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Margaret Thatcher

From Women in European History

A wiki page by Aaron Plavnick

Based on Thatcher, Margaret The Downing Street Years (1993) HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY

Thatcher reviews Bermudian troops, 12 April 1990

Margaret Thatcher, nicknamed the “Iron Lady,” served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. Prior to her tenure as Prime Minister she served as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, Education Secretary, and Leader of the Conservative Party. She was the first and only woman to attain the position of prime minister, the importance of which she was always quick to dismiss. She states that,

In general, more nonsense was written about the so-called ‘feminine factor’ during my time in office than about almost anything else. I was always asked how it felt to be a woman prime minister. I would reply: ‘I don’t know: I’ve never experienced the alternative.’ [1]

Indeed Thatcher’s legacy is not best captured by considering her femininity or her gender and its impact explicitly because she so rarely gave mind to the unique position of being a woman in international politics. Instead Thatcher’s legacy survives as one characterized by an intense, uncompromising determination to restore the United Kingdom to the greatness it once possessed. She says in the 1979 Conservative Manifesto, a document outlining her party’s broad plan for its first term, “Together with the threat to freedom there has been a feeling of helplessness, that we are a once great nation that has somehow fallen behind and that it is too late now to turn things round.”[2] She recognized the pessimism that had surrounded the United Kingdom's position in the world and she was determined to turn that around. She also radicalized and mobilized the conservative party in a way that had not been achieved before her; in contrast, describing a fellow Conservative MP Jim Prior and his type of defeatist conservatives she says,

They are political calculators who see the task of the Conservatives as one of retreating gracefully before the Left’s inevitable advance. Retreat as a tactic is sometimes necessary; retreat as a settled policy eats at the soul. In order to justify the series of defeats that his philosophy entails, the false squire has to persuade the rank-and-file Conservatives and indeed himself that advance is impossible. [3]

That approach was not for Thatcher. She acted philosophically, drawing from her core principles of personal responsibility, freedom of choice, and limited government. She cultivated an image of herself as a resolute leader with an unbending commitment to her own moral system. She did all this because she sought to reestablish the UK internationally, with herself as its steely captain. She implemented those policies that she believed would return the UK to the major power she thought it deserved to be.

Contents

Early Life and Early Career

Thatcher was born October 13, 1925. Her family owned two grocery stores and her father was a Methodist lay preacher. After graduating Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, Thatcher won a scholarship to attend Somerville College, Oxford where she studied Chemistry and graduated in 1950 with a master's degree. She then took a job as a researcher at BX Plastics and joined the local conservative party. She had been raised in a conservative family and in college she was greatly influenced by Hayek’s critique of socialism so the conservative party was a perfect fit. She worked there until 1959 when she was elected to a seat as MP in the House of Commons.

In her first ten years in Parliament, Thatcher quickly proved herself a capable politician and advanced through the ranks of the conservative party. In 1970 she became Secretary of State for Education and Science, a position that put her in the forefront of the conservative party. In 1975, she was elected to Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Conservative Party. 1979 the conservatives beat out Labour and won the election, putting Thatcher in as Prime Minister.

First Term

Early Economic Policy

In 1979 when Thatcher was elected the economy was in bad shape and it occupied a primary position in the minds of the voters. Inflation had been in the double digits, and unemployment was just about as high. British goods were no longer competitive on the global market and the quality of life at home was suffering. Breaking from the Keynesian tradition Thatcher subscribed to a Monetarist approach to policy making. The currently prevailing Keynesian wisdom was that the economy needed direct government spending to spur it back into shape. Thatcher instead believed in cutting spending and lowering taxes. Also, she wanted to improve the underlying economic fundamentals, especially labor productivity. Coming into office one of her primary goals was to dissolve the power of the labor unions which she believed stifled innovation and raised labor costs. She described her diagnosis by saying,

Our analysis of what was wrong with Britain’s industrial performance centred on low productivity and its causes […] there was a great deal which trade union negotiators had it in their power to do if they wished to prevent their own members and others being priced out of jobs; and as the scale of union irresponsibility grew apparent, talk of the need for a pay policy began to be heard. [4]

In Thatcher’s view the power of the unions had prevented British firms from innovating as well as foreign companies did. That combined with excessively high labor costs and an excessively large public sector was starving the British economy of private investment. She was tested very early in her term by the 1980 iron strike where she broke from previous administrations and refused to step in and aid the unions. This netted a victory for her party but a short lived one as the recession continued to worsen. Those opposing her radical economic policies began calling for a U-turn and a return to the Keynesian tradition. Thatcher however was adamant she said quite famously in an address "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say. ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not turning.’" [5]

