Margaret Roberts, the daughter of a grocer, Alfred Roberts, was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, on 13th October, 1925. She was educated at the Kesteven & Grantham Girls' School, and at 17 she won a place to study chemistry at Somerville College, where she was tutored by the future Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin.
After graduating in 1947 from Oxford University she worked as a research chemist. Later she studied law and eventually became a barrister. A member of the Conservative Party, Thatcher was adopted as the parliamentary candidate for Dartford. In the 1950 General Election she argued: "We are going into one of the biggest battles this country has ever known - a battle between two ways of life, one which leads inevitably to slavery and the other to freedom. Our opponents like to try and make you believe that Conservatism is a privilege of the few. But Conservatism conserves all that is great and best in our national heritage. What is one of the first tenets of Conservatism? It is that of national unity. We say one nation, not one class against another. You cannot build a great nation or a brotherhood of man by spreading envy or hatred."
On 13th December, 1951 she married Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman. In 1953, their twins, Mark and Carol, were born. She was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1954 and was elected to represent the safe-seat of Finchley in October 1959. Two years later she joined the government of Harold Macmillan as joint parliamentary secretary for Pensions and National Insurance.
The Conservative Party was defeated in the 1964 General Election and Harold Wilson became the new prime minister. Edward Heath, the new leader of the Conservatives, appointed her as Opposition Spokesman on Pensions and National Insurance. She later held opposition posts on Housing (October 1965), Treasury (April 1966), Fuel and Power (October 1967), Transport (November, 1968) and Education (October, 1969).
Following the Conservative victory in the 1970 General Election, Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education and Science. In October 1970 she created great controversy by bringing an end to free school milk for children over seven and increasing school meal charges. However, she did allow the previous government's plan to establish the Open University to go ahead. She explained in her autobiography, The Path to Power (1995): "I thought that it was an inexpensive way of giving wider access to higher education, because I thought that trainee teachers in particular would benefit from it, because I was alert to the opportunities offered by technology to bring the best teaching to schoolchildren and students, and above all because it gave people a second chance in life. In any case, the university was due to take its first students that autumn, and cancellation would have been both expensive and a blow to many hopes. On condition that I agreed to reduce the immediate intake of students and find other savings, my Cabinet colleagues allowed the Open University to go ahead."
Edward Heath, the prime minister, came into conflict with the trade unions over his attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy. His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to industrial disputes. In 1973 a miners' work-to-rule led to regular power cuts and the imposition of a three day week. Heath called a general election in 1974 on the issue of "who rules". He failed to get a majority and Harold Wilson and the Labour Party were returned to power.
In January 1975 Thatcher challenged Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party. She explained: "I felt sorry for Ted Heath personally. He had his music and a small circle of friends, but politics was his life.... Nonetheless, I had no doubt that Ted now ought to go. He had lost three elections out of four. He himself could not change and he was too defensive of his own past record to see that a fundamental change of policies was needed." On 4th February Thatcher defeated Heath by 130 votes to 119 and became the first woman leader of a major political party. Heath took the defeat badly and refused to serve in Thatcher's shadow cabinet.
Her election was welcomed by The Daily Telegraph: "What kind of leadership Mrs Thatcher will provide remains to be seen. But one thing is clear enough at this stage. Mrs Thatcher is a bonny fighter. She believes in the ethic of hard work and big rewards for success. She has risen from humble origins by effort and ability and courage. She owes nothing to inherited wealth or privilege. She ought not to suffer, therefore, from that fatal and characteristic twentieth-century Tory defect of guilt about wealth. All too often this has meant that the Tories have felt themselves to be at a moral disadvantage in the defence of capitalism against socialism. This is one reason why Britain has travelled so far down the collectivist road. What Mrs Thatcher ought to be able to offer is the missing moral dimension to the Tory attack on socialism. If she does so, her accession to the leadership could mark a sea-change in the whole character of the party political debate in this country."
James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as prime minister on 16th March 1976. Thatcher gradually adopted a more right-wing political programme placing considerable emphasis on the market economy. In January 1978 she was condemned for making a speech where she claimed that people feared being "swamped" by immigrants.
In 1978 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, controversially began imposing tight monetary controls. This included deep cuts in public spending on education and health. Critics claimed that this laid the foundations of what became known as monetarism. In 1978 these public spending cuts led to a wave of strikes (winter of discontent) and the Labour Party was easily defeated in the 1979 General Election.
Thatcher now became the first woman in Britain to become prime minister. Thatcher's government continued the monetarist policies introduced by Denis Healey. As Anne Perkins has pointed out: "Although monetarism had already been forced upon the preceding Labour government by the International Monetary Fund, under Thatcher it was presented as a crusade... In the first budget of the administration, VAT was nearly doubled to 15% while personal taxes were slashed – the top rate of income tax from 83% to 60%, and the standard rate from 33% to 30%. Over the next 10 years, the standard rate came down to 25%, and the top rate to 40%."
Inflation was reduced but unemployment doubled between 1979 and 1980. In 1981, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced further public spending cuts. Larry Elliott has argued: "To her detractors, Thatcher is the prime minister who wiped out more than 15% of Britain's industrial base with her dogmatic monetarism, squandered the once-in-a-lifetime windfall of North Sea oil on unemployment pay and tax cuts, and made the UK the unbalanced, unequal country it is today." During this period public opinion polls suggested that Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister in British history.
