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History > 2013 > UK > Politics (I)





Margaret Thatcher,

a political phenomenon,

dies aged 87

Britain's first female prime minister
whose three terms broke
the pattern of postwar politics


Anne Perkins
The Guardian, Monday 8 April 2013 13.27 BST
This article was published on guardian.co.uk at 13.27 BST on Monday 8 April 2013. A version appeared on p32 of the Main section section of the Guardian on Tuesday 9 April 2013. It was last modified at 18.01 BST on Monday 8 April 2013.


Margaret Thatcher, who has died aged 87, was a political phenomenon. She was the first woman elected to lead a major western power; the longest serving British prime minister for 150 years; the most dominant and the most divisive force in British politics in the second half of the 20th century. She was also a global figure, a star in the US, a heroine in the former Soviet republics of central Europe, a point of reference for politicians in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

In Britain, the Thatcher years were a watershed. After them, the ideals of collective effort, full employment and a managed economy – all tarnished by the recurring crises of the 1970s – were discredited in the popular imagination. They were replaced with the politics of me and mine, deregulation of the markets and privatisation of the state's assets that echoed growing individual prosperity. Thatcher did not cause these changes, but she legitimised and embedded them. Her belief in the moral authority of the individual and the imperative of freedom of choice led left as well as right to reappraise the welfare state. Her perception of economics, society and Britain's place in the world continue to shape British politics.

It is often claimed that she gave no warning of the revolution she was about to unleash when she won her first majority in 1979. In fact, although the official manifesto was opaque, her speeches in the years between defeating Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative party in 1975 and coming to power laid out the ideology that underpinned her policies over the next 11 years.

Thatcher was pragmatic about her methods but constant in her targets: socialism, the Labour party and above all the collectivist state that Labour, abetted by one-nation postwar Conservatism, had constructed. She believed that the state was a burden on private enterprise. Its cost was crippling the economy and overloading it with debt. Vested interest had been allowed to flourish, most notably in the trade unions but also in the nationalised industries of coal, steel and telecommunications.

Many others shared her analysis. The strength of her beliefs gave her the courage to push on where others might have conciliated. She came to ignore criticism with a ruthlessness that was in the end her undoing.

She was not the only person who saw a world divided between good and evil. What marked her out was a willingness to say so, abroad as well as at home. Soviet leaders, after years of detente, were startled to find their regime denounced as the embodiment of inhumanity, bent on military expansion. Before she had won a general election vote in the UK, Thatcher had won the sobriquet overseas of the Iron Lady.

Only an outsider could have given birth to an ideology as iconoclastic as Thatcherism, and Thatcher always regarded herself as a challenger of the status quo, a rebel leader against established power. What mattered to her was less the breadth of her support than the depth of her convictions.

In time, there grew around her a mythology that rooted her absolute faith in the individual in her upbringing above the grocer's shop in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham. She was the second of two daughters of Alderman Alfred Roberts and his wife, Beatrice. The two girls were educated at Kesteven and Grantham girls' school, and at 17 Margaret won a place to study chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was tutored by the future Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin (with whom she remained on respectful terms, despite Hodgkin's passionate opposition to nuclear weapons). She graduated in 1947.

Less than two years later she was selected to contest the hopeless Kent seat of Dartford, despite the reservations of some party activists who were appalled at the prospect of a 23-year-old woman as their candidate. She contested Dartford in both the 1950 and 1951 general elections.

It was at a social function after her first adoption meeting that she met Denis Thatcher, a businessman with a passion for rugby who had earlier rejected the chance of fighting the seat himself. Denis drove the candidate back to London. Well-off, divorced and amiable, Denis ran his family paint firm, which was later absorbed into Burmah Oil. They were married in December 1951. In 1953, their twins, Mark and Carol, were born. Denis, it was claimed, spent the day at a cricket match – Carol later called their marriage "a partnership of parallel lives" – and while still in the maternity hospital, Margaret signed up to study for her bar finals. She was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1954.

For a young woman with a new family, to become an MP was unprecedented. But in 1958, she was selected for the rock-solid north London constituency of Finchley, the seat she represented from October 1959 until she retired at the general election in 1992.

In October 1961, after only 20 months on the backbenches, the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, made Thatcher a junior pensions minister (a job she later gave to her own successor, John Major). It would be nearly 30 years before she returned to the backbenches. In 1967, with her party in opposition, she was promoted to the shadow cabinet by the new party leader, Heath, and when he won the election of June 1970, she became education secretary, the only woman in the cabinet.

Here, her public reputation was made as "Thatcher the milk-snatcher", the minister who cut spending by ending universal free milk for primary school children. It was a defining moment, but also a rare breach of the Conservatives' unwillingness to disturb the postwar consensus. Much more in keeping was her continuation of Labour's plan to replace grammar schools with comprehensives.

But she was at the ringside as Heath's experiments in monetarism and industrial relations legislation crashed and burned. Heath resumed the interventionist policies of the 1950s. In February 1974, as a miners' overtime ban prompted power cuts and the introduction of a three-day working week, Heath asked: "Who governs Britain?" He lost the general election. Thatcher later claimed she had always been uncomfortable with Heath's consensual approach. At the time, however, she was silent and loyal.

However, after Harold Wilson narrowly won a second election victory in October 1974, Thatcher was among the embryonic new right preparing to challenge Heath. Its intellectual leader was Keith Joseph, but his chance of leading the party vanished with a notorious speech, claiming that the poor had too many children. Thatcher decided she would put her name forward for the contest. "Someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand," she told Joseph. Denis told her she was out of her mind, a view echoed in every newspaper. To a party that could not decide whether it was worse to be female or to be suburban, she appeared entirely unelectable.

