How times flies. It is 25 years this week since the events that led to the downfall of Britain’s first – and so far only – woman Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister for 11½ years from her victory at the General Election on 4 May 1979. In that time she unquestionably changed the face of Britain but, in doing so, she became the most divisive Prime Minister this country has perhaps ever seen.
While worshipped and admired by millions who saw their lives improve under her premiership, she was despised and hated by millions more who did not benefit from her policies and indeed suffered as a consequence of them. For many she was the symbol of all that was good for business, for free trade, for a small state, and for low tax. At the same time she was responsible for increasing greed and selfishness, for driving much of traditional British industry and the lives of those dependent upon it into the ground as she privatised nationalised companies, destroyed heavy industry and set the markets free to do as they please.
Margaret Thatcher was the hero for all those that could flourish under her laissez faire system of economics that encouraged individual endeavour and enterprise – a system that was inspired by monetarism and which became known as Thatcherism. Yet at the same time she was hated for using Thatcherism to attack the Welfare State and the whole concept of British society – famously claiming that “There’s no such thing [as society].” (Women’s Own, 1987). Such statements encouraged and reinforced the growing selfishness that engulfed much of British life during her premiership. Under Thatcherism the individual mattered more than the collective and God help anyone who couldn’t keep up.
Thatcher came into power three weeks before my fifteenth birthday. I remember the feverous chatter about her victory in the school playground and classroom. Many were simply intrigued by the fact that she was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Few, I suspect, had any political notion of what she stood for or what was to come during the next decade and more. I wasn’t particularly politically aware at fourteen. I too was intrigued that a woman was Prime Minister but like my classmates had no real idea what she stood for.
By the time of the 1983 General Election (9 June) – the first General Election I could vote in as I had turned eighteen just two weeks before – I was completely appalled by what Thatcher was doing – and Thatcherism hadn’t even taken hold by June 1983. In a birthday card that May from my Granddad he wrote “Vote Labour”. I didn’t need prompting. I voted Labour, led by Michael Foot, in 1983 and was horrified at the mauling Labour got as Thatcher strode to a landslide and returned to office for her second term. I have voted Labour ever since and in the 1980s and early 1990s despaired at seeing the party defeated.
Margaret Thatcher was an ever-present bogeyman during my formative years. Fourteen when she came to office, I was twenty-five before she was forced to resign by her own MPs in November 1990 to be replaced by John Major. I was nearly thirty-two before the Conservative Party’s eighteen years in power were ended by Tony Blair’s Labour Party on 1 May 1997.
To mark the anniversary of her leaving Downing Street 25 years ago today I will look back at her life, career and her premiership. Love or hate her – and boy did I hate her – Margaret Thatcher’s effect on this country can’t be ignored.
Margaret Roberts was born in October 1925 in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham above the grocer shop of her father, Alfred Roberts. He was a Conservative councillor, Alderman, devout Methodist and preacher. He was an austere man who believed in traditional Victorian values of thrift, hard work and public service. He brought up Margaret and her elder sister Muriel (1921-2004) as strict Wesleyan Methodists and instilled his values deeply into his daughter’s consciousness. Margaret’s upbringing was fundamental to her later life as a Tory MP and Prime Minister. Alfred Roberts would go on to become Mayor of Grantham (1945-46). He lost his position as Alderman when Labour took control of Grantham Council for the first time in 1950.
Margaret’s childhood was unlike most of her contemporaries. Her father’s beliefs and values – such as going to church at the Finkin Street Methodist church four times on a Sunday – set her apart from other children. She attended Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School where she worked hard and showed continual improvement. Away from school she played the piano, field hockey, gave poetry recitals, and enjoyed swimming and walking. She was head girl in 1942-43. Her father’s values were clearly giving her strong self-belief. For instance on winning an award at school, aged nine, she later said that: “I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it.” When in her upper sixth year she applied for a scholarship at Somerville College, Oxford. She was rejected but then secured a place when another scholarship candidate withdrew.
Beyond her father, young Margaret was inspired by Conservativism in general and in particular by the British wartime leader Winston Churchill. She was fourteen when Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The Second World War was in its early stages and Margaret must have listened like everyone else to Churchill’s speeches on the wireless. She was a nearly 20 when he left office in 1945.
By this time Margaret was at Oxford studying chemistry. At university she studied under the X-ray crystallographer, and future Nobel winner, Dorothy Hodgkins. She was elected president of the student’s Conservative Association. At Oxford, she was thought to have been influenced by political works, including Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944). Hayek condemned economic intervention by governments as a precursor to an authoritarian state. Margaret graduated in 1947 with second-class honours. Her dissertation was on the structure of the antibiotic gramicidin.
After graduation Margaret moved to Colchester, Essex. She could have enjoyed a productive and successful career in the chemical industry. She began working at BC Plastics yet her political ambitions were very evident at this time. She joined the local Conservative Association and was a representative of the University Graduate Conservative Association representatives at the party conference in Llandudno in 1948. Her strident character was demonstrated when she failed a job interview after graduating in 1947 – a personnel department assessment at ICI remarked of her: “The woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.”
Margaret Roberts had political ambitions beyond her sheltered middle-class world. She was concerned at the direction the new Labour government was taking the country after its landslide victory over Churchill in 1945. It was introducing the Welfare State, the National Health Service (NHS) and was nationalising industries such as the railways and steel – all policies diametrically opposed to what Thatcher stood for then, and indeed for the rest of her life.
By 1949 Margaret was looking to enter Parliament. She moved to Dartford in Kent. She was a friend of the Chair of the Dartford Conservative Association. They were looking for candidates and after impressing the Association she was added post ante to the candidate list. She was officially appointed candidate for Dartford in February 1951. At 24 she was the youngest female Conservative candidate. She was seen as not a particularly dynamic public speaker but was always well-prepared and fearless with her answers. An opposing candidate said of her: “Once she opened her mouth, the rest of us began to look rather second-rate.” She contested the seat twice, losing both times to the incumbent Norman Dodd, but reducing his majority by 7,000 over the two elections.
She was undaunted by failure. She continued to support herself by working at J. Lyons & Co. in Hammersmith as a research chemist but she was still determined to follow a political career. After her defeats in Datford she decided that she’d have a better chance if she became a lawyer. So she began to study law. The year was 1951 and she was also about to meet a wealthy businessman. Denis Thatcher worked as an oil executive. He began supported her during her Dartford campaigns and was now funding her legal studies. They married in December 1951. Two years later she passed the bar to qualify as a barrister. The same year she gave birth to their only children, twins Mark and Carol.
In 1954 she was narrowly rejected during the candidate selection process for a by-election in Orpington – which took place in January 1955. The 1955 General Election on 26 May brought more frustration for Margaret Thatcher as she again couldn’t get selected as a Conservative candidate. Her marriage and her young family were held against her when the selection committees were considering their choices. Then nearly thirty, she was still not an MP after five years of attempts to get elected.
She realised she’d have to find a safe seat and was eventually selected as the candidate in Finchley in April 1958. At the 8 October 1959 General Election, Margaret Thatcher finally got into Parliament and became the town’s MP after a hard-fought campaign. Harold Macmillan led the Conservatives to a third successive General Election victory and Thatcher rode their success in the safe Tory seat. She would remain in the Commons for 33 years until 1992 when she retired from the Commons and became Baroness Thatcher and moved to the House of Lords.
She used her maiden speech in the Commons in support of her own private member’s Bill, which she was able to present following a fortunate lottery draw for backbenchers to propose new legislation. The Bill (Public Bodies Admission to Meetings) would require local councils to hold meetings in public. In 1961 she also voted for the retention of birching in schools, against her party’s policy of banning it. Her talent and drive didn’t go unnoticed and in 1961 Thatcher became parliamentary under secretary for pensions and national insurance. She was the youngest woman to serve in this role.
The Conservatives lost power in 1964 after thirteen years in power, with Labour – led by Harold Wilson – narrowly squeaking into office by a tiny majority. In Opposition Thatcher became shadow spokeswoman on Housing and Land. While in that role she first suggested council tenants should have the right to buy their homes . A policy which became a flagship policy – as well as one of her most controversial – some twenty years later when she was in 10 Downing Street.
