Loved and loathed

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, used her cast iron will to help change the face of Britain. She epitomised a particular school of right-wing politics: Thatcherism – laissez-faire economics and individual self-determination.

Even after her death, she remains a controversial figure. Some see her as having saved Britain from economic decline, others believe she destroyed the livelihoods of millions of workers. Yet this powerful woman began her life in a quiet market town.

13 October 1925

Born a grocer’s daughter

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Margaret Thatcher talks about her upbringing in Grantham. Panorama (BBC One, 1960).

Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Roberts in 1925. She grew up in Grantham in Lincolnshire above the family’s corner grocery store.

Margaret’s father Alfred Roberts had a huge influence on her. He was an austere man, a devout Methodist and served as a Conservative councillor. Alfred instilled in Margaret the values of hard work and public service. During World War Two she was inspired by Winston Churchill’s defiant speeches and his refusal to give in to Nazism. She saw Churchill as a heroic figure. His uncompromising attitude had a huge influence on her politics and personality.

The Telegraph: Thatcher's early lifeThe Independent: Margaret Thatcher's motherSir Winston Churchill: The greatest Briton?

I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it.

Margaret Thatcher on receiving her school prize at the age of nine


A career in chemistry?



Margaret Thatcher working as a research chemist in 1950.

Margaret went to the University of Oxford to study Chemistry. She was elected president of the student's Conservative Association.

At university, Margaret studied under the X-ray crystallographer and future Nobel winner, Dorothy Hodgkin. In 1945, the Labour government swept to power and created the NHS and greatly increased the role of the Welfare State. Margaret graduated in 1947 and began her career as a scientist at BX Plastics. However, she was keen to pursue her interest in politics and joined the Young Conservatives.

TES: Oxford building named after Baroness ThatcherNational Archives: Trade unions and post-war consensusBBC News: Masters of Money: Friedrich Hayek

This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.

ICI personnel department assessment, rejecting job application from Margaret in 1948


Faces rejection



Thatcher stands as a Conservative candidate for Dartford in Kent in 1951.

In 1949, Margaret moved to the safe Labour seat of Dartford, to stand for election as an MP. At 24 she was the youngest female Conservative candidate.

She failed to get elected in 1950 and 1951, but remained undaunted. In 1951, she decided to study law, as she believed this would help her succeed in politics. She married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman, and in 1953 and gave birth to twins Mark and Carol. In the run-up to the next election Thatcher was frustrated when she was not selected as a Conservative candidate. Some local committees would not accept a young mother could run for Parliament.

The Telegraph: Thatcher's early political life

I hope that we shall see more and more women combining marriage and a career.

Margaret Thatcher, 1952


Finally becomes an MP



Margaret Thatcher arrives at the House of Commons, 1959.

When the Conservatives, led by Harold Macmillan, swept to power, Margaret Thatcher won the safe seat of Finchley.

In 1961 Mrs Thatcher was appointed as a parliamentary under secretary for pensions and national insurance. She was the youngest woman ever to take on this role. At the 1964 Tory Party Conference she railed against Labour tax policy as a step "not merely towards Socialism but towards Communism". After Labour won the 1964 election, Thatcher held several shadow ministerial positions and voted in favour of decriminalising homosexuality and abortion, but in favour of capital punishment.

Margaret Thatcher: From MP to PM


“Milk Snatcher”

Mary Evans


Primary school children enjoying their daily third of a pint.

In 1970, when the Conservatives won the general election, PM Edward Heath appointed Margaret Thatcher to his cabinet as minister for education.

Willie Whitelaw, Leader of the House of Commons, warned Heath: "Once she's there we'll never get rid of her”. Thatcher pushed through cuts in education spending and caused public furore when she ended the provision of free milk for primary school children. This earned her the nickname 'Thatcher the Milk Snatcher'. In 1974, during the miner’s strike, Heath's government was forced to impose a three-day working week to conserve electricity. She never forgot the chaos she blamed on the unions.

BBC News: Margaret Thatcher explored education overhaulOn this Day: Councils defy Thatcher milk ban

I learned a valuable lesson [from the experience]. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.

Margaret Thatcher talks about cutting school milk


Becomes Conservative Leader

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Thatcher becomes Tory leader. Tory! Tory! Tory! (BBC Four, 2008).

After the Tories lost the 1974 election, Margaret Thatcher stood against Edward Heath for leadership of the party, forcing him to resign.

Mrs Thatcher was seen as a right-wing outsider – a surprise candidate with little support. However, she galvanised disillusioned backbenchers with her strong rhetoric and forceful style. In February she was successfully elected Conservative leader. Some thought her leadership wouldn't last. In opposition she broke with consensus politics and moved her party to the right. She was influenced by her colleague Keith Joseph's ideas of free-market Conservatism and of reducing the power of the unions.