Yet she defeated Heath in the first ballot and four other contenders in the second. The beaten favourites included William Whitelaw, the man who was later her indispensable deputy. She won in an ambush that capitalised on discontent with Heath rather than positive enthusiasm for her. As a result, she was never sure of her party: "Is he one of us?" became the defining question of the next 11 years. Many of her backbench colleagues shared the prevailing view in the Labour government that Thatcher's leadership made the Tories unelectable. She worked assiduously to meet a barrage of criticism – criticisms that often focused as much on attributes of gender as on matters of policy. Her hair, her clothes and particularly her voice were attacked. Politics remained a largely male preserve, about the strength to confront, whether it was trade union power, economic crisis or Soviet threat.

Thatcher's only cabinet-level experience had been in a relative backwater. She had always conformed to the norms of a woman in public life. Engaged in discourse largely with men, she observed the conventions, flirted, sometimes shouted and occasionally wept. Her advisers emphasised the feminine, softened her appearance and lowered her voice. Yet she was always most authentic when she was defiant. If a single phrase captured her political identity, it was from her 1980 party conference speech: "This lady's not for turning." She played by the rules that demanded that she present herself as soft and yielding, but by her diligent attention to detail, the concentration of her focus, and her appetite for conflict, ultimately she subverted them.

Thatcher drew up a new settlement with the welfare state, and organised labour and the City in a way that rewarded enterprise and individual effort over the collective and the communitarian. She regarded group interests, from trade unions to the professions, as protectors of privilege.

Although monetarism had already been forced upon the preceding Labour government by the International Monetary Fund, under Thatcher it was presented as a crusade, until it was discreetly abandoned in the mid-1980s.As the global slump reached its nadir in early 1981, she and her chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, defied all appeals for Keynesian-style reflation. In the first budget of the administration, VAT was nearly doubled to 15% while personal taxes were slashed – the top rate of income tax from 83% to 60%, and the standard rate from 33% to 30%. Over the next 10 years, the standard rate came down to 25%, and the top rate to 40%. Interest rates were to be the principal method of controlling the money supply. Removing exchange controls was the first symbolic piece of deregulation. In September 1982, unemployment – which became the de facto weapon against the trade unions – reached 3 million.

A series of employment acts were introduced which ended trade unions' traditional show-of-hands votes and brought in secret pre-strike ballots as well as decennial votes on the political levy. Wages councils were constrained. In a second tranche of legislation in the late 1980s, the closed shop and secondary strike action were outlawed.

Thatcher thought the government had no role to play in public sector pay negotiations or in seeking to secure industrial peace. The steelworkers were the first to clash, and although, in 1981, planned pit closures were aborted to avert a miners' strike, by early 1984 the government was prepared – literally – for what was to be the last stand of the old trade union movement in its heavy industry heartland: the year-long showdown with the miners that culminated in mass closures and ultimately privatisation.

Thatcher shrugged off record personal unpopularity and relished facing down her critics. But she would not have survived without the crisis on the left which led to the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic party. In 1981 there were riots in Brixton, south London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Manchester's Moss Side. From March 1984, striking miners and police were in frequent, violent confrontation. In 1985 Brixton erupted again, and there was rioting too in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. In the same year PC Keith Blakelock was murdered during disturbances on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London.

Privatisation, which came to be a fundamental of the Thatcherite mission, was only hinted at in 1979, and in the depression of the early 1980s caution prevailed. When the ailing nationalised motor manufacturer British Leyland ran into trouble in early 1980, Joseph, then Thatcher's industry minister, bailed it out like a Heathite. Nonetheless, in 1980-81 more than £400m was raised from selling shares in companies such as Ferranti and Cable and Wireless. Later came North Sea oil (Britoil) and British Ports, and from late 1984 the major sales of British Telecom, British Gas and British Airways, culminating at the end of the decade in water and electricity. By this time these sales were raising more than £5bn a year.

Conflict was at the heart of Thatcher's style. But it is a myth that she never ducked a challenge. Ever a pragmatist, she was astute in the fights she picked. The battles during her first term, from 1979 to 1983, ranged across a forbiddingly wide terrain and set the tone for the years to come. Not all of the challenges were sought: the IRA was behind many of them. In August 1979 Lord Mountbatten and 18 soldiers were murdered in separate attacks. In April 1980, she authorised the SAS to launch their live-on-TV rescue of 19 hostages from Iraqi-trained terrorists in the Iranian embassy siege. The following year, she refused to intervene to prevent the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other republican hunger strikers in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

The IRA's mainland bombing campaign that ensued added to the impression of a government under siege. Airey Neave, who had run Thatcher's leadership campaign, had been assassinated by the Irish National Liberation Army just before the 1979 election. She lost another intimate, Ian Gow, at the hands of the IRA 10 years later. On 12 October 1984 the Provisionals' campaign nearly claimed Thatcher herself. Five people died in the bombing of the Grand hotel during the Conservative party conference in Brighton. Others, including the cabinet ministers Norman Tebbit and John Wakeham, were seriously injured.

The prime minister responded with resilience. Betraying no sign of shock, she delivered her speech to the conference later the same day, as planned. She was already negotiating with Dublin what was to become a year later the Anglo-Irish agreement, an attempt to improve security co-operation for which she faced down her Ulster Unionist friends and conceded the acceptance of an Irish dimension in the affairs of Northern Ireland. She did not seek a settlement, but with hindsight the agreement can be read as a major step in the peace process.

The conflict with which she was most closely identified, and the one that arguably rescued her from being just a one-term wonder, was the Falklands war. On 2 April 1982, General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the islands in the South Atlantic. Discussions about a leaseback and the removal of a naval patrol vessel had been misread as a sign that Britain was ready to abandon its distant colony. Thatcher, ignoring the initial advice given to her by much of her cabinet – and inspired by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach – took the extraordinary risk of dispatching a taskforce to retake the islands. While negotiations for a peaceful outcome stuttered on through the US secretary of state, Alexander Haig, the Royal Navy steamed south. On 21 May the British landed and on 14 June the Argentinians surrendered. Less than a year later, the Conservatives were returned with a majority of 144 over a divided opposition.

