Margaret Thatcher defined and shaped postwar Britain and the larger world. No politician in Britain today—whether they like it or not, whether they celebrate or resent it—can escape her shadow.
The “great man theory” of history, which stresses the impact of individuals in world events, has fallen out of favour since it was developed by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle almost 200 years ago. The counter-argument holds that context is everything, that individuals are simply products of their societies.
And perhaps Britain in the 1970s, rocked by labour unrest and marinating in the palpable pessimism of faded empire, might have produced someone like Margaret Thatcher: defiant, confrontational, resolute, optimistic. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else making such a splash, with such persistent and far-reaching ripples.
It is ironically appropriate that Thatcher, the first and so far only woman prime minister of Britain, gives credence to the great-man theory by showing just how consequential one life can be. To say she shifted the centre of British politics to the right is accurate but incomplete. She coloured everything and everyone who followed her.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, has tried to both differentiate himself and the Tory party he now leads from her legacy, and simultaneously embrace it. What he could never do was ignore her.
More tellingly, Tony Blair, Labour prime minister from 1997 to 2007 and the most successful British prime minister since Thatcher, acknowledged that his government built on some of the policies she implemented. It’s the least he could do. Without Thatcher, he might never have been prime minister. She paved the way for New Labour—the modernizing trend within the Labour Party that saw the party shed much of its socialist baggage and get elected by moving to newly fertile ground on the right.
In his autobiography, former Blair press secretary Alastair Campbell says that Blair pushed him to understand that parts of Thatcherism were right for Britain. “What gives me real edge is that I’m not as Labour as you lot,” Blair told him. He had learned from Thatcher. She allegedly described Blair, if only half in jest, as her greatest achievement.
Blair wasn’t entirely unique. In 2007, his successor, Gordon Brown, said Thatcher was a “conviction politician,” like himself.
It wasn’t a convincing comparison—Brown’s convictions never went much beyond unseating Blair—but he was wise enough to see the use in it. A week later, with press photographers assembled to watch, he invited Thatcher round to 10 Downing Street for tea.
This sort of praise from Labour leaders is remarkable given how visceral was once—and among some still is—the hatred between Thatcher and the British left, the Labour Party included. She divided Britain. Her attacks on organized labour led to violent social unrest and left deep scars. Striking miners spit out her name with contempt. The very sound of it symbolized so much: unemployment, police brutality, class warfare.
A Labour politician in 1984 would have struggled to conceive of a future in which association with Thatcher would not be toxic. And yet today, even current Labour leader Ed Miliband, in many ways an ideological throwback to Old Labour, must carefully calibrate his remarks about her.
“We disagree with much of what she did, as a Labour Party, but we can disagree and also hugely respect her extraordinary achievements and her extraordinary personal strength,” he said. Unlike Brown, Miliband did not compare himself to Thatcher, but he said she had shaped him politically. He’s hardly alone.
While Thatcher’s politics made the deepest impression in Britain, she also changed the world beyond its borders. Her belief in free markets and individual ambition now form the foundation for most electable political parties in the Western world. But her greatest achievement was geo-strategic.
Britons might remember her for sending troops halfway around the world to liberate the British Falkland Islands from their brief and unwanted Argentine occupation. Millions of Eastern Europeans will this week recall her solidarity with them against Soviet Communism.
It is noteworthy that Thatcher’s legacy is much more contested in Britain than in the former Soviet bloc. While David Cameron claimed she saved Britain, small crowds held street parties to celebrate her death in Glasgow and South London. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, dead, dead, dead,” they cheered in Brixton, tweaking an old protest chant.
Nothing of the sort has been reported in countries once controlled by Moscow. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted that Thatcher was a “fearless champion of liberty” who “helped the free world win the Cold War.” Former Czech president Václav Klaus said she was “our hero.”
Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born above her father’s grocery store in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the second daughter of Alfred Roberts and his wife, Beatrice.
Alfred, or Alf as he was known, left school by the age of 13 to help his family. Working as a shop assistant, he saved money to buy a shop of his own, and then a second one. A lay Methodist preacher and local politician, he stressed hard work and individual responsibility. He was not relaxed or frivolous, but nor did he deny his daughters opportunities to expand their horizons.
Margaret and her sister, Muriel, attended a fee-paying school. She had piano lessons and private Latin tutorials.
“I just owe almost everything to my own father,” she later remarked. “He brought me up to believe all the things that I do believe.”
As a politician, Thatcher would see the value in playing up the supposed austerity of her youth. This is true to a point. She did not come from the old and wealthy British establishment, but her upbringing was more privileged than most of her contemporaries.
“She was sort of climbing socially,” says Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a think tank at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Her father was a local councillor. He was a small town bigwig, and she had a very posh accent, which was quite over the top.” It was harsh and grating. In later years she would take lessons to lower its tone and soften its edges—developing it into something huskier and at times almost sensual.