Thatcher demonstrated a considerable amount of political courage here. Economic success would prove crucial to any potential reelection and by defying the conventional political wisdom Thatcher was inviting incredibly harsh criticism if her actions would fail. Moreover, in her particular choice of wording, “the lady’s not turning” we sense that Thatcher felt she was denying the expectation that as a woman and as a conservative she would bend to popular opinion. She had no interest in being loved or being politic, she was far more concerned with fixing the UKs economy. Those cabinet members who could not handle the criticism were sacked. In response ‘’The Times’’ wrote

She has reasserted her political dominance and restated her faith in her own policies. She has rewarded those who do, and punished some of those who do not share that faith. If she succeeds—and by success we mean regenerating the British economy and winning the next election for the Conservative Party—it will be a remarkable personal triumph. If she fails, the fault will be laid at her door, though the damage and the casualties will spread wide through the political and economic landscape. [6]

Thatcher responded: “I could accept that.” [7]

Falklands War

Britain Reinvigorated

Additional background on the Falklands War

The second major event to occur in Thatcher’s first term was the Falklands War which happened in 1982 after Argentina invaded the British territory of the Falkland Islands. Thatcher was quickly advised to back down and pursue diplomatic reconciliation. Her advisors told her war was either excessively costly or futile. Thatcher swore them all off and dispatched the fleet. She thought her colleagues had become too dovish and passive and consistently underestimated British military capabilities. She recognized that the real cost would not be lives, ships, or aircraft; she realized that the real cost would the continued demoralization of the British public. Eleven days later Britain had won and Argentina surrendered. Thatcher said of the war,

The tacit assumption made by British and foreign governments alike was that our role was doomed to steadily diminish. We had come to be seen by both friends and enemies as a nation which lacked the will and capability to defend its interests in peace, let alone in war. Victory in the Falklands changed that. Everywhere I went after the war, Britain’s name meant something more than it had. [8]

Again we return to a popular thematic element with Thatcher, her moral belief in British might and capability and a disregard for the naysayers and doubters. She believed it was Britain’s obligation to protect its interests and that backing down would incrementally diminish her power. It was a gamble that paid off well. The public was jubilant over the victory. Overnight Thatcher’s approval and popularity went through the roof. She was handily reelected to a second term in 1983 and the Conservatives won a landslide victory in Parliament. To Thatcher this was a blank check to pursue her economic reforms.

Second Term

The Economy and Labour

Labour had long been a powerful force in British politics but after the 1983 election Thatcher summed up their position and the position of socialism in general saying,

After being defeated on a manifesto that was the most candid statement of socialist aims ever made in this country, the Left could never again credibly claim popular appeal for their programme of massive nationalization, hugely increased public spending, greater trade union power and unilateral nuclear disarmament. [9]
A scene from the miner's strike

Despite their defeat Labour was not ready to die. The final battle was played out in the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The Left had to salvage some type of political capital from the '83 elections because Thatcher’s privatization agenda threatened to erode away much of the accomplishments they had achieved. Thatcher described the battle pitch thus:

Predictably, it was the National Union of Mineworkers, led by its Marxist president, Arthur Scargill, who were destined to provide the shock troops for the Left’s attack. […] within a month of the 1983 election Mr Scargill was saying openly that he did not ‘accept that we are landed for the next four years with this Government’.[10]

Thatcher instantly refused to give in to the striker’s demands that she give up her reform agenda. Not a fan of backing down she felt that it was the time to stand up to union extremism. She took every measure possible, shored up coal and oil supplies at power stations, sought external sources of coal, and buffed up the police presence at the picketing. As the strike wound on the strikers became more and more frustrated and the situation soon turned violent. The violence and intimidation employed by the strikers lost them support in the eyes of most Britain-ites. In a public address Thatcher restated her dedication, “You saw the scenes . . . on television last night. I must tell you that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of the law, and it must not succeed.”[11] Slowly the strikers began to lose their resolve as they perceived they were not getting far and began to cross the line and return to work. On February 27 1985 over half the strikers were back in work and the strike was officially over. Thatcher summarized her accomplishment thus:

