By Nicolle S. A. Lyon
Although she was given several nicknames throughout her career, it was the one Soviet reporters bestowed upon her for which Margaret Thatcher is most famous. The Iron Lady, as Great Britain’s former Prime Minister is known died of a stroke on April 8th at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in London at the age of 87. Mrs. Thatcher was the first (and for two decades after the only) woman to become leader of a major western democracy. She remains the country’s only female prime minister. And according to those who love her, Prime Minister Thatcher saved her country by reversing its liberal, big government policies in favor of a conservative, free market approach. Those who despise her, see Great Britain’s former Prime Minister as something akin to the devil.
Born in Grantham (a city in eastern England) on October 13, 1925 to Alfred and Beatrice Roberts, Margaret Hilda Roberts and her older sister Muriel were raised in a strict Methodist household. Her parents ran a grocery business and raised their family in an apartment above the store. It was a practical upbringing that stressed personal responsibility, self-help and charitable work. Along with the strong influence of her community, a young Margaret (whose hometown was an early target for German Luftwaffe bombs) was greatly impacted by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to placate Hitler.
Margaret went on to attend Oxford University’s Somerville College (1943 – 1947) where she studied chemistry after attending a local state school. Eventually, Margaret dropped chemistry in favor of politics, and was elected president of the student Conservative Association.
Still in her twenties, Margaret maked two attempts to win elections in the Labour stronghold of Dartford (a working class constituency). Although she lost both general elections (1950 & 1951) Margaret split Labour’s majority and won national publicity as the youngest female candidate in the country. Dartford is also where she met Denis Thatcher, a local businessman who ran his family’s firm before becoming an oil industry executive. The couple married in 1951 and Margaret gave birth to twins Mark and Carol two years later.
Although she trained as a lawyer (barrister), politics remained a major part of Margaret’s life. In 1959, Finchley (a north London constituency) elected Margaret to Parliament (Member of Parliament) where she represented the constituents until becoming a member of the House of Lords in 1992 (Baroness Thatcher).
As Margaret rose and established herself among her party, conservatives once again became the opposition party. The party returned to power in the early 1970s under Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970 – 1974) whose tenure ended with high inflation and industrial strife. Heath’s successor, Prime Minister James Callaghan (Labour) led Britain into bankruptcy (1976) when the value of the British pound collapsed on the foreign exchange. Three years later, Margaret Thatcher won her first term as prime minister.
When she moved into 10 Downing Street (headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government) Margaret Thatcher took over a Great Britain suffering under the tight expenditure restrictions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), massive inflation, union strikes, high unemployment and a recession. Prime Minister Thatcher charted a conservative course for her country, emphasizing deregulation, flexible labor markets, privatization of state-owned companies and lower taxes. Not fully embraced initially, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s re-election was not certain entering 1982.
When an Argentine Junta invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, England initially pursued diplomacy with the assistance of the United States. However, Prime Minister Thatcher also sent a British Military Task Force to take back the island. Ultimately, diplomatic attempts failed and military action was taken. By June, the Falkland Islands were once again under British rule. And Thatcher won re-election. However, more trouble awaited.
After she refused to meet their political demands, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) attempted to assassinate Thatcher in 1984, bombing her hotel during the annual Conservative Party conference. Although unharmed, many of her colleagues were injured and killed. The rest of 1984 and 1985 saw Prime Minister Thatcher battling a coal miners’ strike and breaking the stronghold of the British trade unions.
A year later (April 1986) Prime Minister Thatcher allowed U. S. war planes to fly out from British bases to attack targets in Libya incurring heavy condemnation from her party. However, under an improving economy, Prime Minister Thatcher won a third election in 1987.
Then, in an attempt to eliminate Britain’s property tax, Thatcher imposed a controversial community charge tax that led to riots. Three years later, after eleven years as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her party. She resigned on November 28, 1990 and John Major became Margaret’s successor, maintaining many of her conservative policies.
For eight years of Thatcher’s rule, Ronald Reagan served as President of the United States (January 1981 – January 1989). In him, she found a conservative ally who was facing similar economic challenges in the U. S. And Prime Minister Thatcher became the first foreign leader to visit President Reagan after his inauguration. Both boosted military spending in their country, and led the charge to defeat communism and the Soviet Union as they spread democracy across the world. Despite different styles (Reagan was more laid back), a lasting friendship developed. Prime Minister Thatcher described President Reagan as, “One of my closet political and dearest personal friends.” They not only profoundly changed their nations but the world, winning the Cold War and spreading economic freedom.
Following several strokes, Margaret Thatcher retired from public speaking in 2002. A year later, she lost her husband of over fifty years. In her final years, Mrs. Thatcher suffered from dementia.
Although she remains a divisive figure, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ushered in an increase in stock market participation, encouraged home ownership, and increased the personal wealth of the British population. Altering decades of liberalism, Prime Minister Thatcher reshaped the political and economic landscape of a country that was in serious decline. She remains the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century. And, ultimately, without her, England, as we know it today, might not exist.