Wilson went to the polls again in 1966 and secured another term for Labour. While in Opposition, secure in her safe seat, Thatcher also served in the Shadow treasury team. At the Treasury she opposed Labour’s price and income controls, arguing that they were contrary to those intended and that they distort the economy. She was also being recommended for the Shadow Cabinet but after the 1966 defeat the Tory leader Ted Heath went for Mervyn Pike (later Baroness Pike) as his shadow cabinet’s sole woman member.
Thatcher continued to express her opinions outside the shadow cabinet. At the Party conference in 1966 she criticised the high-tax policies of Labour – reflecting the views of Hayek she had read at Oxford nearly twenty years before – as being steps “not only towards Socialism, but towards Communism”. She was expressing the ideology she would follow as Prime Minister in the 1980s that low-tax is an incentive to hard work.
In regard to major legislation at the time Thatcher voted in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, one of the few Tories to do so. She supported the Bill to legalise abortion, which had been introduced by David Steel (later Baron Steel of Aikwood). Steel would go on to be leader of the Liberal Party and became it’s last leader after the creation of the Liberal Democrats. Both these Bills became law. Another Bill that succeeded its passage through Parliament was the proposal to abolish the death penalty. However, Thatcher opposed the abolition of the death penalty.
This period in the late 1960s under Harold Wilson’s Labour Government is one of the most liberal periods in British legislative history. It saw the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men over 21, the legalisation of abortion, the relaxation of divorce laws (which Thatcher also opposed), and the abolition of the death penalty. The Home Secretary at the time was Roy Jenkins. He oversaw the Labour Governments liberal programme of legislation on these issues and has rightly been described as the most liberal Home Secretary Britain has ever seen.
By 1970 Wilson’s Labour Government was losing its way and in that year’s General Election Conservative leader Ted Heath pulled off a surprise win with a majority of 31 seats. Most opinion had expected a comfortable Labour win. Not for the first time most opinion was wrong. Heath appointed Thatcher as Minister for Education and Science and she entered the Cabinet for the first time. This came despite a warning from the then Leader of the House of Commons, Willie Whitelaw, that: “Once she’s there we’ll never get rid of her.” How right he was. Whitelaw would later become Thatcher’s Deputy Prime Minister.
Her most notorious decision during her time at the Department of Education and Science was her eventual support of a policy to scrap free school milk except in nursery and primary schools. The economy was in a mess and Heath was pressing for cuts in departmental spending, including in education. The previous Labour Government had already scrapped free milk for secondary school children but Heath wanted to go further. The Government argued that £9m could be saved from the £14m spent on free school milk – more than was being spent on books.
Thatcher predicted trouble with the policy and said that: “I think that the complete withdrawal of free milk for our school children would be too drastic a step and would arouse more widespread public antagonism than the saving justifies.” Released documents in 2002 suggested she was opposed to the cuts. Nevertheless, when it came to the crunch she supported the cuts – whether compelled to or willingly. She also supported cuts in further education funding and increases in the charges made for school meals. She did suggest that the increases of the latter should be spread out so “as to reduce the occasions for the inevitable recurrence of criticism whenever the increase is made in school meal charges.”
Thatcher maintained that the loss of free milk would not lead to large numbers of children suffering dietary problems, though it seemed there was no evidence to support this claim. The Government agreed to monitor the effects, but the planned cuts and increases in charges were approved by Cabinet and implemented by Parliament. As a consequence Thatcher earned the nickname of “Margaret Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher.” Additional cuts were made in further education but plans to implement museum and library charges were abandoned.
The experience was not lost on the new minister and she is thought to have considered leaving politics. In her autobiography she wrote: “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”
As Education Secretary Thatcher also faced a continuing trend that saw local authorities closing grammar schools and creating comprehensive schools. She was in favour of a tiered system, which included both. Despite her determination to preserve grammar schools she approved around 90% of all comprehensive school applications. As a result, the number of pupils in the comprehensive system nearly doubled from 32% to 62% in her time at Education.
“IT’S LIKE A DREAM” – THATCHER BECOMES TORY LEADER
Ted Heath’s Conservative Government continued to experience difficulties over oil embargoes, union demands and industrial disputes – not least in the disputes involving the miners and their powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). They blockaded distribution centres, preventing coal getting to the power stations. This forced power cuts and the Government imposed a three-day working week on the country. Heath’s promise of economic revival and a technological revolution were now in tatters as we saw the country lit by candles. (see Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain BBC TV series for an insight into this period)
When Heath went to the country in early 1974 to ask the country who they wanted to govern them. They gave him the answer and Harold Wilson regained power. Margaret Thatcher retained her safe seat and returned with the Conservatives to life on the Opposition benches. Like many she had lost confidence in Heath. There was a second election late in 1974 and Heath lost that one too. Despite losing two General Elections in less than a year, he was determined to remain as Tory Party leader – as Wilson had done after defeat in 1970. Wilson, however, went on to regain power. No such destiny was in store for Heath.
Thatcher decided to stand against Heath for the Party’s leadership. She was the only woman among seven candidates in the election (including Ted Heath himself). She was by no means the obvious replacement for Heath but she became the main challenger by promising a fresh start. Back then she had a reputation for being more pragmatic than ideological, and she was pushed forward with the support of the 1922 Backbench Committee who were a huge influence in the succession of a new leader.
The leadership election took place over two ballots on the 4th and 11th February 1975. In the first ballot Thatcher stood against Ted Heath and Hugh Fraser. Thatcher won 130 votes (49%), Heath 119 (45%) and Fraser 16 (6%). Humiliated, Heath gave up the ghost and the vote went to a second ballot on the 11th February without the Prime Minister on the ballot. Hugh Fraser also dropped out of the race and Thatcher was joined in the second ballot by Wiilie Whitelaw (Heath’s preferred successor), Geoffrey Howe, James Prior and John Peyton.
Thatcher was strongly supported among right-wing MPs, in particular those from southern England and those who hadn’t been to public school or Oxbridge universities. Thatcher, then 49-years-old, won the second ballot convincingly. The final results were:
Margaret Thatcher – 146 votes (53%)
Willie Whitelaw – 79 votes (29%)
Geoffrey Howe – 19 votes (7%)
James Prior – 19 votes (7%)
John Peyton – 11 votes (4%).
Edward du Cann, then Chairman of the 1922 Backbench Committee, told BBC TV: “We have a new and rather exciting leader. Mrs Thatcher will make the Tory Party distinctive.” She had been in Parliament for sixteen years and was now her party’s leader. When asked if she was going to be celebrating her victory, which she described as being “like a dream,” Thatcher’s upbringing shone through as she said: “Good heavens, no. There’s far too much work to be done.” Whatever you think of Thatcher you can’t doubt her work-ethic. She did manage to make a brief appearance at one party but then was back at Westminster for a working dinner with the Conservative Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins.
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
Thatcher appointed Willie Whitelaw as her deputy but despite hoping that Heath would be a member of her Cabinet, he refused. He never reconciled himself to Thatcher’s leadership. Their relationship would remain strained until Heath’s death thirty years later.
She was now leader of the Conservatives but the party was in Oppositon. With the economic crises and industrial disputes that were to follow in the coming years, with hindsight, Thatcher was probably better off in Opposition were she could prepare and challenge Labour when the chances came – and the chances did come.
She began attending meetings of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a think-tank founded by Antony Fisher – a disciple of Friedrich von Hayek, whose works inspired Thatcher back in her student days. She read and became influenced by the ideas of Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon and became a symbol of opposition to the Welfare State and Keynesian economics. The IEA called for less government, lower taxes and more freedom for business and consumers – all championed by Thatcher.
In Opposition she also began to work on her image, with the help of former television producer Gordon Reece. She took voice lessons with the National Theatre’s voice coach to soften her voice. The critic Clive James, writing in The Observer in 1975, had compared her voice to a cat sliding down a blackboard. She managed to suppress her Lincolnshire dialect with it only reappearing when under stress.
