Historical Figures: Margaret Thatcher

Some say she was the best thing to have ever happened to Great Britain. For others, she was the closest thing this country has come to being ruled by a dictator. Whatever your views, there's no denying the lasting impact Margaret Thatcher has had on post-war British politics and beyond.


Steel determination

Thatcher was dubbed The Iron Lady by the Russians after she made a speech containing a scathing attack on the Soviet Union. The name stuck, and indeed every aspect of her proved as solid as her elemental moniker would suggest. Ironically, she once predicted there would never be a woman Prime Minister in her lifetime, and yet she proved more single-minded and determined than any of her male rivals. She smashed decades of political consensus as she went to war with the Labour opposition, the unions, the Argentine army and the European Union, but in the end it was her strident Euro-scepticism that resulted not only in her downfall but the ousting of the Conservative Party.

The forging of a career

Margaret Thatcher's home and early life was in Grantham, born to humble beginnings. Her parents, Alfred and Beatrice Roberts, were Methodists and ran a grocery business, bringing up their two daughters in a flat over the shop. Margaret Roberts attended a local state school and from there won a place at Oxford, where she studied chemistry at Somerville College (1943-47). Her studies took second place to politics in Margaret Thatcher's life. At Oxford she was elected president of the student Conservative Association and met many prominent politicians, making herself known to the leadership of her party at the time of its defeat by Labour at the General Election of 1945.

Pathway to parliament

In 1959 she was elected to Parliament as Member of Parliament (MP) for Finchley, a north London constituency, which she continued to represent until she was made a member of the House of Lords (as Baroness Thatcher) in 1992. Within two years, she was given junior office in the administration of Harold Macmillan and during 1964-70 (when the Conservatives were again in Opposition), established her place among the senior figures of the party, serving continuously as a shadow minister.

"Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher"

When the Conservatives returned to office in 1970, under the premiership of Edward Heath, she achieved cabinet rank as Education Secretary. It was then that she was forced to administer a cut in the Education budget. She decided that abolishing free milk in schools would be less harmful than other measures. Nevertheless, this provoked a storm of public protest, earning her the nickname "Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher". Her decisions on education made waves that did not subside for many years, and in 1985 Oxford University refused her an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in educative funding.

Fall from power

Although she won three successive general elections, she was first challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party In 1989 by Sir Anthony Meyer. Thatcher easily defeated Meyer's challenge, but this was viewed as a warning to Thatcher - one she failed to heed. In 1990 controversy over her reluctance to commit Britain to economic integration with Europe resulted in a more powerful challenge to her leadership. She resigned on November 22, after the first round of a leadership challenge initiated by Michael Heseltine, and was replaced as party leader and Prime Minister by John Major.