At-a-glance: Margaret Thatcher
- 8 April 2013
- From the section UK Politics
Here is an at-a-glance guide to the extraordinary life and career of Margaret Thatcher.
Who was Baroness Thatcher?
Margaret Thatcher, born in 1925, was the longest-serving British prime minister in modern times and the first woman to lead a major Western democracy. She won three successive general elections and spent a total of 11 years in Downing Street, from May 1979 to November 1990.
What did she achieve?
British society changed almost beyond recognition during the Thatcher years, as heavy industry closed and a new free market economy was born. The political philosophy she established still dominates British politics to this day. But critics say the changes came at the price of a more divided society and the destruction of traditional working-class communities.
What about on the international stage?
Margaret Thatcher joined forces with US president Ronald Reagan to pioneer a new form of dynamic free-market conservatism, which has since taken root around the world. Her support for reforming Soviet president Mikhael Gorbachev arguably hastened the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy to former Eastern Bloc states.
What was Lady Thatcher's background?
The younger of two daughters, Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in 1925 in Grantham, a small market town in eastern England. Her father, Alfred, owned a grocer's shop and was involved in local politics. She went to an all-girls grammar school, before studying chemistry at Oxford University. She then trained as a barrister, specialising in tax. She married divorced millionaire businessman Denis Thatcher and had two children - twins Carol and Mark.
How did she get into politics?
She owed her lifelong passion for politics to father Alfred, who was on the local council in Grantham. At Oxford in the mid 1940s, she became the first female president of the university's Conservative association. In 1959, at the age of 34, she was elected as an MP, for the north London seat of Finchley, in an era when female politicians were still a rarity.
How did she become prime minister?
Mrs Thatcher had a rough ride after Tory leader Ted Heath made her education secretary in 1970. She was dubbed "Thatcher the milk snatcher" after her decision to end free school milk for older primary school pupils. The prospect of her becoming party leader, let alone prime minister, seemed a distant one. But after the Tories lost the second 1974 general election there was a hunger in the party for a different approach and to the surprise of many, herself included, she defeated Mr Heath in a 1975 leadership election. Four years later she was elected prime minister with a Commons majority of 43.
What were the key moments of her early years in power?
Mrs Thatcher was determined to revive Britain's ailing economy but her choice of medicine - squeezing inflation and clamping down on public spending and borrowing - led to a far worse downturn than most had predicted. Unemployment soared above three million as large chunks of Britain's manufacturing and heavy industries closed down. England's inner cities saw riots in 1981. Her refusal to do a U-turn - as her predecessor Ted Heath had done - meant she appeared to be heading for defeat at the next election. The Falklands War - when she sent a naval task force to retake the South Atlantic islands invaded by Argentina - and Labour's leftward lurch are both credited with helping her win that second election.
What about her second term?
Mrs Thatcher was re-elected by a landslide in 1983, in a wave of post-Falklands patriotic fervour. But her second term saw more turmoil - including one of the longest and most bitter industrial disputes in British history in the 1984 miners' strike. In October of that year, with the strike still under way, the IRA attempted to murder Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet by bombing her hotel during the Conservative Party conference in Brighton. The economy improved towards the end of her second term as free market reforms and the sale of state assets gathered pace.
And her third term?
A second landslide followed in the 1987 general election, with Mrs Thatcher returning to Downing Street with a 102 seat majority, becoming the longest continually serving prime minister since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th Century. Her third term was marked by an increasingly hard line on Europe, and the continuation of economic reforms with privatisation and the further growth of home and share ownership.
How did her premiership come to an end?
In one of the most dramatic episodes in political history, Margaret Thatcher was ejected by her own MPs three years after her 1987 election victory amid public anger over a new tax system for local government, dubbed the poll tax. The resignation of ultra-loyal Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, over her increasingly sceptical stance on Europe, finally triggered her downfall after senior Conservatives told her she would lose a leadership election. She never lost a general election.
What were Baroness Thatcher's key domestic reforms?
Seeking to tame inflation through monetarist economic policy, curbing union power, selling off nationally owned monopolies, liberalising the stock market and introducing the right-to-buy for council tenants.
What is her legacy?
Britain would probably be a very different place today without Margaret Thatcher. Her bold free market reforms and curbs on union power - that caused so much controversy in the 1980s - are now accepted as conventional wisdom by all mainstream British political parties. The centre ground of British politics shifted to the right as a result of her time in power. She is, furthermore, a global icon and role model for female politicians and, with Ronald Reagan, one of the towering figures of the political right.