Thatcher's years in office were bookended by two defining events of global significance. On Christmas Day 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Ten years later, the Berlin Wall came down, heralding the collapse of the Soviet empire. The invasion of Afghanistan reinforced Thatcher's belief in the expansionist intent of the Soviet empire. She became the evangelist for America's ambition to upgrade its own and Nato's nuclear defences with Cruise and Pershing missiles. In 1980 she announced Cruise would come to Britain. As a result, the perimeter fence around the RAF base at Greenham Common, Berkshire, became the centre for a decade of anti-nuclear campaigning by women's groups. She negotiated to upgrade Britain's independent nuclear deterrent by acquiring Trident II, at a cost of £7.5bn.

Yet for all the attention to hardware, Thatcher always believed its citizens would be the ones to destroy the Soviet empire. Visiting the Berlin Wall in 1982, she prophesied that it would be brought down by the "anger and frustration of the people". She promoted co-operation and fostered relations with Poland and Hungary, encouraging their leaders to imagine a world after communism. At the same time, she sought out modernisers in the Soviet Union and brought Mikhail Gorbachev, when he was still a relatively minor figure in the Politburo, to the attention of Ronald Reagan as a man "to do business with". She made a triumphant visit to Russia in 1987 where she was mobbed by the public and took the argument against communism direct to live television, "as if she was fighting a byelection in Moscow North," this paper's correspondent wrote. If her subsequent reluctance to accept German reunification suggests her belief in the people was less deep-rooted than she would claim, she was a leading force in undermining the power of the Soviet Union.

In her battle against communism, she marched in step with the US. She and Reagan were in particular sympathy (sorely tested when, in October 1983, the US invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada, a Commonwealth member), although she disagreed strongly with his dream of major nuclear disarmament. That, she considered, was a threat to European security.

The Westland affair early in 1986 marked the beginnings of Thatcher's break with Europe. She preferred to see the ailing British helicopter company merge with the American Sikorsky rather than accept the European solution that her defence secretary and leading critic, Michael Heseltine, had wanted. He resigned. In the ensuing row, Thatcher came close to being implicated in the deliberate discrediting of her rival. Her protege, the trade secretary Leon Brittan, was forced to resign. Her pro-Americanism was sealed in April 1986 by her support, alone in Europe, for the US bombing raid on Libya.

Thatcher had originally been a supporter of Britain's membership of the Common Market and Labour's complete rejection of it after the successful referendum in 1975 only strengthened its appeal to her. However, she was elected in 1979 on a promise to seek a budget rebate, a preoccupation that dogged every summit for her first five years until she reluctantly agreed a settlement at Fontainebleau in 1984.

A period of relative calm, during which Thatcher advocated speeding up the single market negotiations followed, until the passage of the Single European Act in 1987. At that point, she realised that her ideal of Europe as a trading partner, a market for British goods and services where remaining trade barriers would wither away, was at odds with the vision of closer political integration shared by the European commission president, Jacques Delors, and most other European nations. Her battles against it became one of the deadly fissures in her relations with her cabinet.

It is one of the paradoxes of an era that will be remembered for its hostility to the EU that in the Single European Act (which led to the Maastricht treaty), Thatcher ceded more control over British affairs than any prime minister before, while in sponsoring the Channel tunnel, she established a permanent land route to the continent.

In 1988, she made a speech in Bruges attacking "creeping Euro-federalism". Throughout the following year, her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, fought for a date for sterling to join the exchange rate mechanism (ERM), to which the UK was committed and which would allow interest rates to fall. Thatcher was determined that the value of the pound should not be pegged to European currencies. Protesting at the influence of the economist Alan Walters as a rival centre of advice, Lawson resigned.

Thatcher's desire to build a free-market Europe was matched by her attempt to strengthen the role of the individual against the state at home. The election of June 1987 produced another landslide, her third election victory. It heralded a programme of radical public sector reform intended to assert the power of the consumer and bring market discipline into schools and hospitals.

The 1988 Education Act brought in city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools, free of local authority control. Housing action trusts further limited local councils' room for manoeuvre. A purchaser-provider split was introduced into the NHS. The rhetoric of public spending cuts continued, although the records show that public spending rose every year in her time in office, declining only as a share of GDP.

Local councils, particularly Ken Livingstone's Greater London council, were among Thatcher's most effective critics. Her response was the poll tax, properly known as the community charge, levied on an individual basis that would link council spending to local taxes. She ignored advice that such a tax would be impossible to collect and that it was also severely regressive. In March 1990 there were protests and riots in a mass rejection of an unjust tax.

Meanwhile the party splits over Europe were reaching a climax. Geoffrey Howe, an early and loyal Thatcherite, had supported Lawson over Britain's membership of the ERM. Only the threat of their resignation had forced her to agree to join. In revenge, Howe was sacked as foreign secretary and made leader of the House and deputy prime minister. In October 1990, as Thatcher stood at the dispatch box after the Rome summit (where she had been ambushed with demands for further integration) dismissing, it seemed, any progress at all with "No! No! No!", Howe finally resolved to resign.

The defiance that had once so impressed her party, and many in the country, now sounded dangerously deluded even to some of her closest supporters, especially those in marginal seats. It took less than 10 days – from 13 November when Howe made his resignation speech to 22 November when Thatcher announced her resignation – for Conservative MPs to eject her.

At the 1992 election, Thatcher retired from the Commons and took a seat in the Lords. Powerfully affected by a sense of injustice, she found it hard to desert the field of domestic politics. Her only consolation was that in ensuring the accession for her favourite, Major, she denied it to Heseltine. But she was soon letting it be known that Major was not, after all, one of us. After his defeat in May 1997, his successors – with the exception of Iain Duncan Smith – were found to be disappointments too.