On This Day: 1975: Tories choose first woman leaderKeith Joseph: Thatcher's mad monk or true prophet?

Her great virtue is saying that two and two makes four, which is as unpopular nowadays as it always has been.

Philip Larkin, 1979

4 May 1979

First female prime minister

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Thatcher becomes PM. The 70s (BBC Two, 2012).

Thatcher’s Conservatives swept to victory against a beleaguered Labour party whose term had been wracked by the worst industrial unrest in 50 years.

Mrs Thatcher portrayed herself as a practical housewife who could sort out the nation’s finances. Her message was simple: “Labour isn’t working.” With the economy in a shambles, the new prime minister knew she had a challenging job to do. She promised to curb the power of the unions and bring stability to the country, while championing free markets and arguing that individuals should be given the power to make their own success.

BBC iWonder: How did women battle into Parliament?BBC News: Winter of Discontent: 30 years on

A man [has a] right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master.

Thatcher puts forward her idea of the British inheritance in her first conference speech


"The Lady’s Not For Turning"

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Thatcher answers her critics. Conservative Party Conference (BBC One, 1981).

Despite Thatcher's promises to sort out the nation’s finances, the UK fell into recession. Critics called for a U-turn, but she was defiant.

Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies did not bring inflation under control and increased unemployment which rose to two million. That summer riots broke out in British cities. Polls showed she was the most unpopular prime minister since records began. Thatcher sacked the more moderate Tory ‘wets’ and at the 1980 Conservative party conference vowed to hold firm to her policies. However, when the miners threatened a strike in early 1981, the government did back down.

The Longer View: Great speechesOn This Day: Thatcher gives in to miners

You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.

Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party Conference 1981


Fighting in the Falklands

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Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War. The Falklands Legacy with Max Hastings (BBC Two, 2011).

In April, Argentina invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands. The Foreign Office wanted a peaceful settlement, but Thatcher disagreed.

Like her hero Churchill, Thatcher was adamant that Britain would not give in to foreign aggression. In a matter of days she sent a force to expel the Argentinian army. During the conflict 649 Argentine soldiers and 255 British troops lost their lives. After 10 weeks of fighting the islands were retaken and an Argentinian white flag flew over the capital Fort Stanley. As a result her popularity with the public soared and she gained respect and strength abroad.

The Guardian: How Thatcher's Falklands gamble paid offBBC Witness - The Sinking of the Belgrano

When you've spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment, it's exciting to have a real crisis on your hands.

Margaret Thatcher comments on the Falklands War in 1982

9 June 1983

Thatcherism unbound

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Thatcher defends Thatcherism. Panorama (BBC One, 1987).

In June 1983 Thatcher called a general election and increased her party's majority. Her radical economic policies changed the face of Britain.

Her ideas of individualism and personal responsibility captured the public's imagination. Millions grabbed the chance to buy their council houses and buy shares in rapidly privatised utilities such as British Rail, British Telecommunications and British Gas. Thatcher also presided over the de-regulation of financial institutions in the City. The economy boomed and London became a massive financial centre. However this success had a downside. Inequality and homelessness increased across Britain.

BBC News: What is ‘Thatcherism’?

There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.

Thatcher in an interview in Women's Own, 1987

March 1984

The Miner’s Strike: Thatcher defeats "the enemy within"

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Thatcher battles the unions. Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain (BBC One, 2011). Warning: contains some violent scenes.

In response to planned pit closures, miners union leader Arthur Scargill ordered a strike, threatening Britain's power supply. Thatcher stood firm.

The biggest clash was a pitched battle at Orgreave near Sheffield, where 7,000 police fought 5,000 strikers. Mrs Thatcher refused to bow under pressure. She stockpiled coal at power stations and deployed the police to break picket lines. After 12 months the miners were defeated and returned to work. The trade union movement was greatly weakened. Thatcher’s actions were supported by her party and the British Establishment. However she became a hate figure among many working class communities.

BBC News: 'Secret coal pits closure plan'On This Day: Miners and police clash at OrgreaveThe Guardian: Thatcher and the miners

She hated the English poor and did nothing at all to help them.

Morrissey, formerly of 1980s band The Smiths criticises Thatcher in 2012

12 October 1984

Escapes IRA assassination



Margaret and her husband Denis leave the Grand Hotel in Brighton, after a bomb attack by the IRA.

In 1984, at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, Margaret Thatcher narrowly survived the IRA bombing of her hotel.

Five people died and 34 were injured. Mrs Thatcher was adamant the conference should carry on. The next morning she condemned the bombers in her conference speech. Yet later in the Troubles, she was willing to compromise and she played an important part in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Peace agreement.