She made speeches to show her position on world affairs. Back in 1967 she had been chosen to take part in the The Foreign Leader Program. Although she wasn’t in power and wasn’t even in the shadow cabinet this extraordinary opportunity to travel the States and meet with political figures and institutions, including the the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was influential in getting herself a name and profile in American political and economic circles. The State Department even described her as a future Prime Minister. This gave her even more access to prominent people. While there she met, among many others, Pierre-Paul Schweitzer, Paul Samuelson, Walt Rostow and Nelson Rockerfeller.
Her experience in the States gave her confidence to express opinions on world affairs. On 19 January 1976 she made a speech at Kensington Town Hall, making a scathing attack on the Soviet Union:
“The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet Politburo do not have worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.”
The speech got her noticed, especially in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Defence Ministry newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), called her the “Iron Lady.” She gladly accepted this sobriquet and her reputation in the Kremlin would be vital in her future relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and in her role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War.
Domestically, in 1976 Thatcher opposed the Scottish and Wales Bill. She told her MPs to vote against it and the Bill was defeated. In 1978 the Scotland Act allowed for a referendum to see if there was sufficient support for the creation of a Scottish Assembly – a devolved deliberative assembly. Thatcher tried and failed to amend it to allow the English to vote in the referendum (which would guarantee its failure). Although 51.62% in Scotland voted in favour (48.38% against), only 33% of the electorate turned out to vote, invalidating the Bill which was then repealed. It would be another twenty years before Scotland would get another referendum and consequently its own Assembly. In 1999 it would get its own Parliament and in 2014 would reject independence fro the UK in a referendum. I
I’ve written about the Independence Referendum elsewhere in my blog.
THATCHER BECOMES PRIME MINISTER
Britain’s economy in the 1970’s was weak. So weak in fact that James Callaghan, then Foreign Minister, in Harold Wilson’s 1974 Government warned the Cabinet of the possibility of “a breakdown of democracy.” He also said that if he was still a young man he would emigrate.
By 1978 the economy was improving but Harold Wilson had resigned – possibly aware of what lay ahead – and been replaced as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party by Callaghan – by then the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Everyone expected a General Election and that Labour would probably win it. Callaghan made a fatal decision in September by announcing there wouldn’t be an election until 1979. Thatcher called the Government “chickens,” while the Liberals said they were “running scared.” Whatever Callaghan’s reasons for delaying his decision was to have catastrophic consequences for the Labour Party and would lead to the election of Margaret Thatcher and Callaghan would be the last Labour Prime Minister for eighteen years.
No sooner had Callaghan rejected the chance of calling an election the problems began in earnest for the Government. If they thought that delaying an election would allow the economy to improve further they couldn’t have been more wrong.
The country descended into a series of industrial strikes during the winter of 1978-79, which were quickly dubbed “The Winter of Discontent.” The Labour Government floundered and seemed to have no answers to the industrial unrest – the worst seen in 50 years. Thatcher and the Conservatives had a field-day with Labour’s problems and failures. As the economy again descended into shambles and unemployment rose, the Tories came up with perhaps the most famous political slogan to emerge in Britain: a picture of a long winding dole queue beneath the words “Labour isn’t working.”
When James Callaghan lost a motion of no-confidence in the House of Commons in early 1979 he had no choice but call an election for 4 May. Thatcher won the General Election with a majority of 44 and entered Downing Street to both cheers and jeers, paraphrasing Francis of Assisi’s prayer Make Me An Instrument Of Your Peace:
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bing hope.”
Thatcherism was yet to be coined and Thatcher began her premiership by promising to curb the unions and bring economic stability. She would champion free markets and argued that individuals should be given the power to make their own decisions and left to get on with their lives with little interference from the State.
Thatcher’s principle economic goal at the time was to bring inflation down. This was central to monetarist economics, the Thatcher version of which would become Thatcherism in later years. Yet her early attempts to bring the economy under control, to bring inflation down, and to reduce unemployment all floundered.
Her own MPs were calling for her to change direction. Her party was still highly influenced by the so-called “wets”, and they were far less driven by ideology than Thatcher was. The Prime Minster was convinced she was right. Her self-belief, often to the point of obstinacy, had been drilled into her as a child. It reflected a belief of her father that you shouldn’t follow the crowd, but should make them follow you. She was not going to do a u-turn or compromise on her ideology. She began purging the “wets” and vowed at the 1980 Party conference to hold firm to her policies: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Her arrogance and self-belief shown through.
In early 1981 the miners threatened to strike. Thatcher was yet to take on the unions and wasn’t prepared to take them on yet with the situation the Government and economy was in at the time. The miners were flexing their power as they had done during Ted Heath’s Government – helping to bring it down. Thatcher backed down but she would never forget what she saw as treachery from the miners – both in 1974 and in 1981. Her revenge would descend on the miners three years later.
By the summer of 1981 the economy was in a mess. Inflation was soaring and unemployment reached two million. The people were revolting – in cities across England – from Brixton to Toxteth, from Bristol to to Moss Side. Interestingly during that summer there were no riots in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Society seemed to be falling apart and Thatcher’s personal popularity dropped until she became the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began. She was only two years into her first term but her premiership seemed doomed.
Many years before Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had been asked what influenced the course of his Government: “Events, dear boys, events,” was his response. Thatcher was now to find out that events can not only determine the direction of a Government, but can completely save it from disaster and defeat at the polls.
THE FALKLANDS – SAVIOUR OF THATCHER’S PREMIERSHIP?
At the Party conference in October 1981 the Party was in dissent over the direction – or lack of it – being taken by Margaret Thatcher’s first administration. According to Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian after Margaret Thatcher’s death in April 2013: “The so-called ‘wets’ were openly conspiring against her. Bets were being taken against her surviving into the new year. Well behind in the polls with the new Social Democratic Party challenging both Labour and Conservatives, few believed Thatcher would lead her party to another election.”
At this time the Defence Secretary John Nott was undergoing a Defence Spending Review and Britain’s armed forces were facing severe cuts. The colony at Hong Kong was to be returned to China and the Royal Navy’s fleet was to be restricted to home waters. In the South Atlantic Britain’s last Royal Navy vessel, HMS Endurance, was to be scrapped and the Government was working towards a negotiated “sale and leaseback” settlement of the governance and sovereignty of the Falklands Islands. Thatcher had assigned her trusted junior Foreign Office minister Nicholas Ridley to this task.
The Falkland Islands lie 800 miles off Argentina, but some 8,000 miles from Britain. Britain had colonised the islands in 1833 after a series of political and military squabbles over the islands between Britain, France, Spain and Argentina. In 1982 the tiny population of the barren islands, largely descendants from British settlers, strongly identified with the UK. Indeed, they didn’t see themselves as being colonised – they were British. Nevertheless, Britain had for some time been keen to rid itself of these islands. Thatcher’s predecessor, Callaghan, had considered settlements and had even sent a couple of frigates to the islands to deter Argentina taking unilateral action. Argentina had laid claim to Las Malvinas – as they called them – for a long time and the dictator General Galtieri had vowed to take the islands back for Argentina the moment he seized power in 1978.
By 1982 the junta in Buenos Aires were convinced – not unreasonably – that Britain was no longer interested in the Falklands. This was further reinforced when Nicholas Ridley’s initiative was mauled in the Commons and his talks stalled. Galtieri was looking for an opportunity to seize the islands. The dithering in the UK and Thatcher’s refusal to reinforce the islands or send ships only further encouraged Galtieri. According to Simon Jenkins: “The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, felt his relations with Thatcher were too delicate to press the point.” (Jenkins 2013) Galtieri needed no more signs and just needed an excuse.
In Buenos Aires the junta was under pressure from social unrest and when an unofficial group of Argentinians seized the tiny island of South Georgia, neighbouring the Falklands, Galtieri had the impetus to act. His “surprise” attack on the Falklands took place on the 2 April 1982. It was far from a surprise to Thatcher and her ministers, beyond perhaps the actual time and date it would happen. From 8,000 miles away there was nothing Britain could do to repel the invaders who quickly overrun the small contingent of Royal Marines based on the islands. The Marines put up a valiant defence of the key points around the capital Port Stanley. They had lost no men when they surrendered, following the order or Sir Rex Hunt – the Governor of the Falkland Islands.
