Is Thatcher a Great Briton? Plenty might say so, but just as many hate her. Even today, twenty years after she was forced from office by her own party, no British figure inspires such mixed feelings. Perhaps that’s not surprising, as Thatcher presided over a decade of wrenching social change.
Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925, the daughter of a grocer. Despite her humble origins, she joined the party of the genteel upper classes, the Conservatives, where she excelled, becoming party leader in 1974 and rising to become Prime Minister in 1979.
She entered 10 Downing Street with a mandate to reverse decades of economic decline. Her leadership style was dictatorial – she surrounded herself with sycophants hypnotized by her feminine charms. With her blonde helmet of hair, her handbag and her shrill, hectoring voice, she became an iconic figure, the poster girl of free market capitalism.
She fought, and beat, the old guard of state socialism, and ushered in a new, harsh era of low taxes, reduced social expenditure and the privatization of state-run industries. Though this left her with a lot of bitter enemies, her policies succeeded in reducing inflation and fostering growth, but unemployment dramatically increased.
In 1982, Argentina invaded the tiny Falkland islands in the South Atlantic, one of the last vestiges of the British Empire. Thatcher sent a task force to get the insignificant islands back, and won a short, popular war. This replaying of Britain’s glorious naval past did wonders for her popularity, and in 1983 she was re-elected.
Now Thatcher’s politics became more divisive; in particular the miners’ strike, when the police were used as a political tool to break up mass strikes by workers desperate to save their industry, caused great hardship and bitterness. In the 1987 general election she won an unprecedented third term in office, but by now she came across as out of touch, ruthless, and not a little insane. Her plans for the unjust poll tax – a flat tax for every individual, regardless of income - prompted mass riots. It was clear that she had to go, and in the end it was her own colleagues who betrayed her, forcing her to resign in 1990.
Ironically, the struggle to remove her created such divisions within the Conservatives that they floundered for the next decade. With retrospect, it’s possible to see that some of what she did, such as breaking the power of the unions, was necessary, and, along with her friend and ideological soul mate Ronald Reagan, she ushered in a new age of free markets, globalization and the triumph of capitalism. But the harsh measures she took to get there mean she will never truly have the affections of the British people.