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Margaret Thatcher
1925 -

 


Champion of free minds and markets, she helped topple the welfare state and make the world safer for capitalism
By PAUL JOHNSON for Time Magazine
 

 

She was the catalyst who set in motion a series of interconnected events that gave a revolutionary twist to the century's last two decades and helped mankind end the millennium on a note of hope and confidence. The triumph of capitalism, the almost universal acceptance of the market as indispensable to prosperity, the collapse of Soviet imperialism, the downsizing of the state on nearly every continent and in almost every country in the world — Margaret Thatcher played a part in all those transformations, and it is not easy to see how any would have occurred without her.

Born in 1925, Margaret Hilda Roberts was an enormously industrious girl. The daughter of a Grantham shopkeeper, she studied on scholarship, worked her way to Oxford and took two degrees, in chemistry and law. Her fascination with politics led her into Parliament at age 34, when she argued her way into one of the best Tory seats in the country, Finchley in north London. Her quick mind (and faster mouth) led her up through the Tory ranks, and by age 44 she got settled into the "statutory woman's" place in the Cabinet as Education Minister, and that looked like the summit of her career. But Thatcher was, and is, notoriously lucky. Her case is awesome testimony to the importance of sheer chance in history. In 1975 she challenged Edward Heath for the Tory leadership simply because the candidate of the party's right wing abandoned the contest at the last minute. Thatcher stepped into the breach. When she went into Heath's office to tell him her decision, he did not even bother to look up. "You'll lose," he said. "Good day to you."

But as Victor Hugo put it, nothing is so powerful as "an idea whose time has come." And by the mid-'70s enough Tories were fed up with Heath and "the Ratchet Effect" — the way in which each statist advance was accepted by the Conservatives and then became a platform for a further statist advance.

She chose her issues carefully — and, it emerged, luckily. The legal duels she took on early in her tenure as Prime Minister sounded the themes that made her an enduring leader: open markets, vigorous debate and loyal alliances. Among her first fights: a struggle against Britain's out-of-control trade unions, which had destroyed three governments in succession. Thatcher turned the nation's anti-union feeling into a handsome parliamentary majority and a mandate to restrict union privileges by a series of laws that effectively ended Britain's trade-union problem once and for all. "Who governs Britain?" she famously asked as unions struggled for power. By 1980, everyone knew the answer: Thatcher governs.

Once the union citadel had been stormed, Thatcher quickly discovered that every area of the economy was open to judicious reform. Even as the rest of Europe toyed with socialism and state ownership, she set about privatizing the nationalized industries, which had been hitherto sacrosanct, no matter how inefficient. It worked. British Airways, an embarrassingly slovenly national carrier that very seldom showed a profit, was privatized and transformed into one of the world's best and most profitable airlines. British Steel, which lost more than a billion pounds in its final years as a state concern, became the largest steel company in Europe.

By the mid-1980s, privatization was a new term in world government, and by the end of the decade more than 50 countries, on almost every continent, had set in motion privatization programs, floating loss-making public companies on the stock markets and in most cases transforming them into successful private-enterprise firms. Even left-oriented countries, which scorned the notion of privatization, began to reduce their public sector on the sly. Governments sent administrative and legal teams to Britain to study how it was done. It was perhaps Britain's biggest contribution to practical economics in the world since J.M. Keynes invented "Keynesianism," or even Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations.

But Thatcher became a world figure for more than just her politics. She combined a flamboyant willpower with evident femininity. It attracted universal attention, especially after she led Britain to a spectacular military victory over Argentina in 1982. She understood that politicians had to give military people clear orders about ends, then leave them to get on with the means. Still, she could not bear to lose men, ships or planes. "That's why we have extra ships and planes," the admirals had to tell her, "to make good the losses." Fidelity, like courage, loyalty and perseverance, were cardinal virtues to her, which she possessed in the highest degree. People from all over the world began to look at her methods and achievements closely, and to seek to imitate them.

One of her earliest admirers was Ronald Reagan, who achieved power 18 months after she did. He too began to reverse the Ratchet Effect in the U.S. by effective deregulation, tax cutting and opening up wider market opportunities for free enterprise. Reagan liked to listen to Thatcher's various lectures on the virtues of the market or the minimal state. "I'll remember that, Margaret," he said. She listened carefully to his jokes, tried to get the point and laughed in the right places.

They turned their mutual affection into a potent foreign policy partnership. With Reagan and Thatcher in power, the application of judicious pressure on the Soviet state to encourage it to reform or abolish itself, or to implode, became an admissible policy. Thatcher warmly encouraged Reagan to rearm and thereby bring Russia to the negotiating table. She shared his view that Moscow ruled an "evil empire," and the sooner it was dismantled the better. Together with Reagan she pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue his perestroika policy to its limits and so fatally to undermine the self-confidence of the Soviet elite.