Thatcher had known on the 31 March that invasion was imminent. Now that the invasion had taken place and capttured British Marines were being paraded in front of Argentinian cameras she was facing humiliation. She could expect to be forced to resign. She needed a way out of the military and political disaster and humiliation if she was to survive. As Prime Minister she would be expected to rely on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Staff, at that time Admiral Terence Lewin. Luckily for Thatcher he was away and she turned to the head of the Navy, Sir Henry Leach, for guidance.
Admiral Lewin was a cautious and pragmatic man who would have probably advised settlement. This was also the path the Foreign Office was advising the Prime Minister to take. Thatcher couldn’t hope to survive if she let the invasion stand and for the junta in Buenos Aires to achieve its goal through force. Then strode onto the scene, adorned with gold braid, Sir Henry. He was a man with a mission of his own. He was desperate to save the Royal Navy from the impending cuts and the Falklands now provided his golden opportunity. It would also be Thatcher’s golden opportunity. He told Thatcher that the Navy could recapture the islands for her. A reckless statement to say the least, but this was exactly what the PM wanted to hear.
Militarily, Thatcher was out of her depth and deferred to the guidance of her military chiefs. She respected them precisely because they were not politicians. She liked that they stood to attention when speaking to her and gave her direct and straight answers. Thatcher was to also to turn to the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan for advice. The elder Tory statesman “advised her to establish a war cabinet, never quibble about money and always cover the diplomatic and legal flanks.”
Buoyed by Leach’s confidence and reassurances, Thatcher called an emergency debate at the Commons and during it gave a dramatic and rousing speech. The speech, added to by another by the Leader of the Opposition Michael Foot, rallied the political support she needed to set in motion events aimed at seeing through Admiral Leach’s promise. She ordered the gathering of a Task Force, which began sailing for the Falklands within days. This itself was a remarkable achievement and was achieved despite the declining naval strength and the “pandemonium in Portsmouth and Plymouth” that Thatcher’s decision generated. (Jenkins 2013)
Despite stress on the Budget she followed Macmillan’s advice and, in contrast to her strident approach to domestic issues, she always deferred to her military commanders. She also attempted to maintain the balancing act of keeping pressure on the junta in Buenos Aires and dealing with the pressure on her to find a negotiated settlement.
The United Nations and the United States were crucial. She had to keep in mind the UN’s resolutions and she meticulously followed them. This was crucial if she was to get the Americans on her side. As part of this deference to the UN she ruled out attacks on civilian planes or attacks on Argentinian military targets on the mainland. The United States were opposed to the war but the UK needed the US for logistical support. They would be relied upon for intelligence and weapons. Thatcher’s personal relationship with President Reagan was crucial in keeping America’s support when the Americans finally offered Britain its support and publicly backed the British. Amongst other things, the Americans kept an aircraft carrier on standby in case Britain lost one of its two sailing for the Falklands. New Zealand would also loan a destroyer so that one of our own could be deployed in the operation.
Nevertheless, the American Secretary of State Alexander Haig travelled continuously between the UK, America and Argentina on a doomed peace shuttle. He was continually frustrated by Thatcher’s belief that only complete withdrawal by the Argentinians would be acceptable and by Galtieri’s belief that Britain wouldn’t fight when it came to it and that withdrawal would destroy his power. The Task Force would take weeks to get to the islands but conflict was politically inevitable.
Eventually the Task Force was in the waters around the Falklands and started to come under attack from Argentinian jets armed with French-made Exocet missiles. They focused on the ‘grey’ ships of the Task Force, thus saving most of the far more logistically important supply and troop carriers from attack. The Argentinian Navy was roaming the ocean around the islands and posed a major threat. This was the justification Thatcher gave for the sinking of Argentinia’s cruiser General Belgrano. It was sunk by the submarine HMS Conqueror. The Belgrano was outside the 200-mile Total Exclusion Zone around the islands declared by the British, and was actually sailing away from the islands when the ship was sunk. Over 300 sailors died on the Belgrano and the Argentinian Navy retreated to port – taking no further part in the war. The loss of the Belgrano, along with the sinking of several British ships in early May laid to rest any chance of avoiding the need for a land invasion.
The landings by the British were a success despite lack of air superiority and the constant attacks from Argentinian jets. Several British vessels were sunk in San Carlos Bay – where the landings were staged. Surrounded by hills that allowed the jets to approach stealthily and descend over a flotilla of tightly-confined British vessels, the Bay was quickly nicknamed “bomb alley”. The British heavy-load carrying helicopters were lost when the Atlantic Conveyor was sunk (not in San Carlos Bay). As a result 3,000 British troops had to walk or “yomp” some 70 miles across the islands to the capital Stanley, fighting along the way when they met with opposition.
Despite all this, the British troops retook the islands within three weeks of landing. The Argentine garrison in Stanley surrendered after some fierce battles in the mountains overlooking the capital. The islands were back in British hands. Tragically, some 1,000 people died in the Falklands War – 250 of them British, 3 islanders, who were accidentally killed by a British shell, and the rest Argentine soldiers, sailors and airmen. The fighting for the islands, once the Task Force got there, lasted just six weeks. That’s an average of over 40 British deaths per week. We wouldn’t again lose so many in military action in until our involvement in Afghanistan from 2002. Even then the deaths were spread over a much longer period and not concentrated in such a short period. The number of deaths in Afghanistan have been over 450 and had passed the 250 lost in the South Atlantic by 2010. Margaret Thatcher had her victory – at the tragic cost of so many lives and despite the incredible risks she took in sending a Task Force to the islands.
It is thought that the Task Force was the first in modern British warfare to go into war without total – or even effective – air superiority. When at the islands we faced the dual threat from the Argentine surface fleet and the jets armed with powerful French-made Exocet missiles. Had the Argentine Navy not withdrawn to the safety of port after the sinking of the Belgrano they would have posed a continuing threat to our Task Force.
The Argentine jets remained a continual threat throughout the campaign. They sank several British vessels but the junta made the critical mistake of targeting primarily the so-called ‘grey’ ships – the warships. They probably did this believing their loss would be more useful for propaganda and would generate greater anger against the British Government among the British people. Had they targeted purely on a military reasoning they would have gone for the troop-carrying and supply ships. Eight thousand miles from home their loss would have been catastrophic for the British and may have cost us the war. Several Argentine missiles also failed to explode (not having the time to arm in the tight confines of San Carlos Bay), saving British ships from even greater loss as they tried to establish a beachhead at San Carlos. It also seems that the Argentines had a limited number of Exocet missiles when the War began and couldn’t get another batch from France.
The final major mistake by the Argentines that benefited the British was garrisoning the occupied islands with poorly trained and even more poorly motivated conscripts. When they faced the reality of fghting the British Army and Marines in battle they were understandably quick to surrender. Many had been abandoned by their officers as the British approached. They were young, cold, hungry and scared. They saw no reason they should die for the junta who conscripted them. Thousands laid down their arms in the capital as the British approached from the mountains thus avoiding a battle for the capital. The surrender of the Argentine garrison came on the 14 June, just 10½ weeks after they arrived.
I have written elsewhere in my blog about the political decisions that led to the Falklands War.
Margaret Thatcher had taken a huge risk in gambling that Britain would win a war in the Falklands. Had we lost, Thatcher’s career would have been done for. Her Government would almost certainly have collapsed or been defeated if an election had been called. Instead, “the victory dragged Thatcher’s leadership from the brink of disaster.” Simon Jenkins continued:
“She won global celebrity, in both the United States and the Soviet Union, and 10 points were added to her poll rating. She was at least in the lead over Labour. The emergent Social Democrats never recovered. Thatcher wrapped herself in the flag, denouncing all sceptics and crudely boasting the renaissance of the British people as a world power against dictatorship. She received a further boost when the Argentine dictator General Galtieri was replaced by a rudimentary democracy.” (Jenkins 2013)
Before the War, Thatcher’s time in office had been marked by high unemployment, double-digit inflation with public spending still rising – the opposites of what she promised in her 1979 manifesto. There had been massive social discontent in the inner-cities and Britain seemed to be continuing the decline that had blighted the 1970s. Although she was beginning to balance the budget, hardly any privatisation had happened, she hadn’t confronted the unions or introduced many of the policies she wished to. Thatcherism as we now think of it had yet to begin.
