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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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