The first of her two volumes of memoirs, The Downing Street Years, appeared in 1993, followed two years later by The Path to Power. She also established the Thatcher Foundation, which, funded by the large fees she could command for public speaking in the US and Japan, was intended to promote her ideas, not least in the emerging democracies of eastern Europe. In March 2002, after a series of minor strokes, she gave up public speaking.

Thatcher broke the pattern of postwar politics and changed its nature. Labour accommodated rather than reversed her attack on the welfare state and left her employment legislation almost untouched. When the Conservatives finally returned to power in May 2010, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron and George Osborne shared her priorities and used her language. So complete, it seems, was her undermining of the role of the state that even the catastrophic failure of deregulated markets has yet to trigger a reappraisal.

It is a paradox of her period in office that, while seeking to limit the scope of government, she introduced a style of command and control, top-down, centralised authority that strengthened it and has proved hard for her successors to resist. It has leaked into the way political parties are managed, so that they struggle to regenerate a spirit of local activism. Some of the most valuable institutions of civil society from the churches to the trade unions have been scarred by her attacks on collective enterprise.

Denis, to whom Thatcher had awarded a baronetcy in her resignation honours, died in 2003.

She is survived by Mark and Carol and her two grandchildren, Michael and Amanda.

• Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Lady Thatcher, politician, born 13 October 1925; died 8 April 2013

    Margaret Thatcher, a political phenomenon, dies aged 87, G, 8.4.2013,






Margaret Thatcher,

Conservative Who Reforged Britain,



April 8, 2013
The New York Times


Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, who turned her country in a sharply conservative direction, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday. She was 87.

Her spokesman, Tim Bell, said the cause was a stroke. She had been in poor health for months and had dementia.

Her death brought tributes from Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short a visit to Continental Europe to return to Britain, and Queen Elizabeth II, who authorized a ceremonial funeral — a step short of a state funeral — to be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London with military honors, The Associated Press reported. A statement from the White House said that “the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”

Mrs. Thatcher was the first woman to become prime minister of Britain and the first to lead a major Western power in modern times. Hard-driving and hardheaded, she led her Conservative Party to three straight election victories and held office for 11 years — May 1979 to November 1990 — longer than any other British politician in the 20th century.

The tough economic medicine Mrs. Thatcher administered to a country sickened by inflation, budget deficits and industrial unrest brought her wide swings in popularity, culminating with a revolt among her own cabinet ministers in her final year and her shout of “No! No! No!” in the House of Commons to any further integration with Europe.

But by the time she left office, the principles known as Thatcherism — the belief that economic freedom and individual liberty are interdependent, that personal responsibility and hard work are the only ways to national prosperity, and that the free-market democracies must stand firm against aggression — had won many disciples. Even some of her strongest critics accorded her a grudging respect.

At home, Mrs. Thatcher’s political successes were decisive. She broke the power of the labor unions and forced the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to nationalized industry, redefine the role of the welfare state and accept the importance of the free market.

Abroad, she won new esteem for a country that had been in decline since its costly victory in World War II. After leaving office, she was honored as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. But during her first years in power, even many Tories feared that her election might prove a terrible mistake.

In October 1980, 17 months into her first term, Mrs. Thatcher faced disaster. More businesses were failing and more people were out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. Racial and class tensions smoldered so ominously that even close advisers worried that her push to stanch inflation, sell off nationalized industry and deregulate the economy was devastating the poor, undermining the middle class and courting chaos.

At the Conservative Party conference that month, the moderates grumbled that they were being led by a free-market ideologue oblivious to life on the street and the exigencies of realpolitik. With electoral defeat staring them in the face, cabinet members warned, now was surely a time for compromise.

To Mrs. Thatcher, they could not be more wrong. “I am not a consensus politician,” she had often declared. “I am a conviction politician.”

In an address to the party, she played on the title of Christopher Fry’s popular play “The Lady’s Not for Burning” in insisting that she would press forward with her policies. “You turn if you want to,” she told the faltering assembly. “The lady’s not for turning.”

Her tough stance did the trick. A party revolt was thwarted, the Tories hunkered down, and Mrs. Thatcher went on to achieve great victories. She turned the Conservatives, long associated with the status quo, into the party of reform. Her policies revitalized British business, spurred industrial growth and swelled the middle class.

But her third term was riddled with setbacks. Dissension over monetary policy, taxes and Britain’s place in the European Community caused her government to give up hard-won gains against inflation and unemployment. By the time she was ousted in another Tory revolt — this time over her resistance to expanding Britain’s role in a European union — the economy was in a recession and her reputation tarnished.

To her enemies she was — as Denis Healey, chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson’s government, called her — “La Pasionaria of Privilege,” a woman who railed against the evils of poverty but who was callous and unsympathetic to the plight of the have-nots. Her policies, her opponents said, were cruel and shortsighted, widened the gap between rich and poor and worsened the plight of the poorest.

Her relentless hostility to the Soviet Union and her persistent call to modernize Britain’s nuclear forces fed fears of nuclear war and even worried moderates in her own party. It also caught the Kremlin’s attention. After a hard-line speech in 1976, the Soviet press gave her a sobriquet of which she was proud: the Iron Lady.

Yet when she saw an opening, she proved willing to bend. She was one of the first Western leaders to recognize that the Soviets would soon be led by a member of a new generation, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and invited him to Britain in December 1984, three months before he came to power. “I like Mr. Gorbachev,” she declared. “We can do business together.”

Her rapport with the new Soviet leader and her friendship with President Ronald Reagan made her a vital link between the White House and the Kremlin in their tense negotiations to halt the arms race of the 1980s.