Historians will argue hotly about the precise role played by the various actors who brought about the end of Soviet communism. But it is already clear that Thatcher has an important place in this huge event.

It was the beginning of a new historical epoch. All the forces that had made the 20th century such a violent disappointment to idealists--totalitarianism, the gigantic state, the crushing of individual choice and initiative--were publicly and spectacularly defeated. Ascendant instead were the values that Thatcher had supported in the face of sometimes spectacular opposition: free markets and free minds. The world enters the 21st century and the 3rd millennium a wiser place, owing in no small part to the daughter of a small shopkeeper, who proved that nothing is more effective than willpower allied to a few clear, simple and workable ideas.
 


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Conservative Party leader for 15 years, Margaret Hilda Thatcher (born 1925) became the first female prime minister of Great Britain and served in that post from 1979 to 1990, longer than any other British prime minister in the 20th century.

Margaret Thatcher was born to grocery shop keepers in the small railroad equipment manufacturing town of Grantham. Alfred and Beatrice, her parents, were hard workers and careful savers, living over their shop and taking separate vacations so that the grocery would not be left unattended. Her father co-founded the Grantham Rotary Club, became president of the town Grocers' Association, local head of the National Savings Movement, and a member of both the boys' and girls' schools of Grantham. He served for 25 years on the Borough Council, beginning in 1927, and became chairman of its finance committee. For nine years, he was a town alderman, and became the mayor in 1943, as well as a justice of the peace at quarter sessions. He was also a Methodist lay preacher. Beatrice kept the house, sewed, baked, and helped to run the store. Thatcher's childhood family life revolved around the Methodist church, attending services three times a week, saying grace before every meal, and strictly observing the Sabbath. From age five to fifteen, Thatcher took piano lessons and sang in the church choir.

In October 1943, Thatcher was admitted to Somerville College to study chemistry at Oxford. After winning a second-class degree, Thatcher found employment as a research chemist. In 1950 and 1951, she studied to become a barrister and ran as the Conservative candidate in industrial Dartford in North Kent. During this campaign she met Denis Thatcher, who managed his family's company in North Kent. The two were married on December 13, 1951 and became the parents of twins, Mark and Carol, in August 1953.


Political Life

Thatcher became the youngest woman in the House of Commons in 1959, at the age of 34. She became known for sticking to her deeply felt, but unpopular beliefs which included quality, standards, and choice in education, for equal opportunity, and for aligning universities with industry. Thatcher ran against Ted Heath in 1975, winning the second ballot to lead the Conservatives with 146 votes. She became prime minister in May 1979, when the Conservatives won the majority of seats. In June 1987, her Conservative Party won its third consecutive general election victory. Thatcher appeared likely to continue as prime minister for many years. In the election, she had turned back a strong challenge from the Labour Party by renewing her commitment to conviction politics. She had boasted of the economic successes of her two previous governments as well as her strong foreign and defense policies. Yet Thatcher's third term was to be her least productive. With public opinion turning decisively against her, she was forced to resign from office in November 1990 after a struggle for leadership within the Conservative Party. She was succeeded by John Major, the chancellor of the exchequer since October 1989, who was a supporter of her policies.

Thatcher's third term was marked by controversy from the outset. She pursued a radical conservative agenda, in line with her earlier policies. Her aim was to promote individualism through a further dismantling of state controls. Before 1987 several key industries and public utilities had been transferred to private ownership, including the telephone system, the ports, British Gas, and British Airways. Thatcher continued this policy of privatization, notably in two key areas: water and electricity. Legislation was passed setting up private companies and selling stock in them to the public. This had the double advantage of producing short-term financial gains for the government and helping to create what Thatcher referred to as a property-owning democracy.

Similarly, the sale of council houses to their tenants, begun in 1980, proved to be a controversial if popular measure. By 1988 nearly one million municipal properties were in private hands. The private ownership of homes in Britain was about 70 percent in 1990, one of the highest figures in the world.

Thatcher's government also initiated dramatic changes in the National Health Service, established in 1948. Thatcher favoured a significant increase in private medical care and insurance to complement the state-run system. Some of her plans had to be modified, but a major reorganization of the N.H.S. was commenced in 1989 after the publication of a White Paper at the beginning of the year. Market principles were introduced into the N.H.S. Family doctors were given control over their budgets and hospitals were encouraged to opt out of local health authority administration.

Similar market provisions were introduced into state education. Schools were given the power to free themselves from local authority control and to make budgetary decisions, while a national curriculum was developed. The principle of free higher education was virtually abandoned, with universities being encouraged to seek private support. While local authorities continued to provide mandatory stipends to university students, a system of supplementary loans, based on American ideas, was adopted.

