Margaret Thatcher: ‘Iron Lady’ who remade Britain

Indomitable leader, who has died at 87, transformed UK politics and exported her forceful market ideals to the world

Outside Number 10 Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher talks to the press after her 1979 election victory

She changed us all. We went from being a people who saw ourselves as eternally on the downward slide to a nation that was proud to be British again. On the world stage too, she made Britain count once more. She was a startling presence who brought a strong and controversial style to our diplomacy after years of Foreign Office blandness.

The words are those of Charles Powell, one of the closest aides of the “Iron Lady” during her time in power. Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday aged 87, not only revolutionised the social order in her own country but did much to reshape world politics amid the crumbling of the Soviet empire.

The UK’s first female prime minister transformed a sclerotic British economy, all but neutered the trade unions and endeavoured “to roll back the frontiers of the state” with a policy of offloading the great nationalised industries and selling council houses to their occupants. Abroad, she was the indomitable leader who won victory over Argentina in the Falklands war, who decided that Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader she could “do business with”, and who inspired a respect for “Thatcherism” as a political philosophy that was never quite matched on the domestic front.

The flipside of her courage, toughness and radicalism was an arrogance, obstinacy and remoteness that became more marked the longer she clung to office. She centralised power to a degree not seen before in modern Britain. One result of the way she dominated government was her failure to heal the wounds opened up in her own Conservative party over her plans for a poll tax and her negative approach to the UK’s role in Europe. Yet such was the force of her presence that what came after her was defined in terms of her absence.

Born in 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, Margaret Hilda Roberts was the younger daughter of a corner-shop grocer, Alfred Roberts, and his wife Beatrice. He was a self-made man, a Liberal alderman and a father whose tenets of integrity, hard work and self-reliance were strong influences throughout her career. His younger daughter’s self-belief manifested itself early. Told by a teacher how lucky she was to have won a poetry-reading contest, the 10-year-old Margaret replied: “I was not lucky. I deserved it.”

Though far from poor by the standards of a provincial town in the Depression, the Roberts family had neither hot running water nor an indoor lavatory. Yet she and her sister Muriel were well-dressed – their mother was a seamstress – and in a class-conscious era the ambitious Margaret took elocution lessons when she went to Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School. She read chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, then a huge achievement for a woman of her origins, and joined the university’s Conservative Association, becoming its president in 1946.

After Oxford she worked as a research chemist but spent much time in Dartford, Kent, where she became party candidate. It was a hopeless seat for a Tory but at her adoption meeting she was offered a lift home by a wealthy businessman, a divorcee 10 years her senior called Denis Thatcher. As he later said: “She stood for Dartford twice and lost twice, and the second time she cried on my shoulder I married her.” Denis was to give her unstinting support emotionally and financially throughout her career.

In 1953 the couple had twins, Carol and Mark. Denis’s wealth meant they could afford a full-time nanny so motherhood did not stop Thatcher from reading law, passing her Bar exams and in 1959 becoming member of parliament for the London seat of Finchley.

She stood out from the beginning. Westminster’s few female MPs tended to be older and unmarried, whereas Thatcher, apart from her mastery of detail and her fluency as a speaker, was a young mother with an almost chocolate-box prettiness. She was made parliamentary secretary to the pensions minister and after the Conservatives’ 1964 defeat the new party leader, Edward Heath, promoted her to his shadow cabinet even though he had been warned that “if we take her we’ll never be able to get rid of her”. When Heath won the 1970 election she was given the cabinet post of education secretary. In the eyes of her contemporaries, however, she was still the token woman in the government.

She might have remained so, but for her performance as a minister and her ability to capitalise on her luck. As education minister she approved more comprehensive school schemes than anyone before or since, and she earned notoriety by ending free milk for pupils over the age of eight. “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher” became the first of many derogatory slogans applied to her throughout her political life.

She formed an alliance with Sir Keith Joseph, a tortured intellectual of the right, who was appalled when Heath performed his great U-turn, back towards the corporate state and the imposition of controls over prices and incomes. By the time the Heath government fell in February 1974, Joseph’s circle was increasingly influential. Heath lost a second election that October yet declined to stand down.

Had he done so, any one of a number of prominent male colleagues might have succeeded him. Thatcher would probably not have made the attempt. But as the manoeuvring proceeded, the men wrote themselves out. When Joseph refused to stand following an ill-judged speech about working-class inbreeding, she said she would do so “because somebody with our viewpoint has to stand”.

Soon she had made her mark, not just at home but also on the world stage – much helped by an early speech attacking the Soviet Union, which led the Red Army to come up with the ‘Iron Lady’ epithet

Airey Neave, an anti-Heath backbencher who was later murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army, put his organising talents, and a list of supporters already garnered, at her disposal. She trounced Heath on the first ballot and clinched the leadership against a pile of second-rounders. As opposition leader she and her team evolved a statement of principles entitled “The Right Approach to the Economy”. Its essence was monetary and fiscal prudence, the detachment of the trade unions from the management of national affairs and a reduction in the role of the state. It became a foundation document of Thatcherism.

Soon she had made her mark, not just at home but also on the world stage – much helped by an early speech attacking the Soviet Union, which led the Red Army to come up with the “Iron Lady” epithet.

Oppositions often depend on the incumbent government destroying itself. Labour obliged. The 1978-79 “winter of discontent” was marked by public sector strikes that left rubbish piled high in the streets and the dead unburied. Labour’s electoral hopes were destroyed for a decade.

When Thatcher came to power in 1979 the British polity was in a mess. Inflation and unemployment were rising and to many the unions seemed out of control. Against all conventional wisdom, she took an axe to public spending. At one celebrated meeting she even demanded an extra £1bn cut in spite of warnings from those present that the country would fall apart.

