Margaret Thatcher, who has died aged 87, was, simply, a political phenomenon.
She was the first woman elected to lead a major western power; the longest serving British prime minister for 150 years; the most dominant, divisive force in British politics in the second half of the 20th century. She was a global figure, a star in the US, a heroine in the former Soviet republics of central Europe, a point of reference for politicians in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
In Britain, the Thatcher years were a watershed. After them, the ideals of collective effort, full employment and a managed economy – all tarnished by the recurring crises of the 1970s – were discredited in the popular imagination. They were replaced with the politics of me and mine, deregulation of the markets and privatisation of the state's assets that echoed growing individual prosperity. Thatcher did not cause these changes, but she legitimised and embedded them. Her belief in the moral authority of the individual and the imperative of freedom of choice led left as well as right to reappraise the welfare state. She was both demon and inspiration, the diva who produced the definitive interpretation of the role, whose perception of economics, society and Britain's place in the world continue to shape British politics.
It is often claimed that she gave no warning of the revolution she was about to unleash when she won her first majority in 1979. In fact, although the official manifesto was opaque, her speeches in the years between defeating Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative party in 1975 and coming to power laid out the ideology that underpinned her policies over the next 11 years.
Thatcher was pragmatic about her methods but constant in her targets: socialism, the Labour party and the collectivist state that Labour, abetted by one-nation postwar Conservatism, had constructed. She believed that the state had become a burden on private enterprise. Its cost was crippling the economy and overloading it with debt. Vested interest had been allowed to flourish, most notably in the trade unions but also in the nationalised industries of coal, steel and telecommunications. Many others shared her analysis. She had the courage to act.
Nor was she the only person who saw a world divided between good and evil. What marked her out was a willingness to say so, abroad as well as at home. Soviet leaders, after years of detente, were startled to find their regime denounced as the embodiment of inhumanity, bent on military expansion. Before she had won a vote in the UK, Thatcher had won the sobriquet overseas of the Iron Lady.
Early years Only an outsider could have given birth to an ideology as iconoclastic as Thatcherism, and Thatcher always regarded herself as a challenger of the status quo, a rebel leader against established power. What mattered to her was less the breadth of her support than the depth of her convictions.
In time, there grew around her a mythology that rooted her absolute faith in the individual in her upbringing above the grocer's shop in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham. She was the second of two daughters of Alderman Alfred Roberts and his wife, Beatrice. The two girls were educated at Kesteven and Grantham girls' school, and at 17 Margaret won a place at Somerville College, Oxford, to study chemistry, where she was tutored by the future Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin (with whom she remained on respectful terms, despite Hodgkin's passionate opposition to nuclear weapons). She graduated in 1947.
Less than two years later she was selected to contest the hopeless Kent seat of Dartford, despite the reservations of some party activists who were appalled at the prospect of a 23-year-old woman as their candidate. She contested Dartford in both the 1950 and 1951 general elections.
It was at a social function after her first adoption meeting that she met Denis Thatcher, a businessman with a passion for rugby who had earlier rejected the chance of fighting the seat himself. Denis drove the candidate back to London. Well-off, divorced and amiable, Denis ran his family paint firm, which was later absorbed into Burmah Oil. They were married in December 1951. In 1953, the twins Mark and Carol were born. Denis, it was claimed, spent the day at a cricket match – Carol later called their marriage "a partnership of parallel lives" – and while still in the maternity hospital, Margaret signed up to study for her bar finals. She was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1954.
For a young woman with a new family, to become an MP was unprecedented. But in 1958, she was selected for the rock-solid north London constituency of Finchley, the seat she represented from October 1959 until she retired at the general election in 1992.
In October 1961, after only 20 months on the backbenches, the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, made Thatcher a junior pensions minister (a job she later gave to her own successor, John Major). It would be nearly 30 years before she returned to the backbenches. In 1967, with her party in opposition, she was promoted to the shadow cabinet by the new party leader, Heath, and when he won the election of June 1970, she became education secretary, the only woman in the cabinet.
Here, her public reputation was made as "Thatcher the milk-snatcher", the minister who cut spending by ending universal free milk for primary school children. It was a defining moment, but also a rare breach of the Conservatives' unwillingness to disturb the postwar consensus. Much more in keeping was her continuation of Labour's plan to replace grammar schools with comprehensives.