Thatcher likewise sought to reduce monopoly control of the professions. Legal reforms were initiated with the intent of lessening the traditional division of functions between solicitors and barristers. Solicitors previously had lost their exclusive power to conduct real estate transactions. Further legislation gave them the right to try cases in the higher courts along with barristers.

The reform that turned public opinion against Thatcher and ultimately led to her downfall was the introduction of the poll tax, or community charge, in 1988. This tax was levied on individuals in a particular district at the same rate, although rebates were available for the poor. It was intended to replace property taxes, hitherto the mainstay of local finance. Since local councils determined the rate of the tax, Thatcher believed that voters would repudiate the higher-spending councils dominated by the Labour Party. There were violent demonstrations against the poll tax in London and other cities, and opposition to it developed within the Conservative Party itself. Major, the new prime minister in 1990, promised to take steps to make the tax more equitable.

Thatcher's economic policies also began to fail during her third term. Her chief successes had been a significant reduction in income tax and a lessening of inflation, from more than 21 percent annually in 1980 to under 3 percent in 1986. However, inflation began to increase again, and by 1990 it had exceeded 10 percent. When combined with a persistently high level of unemployment and a severe downturn in the balance of payments, the economic gains of the Thatcher era began to be called into question. Her solution of attacking inflation by maintaining high interest rates only made matters worse for ordinary people because it increased their monthly mortgage payments.


Opposition to European Integration

The immediate issue that brought about Thatcher's resignation as prime minister was her unyielding opposition to European integration. Britain had joined the European Community in 1973 when Edward Heath was prime minister. Although Thatcher supported integration at the time, in subsequent years she turned down every proposal that seemed to bring the concept of a federal Europe closer to reality. She aligned her foreign policy with Washington rather than Europe in the belief that a special relationship existed with the United States. In economic matters, she firmly rejected proposals for a single European currency.

Thatcher's "Little England" feelings towards Europe antagonized many voters, including a large number of Conservatives. Three leading politicians in her party resigned from office over matters related to Europe: Michael Heseltine, her defense minister, in 1986; Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the exchequer, in 1989; and Geoffrey Howe, the deputy leader of the party, in November 1990. It was Howe's resignation that produced the leadership crisis and Major's emergence as prime minister. The issue of European integration was closely related to Thatcher's other policies. Once again she championed individual sovereignty, while arguing vehemently against the encroaching bureaucratization of government.

Thatcher's 11 years as prime minister were remarkable. She held office longer than any other prime minister in the 20th century. She impressed her vision upon Britain in a distinctive way, making the word "Thatcherism" a part of that nation's political vocabulary. By her attacks upon central government and the welfare state she undermined a political consensus that had existed since the 1950s. She helped to invigorate the economy, particularly by encouraging small businesses to develop. She challenged powerful institutions and brought about necessary reforms in industrial relations.

Yet the case against Thatcher is a strong one. She was a divisive leader, as on the issues of the poll tax and European integration. Her strident attitudes on social issues upset many people. Economic inequality increased under Thatcher, as did homelessness, and many social services deteriorated. She was accused of weakening basic civil liberties. Her foreign policy, though defined by a spectacular victory over Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982, was marked by Cold War rhetoric which seemed increasingly outdated by her third term in office. Ironically, the Soviet Union gave Thatcher the nickname she was best known by: the Iron Lady. She was proud of it, and her policies, though controversial, reflect a determination and consistency of vision that few political leaders can hope to equal.

In the month following the Thatcher resignation Queen Elizabeth II appointed the former prime minister a member of the Order of Merit, one of only 24 members (a vacancy occurred with the 1989 death of Laurence Olivier). The new Lady Thatcher's husband, Denis, received a baronetry (to become Sir Denis). A second honour came March 7, 1991, when Thatcher received the U.S. Medal of Freedom from President Bush. Although she was no longer prime minister, Thatcher remained politically active. She became president of the Bruges Group of British lawmakers opposed to a full political union with Europe, as well as of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, designed to help bring order to the world.

On June 28, 1991, Thatcher wound up 32 years of a legislative career by announcing she would not seek to retain her seat in the House of Commons at the next election (which was called in July 1992). She had been MP for Barnet, Finchley, two suburbs northwest of London. She has remained active with lectures and appearances over the entire world, and somehow found the time to write her memoirs.
 


