. But she was helped on her way by a tattered and disillusioned Labour Party by now in disarray, torn apart by the birth of the SDP, bedevilled by internal strife and personal bickering, and led by Michael Foot, a brilliant parliamentarian in his day but no longer a match for Thatcher.
By 1984 the miners’ strike was under way. The miners had succeeded in toppling Heath in 1974 and she was determined that history would not repeat itself. The government’s declared policy was non-interventionist but Thatcher made no secret of her desire to crush “the enemy within”. The strike, one of the most bitter and bloody in British history, dragged on for a year, punctuated by violent clashes between mounted police and pickets. It finally fizzled out, leaving the miners dejected and broken and the wider trade union movement demoralised.
That dispute was followed by the hardly less vicious News International Wapping battle, when Rupert Murdoch abruptly sacked his printers and left Fleet Street. Thatcher backed Murdoch to the hilt. She enjoyed the support of the Murdoch press and regarded Sky News as “the only unbiased [television] news in the UK”.
She had a narrow escape in the 1984 Brighton bombing, when the IRA narrowly failed to assassinate her with an explosion that shattered the Grand Hotel. Despite the deaths of close friends and injuries to others, and the shock to herself, the conference went ahead the following morning. She told delegates: “The fact we are gathered here, now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
She won her third general election, despite a poor campaign, in 1987, returned to office with a majority of 101.
Things were starting to go wrong, however. Inflation began to creep up and her policies towards the National Health Service were unpopular. Thatcher’s final 12 months in Downing Street were uncomfortable, full of rumblings, discontent among some of her cabinet ministers, whispering on the backbenches, calamitous byelection defeats and a feeling nationwide that the she had been there too long. Her boldness began to look more like rashness. It started in July 1989 when she unceremoniously ejected Geoffrey Howe from the foreign office, invested him with the spurious title of deputy prime minister and made him leader of the Commons.
Then, three months later Nigel Lawson resigned as chancellor of the exchequer. Lawson believed that the regular presence in Downing Street of her adviser Alan Walters, an extreme Eurosceptic and an unrepentant monetarist, undermined his position. He could no longer continue. It was a shattering blow to her government.
Anthony Meyer, an obscure Tory backbencher from North Wales, challenged her for the leadership. She won by 314 votes to 33 but the result meant 60 Tory MPs had either voted against her or refused to vote for her. Two more veteran cabinet ministers deserted the ranks, Norman Fowler (employment) and Peter Walker (Wales). Although both ostensibly left for personal reasons, it began to appear her government was crumbling fast.
After the Tories suffered three byelection defeats, the EU Summit in Rome in early November precipitated a train of events that propelled Thatcher from office. She returned to Britain fulminating about the way the summit was conducted, accusing the hosts of incompetence. This was more than Howe could stomach and he resigned.
He made a resignation statement in the Commons so atypically ferocious and damning that Thatcher visibly wilted as she listened. She must then have known her time was nearly up. The following day Heseltine challenged her for the leadership. She went to a summit in Paris and, to her dismay, just failed to score an outright win on the first ballot.
A ‘certain grandiose innocence ’
She vowed to fight on. but the following morning announced her resignation. She was an extraordinary woman who never understood why the Tories had discarded her. There was, as one of her supporters, Alan Clark, remarked, a “certain grandiose innocence” about her fall from power. She cried as she was driven away from Downing Street for the last time after 11 years as prime minister.
It was not long before she entered the House of Lords. As bombastic as ever, she seemed incapable of living without some confrontational forum in which to operate. She promoted the cause of free enterprise through the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. She toured the international lecture circuit and was engaged for a hefty fee as a consultant by British American Tobacco. She received an advance of £3.5 million for two volumes of memoirs, Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years (1993) and The Path to Power (1995). Her last book, Statecraft , was published in 2002.
She suffered a series of mild strokes in late 2001 and 2002, after which she cut back on public appearances and later cancelled her speaking schedule. Her decline into dementia was chronicled in the film The Iron Lady , with Meryl Streep.
Thatcher saw herself as the leader of a global and domestic transformation, claiming in 1984 that many other governments were by then Thatcherite. She had, she said “all the right, instinctive antennae”.
Predeceased in 2003 by her husband, she is survived by her daughter Carol and son Mark.
Margaret Thatcher: born, October 13th 1925; died, April 8th 2013.