But she was at the ringside as Heath's experiments in monetarism and industrial relations legislation crashed and burned. Heath resumed the interventionist policies of the 1950s. In February 1974, as a miners' overtime ban prompted power cuts and the introduction of a three-day working week, Heath asked: "Who governs Britain?" He lost the general election. Thatcher later claimed she had always been uncomfortable with Heath's consensual approach. At the time, however, she was silent and loyal.
But after Harold Wilson narrowly won a second election victory in October 1974, Thatcher was among the embryonic new right preparing to challenge Heath. Its intellectual leader was Keith Joseph, but his chance of leading the party vanished with a notorious speech, claiming that the poor had too many children. Thatcher decided she would put her name forward for the contest. "Someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand," she told Joseph. Denis told her she was out of her mind, a view echoed in every newspaper. To a party that could not decide whether it was worse to be female or to be suburban, she appeared entirely unelectable.
She defeated Heath in the first ballot and four other contenders in the second. The beaten favourites included William Whitelaw, the man who was later her indispensable deputy. She won in an ambush that capitalised on discontent with Heath rather than positive enthusiasm for her. As a result, she was never sure of her party: "Is he one of us?" became the defining question of the next 11 years.
Many of her backbench colleagues shared the prevailing view in the Labour government that Thatcher's leadership made the Tories unelectable. She worked assiduously to meet a barrage of criticism – criticisms that often focused as much on attributes of gender as on matters of policy. Her hair, her clothes and particularly her voice were attacked. Politics remained a largely male preserve, about the strength to confront, be it trade union power, economic crisis or Soviet threat.
Thatcher's only cabinet-level experience had been in a relative backwater. She had always conformed to the norms of a woman in public life. Engaged in discourse largely with men, she observed the conventions, flirted, sometimes shouted and occasionally wept. Her advisers emphasised the feminine, softened her appearance and lowered her voice. Yet she was always most authentic when she was defiant. If a single phrase captured her political identity, it was from her 1980 party conference speech: "This lady's not for turning." She played by the rules that demanded that she present herself as soft and yielding, but by her diligent attention to detail and the concentration of her focus, ultimately she subverted them.
Thatcher drew up a new settlement with the welfare state, and organised labour and the City in a way that rewarded enterprise and individual effort. Group interests, whether the churches or the professions, she was more likely to regard as protectors of privilege than as important elements in civil society.
Although monetarism had already been forced upon the preceding Labour government via an International Monetary Fund bail-out, under Thatcher it was presented as a crusade, until it was discreetly abandoned in the mid-1980s. As the global slump reached its nadir in early 1981, she and her chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, defied all appeals for Keynesian-style reflation. 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%. Interest rates were to be the principal method of controlling the money supply. Removing exchange controls was the first symbolic piece of deregulation. In September 1982, unemployment – which became the de facto weapon against the overmighty trade unions – reached 3 million.
A series of employment acts were introduced which ended trade unions' traditional show-of-hands votes and brought in secret pre-strike ballots as well as decennial votes on the political levy. Wages councils were constrained. In a second tranche of legislation in the late 1980s, the closed shop and secondary strike action were outlawed.
Thatcher thought the government had no role to play in public sector pay negotiations or in seeking to secure industrial peace. The steelworkers were the first to clash, and although, in 1981, planned pit closures were aborted to avert a miners' strike, by early 1984 the government was prepared – literally – for what was to be the last stand of the old trade union movement in its heavy industry heartland: the year-long showdown with the miners that culminated in mass closures and ultimately privatisation.
Thatcher shrugged off record personal unpopularity and faced down her critics. The crisis in the politics of the left which led to the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic party in March 1981 gave some electoral cover for the human cost of her policies, but in 1981 there were riots in Brixton, south London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Manchester's Moss Side. From March 1984, striking miners and police were in frequent, violent confrontation. In 1985 Brixton erupted again, and there was rioting too in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. In the same year PC Keith Blakelock was murdered during disturbances on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London.
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.
Ireland Conflict was at the heart of Thatcher's style. But it is a myth that she never ducked a challenge. Ever a pragmatist, she was astute in the fights she picked. The battles during her first term, from 1979 to 1983, ranged across a forbiddingly wide terrain and set the tone for the years to come. Not all of the challenges were sought: the IRA was behind many of them. In August 1979 Lord Mountbatten and 18 soldiers were murdered in separate attacks. In April 1980, she authorised the SAS to launch their live-on-TV rescue of 19 hostages from Iraqi-trained terrorists in the Iranian embassy siege. The following year, she refused to intervene to prevent the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other republican hunger strikers in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.