The War changed all that. It gave her the popularity and impetus to win the General Election the following June – with a landslide over Michael Foot’s Labour Party. The War had brought out the best and worst in Thatcher but it made her unstoppable and with a big majority after 1983 she could impose her ideology on the country. The political landscape would be changed forever.
The promising development of the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s disappeared. Some had boasted it would win 600 seats. In 1983 it won six. It would eventually merge with the Liberal Party to create the Liberal Democratic Party which would then slowly emerge over the next two decades before eventually gaining power as part of the Conservative-led Coalition in 2010.
As for the Labour Party, it fell into chaos and division as its new leader after defeat in 1983, Neil Kinnock, struggled to rid the Party of its extreme left wing elements. It wasn’t until into the 1990s that the Labour Party under Kinnock, then John Smith and finally Tony Blair got control of itself and once more became trusted by the electorate to run the Government. That wasn’t until 1997, some fifteen years after the Falklands War.
In those years Thatcherism would impose itself on every aspect of British life. Margaret Thatcher could not have done any of that without the bizarre situation of an ailing post-Imperial nation having one last fling of old-style Imperial adventure in a group of archipelagoes barely a few hundred miles north of the Antarctic.
TAKING ON THE MINERS
Thatcher had been a member of Ted Heath’s Government in the early 1970s when it was cowed by the power of Britain’s most powerful union, the National Union of Mineworkers. Their strength had brought Heath’s Government to its knees as blockades of coal distribution centres by striking miners resulted in power cuts. The Government was forced to introduce a three-day working week to conserve electricity supplies and this doomed the Heath Government to defeat when he called an election in 1974. Margaret Thatcher never forgot it.
By March 1984 Thatcher’s reinvigorated Government had announced massive pit closures. The NUM’s leader Arthur Scargill – a Trotskyist and a representation of everything Thatcher despised – called a strike. As was the case a decade earlier a strike would threaten the supply of coal to the power stations. That in turn would threaten electricity generation, the economy and ultimately the Government. Unlike Heath Thatcher was prepared and determined to stand firm against the miners. She ordered the stockpiling of coal at power stations to prevent power cuts, refused to compromise as the strike began, and dug in for the long-haul and for the confrontations to come.
The strike was to last a day short of one year. It was to turn into one of the bitterest and divisive industrial disputes the country has ever seen. Thousands of miners and their families struggled to support themselves while striving to maintain the strike. Thatcher and the Tory press relentlessly attacked the strike, the miners and their leader. Police officers made small fortunes in overtime payments as thousands of them were drafted in from throughout the country to oppose pickets at distribution centres and elsewhere. The Government was not going to lose this time. The worst confrontation in the strike came at Orgreave in Sheffield were 7,000 police faced off against 5,000 strikers.
Thatcher refused to compromise and even compared the dispute to the Falklands War when she said: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
After a year the miners were wilting under the relentless attacks, the strain of trying to feed their families, and from the unremitting hostility from the Government, media and police. Miners began returning to work: in tens, then hundreds, then thousands. They marched back to work from their tight-knit communities, banners aloft and colliery bands playing – often in tears but with their heads held high.
Those very same communities would now start to be ravaged by unemployment and despair as the Government’s pit closures went ahead. The closures were even more widespread than feared and tens of thousands of miners lost their jobs in the coming years. In 1985 the Government closed 25 pits but by 1992 nearly 100 had closed and those that remained were privatised under John Major’s Tory Government in 1994. Many more mines have closed since and in 2015 it was announced that deep coal mining in Britain will be completely gone within a few years.
Coal had been the lifeblood of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Without it and the miners who mined it Britain would not have become the strongest and richest country in the world – at one point controlling an Empire that spread across the world and encompassed a quarter of the world’s population. Under Thatcher, then John Major and now being finished off by David Cameron, the coal mining indusrty is being killed off. Many of the centuries-old mining communities have disappeared completely as the pits that lay at their hearts close and the communities die a slow death.
Thatcher cared little for the consequences on the miners and their families. She revelled in her victory and had finally gained vengeance for the humiliation brought upon the Heath Government a decade earlier by the NUM. Confronting the unions was an important part Thatcher’s ideological plans and the 1984-85 miners’ strike was was a turning point for the trade union movement in Britain. Their power would be attacked further by her Government and has continued to be eroded by successive Governments, both Tory and Labour, since 1985.
FAILED ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Northern Ireland had been an increasing problem for British Governments since the late 1960s when troops were deployed on Ulster’s streets to keep the warring Republican and Loyalist communities apart. Rather than calming the situation it only intensified it. When British paratroopers shot dead 12 unarmed citizens in Derry (another two were killed by impacts from vehicles) the fury of the Republican community and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) intensified.
British Governments of both parties responded to IRA terror with internment without trial, the deployment of large numbers of soldiers in Northern Ireland and the removal of the political status of IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners. Republican prisoners in the Maze prison responded with protests and hunger strikes. Thatcher refused to compromise and restore their political status: “Crime is crime is crime, it is not political,” was her simplistic response to a complicated situation. When ten prisoners on hunger strike actually died (most well-known of them being Bobby Sands) in 1981 Thatcher restored some rights but not political recognition.
The IRA had already launched a bombing campaign on the mainland UK in response to Bloody Sunday. It would last on-and-off until 1997. Violence only increased after the hunger strikes. The intransigence of Thatcher only inflamed the situation more and radicalised Republicans even more. In 1982 Sinn Féin politician Danny Morrison described Thatcher as “The biggest bastard we have ever seen.”
During the Troubles thousands of Republicans would be imprisoned and nearly 300 would be killed. At least 650 British troops, 270 Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers, and 44 Loyalist group members and over 640 civilians would die. Attacks across the Province and on the mainland would shock the nation and outrage Governments. Lord Mountbatten and Airey Neave MP would be among the most high-profile victims of the IRA. It would only seem logical that the IRA would sooner or later directly target the Government and the Prime Minister in particular.
In October 1984, mid-way through the year-long miners’ strike, they did hust that and came close to killing Margaret Thatcher. The Tories were gathered at Brighton for their annual Party conference. A bomb had been planted in their main hotel around three weeks before and lay undetected for all that time. It exploded around 3am in the morning of 12 October 1984.
Many at the conference were still partying in the hotel’s ballroom when the explosion ripped apart the front of the Grand Hotel. Thatcher was in her hotel room. Characteristically she was still working on her conference speech for the next day. The bomb had been placed on the wrong floor and Thatcher was uninjured. Five people were killed and 31 injured – including the Cabinet minister Norman Tebbit and his wife, who was left with permanent disabilities. Sir Anthony Berry MP was among the dead, but no minister or of member of Thatcher’s Cabinet – the IRA’s targets – were killed. Shaken but undaunted, Thatcher said the conference would continue and she defiantly gave her speech the next day.
She condemned the terrorists and vowed to stand up to terror but was already allowing her Government to secretly negotiate with Sinn Féin – the political wing of the IRA. She was to have an important part in the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Council that set up talks between Britain and Republic of Ireland governments. This was to lead to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement barely a year after the Brighton bombing.
Ireland’s Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher signed the agreement on 15 November 1985. Unionists protested the role being given to the Republic of Ireland’s Government, the first such agreement since independence. All 15 Unionist MPs resigned – all but one regained their seats in the subsequent by-elections the following January. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, however, was a crucial turning point in the history of Northern Ireland and the so-called Troubles. There would be more violence and atrocities to come, from the IRA and the splinter group the Real IRA (RIRA) including attacks in Manchester and London in 1996 and the devastatin car bomb in Omagh in August 1998 that left 29 dead. That atrocity, by the RIRA, left over 300 injured and was the single largest loss of life in the Troubles.