Thatcher's government also raised money by a programme of privatization. This included the denationalization of British Telecom, British Airways, Rolls Royce and British Steel. The political commentator, Anne Perkins, has suggested: "Privatisation, which came to be a fundamental of the Thatcherite mission, was only hinted at in 1979, and in the depression of the early 1980s caution prevailed. When the ailing nationalised motor manufacturer British Leyland ran into trouble in early 1980, Joseph, then Thatcher's industry minister, bailed it out like a Heathite. Nonetheless, in 1980-81 more than £400m was raised from selling shares in companies such as Ferranti and Cable and Wireless. Later came North Sea oil (Britoil) and British Ports, and from late 1984 the major sales of British Telecom, British Gas and British Airways, culminating at the end of the decade in water and electricity. By this time these sales were raising more than £5bn a year."
On 2nd April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The following day the United Nations passed resolution 502 demanding that Argentina withdrew from the Falklands. On 5th April the British Navy left Portsmouth for the Falklands. Britain declared a 200 mile exclusion zone around the Falklands and on 2nd May 1982 the Argentinean battleship General Belgrano was sunk. Two days later HMS Sheffield was hit by an exocet missile.
British troops landed on the Falkland Islands at San Carlos on 21st May. Fighting continued until Port Stanley was captured and Argentina surrendered on 14th June 1982. Thatcher's personal popularity was greatly boosted by the successful outcome of the war and the Conservative Party won the 1983 General Election with a majority of 144.
Thatcher gave support to any right-wing military dictatorship that kept the left from power. This included figures such as Augusto Pinochet. Thatcher also refused to criticise Apartheid in South Africa and described Nelson Mandela as a "terrorist". Michael White pointed out this was a sign that she had underestimated the changes that were taking place in the world: "A further sign of Thatcher losing her grip came when, as a frequent defender of the apartheid regime in South Africa, she dismissed Nelson Mandela as a 'terrorist' not long before he emerged from prison to become the hero of the peaceful transition to majority rule."
Thatcher developed a close relationship with President Ronald Reagan. They both agreed to take a firm stance with the Soviet Union. This resulted in her being dubbed the Iron Lady. However, Thatcher was furious in November 1983 when the United States invaded the British dependency of Grenada without prior consultation.
Thatcher's government continued its policy of reducing the power of the trade unions. Sympathy strikes and the closed shop was banned. Union leaders had to ballot members on strike action and unions were responsible for the actions of its members. The government took a firm stand against industrial disputes and the miners' strike that began in 1984 lasted for 12 months without success. This was followed by mass closures of mines and ultimately privatisation.
Hugo Young has argued: "I think by far her greatest virtue, in retrospect, is how little she cared if people liked her. She wanted to win, but did not put much faith in the quick smile.... This is a style whose absence is much missed. It accounted for a large part of the mark Thatcher left on Britain. Her unforgettable presence, but also her policy achievements. Mobilising society, by rule of law, against the trade union bosses was undoubtedly an achievement. For the most part, it has not been undone. Selling public housing to the tenants who occupied it was another, on top of the denationalisation of industries and utilities once thought to be ineluctably and for ever in the hands of the state. Neither shift of ownership and power would have happened without a leader prepared to take risks with her life. Each now seems banal. In the prime Thatcher years they required a severity of will to carry through that would now, if called on, be wrapped in so many cycles of deluding spin as to persuade us it hadn't really happened."
Others were much more critical of Margaret Thatcher. Andy McSmith has suggested: "This outsider's mentality made her admired - worshipped, almost - by members of the Conservative Party and its core supporters.... But to a very large minority of Britons - if not the majority - she was an increasingly unappealing embodiment of unfeeling middle-class self-righteousness. While it was her hostility to her fellow Europeans that most damaged her relations with senior Cabinet colleagues, what turned the public against her was the apparent glee with which she rode roughshod over sections of society, such as the miners and the unemployed."
At the funeral of Konstantin Chernenko on 13th March 1985, Thatcher met the new leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Thatcher's views on the Soviet Union changed after Gorbachev announced his new policy of Perestroika (Restructuring). This heralded a series of liberalizing economic, political and cultural reforms which had the aim of making the Soviet economy more efficient. Gorbachev also introduced policies with the intention of establishing a market economy by encouraging the private ownership of Soviet industry and agriculture.
At a meeting on 13th November 1985, Thatcher rejected the idea of entering the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. However, the following month she attended the Luxembourg European Council and during the meeting Thatcher agreed to sign the Single European Act. In April 1986 Thatcher was widely criticized for giving permission for US bombers to take off from Britain to bomb Libya following a series of Libyan inspired terrorist attacks.
Thatcher was returned to power for a third time when she won the 1987 General Election with a majority of 102 seats. The following year she became Britain's longest serving prime minister for over a hundred years. However, her popularity was severely damaged when the Community Charge (Poll Tax) was introduced in Scotland in April 1989 (the rest of Britain was to follow a year later). The new tax was extremely unpopular and led to public demonstrations.
In November 1990 Thatcher was challenged as leader of the Conservative Party. She won the first round of the contest but the majority is not enough to prevent a second round. On 28th November, 1990, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister and was replaced by John Major. The Daily Telegraph, who supported her throughout her premiership commented: "Margaret Thatcher was the only British prime minister to leave behind a set of ideas about the role of the state which other leaders and nations strove to copy and apply. Monetarism, privatisation, deregulation, small government, lower taxes and free trade - all these features of the modern globalised economy were crucially promoted as a result of the policy prescriptions she employed to reverse Britain’s economic decline."