The IRA's mainland bombing campaign that ensued added to the impression of a government under siege. Airey Neave, who had run Thatcher's leadership campaign, had been assassinated by the Irish National Liberation Army just before the 1979 election. She lost another intimate, Ian Gow, at the hands of the IRA 10 years later. On 12 October 1984 the Provisionals' campaign nearly claimed Thatcher herself. Five people died in the bombing of the Grand Hotel during the Conservative party conference in Brighton. Others, including the cabinet ministers Norman Tebbit and John Wakeham, were seriously injured.
The prime minister responded with resilience. Betraying no sign of shock, she delivered her speech to the conference later the same day, as planned. She was already negotiating with Dublin what was to become a year later the Anglo-Irish agreement, an attempt to improve security co-operation for which she faced down her Ulster Unionist friends and conceded the acceptance of an Irish dimension in the affairs of Northern Ireland. She did not seek a settlement, but with hindsight the agreement can be read as a small step in the peace process.
The Falklands The conflict with which she was most closely identified, and the one that arguably rescued her from the footnotes of political history, was the Falklands war. On 2 April 1982, General Galtieri invaded the islands in the South Atlantic. Discussions about a leaseback and the removal of a naval patrol vessel had been misread as a sign that Britain was ready to abandon its distant colony. Thatcher, ignoring the initial advice of much of her cabinet – and inspired by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach – took the extraordinary risk of dispatching a task force to retake the islands. While negotiations for a peaceful outcome stuttered on through the US secretary of state, Alexander Haig, the Royal Navy steamed south. On 21 May the British landed and on 14 June the Argentinians surrendered. Less than a year later, the Conservatives were returned with a majority of 144 over a divided opposition.
Foreign Policy Thatcher's years in office were bookended by two defining events of global significance. On Christmas Day 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Ten years later, the Berlin wall came down, heralding the collapse of the Soviet empire. The invasion of Afghanistan reinforced Thatcher's belief in the expansionist intent of the Soviet empire. She became the evangelist for America's ambition to upgrade its own and Nato's nuclear defences with Cruise and Pershing missiles. In 1980 she announced Cruise would come to Britain. As a result, the perimeter fence around the RAF base at Greenham Common, Berkshire became the centre for a decade of anti-nuclear campaigning by women's groups. She negotiated to upgrade Britain's independent nuclear deterrent by acquiring Trident II, at a cost of £7.5bn.
Yet for all the attention to hardware, Thatcher always believed its citizens would be the ones to destroy the Soviet empire. Visiting the Berlin wall in 1982, she prophesied that it would be brought down by the "anger and frustration of the people". She promoted co-operation and fostered relations with Poland and Hungary, encouraging their leaders to imagine a world after communism. At the same time, she sought out modernisers in the Soviet Union and brought Mikhail Gorbachev, when he was still a relatively minor figure in the Politburo, to the attention of Ronald Reagan as a man "to do business with". She made a triumphant visit to Russia in 1987 where she was mobbed by the public and took the argument against communism direct to live television, "as if she was fighting a byelection in Moscow North," this paper's correspondent wrote. If her subsequent reluctance to accept German reunification suggests her belief in the people was less deep-rooted than she would claim, she was a leading force in undermining the power of the Soviet Union.
In her battle against communism, she marched in step with the US. She and Reagan were in particular sympathy (sorely tested when, in October 1983, the US invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada, a Commonwealth member), although she disagreed strongly with his dream of major nuclear disarmament. That, she considered, was a threat to European security.
The Westland affair early in 1986 marked the beginnings of Thatcher's break with Europe. She preferred to see the ailing British helicopter company merge with the American Sikorski rather than accept the European solution that her defence secretary and leading critic, Michael Heseltine, had wanted. He resigned. In the ensuing row, Thatcher came close to being implicated in the deliberate discrediting of her rival. Her protege, the trade secretary Leon Brittan, was forced to resign. Her pro-Americanism was sealed in April 1986 by her support, alone in Europe, for the US bombing raid on Libya.
Europe: Thatcher had originally been a supporter of Britain's membership of the Common Market, and Labour's complete rejection of it after the successful referendum in 1975 only strengthened its appeal to her. However, she was elected in 1979 on a promise to seek a budget rebate, a preoccupation that dogged every summit for her first five years until she reluctantly agreed a settlement at Fontainebleau in 1984.