Despite the contiuning violence from some elements of the IRA and RIRA, there would be further progress and agreements in the years ahead, under Major and then Tony Blair. These would lead to the Good Friday Agreement (1998) and eventually bring an effective end to the Troubles. Sinn Féin would eventually join Unionist parties in a Northern Ireland Assembly and – against all expectations – the fervent Unionist politician Ian Paisley would become the Assembly’s First Minister and Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Martin McGuiness his deputy.
The magazine Prospect, in an article after after Thatcher’s death, argued that Thatcher’s role in the peace process is often underplayed or even overlooked – overshadowed by the succeses of her successors John Major and Tony Blair. They say that her partnership with Dublin was a breakthrough in the peace process. She was one of the “architects” of the peace process and “played a hugely important part in its development.”
Her aide Charles Powell had fostered the image that security was the most important element in Thatcher’s approach to the IRA when he said it was “security first, second and third.” But Prospect argues that she was more subtle in her approach – as reflected in clandestine talks with the IRA and the diplomacy that led to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
It is always seemed to me that the so-called Special Relationship between the United States and Britain is largely a myth. It is dragged out every now and then – usually by British prime ministers keen to boost their image as a world leader. Don’t laugh, they really do still believe they are world leaders. In reality the United States relationship in Europe is increasingly with Germany and with the European Union as a collective organisation.
The Special Relationship between the United States and Britain during the Second World War was perhaps the most special it’s been or ever likely to be. Even that was put under great pressure after the war when the Americans demanded payment of every cent they had loaned us during the war. Like an impatient bank, they pulled the plug. Britain pleaded – repeatedly for more money – and repeatedly they said NO. They only bailed out the post-war Labour Government of Clement Atlee when the threat of Communism spreading into Western Europe gave them pause for thought. They realised that the collapse of European democracies would hurt their self-interest. They came up with the incredibly valuable Marshall Plan that gave economic aid to Britain and other western European countries in the form of multi-billion dollar loans (with interest and conditions attached). As Andrew Marr says in his BBC TV series The History of Modern Britain, we took sixty years to pay off the loans, the final payment was made in 2006.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s personal and political relationship with the US President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was significant and warm. It was the closest to special there had been since Churchill. Thatcher’s relationship with Reagan during his two terms in the White House was “genuine to the core.” (Allen 2013)
Thatcher had met Reagan for the first time in 1975. He had just left office as Governor of California and was on the brink of becoming leader of the Republican Party. Many underestimated Reagan. Labour politicians in the late 1970s, including the Prime Minister James Callaghan refused to meet him when he visited the country in 1978. Thatcher made no such mistake and she lunched with him, helping to cement a relationship between two soon-to-be leaders.
Thatcher’s relationship with his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), wasn’t so special. Like Carter, she had condemned the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and had tried to persuade British athletes – largely unsuccessfully – to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Americans boycotted it completely. However, she then backed away from supporting Carter’s attempts to impose economic sanctions on the Soviet Union. She was driven by economic considerations. Most of NATO was also unwilling to cut economic ties with Moscow.
When Reagan succeeded Carter in January 1981 it was clear that he and Thatcher were much more in harmony – on everything from economics to a hatred of Communism. Thatcher was to be closely aligned with Reagan in the closing years of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union that was to come at the end of the 1980s. She never got the recognition she deserved for her role, yet “the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 was seen by many as vindication of the political philosophy she epitomised.” As Richard V. Allen continues to say in The Guardian after her death on Reagan’s and Thatcher’s roles in the ending of the Cold War:
“Unquestionably, a major component of what Reagan achieved was mirrored in what Baroness Thatcher achieved. A splendid synergy was created, deliberately and with just that in mind on both sides of the Atlantic. Reagan would often hasten to remind those paying tribute to his Cold War strategy that it was, in the strictest sense of the term, a team effort.” (Allen 2013)
Reagan’s first state visitor to the White House was Margaret Thatcher. During the state visit the President took personal interest in hosting her – even attending functions that would normally be reserved for the Vice-President. Reagan was praiseworthy of her in his diary entry for 27 February 1981:
“PM getting great press – went up to the [Capitol] Hill – some of the senators tried to give her a bad time, she put them down firmly and with typical British courtesy.”
Early in her premiership she supported NATOs decision to station American Pershing II nuclear missiles in western Europe and in November 1983 she allowed the Americans to bring over the first of more than 160 Cruise missiles to be stationed at RAF Greenham Common. This prompted the start of campaigns and protests from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and others that would oppose the stationing of Cruise msissiles in the UK and which would continue after Thatcher had left office. The success of the Reagan-Grorbachev summit in Iceland in 1986 led to a treaty to remove nuclear missiles from Europe – including from the UK. By 1991 the last of the Cruise missiles had left Greenham Common. The RAF base was closed in 1993 but the Woman’s Peace Camp remained outside until 2000 – just to make sure the site was really closed down. The land returned to public use in 2000.
Thatcher’s Government also bought the Trident nuclear submarine-based missiles system from the US to replace Polaris. By 1997, three years after the Trident submarine patrols began, the cost to the British taxpayer was more than £12bn. The Trident issue has remained divisive to the present day as the current Government of David Cameron is determined to replace the ageing Trident submarines. This is dividing the country and will remain a divisive issue for years to come. The situation is complicated further by by the resurgence of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) who are implicitly opposed to keeping or replacing Trident – which is based in Scotland at the Firth of Clyde, near Glasgow. The cost of replacing Trident are uncertain but could be in the region of £80bn. The lifetime cost of replacing and then maintaining a new fleet could be £167bn – though this is naturally disputed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
During the Falklands War of April-June 1982 Britain relied heavily on the logistical and political support of the United States. Had it not been for the close relationship between Reagan and Thatcher such support may not have been forthcoming. America was opposed to the War and was concerned for its developing and important relationship with Argentina.
America’s invasion of the island of Grenada (1983), a member of the Commonwealth, strained the relationship between Thatcher and Reagan. Known as Operation Urgent Fury, America invaded the Caribbean island after the murder of the leader of the island’s revolutionary government. The military action was over in weeks ending with a US victory. Eighty-nine people were killed: 19 Americans, 45 Grenadians and 25 Cubans.
Grenada had gained independence from Britain in 1974 and was a member of the Commonwealth. However, the American Government didn’t bother informing the British Government beforehand. Thatcher was outraged and the invasion damaged the trust she had in Reagan. Although she later told Reagan that she understood his reasonings for secrecy, some of which she had used herself before the Falklands, she never really trusted him the same way again. Grenada was a clear demonstration that the Special Relationship was irrelevant when it came to American self-interest. It was okay when it suited the Americans to go along with Britain’s grandiose delusions that it was still a world player.
Margaret Thatcher’s belief that Mikhail Gorbachev was someone Britain and she could work with was crucial in reconciling Gorbachev with Reagan. Gorbachev was soon to become the leader of the Soviet Union. She had said of Gorbachev: “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Reagan and Gorbachev came together for a summit in Iceland in the mid 1980s. This led to a surprise nuclear treaty, which was to greatly de-militarise Europe. It was perhaos the true beginning of the end of the forty-year-old Cold War. Without the Iceland summit we may not have seen the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union, the freeing of the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany. All this was to happen in just a few short years between the summit in 1986 and 1992 when Germany became one again.
Of this incredible period in European and world history, Richard V Allen wrote: “Two especially forceful and committed leaders on the world stage at the same time: this was critical and key to ending the Cold War, permitting the reunification of Germany, the consolidation of the European Union and drawing our two nations together in a historic co-operation.” (Allen 2013)
Ronald Reagan left office in 1989 and died in 2004 having suffered from dementia in his later years. Of her old friend and political ally she said in an eulogy: “We still move in twilight. But we have one beacon to guide us that Ronald Reagan never had. We have his example. Let us give thanks today for a life that achieved so much for all of God’s children.”