Resisting calls for a softer line, she told the 1980 Conservative conference: “To those waiting for the favourite media catchphrase ‘the U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

The economic medicine was hard to stomach. Unemployment rose above 3m, manufacturing output fell and the new prime minister’s poll rating slid. Yet by 1983, inflation was down below 4 per cent from a peak of 22 per cent and the Conservatives’ ratings were up again. Years later Lord Carrington, who became her foreign secretary, said: “Her finest hour really was with the economy and changing people’s perceptions of what we ought to be doing.” It was, he said, greater even than her display of leadership in the Falklands war.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher barely hesitated before sending a 25,000-strong military task force to reclaim the tiny colony. Victory and her unswerving purpose throughout the war cemented her image of determination at home and abroad. So too did her successful, table-thumping battles to reduce the UK’s contribution to the European Community budget, insisting: “I want my money back.” Despite being described by François Mitterrand, then the president of France, as having “the lips of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula”, her European and global fan club multiplied. Her election victory in 1983, against a Labour party led by the elderly Michael Foot, seems in retrospect to have been almost too easy.

If Britain’s military triumph in the South Atlantic was the most dramatic event of her first term, the vanquishing on a peacetime battlefield of the National Union of Mineworkers was the outstanding victory of her second. It was a bloody conflict with communities torn apart and pitched battles between miners and the police. Yet the NUM, previously regarded as invincible by any government, was eventually forced to back down.

On the economic front, Thatcher continued the battle to “roll back the frontiers of the state”. Privatisation began with National Freight and was extended to include steel, gas, telecoms and water. State support for private industry was phased out. Local authority homes were sold to tenants at a discount, dramatically boosting home ownership though at the cost of an enduring void in housing provision for the poor.

These advances towards a more liberal domestic economy, within a world marketplace where Britain was again respected, began to appear unstoppable. So did she. At the 1984 Tory conference in Brighton, five died and others were seriously injured when an IRA bomb ripped through the Grand Hotel just before 3am. The prime target survived. Next morning, condemning the attack as an attempt to cripple democracy, she told reporters: “This is the day I was not meant to see.”

It was her opposition to communism that helped bring about what she later regarded as her greatest achievement: the collapse of the Soviet empire. Her decade in Downing Street coincided with Ronald Reagan’s eight years in the White House and the two became political soul mates. She supported Reagan as he brought the Russians to their knees by his willingness to outspend them on defence. At the same time she encouraged Mr Gorbachev’s reform programme, recognising that it could help destroy collectivism from within. She won the hearts of much of the Soviet public in a barnstorming visit in 1987. Complete with a stunning new wardrobe, one aide said she “came on like a modern Tsarina”. Barely two years later the Berlin Wall fell.

At home, however, her attitude to Europe was the cause of political setbacks. One of the biggest was the dramatic departure from her cabinet of Michael Heseltine, who walked out following a dispute over whether the Americans or Europeans should rescue the Westland helicopter company. On the surface she remained unruffled. She even recovered, although only temporarily, from the resignation of Nigel Lawson as chancellor of the exchequer.

Yet each new departure left her more isolated. Each was, in essence, a replay of the argument over the UK’s place in Europe. As prime minister she had sanctioned the Single European Act, creating a genuine single market. Yet she hated any idea of a European superstate. In an outspoken 1988 speech in Bruges, she insisted: “We haven’t worked all these years to free Britain from the paralysis of socialism only to see it creep in through the back door of central control and bureaucracy from Brussels.”

Her strident tone dismayed pro-Europeans in her cabinet. Thatcher was unrepentant and the wound festered. So too did that caused by her plans to introduce a regressive local government poll tax in the face of widespread opposition from Tories. By the time of her 10th anniversary as prime minister, it could be seen by others, but not by her, that she had been in office long enough. In 1989 a pro-European backbencher, Sir Anthony Meyer, stood against her and garnered enough votes to show there was real discontent in the parliamentary party.

The coup de grâce came the following year from Geoffrey Howe, her former chancellor and foreign secretary, who stunned the House of Commons by suggesting in his resignation speech that Thatcher’s attitude was “like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.

A few days later Mr Heseltine, her long-time opponent, stood against her. A badly organised campaign, and an arrogance displayed by her flying off to Paris on the night of the vote, brought about what many had believed unthinkable: she failed to win outright on the first ballot.

She had been proved mortal. Discontent over the poll tax, her anti-European stance and her imperious style led her cabinet, one by one, to tell her that she should go.

The trauma of her unseating was to ravage Tory unity for years. One small consolation for her was that John Major, not Mr Heseltine, succeeded her.

Her final speech as prime minister in the House of Commons was a bravura performance as she defended her record, even at one point insisting: “I’m enjoying this!”

Although they stayed in power until ousted by Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997, the Tories were deeply scarred by the manner of her departure. It was to be 20 years before it entirely regained its confidence and momentum. Thatcher lived to see her party return to power under David Cameron in 2010 but she was too frail to attend the 85th birthday party in Number 10 that had been arranged for her.

She had never fully recovered from her abrupt and forced exit from frontline politics. In 1992 she went to the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. For a while, on the international lecture circuit, she received ecstatic receptions from foreign audiences, amazed that the British had ditched her. But it was not the same.

Her health started to deteriorate. In 2004 Sir Denis, made a hereditary baronet in his wife’s resignation honours, died and she was left alone.

She battled on but her best mo­ments were when she met old friends to talk of past triumphs and to dream about marching into Downing Street and making Britain great again.

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