Thatcher’s headmistress did not think she was cut out for the University of Oxford and reportedly refused to teach her the Latin because she assumed Thatcher would fail the entrance exam. Thatcher proved her wrong. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, and studied chemistry. She also joined the university’s Conservative Association and became its second woman president.
After graduating, Thatcher worked at a plastics factory. But she had already decided on a future in politics. Her speechmaking impressed a local Conservative Party committee chair, and she was given a chance to run in both the 1950 and 1951 general elections. She was sent to do battle for the party in Dartford, then a safe Labour seat, and she didn’t win it. But Thatcher again surpassed expectations by whittling down Labour’s lead.
The year of her second ballot-box defeat, Margaret married Denis Thatcher, a divorced veteran of the Second World War. Their marriage would last more than 50 years, until his death in 2003. She called him her “rock” and the “golden thread” that ran through her life.
Denis was known to joke with journalists while accompanying Margaret on official trips, and occasionally let slip comments that suggested his politics were further to the right of Margaret’s—reportedly advising the Swiss president in 1984 to “keep Switzerland white.” Mostly, though, he kept in the background and quietly supported his wife.
Thatcher began studying to practice law. She passed her bar exams only weeks after her twins, Mark and Carol, were born in 1953. She was working as a barrister when she tried unsuccessfully to enter Parliament a third time in 1955. Finally, she was allowed to contest the safe Tory seat of Finchley in the 1959 general election, and won.
Her rise in the party was rapid. She stood out because of her youth, gender and energy. She was given a position in the Tory shadow cabinet in 1964 and made a mark arguing that public housing tenants should have the right to buy their houses—a policy she would eventually implement as prime minister.
When the Conservatives returned to power in 1970, Thatcher was promoted to cabinet as education secretary. Tasked with cutting costs in her department, she blundered by taking away a program that had given free milk to school children aged between 7 and 11, earning her the nickname “Milk-Snatcher.”
Ted Heath’s Conservative government lost power in 1974. Thatcher, who had voted for Heath in the 1965 party leadership election, decided to challenge him in 1975. When she walked into his office to tell him, he didn’t look up from his desk. “You’ll lose,” he told her. She didn’t.
Thatcher was now the first woman to lead a major British political party. It was shortly after that a Russian journalist dubbed her “the Iron Lady,” following a speech in which she lambasted Soviet arms buildup and internal repression. She soaked up the attention, casting herself as a formidable foe of both the Soviets and Britain’s supposedly soft-on-Communism Labour government.
“If that’s how they wish to interpret my defence of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life—and by ‘they’ I mean that somewhat strange alliance between the comrades of the Russian Defence Ministry and our own defence minister—they’re welcome to call me whatever they like,” she said.
Like all good politicians, Thatcher was lucky. In 1978, Labour prime minister James Callaghan unwisely delayed a general election expected that year. Thatcher pounced. She called his government “chickens.”
Things soon got worse for Labour. The 1978-79 “Winter of Discontent” saw widespread strikes by public sector unions protesting government attempts to control inflation by restricting pay raises. Gravediggers walked off the job. Garbage piled in the streets.
“Labour isn’t working,” the Tories told the British public, in a poster campaign that depicted long lines of people (actually Young Conservative volunteers) lined up outside an employment office. The message resonated. Britons felt that something had to change. In the general election of May 1979, the Tories won a parliamentary majority of 44 seats. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony,” Thatcher told reporters as she prepared to enter 10 Downing Street for the first time, quoting Francis of Assisi. Police officers surrounded her, and in news footage of the incident, angry shouts and jeers can be heard in the background.
“Where there is error, may we bring truth,” she continued. “Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Thatcher then urged all Britons, however they had voted, to work together to improve their country.
This was a grandiloquent and vainglorious entrance to make. It was also completely disingenuous. Thatcher’s premiership was about many things; harmony wasn’t one of them.
She thrived on confrontation. This was true on a personal level. Her former speechwriter, John O’Sullivan, says she invited him to join her staff because he had argued policy with her when he was a journalist. But it also defined her politics.
Thatcher came into office believing Britain needed radical change, and she would bring that change for the good of the country whether the public, or indeed her own party, supported it or not. She reduced the role of the state, cut taxes and spending, privatized state industries, and rolled back the power of unions. The Housing Act of 1980 allowed tenants to buy the public homes they rented and resulted in hundreds of thousands of new homeowners. The City of London, Britain’s financial hub, thrived. But manufacturing jobs disappeared, and industrial towns collapsed. Unemployment soared over three million. Cities erupted in riots. Thatcher’s approval rating dropped to 25 per cent. Her own MPs got nervous and urged her to scale back; she called them “wets.”
In 1980, she told the party conference: “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.”
