13 October 1925
Best Known As:
Prime Minister of Great Britain, 1979-90
Margaret Hilda Thatcher
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to serve as prime minister of Great Britain, a post she held until 1990. Thatcher rose to office with promises to restore Britain’s economic prosperity, and she worked toward this goal by selling and privatizing many government-owned industries. Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister included leading Britain to victory over Argentina in the brief military dispute over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands in 1982.
She is first woman to hold the office of prime minister of Great Britain (1979-1990). She was born Margaret Hilda Roberts in Grantham and educated at the University of Oxford, where she earned degrees in chemistry; from 1947 to 1951 she worked as a research chemist. She married Denis Thatcher in 1951. In 1953, having studied for the bar, she became a tax lawyer. Joining the Conservative party, Thatcher was elected to the House of Commons in 1959. As minister of education and science from 1970 to 1974 under Edward Heath, she provoked a storm of protest by abolishing free milk in the schools. After the Conservative defeat in 1974, she challenged Heath for the leadership of the party and won the post in 1975. Four years later she led the party to victory, vowing to reverse Britain’s economic decline and to reduce the role of government. In 1982 Argentine forces occupied the nearby Falkland Islands, which were claimed by both Argentina and Great Britain. Thatcher’s government sent a task force to the Falklands that defeated the Argentines. Bolstered by the success of her Falkland Islands policy, Thatcher led the Conservatives to a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections of June 1983. In October 1984 she narrowly escaped injury when a bomb planted by Irish extremists exploded in Brighton’s Grand Hotel during a party conference. Victorious in the June 1987 elections, she became the first British prime minister in the 20th century to serve three consecutive terms. During Thatcher’s years as prime minister, unemployment rose, almost doubling in her first term. Thatcher opposed the socialist programs of the Labour party and worked to decrease the role of the government in the economy. She privatized some nationalized industries and social programs, including education, housing, and health care. In 1990 controversy over Thatcher’s tax policy and over her reluctance to commit Great Britain to full economic integration with Europe inspired a strong challenge to her leadership. She resigned in November and was succeeded as party leader and prime minister by her protégé, John Major.
The Thatcher Decade
In the elections of April 1979 the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, emerged with a substantial majority of parliamentary seats and with the first woman prime minister in British
or European history. She was to remain in office for the next 11 years, making hers the longest continuous prime ministership since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Thatcher’s first years were difficult. She sought to halt inflation by a policy of high interest rates and government budget cuts, rather than of wage and price freezes. By 1981 and 1982 those policies were showing some success, but only at the cost of the highest unemployment rates since the 1930s. The government was jolted in April 1982 when Argentina forcibly occupied the Falkland Islands, a British-held archipelago in the South Atlantic that Argentina had long claimed. When U.S. mediation efforts failed, Thatcher sent a British counterinvasion fleet, and in June that force succeeded in recapturing the islands.
The decisive Conservative victories in the elections of June 1983 and June 1987 were the consequence not only of widespread popular support for the government’s Falklands policy, but also of a sharp division in the ranks of the political opposition. In 1980 a group of Labour Party members headed by Roy Jenkins and David Owen broke away and in 1981 formed the Social Democratic Party. The new party joined with the Liberals to constitute an influential alliance that ultimately won relatively few parliamentary seats but did garner 25 percent of the total popular vote in 1983 and 23 percent in 1987 (compared to 28 and 31 percent for Labour and 42 percent in both elections for the Conservatives).
The years between 1982 and 1988 were economic boom years in Britain. The living standards of most Britons rose and the rate of unemployment gradually ebbed. British industries became more efficient, and London maintained its role as one of the world’s top three centers of finance. The economic role of government declined as Thatcher promoted privatization—the turning over to private investors of government monopolies such as British Airways, the telephone service, and the distribution of gas and water. Public housing tenants were strongly encouraged to buy the houses they rented. In the meantime, the legal and economic power of labor unions declined.
Although Thatcher had not abolished the welfare state, in the eyes of her critics “the Iron Lady” had shortchanged social services such as education and the National Health Service. Her resignation in November 1990 was the result of a revolt within the Conservative Party. Thatcher’s downfall, however, was primarily attributed to a temporary revival of double-digit estate taxes), and the alienation of some members of her cabinet over the prime minister’s increasingly critical attitude toward cooperation with her EC colleagues.