A period of relative calm, during which Thatcher advocated speeding up the single market negotiations followed, until the passage of the Single European Act in 1987. At that point, she realised that her ideal of Europe as a trading partner, a market for British goods and services where remaining trade barriers would wither away, was at odds with the vision of closer political integration shared by the European Commission president, Jacques Delors, and most other European nations. Her battles against it became one of the deadly fissures in her relations with her cabinet.
It is one of the paradoxes of an era that will be remembered for its hostility to the EU that in the Single European Act (which led to the Maastricht treaty), Thatcher ceded more control over British affairs than any prime minister before, while in sponsoring the Channel tunnel, she established a permanent land route to the continent.
In 1988, she made a speech in Bruges attacking "creeping Euro-federalism". Throughout the following year, her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, fought for a date for sterling to join the exchange rate mechanism (ERM), to which the UK was committed and which would allow interest rates to fall. Thatcher was determined that the value of the pound should not be pegged to European currencies. Protesting at the influence of the economist Alan Walters as a rival centre of advice, in October Lawson resigned.
Thatcher's desire to build a free-market Europe was matched by her attempt to strengthen the role of the individual against the state at home. The election of June 1987 produced another landslide, her third election victory. It heralded a programme of radical public sector reform intended to assert the power of the consumer and bring market discipline into schools and hospitals.
The 1988 Education Act brought in city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools, free of local authority control. Housing action trusts further limited local councils' room for manoeuvre. A purchaser-provider split was introduced into the NHS. The rhetoric of public spending cuts continued, although the records show that public spending rose every year in her time in office, declining only as a share of GDP.
Thatcher identified local government as a key source of ill-spent public funds. She had also made a commitment soon after she became leader to replace the rates. She was persuaded to do so with a poll tax, properly known as the community charge, levied on an individual basis that would link council spending to local taxes. She ignored advice that such a tax would be impossible to collect and that it was also severely regressive. In March 1990 there were protests and riots in a mass rejection of an unjust tax.
Geoffrey Howe, an early and loyal Thatcherite, had supported Lawson over Britain's membership of the ERM. Both had threatened to resign, which had forced her to agree to join. But as a result he had been mercilessly demoted from the Foreign Office to become Leader of the House. The difference over policy was less significant than the difference in approach. In October 1990, as she stood at the despatch box after the Rome summit (where she had been ambushed with demands for further integration) dismissing, it seemed, any progress at all with "No! No! No!", Howe finally resolved to resign.
The defiance that had once so impressed her party, and many in the country, now sounded dangerously deluded even to some of her closest supporters, especially those in marginal seats. It took less than 10 days – from 13 November when Howe made his resignation speech to 22 November when Thatcher announced her resignation – for Conservative MPs to eject her.
At the 1992 election, Thatcher retired from the Commons and took a seat in the Lords. Powerfully affected by the injustice of her departure, she found it hard to desert the field of domestic politics. Her only consolation was that in ensuring the accession for her favourite, Major, she denied it to Heseltine. But she was soon letting it be known that Major was not, after all, one of us. After his defeat in May 1997, his successors – with the exception of Iain Duncan Smith – were found to be disappointments too.
The first of her two volumes of memoirs, The Downing Street Years, appeared in 1993, followed two years later by The Path to Power. She also established the Thatcher Foundation, which, funded by the large fees she could command for public speaking in the US and Japan, was intended to promote her ideas, not least in the emerging democracies of eastern Europe. In March 2002, after a series of minor strokes, she gave up public speaking.
Thatcher broke the pattern of postwar politics and changed its nature. Labour accommodated rather than reversed her attack on the welfare state and left her employment legislation almost untouched. When the Conservatives finally returned to power in May 2010, David Cameron and George Osborne used some of her language. Many in the party continue to share her priorities. So complete, it seems, was her undermining of the role of the state that even the catastrophic failure of deregulated markets has largely failed to bring a reversal.
While seeking to limit the scope of government, she introduced a style of command and control, top-down, centralised authority that has proved hard for her successors to resist. It has leaked into the way political parties are managed, so that they struggle to regenerate a spirit of local activism. Institutions of civil society from the churches to the trade unions have suffered from the decline of collective enterprise in the public esteem.
Denis, Thatcher's husband of more than 50 years, to whom she had awarded a baronetcy in her resignation honours, died in 2003. Mark and Carol survive her.
• Margaret Hilda Thatcher, politician, born 13 October 1925; died 8 April 2013
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