Caligula, Marilyn, Spice Girl: Lady Thatcher was unlike any other resident of 10 Downing Street, before or since. As she wrote in her memoirs, “My background and experience were not those of a traditional Conservative prime minister. I was less able to depend on automatic deference, but I was also perhaps less intimidated by the risks of change.”
Born in Grantham, England, on Oct. 13, 1925, Margaret Hilda Roberts was the second daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and lay Methodist minister, and Beatrice Roberts, a dressmaker. As Lady Thatcher never tired of reminding voters, she grew up “above the shop,” in an apartment that lacked both indoor plumbing and hot water. “My ‘Bloomsbury,’“ she once wrote, referring to the cultural hub of radicalism in the ‘20s and ‘30s, “was Grantham — Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues cultivated and esteemed in that environment.”
The most important influence on Lady Thatcher was her father. From him, she obtained both her love of politics (a town councilor, he later became Grantham’s mayor) and strong sense of self. A favorite piece of advice, one much taken to heart, was “Never do things just because other people do them.”
Lady Thatcher excelled at school and won a scholarship to Oxford University. She majored in chemistry and was first female president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. After graduating, in 1947, Lady Thatcher spent four years working as a research chemist (she later became a lawyer). Lady Thatcher ran for Parliament in 1950 and ‘51 in a solidly Labor district. She lost both times, but drew the attention of Conservative Party leaders. She interrupted her political career to marry Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman 10 years her senior, in Dec. 1951. His genial, unemphatic personality would prove an ideal complement to her driven, sometimes-intemperate manner. “Typical of Margaret,” Thatcher remarked after his wife gave birth to a son and daughter, Mark and Carol, in 1953. “She produced twins … and avoided the necessity of a second pregnancy.”
Sir Denis Thatcher died in 2003.
Elected to Parliament in 1959, Lady Thatcher was given a minor Cabinet position just two years later. She held various posts in the Conservative shadow Cabinet while the party was out of office, from 1964 to 1970, in such major ministries as energy, transportation, and education. She was the only woman in Heath’s Cabinet. As minister for education and science she drew criticism for eliminating free milk for schoolchildren, earning her the sobriquet “Thatcher the milk snatcher.”
Dissatisfaction with Heath was growing after Labor’s victory in 1974. When more prominent party figures shrank from opposing him, Lady Thatcher stepped forward. She led her party to victory in May 1979, gaining a 43-seat majority in Parliament.
Lady Thatcher’s efforts to curb inflation and cut taxes met with success. They also led to a doubling of unemployment. As criticism of her policies mounted in 1980, Lady Thatcher declared, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only this to say. ‘You turn if you want; the lady’s not for turning.’“ By late 1981, she had the lowest popularity rating ever recorded in a public opinion poll for a British prime minister.
Yet two developments came to Lady Thatcher’s rescue. At home, Labor moved further left and the emergence of new center-left party, the Social Democrats, helped splinter opposition. Abroad, Argentina seized the Falkland Islands. Lady Thatcher’s popularity soared with her steadfast leadership during the victorious 10-week military conflict that followed. “Great Britain is great again,” she proclaimed.
Calling for elections in June 1983, Lady Thatcher led the Conservatives to a 144-seat majority in Parliament. Four years later, Conservatives won a 102-seat majority. Yet many senior Conservatives had grown restive under Lady Thatcher’s rule. Further weakening her popularity was widespread opposition to a poll tax and the privatizing of water and electrical utilities. In addition, her growing criticism of European Union policy — especially the prospect of British participation in the European Monetary System — set the stage for efforts to overturn her leadership. The first, in 1989, proved unsuccessful. The second, in Nov. 1990, did not.
Lady Thatcher’s backing of John Major had proved crucial in his selection as her successor. Nonetheless, he was far from being a dyed-in-the-wool Thatcherite, and his predecessor grew increasingly critical of him. In 1997, Lady Thatcher was widely quoted as saying of Major’s Labor opponent, “Tony [Blair] won’t let us down.” By 1998, though, she was saying of Blair (who had won a landslide victory two years before), “I’m worried about that young man, he’s getting awfully bossy.” Continued...