By 1982, the British economy was improving, but Thatcher still might have faced electoral defeat the following year, if not for Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. Britain’s victory in that short and bloody war restored British pride and ensured Thatcher’s re-election.
“It led to a recovery of the British spirit,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In some ways it was the foundation for a new internationalism in the United Kingdom. Britain was still in a post-colonial funk: coming to terms with the dismantling of an overseas empire; the withdrawal from the Persian Gulf after 1968; trying to find its place in Cold War diplomacy. And then Thatcher comes along and breathes new life into the idea of the United Kingdom as a great power.”
The balance of Thatcher’s time in office saw continued confrontation with organized labour, notably a miners’ strike in 1984-85 that included violent clashes. For many Britons, especially those from mining towns that never recovered, images of truncheon wielding police beating British workers still symbolize Thatcherism.
She also faced more deadly foes. The Irish Republican Army never forgave her after its imprisoned hunger strikers starved themselves to death in British custody. An IRA bomb targeted a Conservative conference hotel in Brighton in 1984, killing five. Thatcher delivered her planned keynote address hours later. “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail,” she said.
Internationally, Thatcher got many things wrong. She opposed sanctions against apartheid South Africa. She was against the reunification of Germany. She was a steadfast friend of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
But when it came to the defining issue of her era, Thatcher was on the right side of history. She made a significant and positive contribution to the end of the Cold War by her willingness to both stand up to the Soviet Union, and to co-operate with its leaders.
“She anchored a political coalition within Europe that bolstered [U.S. president Ronald] Reagan’s stance, and succeeded in confronting Moscow with a balanced mix of anti-Communist resolve and pragmatic readiness to do business,” says Kupchan.
“And given how skeptical many Europeans were about Reagan, Thatcher made sure that American diplomacy had a partner on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Thatcher’s bond with Reagan is well known. Equally important might have been hers with Mikhail Gorbachev. Thatcher recognized him as a potential partner during his 1984 visit to Britain—before he ascended to the top of the politburo the following year. He was, she famously said, someone with whom she could do business.
“She was prepared to see him as a human being,” says Raymond Garthoff, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former American diplomat during the Cold War. And she thought Reagan could do business with Gorbachev too. “It certainly helped pave the way, because he accepted that she was certainly not giving him some over-optimistic judgment of someone more to the left who might be more inclined to find areas of co-operation.”
Thatcher’s political end, when it finally came after 11 years as prime minister, was not at the hands of British voters, but of her own party. After clashing with Tory MPs and ministers over a deeply unpopular flat tax and her conviction that the power of the European Community should not grow, there was a caucus revolt and a challenge to her leadership. Informed that she would lose, Thatcher resigned. “Treachery with a smile on its face,” she called it.
Thatcher addressed an applauding crowd outside 10 Downing Street when she left it for the last time as prime minister. She said she was happy to be leaving the United Kingdom in a better state than it was when she took office. If you look closely at news footage of the event, you can see her eyes filled with tears.
In retirement, Thatcher didn’t need to assert herself; her political legacy had its own momentum—one that has had a profound but also complicated effect on her Conservative Party.
British Tories can bask in Thatcher’s success, but are also stuck inheriting the negative and politically unpopular aspects of Thatcherism. They decisively lost three general elections between 1997 and 2005. Their party had a serious image problem. Party chair Theresa May gave it a name in 2002, when she warned that the party’s base was too narrow, and so were its sympathies: “You know what some people call us,” she said. “The nasty party.”
Thatcher probably wouldn’t have minded the term much. Nasty implies tough and uncompromising. But those qualities that brought Thatcher victory weren’t getting the Conservatives elected in the 21st century. They needed a softer image. So in 2005 they picked David Cameron as party leader. He championed the environment and seemed about as threatening as one of Thatcher’s handbags.
Cameron became prime minister in 2010, leading a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. But by then he faced a much more challenging economic climate. He has consequently swung closer to a traditional Thatcher strategy of fiscal austerity.
“There’s an extent to which he’s reverted to type,” say Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “There are more than echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s policies in David Cameron and Chancellor [of the Exchequer] George Osborne’s plans for the country. Both Cameron and Osborne have bet the farm on tough measures eventually working out and delivering them an election victory.” It is, says Bale, exactly the gamble Thatcher made during her first term in office.
Thatcher’s legacy is also shaping how the Labour Party responds. Long memories of Thatcher’s successes at its expense has left the party reluctant to seize a political opportunity.
“This global financial crisis should be a moment for the left. It demonstrates the great failings of a lot of Thatcher’s ideas,” says Guy Lodge, associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a centre-left British think tank. “The left in Britain, the Labour Party, has not responded in a necessarily radical way partly because they are still inhibited by Thatcherism.”
If Labour were willing to follow Thatcher’s example, it might take bigger risks. “Thatcher was a great conviction politician,” he says. “She led. She didn’t follow.”