(b. 1925) British Conservative stateswoman, Prime Minister 1979–90
(b. 13 Oct. 1925).
British Prime Minister 1979–90
Born in Grantham (Lincolnshire), she was educated at Kesteven and Grantham Girls School, and at Oxford, where she studied chemistry. She was then a research chemist, and stood unsuccessfully for parliament as Conservative candidate for Dartford in 1950 and 1951. She married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman, in 1951, and having studied law, was called to the Bar in 1954. In 1959, she was elected to parliament for Finchley and, in 1961, became Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. After taking a prominent role in opposition (1964–70), she served under Heath as Secretary of State for Education.
By late 1974, when Heath had lost his third election, she was still relatively unknown. In the leadership contest of 1975 she was the only serious challenger to Heath and, after a surprising success in the first ballot, gathered so much momentum as to achieve an overall majority in the second. The manner of her election meant that she had to be careful in her first years of opposition to conciliate many leading figures in the party who had been her seniors before 1975. However, her increasing conviction that Britain needed a radical policy overhaul to establish free and private enterprise liberated from government and trade‐union interference struck a chord during the strike waves of 1978–9, which became known in popular memory as the ‘winter of discontent’.
Thatcher won the 1979 elections through her uncompromising twin message that the Labour Party was the party of government intervention, and that it had become a hostage to trade union power. In office, she broke with postwar Conservative policy to realize economic policies of monetarism. The effects of the prevalent world depression caused by the 1979 oil price shock were exacerbated through drastic reductions in state spending, and a policy of high interest rates to reduce inflation, the new number one target of economic policy.
The record of her economic achievements was mixed. She did drastically reduce inflation, as well as public debt. During the 1980s, economic fortunes improved, and unemployment recovered from its high levels of 1979–81. However, inflation decreased not only in Britain, but in all industrialized countries, and Britain's inflation rate remained among the highest in Western Europe. It is also unclear to what extent the economic recovery of the 1980s was the result of her policies, and to what extent it was the consequence of a decline in commodity prices which affected all other countries as well. At any rate, her claim to have improved long‐term British economic prospects was belied by the recession which set in in 1989, which caused a sharp decline in house prices, and which underpinned her eventual fall from power.
Thatcher lost little time in pursuing her second major preoccupation, the reduction of trade‐union power. She exploited the unions' inevitable weakness during the 1979–82 depression to pass legislation making trade unions more democratic in their decision‐making, and more responsive to their members' wishes. Her battle against the trade unions climaxed in 1984–5, when she stood firm and eventually overcame the eleven‐month‐long miners' strike. It was a decisive victory over the trade‐union movement and its hitherto excessive power, albeit achieved at an enormous social cost. Furthermore, it is arguable that, in line with the rest of the world, trade‐union power and membership declined more owing to the difficult economic circumstances of high unemployment and job insecurity during the 1980s and 1990s, than in response to any of her anti‐union legislation.