We're glad you're enjoying History Hub Community. To access the rest of History Hub and thousands of more resources like this one, log in here. Or learn how to become a subscriber here.

Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

Margaret Thatcher served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990—the first female prime minister in British history. She died in April 2013.

Margaret Roberts was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, on October 13, 1925. She first attended Kesteven and Grantham High School for Girls, then studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford University, becoming president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Upon graduation in 1947, Roberts worked as a research chemist and in 1951 was called to the bar as a lawyer. In 1951 she married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman.

After two failed attempts, in 1959 Thatcher won election to parliament as Conservative member for Finchley. In 1961 she was parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Pensions, and in 1970 secretary of state for Education and Science under Edward Heath until Heath's government lost the 1974 election to Harold Wilson's Labour Party. The following year Thatcher became Conservative leader, the first woman to head either major British political party, and after four years, during which she broke decisively with the centrist consensus on the mixed economy and welfare state that had dominated all British governments since 1945, led her party to electoral victory over Labour prime minister James Callaghan in 1979. This was the first of three successive general election triumphs for Thatcher, also in 1983 and 1987.

As prime minister, the first woman to hold that position in any European country, Thatcher used monetarist measures to moderate the prevailing high inflation of the 1970s, cut taxes dramatically, trimmed back the welfare state, privatized many nationalized industries, and drastically curtailed the power of labor in bitter confrontations with major trade unions. Far more ideological than her predecessors, she accepted double-digit unemployment rates, which peaked at three million in the early 1980s, and the consequent short-term political unpopularity, as the inevitable price of such policies.

Strongly anti-communist in outlook, while still in opposition in 1976 Thatcher had assailed Soviet policies for opposing "genuine détente" through intervention in Angola, and opposed any weakening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Dubbed the "iron lady" by the Soviet press, she accepted the sobriquet with pride, and strengthening British defenses and repairing strained relations with the United States. Thatcher consciously modeled herself on Winston Churchill, another maverick Conservative prime minister who supported tough foreign policies. Her uncompromising rhetoric, strong principles, and forceful personality soon made her a major international figure, admired by conservatives and often reviled by liberals.

From early 1981 Thatcher worked closely with U.S. president Ronald Reagan, whose political views on both domestic and international issues coincided almost exactly with her own, and the two soon developed a warm friendship. Internationally, Thatcher almost always backed the United States, even when Reagan's fiercely antiterrorist and anticommunist policies towards such countries as Libya, Nicaragua, and Chile generated considerable domestic and foreign criticism. She did, however, break with Reagan over his 1983 invasion of Grenada, a British Commonwealth country, and refused to endorse economic sanctions the U.S. Congress imposed, albeit without Reagan's backing, on white South Africa. Thatcher consistently backed NATO, endorsing the controversial 1979 decision to deploy nuclear-armed intermediate-range cruise missiles in Western Europe, and replacing Britain's Polaris submarine fleet with modern Trident II submarines. In doing so, she ignored protests, including the revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the encampment of protestors for several years outside the American air base of Greenham Common, Berkshire. Splits within the Labour Party over defense and British membership in NATO contributed to Thatcher's subsequent re-election victories.

While taking a tough line on defense and rearmament, initially Thatcher concentrated on economic and domestic issues, leaving her foreign secretary, Peter, Lord Carrington, responsible for handling such thorny issues as negotiating a settlement in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) in 1980 that replaced that state's breakaway white government with one dominated by Africans. From 1982, however, when against much advice she chose to send a military expedition to the South Atlantic to regain the British-controlled Falkland Islands after their seizure by Argentina, Thatcher became far more active in international affairs. She played a major part in negotiating the 1984 Joint Declaration whereby, against her own initial instincts, Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997. Always somewhat suspicious of the European Community, Thatcher did not withdraw Britain from membership but undertook hard bargaining to ensure that Britain's overall budgetary contributions to the community declined substantially.

During the early 1980s Thatcher's relations with Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko were frosty. Meeting Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1983, shortly before he became Soviet Communist Party secretary, she quickly developed a rapport with him, and urged Reagan to give credence to Gorbachev's calls for major reductions in nuclear and conventional forces, as well as his attempts at economic reform. Interestingly, fearing that Gorbachev's political survival was precarious and more hard-line Soviet officials might well replace him, Thatcher was more cautious than Reagan in sanctioning such reductions, including the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, and urged the Western alliance to proceed relatively slowly. She was therefore somewhat uncomfortable with the sweeping agreements Reagan and Gorbachev reached at Reykjavik in 1986, a meeting that, like several others between Gorbachev and Presidents Reagan and George Bush, she did not attend.

Well-founded doubts over the effectiveness of the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) system of anti-nuclear defenses that Reagan favored made Thatcher reluctant to dismantle both nuclear weapons and anti-nuclear defenses. Memories of German involvement in two world wars also led her unavailingly to oppose the unification of the East and West German states. In the summer of 1990 she reportedly urged Reagan's successor, George Bush, to remain firm in opposition to the seizure of Kuwait by President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, support many believed contributed to his decision to launch a war against Iraq the following year, a conflict in which British forces participated.

In November 1990, Conservative opposition to Thatcher's domestic policies, especially the highly unpopular new poll tax, created a rebellion within her own party that forced her from office. Ennobled as Baroness Thatcher, she then published several volumes of memoirs and speeches, made numerous public addresses, and somewhat ineffectively attempted to pressure her successors to follow her policies. She opposed any further strengthening of the European Union, but strongly supported the continuation and enlargement NATO. Thatcher also established a foundation to promote and encourage her free enterprise and antisocialist political views. In failing health by the early 21st century, in June 2004 she nonetheless insisted on attending Reagan's funeral and burial services, for which she had recorded a eulogy lauding what she viewed as his domestic and international achievements. Although her own country lacked the superpower status of the United States, much of her praise of Reagan's political skills was equally applicable to Thatcher herself.

After several years of suffering from poor health, on April 8, 2013, Thatcher died from a stroke in London at the age of 87.


Further Reading

Evans, Eric J. Thatcher and Thatcherism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004; Geelhoed, E. Bruce. Margaret Thatcher: In Victory and Downfall, 1987 and 1990. New York: Praeger, 1992; Riddell, Peter. The Thatcher Era and Its Legacy. 2nd ed. Cambrudge, MA: B. Blackwell, 1991; Young, Hugo. The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989.

MLA Citation

"Margaret Thatcher." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/318236. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

View all citation styles.

Entry ID: 2155829

back to top