BBC News: Thatcher and the Anglo-Irish Peace agreement Republican hunger strikes in the Maze prisonOn This Day: Tory Cabinet in Brighton bomb blast

This attack has failed. All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

Thatcher's speech to the 1984 Tory Party Conference


Thatcher and Reagan: A special relationship



Margaret Thatcher shares a joke with American President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

During the 1980s Thatcher saw the USA as Britain’s most important strategic ally. She admired American enterprise and society.

Like her hero Churchill, Margaret Thatcher sought to forge a "special relationship" with the US. She was on famously good terms with US President Ronald Reagan and supported his defence policies by permitting the stationing of US nuclear missiles in Britain. She later acted as a go-between for Soviet leader Gorbachev and Reagan, paving the way for nuclear disarmament talks. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 was seen by many as vindication of the political philosophy she epitomised.

Ronald Reagan's 'Ash Heap of History' speech in 1982The Guardian: The Reagan-Thatcher affinity

I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.

Margaret Thatcher talks about her meeting with the Soviet leader in 1984

20 September 1988

The Bruges Speech



Margaret Thatcher appears in French news magazine 'L'Express', 1988.

For much of her career, Margaret Thatcher was a pro-European. Yet later in her premiership her ideas began to change.

Although Europe was important for trade, Thatcher was opposed to the idea of Britain ceding power to European institutions. In July 1988, European Commission President, Jacques Delors, spoke about the beginnings of a European government. In Bruges that year Thatcher issued a firm riposte to the idea of a European super-state and reaffirmed Britain's sovereignty. The speech was applauded by some, but opened up divisions within the Conservative Party over European policy.

Read the Bruge Speech in full

We have not... rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state…

Margaret Thatcher's speech to the College of Europe - "The Bruges Speech"

March 1990

The Poll Tax

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Thatcher's biggest political mistake? Portillo on Thatcher: The Lady's Not for Spurning (BBC Two 2009). Warning: contains some violent scenes.

After winning a third General election in 1987, Thatcher introduced the Poll Tax. This proved a huge political mistake.

Local council rates were replaced with a flat Community Charge that everyone paid regardless of income. Margaret Thatcher drove the policy through without consulting her colleagues. Riots and marches erupted across the UK. In March around 100,000 protestors descended on London under the slogan “Can't pay, won't pay”; 340 people were arrested and 113 injured. The policy was unpopular with the public and caused many Tory MPs to lose faith in their prime minister. Again, she refused to give in.

The people are revolting: the history of protest

22 November 1990

Margaret Thatcher's downfall

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Thatcher steps down. Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain (BBC Two, 2009). Warning: contains flashing lights.

The Poll Tax, disputes over Europe and an overbearing attitude lost Margaret Thatcher support within her own party.

Former Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine stood against her in a leadership election. Thatcher felt betrayed. Facing a leadership vote she called in members of her cabinet one by one to try to win their support. She wrote later “Almost to a man they used the same formula. This was that they themselves would back me, of course, but that regretfully they did not believe I could win.” Margaret Thatcher resigned and left Downing Street as Prime Minister for the last time on 28 November 1990.

On This Day: Tories choose John Major for Number 10Is the party over for Britain's mainstream politicians?

It was treachery with a smile on its face.

Margaret Thatcher describes feeling betrayed by her cabinet


Legend in her own lifetime

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Thatcher's legacy. Newsnight (BBC Two, 2007). Warning: contains violent images and flashing lights.

After resigning as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher wrote her memoirs and continued to make speeches around the world.

In 1992 she was given a life peerage and became Baroness Thatcher. She continued to be politically active and became a figurehead for anti-European sentiment in the Conservative party. In June 2003, Margaret Thatcher's husband Denis died and her public appearances became more infrequent. In 2007 she became the first living prime minister to be honoured with a statue in the Houses of Parliament. It stands opposite a statue of her hero Winston Churchill.

BBC News: The Iron LadyParliament: Statue of Thatcher in House of Commons

8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher dies



Ceremonial funeral of Baroness Thatcher at St Paul's Cathedral.

Margaret Thatcher died following a stroke, aged 87. She was the first British PM since Winston Churchill to be granted a state funeral.

Thatcher’s death proved as controversial as her time in power. It was celebrated by some. After an internet campaign, Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead got to number two in the charts. Her funeral at St Paul's Cathedral was attended by the Queen. Few politicians provoke such strong opinions – both pro and anti – as Thatcher. Her ideas about free markets and individualism influenced subsequent Conservative and Labour governments. She is arguably Britain’s most influential post-war prime minister.

Margaret Thatcher: Queen leads mourners at funeralIn pictures: Baroness Thatcher's funeral

In a way we're all Thatcherites.

David Cameron on Radio 4 Today programme, 2013