Margaret Thatcher – The Iron Lady
Britain’s First Female Prime Minister
The Iron Lady
Margaret Thatcher is remembered for being the first female British Prime Minister. She was also the longest-serving PM of the 20th century. Thatcher was also successful in winning three general elections achieving sound majorities. She had a vision to “sound economic policies”. Her steely determination to put the country’s finances on a sound footing led to stringent policies and firm leadership style. Several of her early accomplishments gave a hint to her character. She had read chemistry at Oxford, in itself an unusual achievement for a woman. One of only nineteen female Members of Parliament when she entered parliament and, as education minister, she ended free milk for schools becoming known as ‘Thatcher, the milk snatcher’ as a result. Ultimately, she became the first female leader of the Conservative party.
The Winter of Discontent
The winter of 1979 was a low watermark for Britain. The unions had destroyed the Labour governments incomes and industrial policies, and with strikes leaving the dead unburied, rubbish uncollected for three months and endless industrial action by transport workers Britain became known as the Sick Man of Europe. A no-confidence vote in parliament heralded a general election in May 1979 which the Conservatives won with a comfortable majority of forty-three seats. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of a country in the grip of the worst recession since the 1930s. With her flowing skirts, blonde coiffeur, handbag and court shoe, her unthreatening appearance was that of a respectable, middle-class housewife. As the country, and particularly the unions, were to discover, her appearance belied a driven, revolutionary character, with ideals far removed from the left-wing policies that had driven the country into the sand.
The restrictive practices of the unions had permeated every level of British industry. Perversely, countries such as Japan and Germany whose economies had been devastated by the second world war had rebuilt their drives unimpeded by obstructive unions and were forging ahead. Much of British industry was state-owned with insufficient levels of productivity, high labour costs and consequently barely profitable with many needing state aid to stay afloat.
A New Britain
Mrs Thatcher set in motion a massive privatisation program starting with British Aerospace and British Airways. The utilities followed with water and gas privatisations. Her thrust was for ordinary people, who thought that share ownership was the preserve of big business, to take a stake in the privatised industries and develop a spirit of independence. The reliance on state aid was over; uncompetitive business sectors would have to stand on their own two feet. Telecom, steel, cars and coal were in her sights. She was determined not to continue to pour good money into poorly performing state industries. A market-driven economy introduced, making Britain vastly more efficient while sacrificing old mining communities across Britain.
Many of the old, unprofitable industries had been employing many people for many years. Whole towns and communities had grown up reliant on these businesses for work and survival. One of the inevitable consequences of this dramatic shift in policy was that unemployment rose to levels which exceeded those of the great depression of the ’30s. Manufacturing no longer formed over half of Britain’s economy. The negative impact on affected communities was severe, and Mrs Thatcher became a figure of hate for many. That hate remains as raw as ever for many even to this day. The roots for many of the social ills we have today are traced to the impact of her policies. But, unpleasant though the medicine was, the country desperately needed the radical change of direction her policies introduced.
Ronald Regan, Thatcher and Cold War
Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government scored some notable foreign policy successes. An early success was a resolution to the long-running Rhodesian problem that saw Robert Mugabe brought to power (ultimately, he would be the problem rather than the solution). Victory in the battle for the Falkland’s did much to improve her popularity both at home and abroad. She also worked with the American President, Ronald Regan, to bring about an end to the Cold war and developed a ‘special relationship’ with the Americans.
To bring about the fundamental changes the country needed, required the introduction of many controversial and unpopular policies. Chief among them was the introduction of what became known as the poll tax. It was poorly presented to the public, caused widespread resentment, and lost support within the government. On top of that, cracks appeared within the cabinet over our monetary policy with the European Union. Mrs Thatcher lost support and was replaced as leader by John Major.
Loved and Hated in Equal Measure
Despite becoming the first female Prime Minister, and one of the most effective, few statues or memorials exist. She remains such a divisive figure for many that any statue or monument would become a target for unrest. After she died in 2013, her cremated remains were buried alongside those of her husband, Dennis in the Royal Hospital Chelsea following a private ceremony.
Overview by Graham Saunders