The conventional wisdom was that Britain could only be governed with the consent of the trade unions. No government could really resist, still less defeat a major strike. […] Many of the left continued to believe that the miners had the ultimate veto and would one day use it. That day had now come and gone. Our determination to resist a strike emboldened the ordinary trade unionists to defy the militants. […] Marxists wanted to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics. They failed, and in doing so demonstrated just how mutually dependent the free economy and a free society really are. [12]

Labour’s sound defeat played over the background of a thousand victories for the conservatives. By the 1983 election British Aerospace, National Freight Consortium, Cable and Wireless, Associated British Ports, Britoil, British Rail Hotels, and Amersham Internaional were privatized. By 1987 British Telecom, Rolls-Royce, British Steel, British Leyland, the airports, National Bus Company, British Petroleum, and many others were added to that list. Just in terms of volume the privatization program was a huge success. State-owned industries by net worth had been reduced by 60%. Thatcher described her program by saying, “It constituted the greatest shift of ownership and power away from the state to individuals and their families in any country outside the former communist bloc.” [13] It was clear the the Thatcher revolution was winning, the left would someday come back into power but the definition of left-ism had been skewed forever by Thatcher and free market economics. She had shifted the status quo of British economic policy and the conventional wisdom about economics among the public rightwards and away from Labour and socialism.

Cold War

Thatcher and Gorbachev

East-West relations had been stable for the majority the 1970s as the western powers pursued a policy of détente, a gradual improvement of relations. This relative peace ended in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Thatcher remained relatively unoptimistic about the possibility of meaningful change in the Soviet system up until around 1983. Around this time it became increasingly obvious to the Soviets that Europe was not going to be a nuclear-free zone. Additionally, the US’s development of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) was increasing the pressure on the Soviets. Thatcher felt, given these strategic considerations and the general economic decline of the Warsaw Pact nations, that the time was ripe for new overtures based on freedom and openness. Impressed by recent economic liberalizations in Hungary, she made a visit to Hungary. There she made the observation, “What I had in fact discovered—or rather had confirmed—was that human beings in communist countries were not in face communists at all but retained a thirst for liberty.”[14] She believed strongly that the desire for freedom was universal and her trip confirmed that for her. Additionally, around this time she met with Mikhail Gorbachev, a potential successor to the Soviet Premiership. She had an initially positive impression of him; she saw him as being a very different type of leader than his predecessors. She said, “I came to understand that it was the style far more than the Marxist rhetoric which expressed the substance of the personality beneath. I found myself liking him.” [15] Thatcher approached the Soviet Union from a position that emphasized its basic humanity and potential for openness. Her kindness and compassion for the Soviet people led her to be respected and admired inside the Warsaw Pact. She described her role as, “The West’s system of liberty which Ronald Reagan and I personified in the eastern bloc was increasingly in the ascendant: the Soviet system was showing its cracks. I sense that great changes were at hand—but I could never have guessed how quickly they would come.”[16] She personified liberalization to the citizens of the Eastern bloc. She related this story about her visit to Poland in 1988,

I entered I found the whole church packed with Polish families who rose and sang the Solidarity anthem ‘God give us back our free Poland.’ I could not keep the tears from my eyes. I seemed to have shaken hundreds of hands. […] As I left there were people in the streets crying with emotion and shouting ‘thank you, thank you’ over and over again. I returned with greater determination than ever to do battle with the communist authorities. [17]

Thatcher stayed in office long enough to see the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout her tenure she stayed committed to basic correctness of the Western system. Moreover, she remained convinced that by giving communist nations the opportunity to find freedom that they would naturally liberalize.


Third Term

Thatcher’s early economic policies began paying off in 1984 giving four years of exceptionally high productivity growth. This coupled with general optimism about the economy led to an easy victory for the conservatives in 1987. Though the economic good times would not be sustained throughout her third term, with inflation again climbing higher, the perception at the time was that she had greatly improved the UK’s economic situation.

Domestic Reforms

Campaign poster from the 1987 general election

The Conservatives campaigned on the platform of far-reaching domestic reforms. They sought to reform education by improving local authority, giving parental choice, establishing national curriculum standards, and implementing more effective testing. They wanted to reform housing by privatizing many government owned housing developments and providing tax incentives for home ownership. They also wanted to overhaulthe NHS (National Health Service) by allowing private ownership of hospitals and reforming doctor compensation. All these reforms fit into Thatcher’s overall philosophy; as she said,

In Education, Housing, and Health the common themes of my policies were the extension of choice, the dispersal of power and the encouragement of responsibility. This was the application of a philosophy not just an administrative programme. Though there were teething troubles and mistakes along the way, this approach was successful: it was also popular. [18]

She also enacted a variety of other reforms. She tried to encourage, with tax incentives, traditional families as it was widely believed at the time that the family as a social structure was falling apart. She sought to increase funding for the arts. She worked to loosen the BBC monopoly over British broadcasting. Also, she worked in the UN to highlight the issue of global warming and ozone depletion.