Beyond the Thatcher-Reagan era, the relationship between Tony Blair (PM 1997-2007) and President George W. Bush (2001-2009) has also had great political significance and consequences for both countries. Blair’s support of Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War (from March 2003) had powerful and lasting political consequences for both Blair and Britain. Even here the British were the clear junior party. Blair was simply siding-up to Bush for his own political advantages, as he saw them. His support was useful to the Americans. It gave them additional credibility to their intention to invade Iraq in their War on Terror. Bush used Blair to try and placate the United Nations and deflect attention and criticism away from him. Blair encouraged Bush by offering support and by creating the Weapons of Mass Destruction dossier that scared both nations’ populations and was the last act of politiciking before war began. At the end of the day America would have invaded Iraq with or without Blair and Britain’s helpful acquiescence.
THE “POLL TAX” AND HER DOWNFALL
Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 for a third successive term. Her flagship policy in her election Manifesto was to prove her undoing. The Community Charge was to be introduced as a simpler method of funding local councils. It was to replace the domestic rates and provided for a single flat-rate per capita tax on every adult – at a rate set by the local authority. Every adult in a property would be liable and everyone would pay the same charge. The unemployed would be expected to pay 20% percentage of the charge. Those in employment paid 100%. The Community Charge was quickly dubbed the “Poll Tax.”
The Poll Tax was brought in first in Scotland in 1989, a year before being rolled out to England and Wales – Northern Ireland continued using its own rating system. There were protests and thousands simply refused to pay it. Problems with identifying tenants in shared homes was difficult and many students refused to pay knowing they would have moved on before the council could collect the tax. Councils were faced with huge numbers of “gone-aways” and databases were inaccurate as they were initially based on old rates registers for “owned” houses.
As a consequence Councils faced the dilemma and burden of pursuing large numbers of defaulters. This was confounded by the income from the tax not coming in. There was also a good deal of organised resistance to the tax. It also had a lasting effect on the electoral register with many people not registering to vote in order to evade collection attempts. Most of those dropping of the electoral roll would not generally be Conservative supporters.
Shortly before the Poll Tax was to be implemented in England and Wales, some 200,000 protesters descended on London on 31 March 1990 for one of the country’s largest-ever protests. They combined under the banner “Can’t pay, won’t pay. Demonstrations turned violent with massive clashes between the protesters and the police. The police repeatedly baton charged on horseback protesters in Trafalgar Square. Images of which are indeibly etched into a generation’s collective consciousness. Hundreds of people, including 200 policemen, were injured and 113 arrested.
The Conservative Government and Thatcher had underestimated people’s anger and hostility to the Poll Tax. Yet again Thatcher characteristically refused to back down. Yet again she was right and everyone else was wrong. The Poll Tax was implemented in England and Wales. Anti-poll tax organisations encouraged people not to pay, not to register, clog up courts by contesting attempts by councils to impose a liability order, and to fail to attend court hearings. The BBC suggested that up to 30% of people in some areas were refusing to pay. This was potentially devastating for the incomes of local councils.
By the end of 1990 the anti-poll tax campaigns were so strong that South Yorkshire Police were refusing to arrest poll tax evaders even when instructed to by the courts: “It would be physically impossible for the police because of the large number of defaulters.” Public solidarity was winning out and Thatcher’s intransigence was to cost her dear.
Labour began opening a strong lead in the polls from 1988, even though they had voted against supporting non-payment at their conference that year. One Labour MP, Terry Fields (Liverpool Broadgreen) was jailed for non-payment and the party’s leader, Neil Kinnock, said “Law makers must not be law breakers.” But Kinnock, realising the hostility to the tax would come after him if he didn’t do something, later vowed to abolish the tax if elected. In the end, and with such beautiful irony in light of her use of the term against the miners, it was the enemy within that was the real danger to Thatcher.
Michael Heseltine had been Thatcher’s one-time favourite. He was in successive Thatcher Cabinets until he famously stormed out of a Cabinet meeting and resigned during the Westland Affair (1986). He had been furious at Thatcher’s attempts to undermine and damage his reputation and career. He’d waited four years to exact his revenge and the Poll Tax offered up his chance. He decided to challenge Thatcher for the leadership.
Thatcher won the first ballot by fifty votes but failed to reach the threshold to avoid a second ballot. She felt betrayed and this was only heightened when her Cabinet one-by-one met her. Each, she later wrote: “Almost to a man they used the same formula. This was that they themselves would back me, of course, but regretfully they did not believe I could win.” Of her colleagues she remarked: “It was treachery with a smile on its face,” She realised it was over and resigned on 22 November 1990 and left Downing Street for the last time as PM on 28 November 1990. Using the self-grandising we when describing herself she gave a speech on the steps of Downing Street and, with Denis, left in a limousine with tears of self-pity in her eyes and out of frontline politics for good.
FIRST BALLOT: 20 November 1990
Margaret Thatcher, 204 votes (54.8%)
Michael Heseltine, 152 votes (40.9%)
Abstentions, 16 (4.3%)
Majority 52 (14%)
Margaret Thatcher resigned and would not go forward to second ballot. John Major was thrust into the spotlight to stop Heseltine seizing the reigns of Government and succeeded.
SECOND BALLOT: 27 November 1990
John Major, 185 votes (49.7%)
Michael Heseltine, 131 votes (35.2%)
Douglas Hurd, 56 votes (15.1%)
Majority 54 (14.5%)
Hesletine and Hurd both withdrew, thus avoiding the need for a third ballot.
John Major was now Prime Minister. He appointed Heseltine to the post of Environment Secretary and it was Heseltine who choreographed the end of the Poll Tax. In 1991 the Government increased Value Added Tax (VAT) from 15% to 17.5% to pay for a £140 reduction in the Poll Tax but also announced that the Poll Tax was to be abolished. This didn’t happen until after the 1992 General Election which Major won with a slender majority against expectations. It was the Conservative’s fourth consecutive victory.
The Poll Tax was replaced by the Council Tax in 1993, with the increased VAT rate conveniently remaining at 17.5% despite it being raised to offset the now gone Poll Tax. Council Tax took us back to a system similar to the domestic rates. Properties were now placed in bands, thus capping the maximum that could therefore be paid – an important difference from the old domestic rates which was based on income. Households with only one resident would get a 25% reduction. The Council Tax has remained to the present day with some additional exemptions and discounts being introduced.
LIFE AFTER THE COMMONS
Thatcher returned to the backbenches as MP for Finchley, the constituency she had represented for over 30 years. She retired at the 1992 General Election. She was 66 and said that leaving the Commons would allow her to speak her mind. She became Baroness Thatcher in June 1992 and took her seat in the House of Lords.
After leaving the Commons Thatcher formed a Foundation, wrote two volumes of her memoirs and moved with Denis to Chester Square in Belgravia , London. She became a “geopolitical consultant” at tobacco company Philip Morris – earning $250,000 per year with the same again donated to her foundation. She could also earn $50,000 for every speech she delivered.
In 1992 she spoke out against the Serbian assault on Goradze and Sarajevo and called for NATO to act to end the “ethnic cleansing,” which she compared to the “worst excesses of the Nazis,” and said she feared it would turn into a “Holocaust.”
As John Major’s Government struggled with the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty in Europe she criticised it as a “treaty too far.” She said that she would never have signed it, fuelling the growing divisions in the Tory Party over Europe and Britain’s role in it. She argued that because all three main political parties in the UK were in favour of Maastricht, there should be a referendum. There wasn’t and eventually the Treaty was implemented. The issue of Europe would continue to divide the Conservative Party.
In 1994 Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party. He had replaced John Smith who had died of a sudden heart attack in May. Smith, in turn, had replaced Neil Kinnock after the 1992 General Election defeat – Kinnock’s second defeat. Thatcher praised Blair as probably the “most formidable Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell. I see a lot of socialism behind their front-bench, but not in Mr Blair. I think he genuinely has moved.”
In 1998, by which time Tony Blair was Prime Minister she angered many by calling for the release of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet when Spain had him arrested in London and sought to try him for human rights violations. He had been a supporter of Thatcher during the Falklands War and she was returning the favour. She even visited him when he was under house arrest near London the following year.
In 2002 she came out in support of George W. Bush’s “unfinished business” in relation to Saddam Hussein and the upcoming Iraq War. She spoke of the issue in a book published in 2002 called Statecraft: Strategies For A Changing World, which she dedicated to Ronald Reagan. She also said that there would never be peace in the Middle East until Saddam Hussein was gone and that Israel must trade land for peace.
