Margaret Thatcher was a British politician whose policies helped engineer the worldwide neoliberal movement in the 1980s. Thatcher, the first female prime minister in Europe, led her country for more than 11 years and introduced measures that would not only completely reshape Britain but also the entire global economy.
- Margaret Thatcher was a British politician who, alongside Ronald Reagan, helped usher in the era of neoliberalism.
- She was elected prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, becoming the first female leader of a European country, and stayed in power for over 11 years.
- During her tenure, Thatcher championed monetarism, reduced state intervention, cut income taxes, and sought to eradicate labor unions.
- Thatcher was forced to resign from her position in 1990 and passed away in 2013.
- However, she remains one of the most influential politicians of the 20th century and her legacy still very much lives on today.
Early Life and Education
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born Oct. 13, 1925, in Grantham, a town in Lincolnshire, England, to Alfred and Beatrice Roberts. Her parents ran a grocery business and together with Margaret’s elder sister lived in an apartment above the shop.
Thatcher’s early years helped to shape her political thinking. Her parents were Methodists who were actively involved in their local congregation, making the church and values such as self-help a fundamental part of Margaret and her sister’s upbringing. In addition, Margaret’s father, Alfred, was involved in local politics and would talk at length about them at home.
When she turned 18, Thatcher went to Oxford University to study chemistry. While there, she turned some heads and left a mark after becoming the first woman to be elected president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Thatcher loved chemistry, but politics was said to be her true passion and vocation.
Chemist, Lawyer, and Politician
After graduating, Thatcher became a research chemist at an Essex-based company called BX Plastics. She also continued to find time for politics, running as a candidate for the Conservative Party in Dartford in the 1950 and 1951 general elections. Thatcher lost both times but received national publicity for being the youngest female candidate in the country.
Her involvement in Dartford politics also put Thatcher in contact with local businessman Denis Thatcher. Not long after, the couple got married, and Margaret, now going by the surname Thatcher, left her job at BX Plastics to give birth to twins and become a lawyer specializing in taxation.
Thatcher’s political career started to take off in 1959. In that year, she was elected to represent the North London constituency of Finchley in Parliament. From there, she steadily moved up the ranks, serving as a parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (1961 to 1964), as chief opposition spokesman on education (1969 to 1970), and as secretary of state for education and science (1970 1974), before taking over the role of Conservative party leader from Edward Health, who had lost two successive elections, in 1975.
Four years later, in 1979, the British economy was rocked by high inflation and a series of strikes calling for higher wages, and the opposition Labour party had fallen out of favor. Margaret Thatcher’s time had come and on May 4, 1979, she was elected Britain’s first female prime minister.
Thatcher served three terms as prime minister and held the position for over 11 years. During that period, she engineered many changes.
When she took the reins, the British economy was in the doldrums. Thatcher, who talked about running the country’s finances like a thrifty housewife, responded with a set of revolutionary economic policies based on monetarism, free-market capitalism, and limited government intervention.
Some of her more famous policies included:
Privatization, deregulation, and the dismantling of the welfare state
Thatcher believed the government shouldn’t interfere with people and businesses. Influenced by the likes of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Alan Walters, she adopted a free-market philosophy, was very pro-business, and supported the idea that people should be incentivized to work rather than collect welfare checks.
Among her most notable moves was to privatize a number of state-run companies. Shares of these companies (mainly utility companies) were sold to the public, boosting the government’s coffers in exchange for handing over control of many essential services to profit chasers.
Another measure she adopted that proved influential across the world was significantly loosening the regulation of banks and financial services. Deregulation led foreign capital to flood into Britain and made many people rich but also contributed to the type of rogue behavior that flattened the global economy in the late 2000s.
Thatcher’s economic policy was influenced by the likes of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Alan Walters, with a focus on controlling the money supply with interest rates, cutting back state aid, and encouraging free-market capitalism.
Weakening labor unions
When Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, labor unions were flourishing and worker strikes were commonplace. She believed that these unions blocked economic progress, and she was eager to tame them.
A coal miners’ strike in 1984 would change everything. Miners began protesting to save their jobs, only this time they were up against the legal system, aggressive policemen, the media, and a government hell-bent on taking them down by any means necessary. The miners eventually lost, the once-powerful National Union of Mineworkers was brought to its knees, and legal obstacles were introduced to prevent such industrial action from happening again.
Under Thatcher’s watch, Britain's economy went from being powered by manufacturing to one largely based on financial and service industries.
Income tax cuts for high earners
In 1979, the year Thatcher was elected, the top income tax rate was 83%. Fast forward to 1988, and that rate was more than halved to 40%.
To make up for high earners paying less tax on their income, value-added tax (VAT) was increased and a poll tax was introduced. Notably, both of these forms of taxation weren’t progressive and based on how much people earned, which effectively meant the wealthy paid a much lower tax percentage on their incomes than the poor had to pay on theirs.
The Housing Act of 1980 allowed council tenants, people living in public, government housing because they cannot afford to buy or rent a place in the private market, to purchase the property at a big discount.
This policy was met with mixed opinions. The working-class people who used the program to get on the housing ladder were delighted as were people against the idea of the government propping up the poor. Critics, meanwhile, complained that the act depleted the volume of public and affordable housing available, which contributed to soaring housing prices and mortgage debt.
Thatcher died on April 8, 2013. However, her legacy lives on.
She has been heralded for salvaging Britain and its economy, strengthening the country’s ties with America rather than neighboring Europe, and helping to usher in a new model of global conservatism that's still in force today. To many of her fans, Thatcher is just as or almost as important to Britain and the world as Winston Churchill was.
The so-called Iron Lady isn’t loved by everyone, though. Her policies, similar to those of Reaganomics in the U.S, paved the way for a sharp rise in inequality that never really went away. Thatcher wasn’t particularly nice to her victims, either, and had a tendency to show little sympathy to those adversely impacted by her actions.
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were both advised by economist Milton Friedman, leading similar policies to be implemented in both Britain and the U.S.
How Did Margaret Thatcher Lose Power?
Thatcher resigned from her job as Conservative Party leader and prime minister in 1990 when it became clear that she no longer had the full backing of her colleagues. Public approval of Thatcher was dipping amid the controversial poll tax and her increasingly unsympathetic tone, and party members, worried about votes and some of her strong opinions about Europe, began questioning whether she was still the right person for the job.
What Did Margaret Thatcher Do After Her Tenure as Prime Minister?
After resigning from her position as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher refused to be quiet. She continued to influence Conservative Party politics, toured the world as a lecturer, established the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, and wrote two memoirs and a book reflecting on politics.
At the start of the 21st century, Thatcher was forced to reduce her workload after suffering several small strokes. Her health steadily deteriorated from that moment on, culminating in a fatal stroke in 2013.
Did Margaret Thatcher Help to End the Cold War?
Thatcher took a hard line against the Soviets and used every opportunity she had to tell television audiences about the evils of communism, which led to her earning the nickname the Iron Lady. Some people believe this constant public criticism, together with her courting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was instrumental in ending the Cold War.
The Bottom Line
Margaret Thatcher is one of the most well-known and divisive political figures of the 20th century. Love her or hate her, she changed the world we live in today. Alongside America, she ushered in a set of ideas that would go on to revolutionize the global economy and impact generations to come.