Brisk and argumentative, she was rarely willing to concede a point and loath to compromise. Colleagues who disagreed with her were often deluged in a sea of facts, or what many referred to as being “handbagged.”

“She had high standards, and she expected everyone to do their work,” John O’Sullivan, a special adviser to the prime minister, recalled in 1999. “But there was a distinction. She was tougher on her ministers than she was on her personal staff. The more humble the position, the nicer she was.”

Despite her being the first woman to lead a major political party in the West, she rubbed many feminists the wrong way. “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won,” she declared. “I hate those strident tones we hear from some women’s libbers.”

She relished being impolitic. “You don’t follow the crowd,” she often said. “You make up your own mind.”

Britain’s arts and academic establishments loathed her for cutting their financing and considered her tastes provincial, her values narrow-minded. In 1985, two years into her second term, she was proposed for an honorary doctorate at Oxford, a laurel traditionally offered prime ministers who had attended the university, as she had. The proposal, after debate among the faculty, was rejected.

Yet her popularity remained high.

“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar, a playwright and speechwriter for the prime minister. “To some she could do no right, to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option. She could stir almost physical hostility in normally rational people, while she inspired deathless devotion in others.”

The Grocer’s Daughter

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on Oct. 13, 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, 100 miles north of London. Her family lived in a cold-water flat above a grocery store owned by her father, Alfred, the son of a shoemaker. Alfred Roberts was a Methodist preacher and local politician, and he and his wife, Beatrice, reared Margaret and her older sister, Muriel, to follow the tenets of Methodism: personal responsibility, hard work and traditional moral values.

Margaret learned politics at her father’s knee, joining him as he campaigned as an independent candidate for alderman and borough councilman. “Politics was in my bloodstream,” she said.

She won a scholarship to Kesteven and Grantham Girls School. In 1943, at 17, she was admitted to Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied chemistry. Barred from joining the Oxford Union debating society — it did not admit women until 1963 — she became a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association and its president in 1946. She graduated in 1947 and later earned a master’s degree in chemistry, then worked as a chemical researcher and studied law.

Politics exerted an even stronger pull, and at 23 she was selected to be a Conservative Party candidate for Parliament. Shortly afterward, in 1949, she met Denis Thatcher, a well-to-do businessman and former artillery officer who had been decorated for bravery during World War II. They married in December 1951. In August 1953, Mrs. Thatcher gave birth to twins, Mark and Carol, who survive her, along with grandchildren. (Sir Denis died in 2003.) That December, she was admitted to the bar and came to specialize in patent and tax law. As the couple prospered, Mrs. Thatcher achieved the financial independence to devote herself to politics. “Being prime minister is a lonely job,” she wrote in her memoirs, “The Downing Street Years,” published in 1993. “It has to be; you cannot lead from the crowd. But with Denis there, I was never alone.”

In 1950 she campaigned to be a member of Parliament from Dartford, a Labour Party preserve. She was the youngest woman to run for a seat that year, a time when Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who had oustedWinston Churchillin an upset on July 5, 1945, was seeking re-election. Mr. Attlee had gone on to create a welfare state that promised full employment, state ownership of industry, public housing and a national health service. As expected, Mrs. Thatcher was defeated. She ran again the next year, and lost, but she did better than expected in both races.

In 1951 the Tories began a 13-year run as the party in power, first under the aging Churchill and then under Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. But in exchange for support on foreign affairs, the Tories compromised with the unions and accepted the government’s growing role in the marketplace. This “policy of consensus” proved successful. Mr. Macmillan, seeking re-election in 1959, declared, “Most people have never had it so good.”

Few Tories dared voice their misgivings as inflation spread, productivity dropped and deficits grew. Mrs. Thatcher, who was elected to the House of Commons that year from the largely middle-class Finchley district in north London, was among those who swallowed their doubts.

In 1964, the Tories, exhausted by scandal, a souring economy and internal divisions, lost power to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. But as the economy grew more feeble and the unions more militant, Mr. Wilson was ousted in 1970 by the Conservative leader,Edward Heath, who pledged to replace the politics of consensus with a “quiet revolution” that would reduce the state’s role in the marketplace and tame the unions.

He appointed Mrs. Thatcher secretary for education. As a Conservative cabinet minister, wrote Hugo Young, journalist and author of a critical 1989 biography, “The Iron Lady,"she fought budget cuts in the British university system and pushed to rebuild schools in poor areas with a zeal that “would have done credit to the best of the socialists.”

But it was her efforts to restrict a program that provided free milk to schoolchildren that made her a national figure. Though poor children were exempt from the cutbacks, and the previous Labour government had also reduced free milk in schools, the opposition leapt to the attack. When she argued in Parliament that the cuts would help finance more worthwhile programs, she was roundly jeered. The tabloids labeled her “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.” Her husband, worried by the strain on his wife and children, who were being taunted at school, suggested that perhaps she should quit politics.

The government stood firm on the milk issue. But as the economy worsened, Mr. Heath retreated, imposing wage and price controls as inflation surged and igniting strikes. His U-turn angered the Tory right. Moreover, it proved futile. In the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the oil-producing nations of OPEC imposed huge price increases that stoked inflation. By winter 1974 Mr. Wilson was back in power.

The following December, the Conservative Party revised its rules for choosing a leader and opened a series of votes to the rank and file. Mrs. Thatcher, in what many regarded as an act of political gall, declared her candidacy. One British bookmaker, Ladbrokes, put the odds against her at 50 to 1.

Mrs. Thatcher, in an aggressive campaign, finished Mr. Heath on the first ballot, 130 to 119. The margin was not enough for victory, but Mr. Heath was forced to drop out. In the second ballot, on Feb. 11, 1975, Mrs. Thatcher defeated the other contenders, all of them men.