Her views on Europe continued to cause problems for her Party when she said that the European Union (EU) was “fundamentally un-reformable.” She suggested that Britain should renegotiate its terms of membership or else leave the EU. This is still a familiar idea with today’s Conservative Party with David Cameron trying to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership of the EU ahead of a referendum in 2017 on whether Britain should remain in the EU.
By 2003 Thatcher’s health was deteriorating. She suffered several small strokes and withdrew from public life on doctor’s orders. In June that year Denis Thatcher died. They had been married for 52 years. She wrote of him in her memoirs ten years earlier: “Being Prime Minister is a lonely job. In a sense, it ought to be. You cannot lead from the crowd. But with Denis there I was never alone. What a man. What a husband. What a friend.”
The following year she attended the state funeral for Ronald Reagan, delivering a eulogy via videotape. She had pre-recorded the message several months earlier – when Reagan was still alive – because of her own health concerns. She flew to California with the Reagan entourage and attended both the memorial and internment at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
An 80th birthday party was given in her honour on 13 October 2005. It was attended by the Queen and other members of the Royal Family and leading politicians including Tony Blair. By this time Thatcher was suffering from dementia. Carol Thatcher, her daughter, confirmed this in 2005 – later reported in the Daily Telegraph: “Mum doesn’t read much any more because of her memory loss … it’s pointless. She can’t remember the beginning of a sentence by the time she reaches the end.” Carol Thatcher said that her mother would confuse the Falklands with Yugoslavia and repeatedly relived the pain of Denis Thatcher’s death as she forgot he was dead – a truly terrible consequence of dementia.
In 2006 she attended a commemoration in Washington to mark the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The following year a statue was unveiled in Westminster of her – the first living Prime Minister to receive the honour. She attended the unveiling in February that year. She gave a brief speech: “I might have preferred iron … but bronze will do … It won’t rust.” She also attended, in 2009, an unveiling of a portrait of her in 10 Downing Street by Richard Stone. In 2011 she was too ill to attend the unveiling of a statue of Reagan outside the American Embassy in London. That year also saw the closing of her office at Westminster and in an Ipsos/MORI poll she was voted the most competent British Prime Minister of the past 30 years.
DEATH, LEGACY AND THATCHERISM DEFINED
Margaret Thatcher died at the age of 87 on 8 April 2013. She died at the Ritz Hotel in London where she had been living since the end of the previous year because of difficulties with the stairs at her Chester Square home.
Many mourned her loss and lauded her premiership, declaring her the greatest peacetime Prime Minister. Others joined in public celebrations of her death, expressing personal vitriol towards her. The Wizard of Oz song “Ding Dong” [The Witch Is Dead] became popular on social media and a campaign saw it reach number two in the singles charts.
She received a ceremonial-funeral with full military honours. The church service at St Paul’s Cathedral was attended by the Queen and Prince Philip. This was only the second time that the Queen had attended the funeral of one of her prime ministers – the other being for Winston Churchill in 1965. After the service her body was cremated and her ashes were interred in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea next to those of her husband.
Geoffrey Howe had served in her Governments and his resignation speech in 1990 was a contributory factor in her downfall. Despite this he spoke with admiration of her achievement: “Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as ireverisible.” Thatcher herself once said that her greatest legacy was Tony Blair.
Thatcher had defined her own political philosophy – her very own ism. She broke away from the One Nation Conservatism of her immediate predecessors. She said of her philosophy to Woman’s Own magazine in 1987:
“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.”
Her policies, collectively known as Thatcherism, changed many aspects of British life. As she expressed in the quote above, she believed that the job of Government should be restricted to the bare essentials – defence, and currency for example. Everything else should be left to individuals to exercise their own choices and take responsibility for themselves. This was opposed to much of what postwar politicians had believed.
For example, state control and central planning had won the war and many politicians after the war – Labour and Conservative – believed this would also “win the peace.” Thatcher’s drive to privatise industry and free the markets in her laissez-faire system of economics was a total rejection of such concepts of state ownership and state central planning. She has been inspired by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, as I’ve said in this article, but his ideas were deeply out of favour before Thatcher blew onto the scene. Had other Tory politicians come to the fore instead of Thatcher their Conservative government’s policies may have resembled Thatcherism but they would have been different and perhaps less divisive and ideologically driven.
Thatcher tried to control inflation by controlling the money supply with high interest rates. This led to mass unemployment. Low taxation was a key policy, drastically reducing previous Labour government tax levels. She brought the basic tax rate down to 25%, and 40% for high earners (from an eye-watering 83%). There was a shift towards indirect taxation. VAT rose from 8% to 15% then 17.5% at the end of her premiership.
Privatisation was a central plank of her attempts to roll back the frontiers of the state. Industries such as telecommunications, coal mining, airways and utilities were all targeted in her privatisation programmes. Within a few years the public sector had been transformed beyond the wildest expectations. Yet most of the companies were sold below their value to ensure quick sales at the expense of national income. The notion that individuals would become share owners and speculators soon disappeared as large companies and traders snapped up the shares.
Council housing began to be sold off to their tenants, something she had been advocating since the early 1960s. More than a million people and families bought into Thatcher’s dream of home ownership and share-ownership – all fuelled by the credit boom that Thatcher had unleashed through deregulation of the markets. Mortgages and credit became much easier to obtain and much of Britain eagerly grabbed the chances it offered. Home ownership rose from 55% to 67% during her premiership. But the council homes were sold at massive discounts, creating wealth for some owners as the property market boomed in the 1980s.
In April 2009 Thatcher showed no regret in getting rid of “outdated industries, whose markets were in terminal decline.” For Thatcher subsidising such industries as coal, shipbuilding and steel created a “culture of dependency, which has done such damage to Britain.” Her freeing the markets created what the political economist Susan Strange called “casino capitalism.” Speculation and financial trading were becoming more important to the economy than industry. The consequences of this would be felt at times in the coming years and would devastate the economy in 2008’s financial meltdown.
Despite her radical philosophy – driven by ideology that had been instilled in her decades before – Thatcher wanted to put a human face on her policies. She wanted people to think she was running the country like a thrifty housewife. This was supported by her background as a grocer’s daughter and her belief in Victorian family values of hard work, self-responsibility and respectability she inherited from her father.
Her belief in traditional family values was often at odds with modern society and with her past votes in the Commons. She spoke of families but had supported the relaxing of divorce laws and the legalisation of abortion in the 1960s. In that decade she also supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in men over 21), but in 1988 introduced one of her most divisive ideas.
The Local Government Act 1988 included Clause 28 which forbade local authorities from being able to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It did not specify a criminal act if ignored so no prosecution was ever brought against a local authority. The Clause however was a sign of the hostility, discrimination and stigma against gay people – further demonstrated by government and media reactions to the HIV/AIDS crisis from 1981.
Many people, including biographers of Thatcher, have been critical of aspects of her premiership and suggest she was divisive and promoted greed and selfishness. Michael White, writing in the New Statesman in February 2009, argued against the that her reforms had brought a net benefit. Others have said that she did little for the cause of woman – despite being the country’s only female prime minister to date. Some feminists regarded her as the “enemy within.” Her stance on immigration has also been cited as contributing to a growing racist discourse – which continues to this day. Professor Martin Baker called it “new racism.”
Thatcherism came to encompass her political policies as well as her ethical outlook, personal style, moral opinions, her belief in individualism and her uncompromising approach to achieving her political goals. The moniker “The Iron Lady” summed up her politics succinctly.
Her legacy continues today with the current Conservative Government as well as through the 13 years of the Labour Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. According to Alex Salmond, the former Scottish First Minister, her divisive policies had encouraged, albeit unintentionally, the rise of Scottish devolution and the creation of a Scottish Parliament. From that the Scottish people have increasingly moved away from the rest of the UK. They voted against independence in 2014 but nationalism in Scotland is on the march and could eventually lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. That would be devastating to not only the UK but would be incredibly ironic if it was the Conservatives who brought it about – their full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party.
“In a way we’re all Thatcherites.” – David Cameron on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, 2013.