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Leader of the Conservative Party 1975 – 90, Prime Minister 1979 – 90; Baroness (life peer) 1992 Margaret Thatcher was the longest continuously serving Prime Minister for over a century and a half, and the only one to have won three successive general elections. In addition, she was one of the few twentieth-century prime ministers to have lent her name to an "ism". She helped to change the political agenda in the 1980s in Britain and overseas and overturned much of the post-war conventional political wisdom. She is a model of a successful peacetime Prime Minister stretching the powers of the office to the limits.

Yet there was nothing remarkable about Margaret Roberts's background, apart from her intelligence and determination to succeed. Her father was a major influence. He was a shopkeeper and served as mayor of Grantham, a small Midlands town. She attended the local grammar school and Oxford, where she read chemistry. She became president of the university Conservative Association. Wishing to pursue a career in politics she then read for the bar. Her career was helped by marrying the wealthy Denis Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher entered parliament as the member for Finchley in 1959 and remained its member until 1992. She held a number of junior posts but her breakthrough came when she was made shadow spokesman for Education in 1969 and entered the Cabinet in 1970 as Education Minister. She went along with the "U-turns" in the 1970 – 4 government of Ted Heath. As Education Minister she accepted a number of schemes for comprehensive reorganization and expanded nursery provision. She was not close to Heath nor a member of his inner Cabinet.

Like Sir Keith Joseph she repented of her role in the Heath government, once the party was in Opposition. She stood against Mr Heath for the leadership in February 1975, in large part because nobody else of weight would. It was a surprise to many when she won the first ballot by 130 votes to 119; she went on to win the second ballot easily.

At the time she had few supporters and her views were not widely shared in the party. She also inherited a shadow Cabinet who were largely sympathetic to the views of the ousted leader Ted Heath. Conservative leaders usually came from the centre left. Mrs Thatcher, from the free market right, disturbed that continuity.

As Prime Minister from 1979 she faced a tough first two years. Unemployment soared, the government was deeply unpopular, and the policies did not seem to be working. The 1981 budget, which raised taxes at a time of economic recession, showed that the government was in earnest. The economy gradually improved, she brought more supporters into the Cabinet, and made her reputation as a successful war leader — recapturing the Falklands in 1982. She won a landslide election victory in 1983 — helped by a weak Labour Party and the opposition forces being fragmented between Labour and the Alliance parties.

Mrs Thatcher was often lucky in her opponents — a weak Labour leader in Michael Foot, unpopular trade union leaders, the Argentine General Galtieri. The Russians only added to her credibility when they named her the "Iron Lady" in 1976 on account of her robust views on defence. She was also helped by the electoral system which gave her landslide majorities in parliament, with only 42 per cent of the vote.

As Prime Minister she had only a handful of close colleagues and never had a Cabinet which was largely Thatcherite. A succession of quarrels, and resignations of senior colleagues, at first stamped her as a strong leader but in the end proved to be her undoing. She was argumentative and forceful.

She was critical of many establishment institutions, notably the senior civil service, local government, the universities, the BBC, the Church of England, and even the professions. She was out to smash the consensus which had prevailed in post-1945 politics and, in her view, led to Britain's decline. Her abrasive attitude to the European Commission and much of the public sector, and her support for capital punishment, found a popular echo, although one which was not to the liking of many senior colleagues.

The government pursued radical policies of privatization for state-owned industries and utilities, reformed the trade unions, cut income taxes, and introduced more market-orientated mechanisms into health and education. The government, largely at her behest, also introduced an unpopular poll tax. The aim of the policies was to reduce the role of the government and make people more self-reliant and end the culture of dependency. Mrs Thatcher was also a commanding figure on the international stage and had good relations with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was her abrasive attitude to the European Community, however, which upset a number of her senior colleagues. This was the main reason that lay behind the resignation on 1 November 1990 of Sir Geoffrey Howe. She was, at heart, a nationalist. Her view of Europe was that it would be a union of states co-operating in those areas where it was in their interests to do so. Howe and others believed that Britain's future lay in pooling its sovereignty with other states. Two weeks later he made a personal statement in the House of Commons which bitterly attacked her leadership and accused her of being a liability to her party and her country.

At her most vulnerable, she was challenged in a leadership election by Michael Heseltine, who exceeded expectations by gaining 152 votes to 204 for Mrs Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher ended up four short of an overall majority. Many colleagues regarded her as an electoral liability, not least for her determination to retain the poll tax. Some 40 per cent of Conservative MPs wished for a change. Senior colleagues told her that she should stand down and in the end she accepted that advice. She announced to colleagues on 21 November that she was standing down. On 28 November, after the election of her preferred choice, John Major, she tendered her resignation to the Queen. In subsequent years she made clear that John Major was failing to meet her expectations. In retirement she raised funds for her Thatcher Foundation, campaigned against closer British integration with Europe, and wrote her best-selling memoirs.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008