For the next four years, as Labour ran the country, she fought to reshape her party. The conservatism she espoused was shaped by the tenets of classic liberalism: faith in the individual, in economic freedom and in limited government power. But she had to contend with conservatism’s basic reluctance to change with the times.

The Tories were the party of tradition, and traditionally women had little place in its upper echelons. All party leaders, for example, joined the Carlton Club, which excluded women. The club would not change its rules for Mrs. Thatcher, but she was accorded an honorary membership. Still, resentment lingered. At a party conference Mr. Heath studiously ignored her.

Mrs. Thatcher’s prescription for change was based on the ideas of the conservative economists Friedrich von Hayek andMilton Friedman. Hayek believed that political and economic freedom were inseparable; Friedman argued that economic productivity and inflation were determined by the amount of money the government put into the economy, and that the heavy government spending advocated by Keynesian economics distorted the natural strength of the marketplace.

Mrs. Thatcher and her allies asserted that the Tory policy of consensus had allowed the country to lurch leftward as each successive leader, seeking the middle of the road, was forced to compromise with a leftist agenda. For her part, she cared little for theories. She called for an all-out attack on inflation, pledged to denationalize basic industry and promised to curb union power.

By the mid-1970s, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Nearly half of the average taxpayer’s income went to the state, which now determined compensation for a third of the nation’s work force: those employed by nationalized industries. In late 1978 and early ’79, strikes paralyzed Britain. As the “winter of discontent” dragged on, Prime Minister James Callaghan, of the Labour Party, failed to survive a no-confidence vote and called an election for May 3.

Callaghan, who was known as Sunny Jim, drew higher personal ratings in opinion polls than Mrs. Thatcher. But on election day the Tories walked away with 43.9 percent of the vote. Labour received 37 percent and the Liberals 13.8 percent. It was the largest swing to the right in postwar history.

The First Term

Mrs. Thatcher moved swiftly. “I came to office with one deliberate intent,” she later said. “To change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation.”

It was a painful beginning. Income tax cuts balanced by rising gasoline duties and sales taxes fueled inflation. Unemployment spread as she slashed subsidies to faltering industries. Tight money policies drove up interest rates to as high as 22 percent, strengthening the pound, hobbling investment at home and hurting competitiveness overseas. A record 10,000 businesses went bankrupt. Saying it would take years to cure Britain of the havoc wrought by socialism, Mrs. Thatcher warned, “Things will get worse before they get better.”

In the summer of 1981 — the same one in which Charles, the Prince of Wales, married Lady Diana Spencer— discontent boiled over into days of rioting in the London district of Brixton and in the inner cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and many other areas. Televised reports of rioting, arson and looting shocked the nation.

The prime minister, resisting advisers who counseled more social spending and jobs programs, called for greater police powers. Yet, in the face of national shame over the violence, she was forced to give way.

There were other compromises. The government retreated from its declaration that state industries must sink or swim in the free market and came to the aid of British Airways and British Steel.

Mrs. Thatcher later said that 1981 was her worst year in office. But by the spring of 1982, things were looking up. Inflation was falling; so was the value of the pound, which gave a boost to Britain’s exports and, along with tax cuts, began to feed economic growth.

In foreign affairs, she won some small victories. Standing up to the European Community over the amount of money Britain provided to the organization, she argued that her country paid out much more than it got back in benefits, and won a significant reduction in contributions. Though her rhetoric and style had caught the world’s eye, she had yet to stake a position as a world leader. Then, on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.

British settlers had lived on those remote islands in the South Atlantic, long claimed by Argentina, since the 1820s. Negotiations over their future had been dragging on for years when the Argentine military junta under Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, eager to divert attention from economic and social unrest, moved to take the Falklands by force, gambling that once the islands were occupied, Argentine forces would never be ousted.

As the United States and other allies pushed for talks to avoid bloodshed, Mrs. Thatcher ordered a Royal Navy fleet to the South Atlantic. In a 10-week war, the British retook the islands in fighting that left some 250 British servicemen and more than 1,000 Argentines dead. The victory doomed Argentina’s military government and cemented Mrs. Thatcher’s reputation as a leader to be reckoned with.

The Second Term

Her political fortunes were enhanced by squabbling among her opponents. Far-left factions and militant union leaders were gaining strength in the Labour Party as economic discontent and tensions with the Soviet Union grew.

In 1980, Mrs. Thatcher and PresidentJimmy Carterhad agreed to deploy American intermediate-range cruise missiles in Britain in response to a Soviet arms buildup in Eastern Europe. Under Mr. Reagan, who succeeded Mr. Carter the following year, the United States, with Mrs. Thatcher’s support, persuaded other European allies to deploy the missiles. The arms buildups ignited demonstrations across Western Europe.

When Mrs. Thatcher called an election in June 1983, Labour’s new chief, Michael Foot, called in the campaign for a unilateral ban on nuclear weapons, withdrawal from the European Community, further nationalization of industry and a huge jobs program.

Mr. Foot’s swing to the left alienated Labour’s center and right wing, and disaffected members fell away from the Social Democratic Party, which supported private enterprise and a mixed economy, membership in the European Community and a nuclear defense in which Britain and the United States had dual control over weapons.

This time the bookmakers put the odds heavily in Mrs. Thatcher’s favor, and they had no regrets. The conservatives won 397 of the 650 seats in Parliament, the biggest swing in voting since Labour’s landslide victory against Churchill in 1945. The working class voted heavily for the Conservatives. Even Dartford, the “safe” Labour seat where Mrs. Thatcher had made her first failed bid for office in 1950, elected a Tory.

It was an axiom of British politics that one never picked a quarrel with the pope or the National Union of Mineworkers. Mrs. Thatcher flouted it. The coal mines, nationalized in 1947, were widely seen as unprofitable, overstaffed and obsolescent, and in 1984 the government announced plans to shut down several mines and to eliminate 20,000 of the industry’s 180,000 jobs.