Resignation

Thatcher’s bold leadership style began to cost her many of her alliances. Heading into the 1991 general election the Conservative party began to rally against Thatcher, eventually forcing her to step down. Despite remaining popular she was outmaneuvered within her own party.

The Government which I had headed for eleven and a half years, which I had led to victory in three elections, which had pioneered the new wave of economic freedom that was transforming countries from eastern Europe to Australasia, which had restored Britain's reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the world, and which at the very moment when our historic victory in the Cold War was being ratified at the Paris conference had decided to dispense with my services[19]

Thatcher felt betrayed and slightly mystified as to why her party would abandon her after her repeated political success. Nevertheless, Thatcher bowed to the political realities and stepped aside.

Conclusion

What can we conclude about Margaret Thatcher as a political leader? Or, more specifically, what can we conclude about Thatcher as a female political leader? King [20] argues that to understand Thatcher we must consider her position as an outsider and its influence on her leadership style. He argues that it as an outside she was inclined to forgo consensus making and to have a general disdain for established institutions. This logic is tempting because she did display both of those behaviors. She largely ignored established political rules and behaved somewhat as a renegade. However, Thatcher never stepped on toes simply to break decorum. She saw the existing political structure as insufficient for dealing with the demands of a state. She was an outsider but it never motivated her, it never surfaced in her internal dialogue and decision making.

On the opposing side of the spectrum is Harris.[21] Harris argues that gender played absolutely no role in Thatcher's political experience. He sees her as a rational actor engaging only in Realpolitik-type decision making. If her actions were disruptive to the established order it was only because the established order was disruptive to peace and prosperity.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between. Thatcher described the effect gender had on her political career by saying,

My experience is that a number of the men I have dealt with in politics demonstrate precisely those characteristics which they attribute to women—vanity and an inability to make tough decisions. There are also certain kinds of men who simply cannot abide working for a woman. They are quite prepared to make every allowance for ‘the weaker sex’: but if a woman asks no special privileges and expects to be judged solely by what she is and does, this is found gravely and unforgivably disorienting. Of course, in the eyes of the ‘wet’ Tory establishment I was not only a woman, but ‘that’, woman someone not just of a different sex, but a of a different class, a person with an alarming conviction that the values and virtues of middle England should be brought to bear on the problems which the establishment consensus had created. I offended on many counts. [22]

Thatcher acknowledges her position as an outsider and allows that she was treated as such. However, what really drove her was not an outsider mentality but a deep moral conviction and a strong set of values. Thatcher believed in herself. She believed that she knew best for her country and she believed that she was the best person to lead them there.

For more on women in British politics see Emmeline Pankhurst

For more on women in wartime Britain see Olivia Cockett


References

  1. Thatcher, Margaret The Downing Street Years (1993) HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 18.
  2. http://www.conservativemanifesto.com/1979/1979-conservative-manifesto.shtml
  3. Thatcher, Margaret The Downing Street Years (1993) HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 104.
  4. Ibid., 93.
  5. Ibid., 122.
  6. Ibid., 153.
  7. Ibid., 153.
  8. Ibid., 173.
  9. Ibid., 339.
  10. Ibid., 339.
  11. Ibid., 352.
  12. Ibid., 378.
  13. Ibid., 687.
  14. Ibid., 456.
  15. Ibid., 461.
  16. Ibid., 485.
  17. Ibid., 781.
  18. Ibid., 618.
  19. Ibid., 860.
  20. King, Anthony. “The Outsider as Political Leader: The Case of Margaret Thatcher.” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jul., 2002), pp. 435-454. Cambridge University Press
  21. Harris, Kenneth. "Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: The Influence of Her Gender on Her Foreign Policy" in Women In World Politics. ed. D'Amico, F and Beckman, R P. Bergin & Garvey, 1995. pp. 59-69.
  22. Thatcher, Margaret The Downing Street Years (1993) HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 104, 130.

Annotated Bibliography

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