In response, Arthur Scargill, the Marxist president of the union, used union rules to elude a rank-and-file vote and, on March 6, 1984, called a walkout.

It was a violent strike. Night after night, the television news broadcast images of hundreds of miners battling the police. On Nov. 30, at a mine in South Wales, a taxi driver taking a miner to work was fatally injured when a concrete slab was dropped on his cab.

Though the episode shocked the Labour Party and many miners, Mr. Scargill refused to condemn it, alienating Neil Kinnock, the new Labour leader, and other supporters. As members of his own union sought to have the strike declared illegal, newspaper cartoons pictured Mr. Scargill flinching under Mrs. Thatcher’s flailing handbag. The strike finally ended in March 1985, after 362 days, without a settlement.

‘Popular Capitalism’

Mrs. Thatcher now pushed harder to fulfill her vision of “popular capitalism.” The sale of state-owned industries shifted some 900,000 jobs into the private sector. More than one million public housing units were sold to their occupants. And the chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, announced in 1985 that for the first time since the 1960s, the Treasury would not require deficit spending in its next fiscal budget.

Across the Atlantic, Mr. Reagan cheered Britain’s turnaround. He and Mrs. Thatcher did not always agree; he thought she was too reluctant on cutting taxes, while she was wary of his insouciance over rising federal deficits. When Mr. Reagan, without warning the British, ordered troops to invade the Caribbean nation of Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth, in the wake of a Communist coup, Mrs. Thatcher gave him a dressing down. Nevertheless, the Reagan-Thatcher axis was, in the words of Hugo Young, “the most enduring personal alliance in the Western world throughout the 1980s.”

The prime minister supported Mr. Reagan’s stand against Communism, echoing White House assertions that Fidel Castro’s Cuba was exporting revolution to Nicaragua and other Latin American states. She was equally vigorous in supporting the United States’ fight against terrorism, even when it cost her political capital at home. In April 1986, after terrorist attacks in Western Europe, the United States sought permission to launch American warplanes from bases in Britain for attacks on Libya. Mrs. Thatcher granted it. The bombing destroyed the living quarters of the Libyan leader, Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi, and killed one of his children. Mrs. Thatcher’s support for the mission outraged many Britons. But she countered that terrorism demanded a united response.

Mrs. Thatcher had shown a similar kind of resolve at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984. On the evening of Oct. 12, as she worked on a speech in her hotel room, a bomb exploded on the floor below, killing four people and wounding more than 30 others. Among the dead was the wife of the Tories’ chief whip, John Wakeham. A cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, and his wife were badly wounded. The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility. The next day Mrs. Thatcher addressed the party as scheduled, declaring, “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

Despite the sectarian violence, Northern Ireland was not high on her agenda. Mrs. Thatcher saw the troubles there as intractable and her policies as simply preserving the status quo.

She was more flexible over South Africa, where the struggle against institutionalized racism was growing more violent. Though she regarded apartheid as repugnant, she initially refused to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, arguing that apartheid would ultimately be undone by greater trade and the prosperity and yearnings for democracy that come with it. But pressured by other Commonwealth countries, she grudgingly reversed herself and endorsed some sanctions.

On another daunting problem involving the British Empire’s complex legacy, Mrs. Thatcher had more success, at least at first. In 1984, Britain reached an agreement with China over the fate of Hong Kong, which was to revert to China in 1997. Under a formula of “one country, two systems,” the political freedoms and economic structure of Britain’s wealthiest colony would stand for 50 years, preserving Hong Kong’s capitalist economy under a Communist state.

But in the turmoil after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China, fearing a democratic Hong Kong’s influence on the mainland, was far less amenable to granting the territory representative government. When the British governor, Chris Patten, handed over the colony to China in 1997, Hong Kong’s political future remained uncertain.

The Cold War’s End

“Some of these diplomatic minuets you have to go through I cannot stand,” Mrs. Thatcher once said, by way of paying a compliment to Mr. Gorbachev. He forsook rhetoric for blunt realism, she said, and “that suits me better.”

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was rife with political disillusion and economic chaos. The Reagan administration sought to add pressure by moving ahead with high-tech weapons, including plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the space-based defense system known as Star Wars, which would in theory enable the United States to intercept incoming nuclear missiles.

Mr. Gorbachev was unalterably opposed to Star Wars, as were many in the West. Mrs. Thatcher was also against it, though she publicly supported it. At a White House meeting she warned that the project was a costly pipe dream. “I am a chemist,” she is said to have told the president. “I know it won’t work.”

But she changed her mind after being assured that Britain would receive a goodly share of the business in researching and developing the system. At a meeting in Washington in December 1984, she helped draft a position on Star Wars that Reagan later adopted, assuring the Soviets that the program would enhance nuclear deterrence, not undercut it, and that it would not get in the way of arms control talks.

Nevertheless, it did. During a summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev came close to an agreement to ban nuclear weapons. But when Mr. Gorbachev insisted first on an American promise to drop the Strategic Defense Initiative, Mr. Reagan refused, and the negotiations fell apart.

The president’s position infuriated his critics. But many people in NATO and the Pentagon were relieved. “The fact is that nuclear weapons have prevented not only nuclear war but conventional war in Europe for 40 years,” Mrs. Thatcher said in a speech. “That is why we depend and will continue to depend on nuclear weapons for our defense.”

Mrs. Thatcher did not fare so well in other battles. In the face of popular opposition, she retreated from plans to privatize the water industry and the National Health Service, replace college grants with a student loan program, cut back pensions and revamp the social security system. Many predicted that she would not win a third term.

But the economy continued to work in her favor. When she called an election in 1987, the Tories were returned to power on June 11.

The Third Term

That October, Wall Street crashed. In the following months, disagreements among the Tories over Britain’s future in the European Community and a series of other events forced Mrs. Thatcher to surrender hard-fought gains.

She believed that linking the pound to other currencies would erode Britain’s political independence. Mr. Lawson, her chancellor of the Exchequer, argued that it would be better to lay the groundwork for joining the European monetary system by tying the pound to the more stable German mark. Without telling the prime minister, Mr. Lawson, in January 1987, had informally begun to peg the pound to the mark.

Meanwhile, the government’s tax-cutting and easy-credit policies fed an investment and housing boom, again fueling inflation. Mr. Lawson, reluctant to allow the value of the pound to rise above the ceiling he had imposed to keep it in range with the mark, ignored calls for higher interest rates. As his actions became apparent, the prime minister accused him of misleading her and warned artificially holding down the pound had to stop.

But Mr. Lawson and his supporters saw the European monetary system not only as a step toward European integration but also as a safeguard against the kind of wide swings in the pound’s value that had so disrupted Britain’s economic health in the past. On this fundamental issue the Tories were split, the two sides set on a collision course.

As inflation rose, Mr. Lawson reversed himself and raised interest rates. The sudden effort to stanch the money flow threw Britain into recession. In October 1989, Mr. Lawson resigned, but many devoted Thatcherites admitted that she bore much of the blame.

Other misjudgments were laid at her door. In an effort to make local authorities more accountable for the way they spent tax money, Mrs. Thatcher pushed through a measure that replaced the income tax with a “poll tax” on all adult residents of a community. The tax — so named because it used voter registration lists to identify prospective taxpayers — was intended to make everyone, not just property owners, pay for local government services. In practice, the measure was manifestly unfair and deeply unpopular. In March 1990, protests in Trafalgar Square flared into riots. Within her own party, there was a growing feeling that the Iron Lady had become a liability.

The Fall

That November, tensions among the Tories exploded. The deputy prime minister, Geoffrey Howe, the last survivor of the original Thatcher cabinet of 1979, was known for his loyalty, though he disagreed with the prime minister on Britain’s policy toward Europe. Now that disagreement came to a boil. At a cabinet meeting, “Margaret was incredibly rude to Geoffrey,” Kenneth Baker, another minister, recalled. “It was the last straw for Geoffrey, and he resigned that night.”

The next day Michael Heseltine, a former defense minister who favored greater links with Europe, announced that he would challenge Mrs. Thatcher for the party leadership. On Nov. 20, as the prime minister was attending a summit meeting in Paris, the Tories took a vote. For Mrs. Thatcher, whose approval ratings in the polls were falling, the outcome was bleak: though she beat Mr. Heseltine, 204 votes to 152, under party rules her majority was not strong enough for her to keep her place.

The race, now wide open, took an unexpected turn. Mrs. Thatcher was awaiting the results of the party ballot with her family and friends at 10 Downing Street when she learned that Mr. Heseltine had lost to the soft-spoken chancellor of the Exchequer,John Major, a protégé of hers. When someone remarked that her colleagues had done an awful turn, she replied, “We’re in politics, dear.” Though vowing at first to “fight on and fight to win” the second ballot, she was persuaded to withdraw. After speaking to the queen, calling world leaders and making a final speech to the House of Commons, she resigned on Nov. 28, 1990, leaving 10 Downing Street in tears and feeling betrayed.

After leaving office, Mrs. Thatcher traveled widely and drew huge crowds on the lecture circuit. She sat in the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, wrote her memoirs and devoted herself to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, set up to promulgate the values she had championed.

She remained forthright in expressing her opinions. During her final months in office, she had bolstered President George Bush in his efforts to build a United Nations coalition to oppose Iraq after it invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. At the time of the invasion, Mrs. Thatcher was meeting with Mr. Bush and other world leaders at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. “Remember, George,” she is said to have told him, “this is no time to go wobbly.”

In retirement, she continued to call for firmness in the face of aggression, advocating Western intervention to stop the ethnic bloodshed in the Balkans in the early 1990s. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she endorsed PresidentGeorge W. Bush’s policy of sanctioning pre-emptive strikes against governments that sponsored terrorism. She also backed the war to oust the Iraqi leader,Saddam Hussein.

By then, according to her daughter, Mrs. Thatcher had begun to show signs of the dementia that would overtake her and become, to much criticism, the focus of “Iron Lady,” a 2011 film about her withMeryl Streepin the title role.

But while she was still of sound mind, Mrs. Thatcher never let up on her anti-Europe views. “In my lifetime, all the problems have come from mainland Europe, and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world,” she told the annual Conservative Party conference in 1999. Her words drew predictable outrage, but few people doubted that Mrs. Thatcher, as usual, had meant exactly what she said.

She also did not shy from criticizing her successors’ actions, including Mr. Major’s handling of the economy. Her frankness often embarrassed the Tories. It seemed to many that Mrs. Thatcher preferred Labour’s new leader,Tony Blair, to her former protégé.

That perception was not surprising, since Mr. Blair’s victory over Mr. Major in 1997 seemed in a curious way to emphasize the success of Mrs. Thatcher’s policies. Mr. Blair led his “New Labour” party to victory on a platform that promised to liberate business from government restrictions, end taxes that discouraged investment and reduce dependence on the state.

Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy, “in most respects, is uncontested by the Blair government,” Mr. Young, her biographer, said in a 1999 interview. “It made rather concrete something she once said: ‘My task will not be completed until the Labour Party has become like the Conservative Party, a party of capitalism.’ ”


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 8, 2013

An earlier version of this obituary misquoted Lady Thatcher when,

in an address to her party,

she played on the title of Christopher Fry’s play

“The Lady’s Not for Burning.”

She said: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

She did not say, “Turn if you like.”

Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Who Reforged Britain, Dies,
NYT, 8.4.2013,










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Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013)




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