Margaret Thatcher

1979 - 1990

Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher’s (1925-2013) background was solidly middle-class; her father was a prosperous grocer who became an Alderman of their home town of Grantham; in politics a Gladstonian National Liberal rather than a conventional conservative. She gained a second-class degree in Chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a strident, politically active Conservative (President of the Oxford University Conservative Association) in a left-wing college. After leaving Oxford, she became an industrial chemist, stood twice for election in Dartford, married a wealthy and strongly Conservative older businessman, became a barrister and entered the Commons in 1959 as MP for the North London suburb of Finchley.

Although Thatcher did not become a full free-market acolyte until the middle 1970s, from the start she was influenced by her right-wing husband, recognized the large differences between Conservative and Labour first principles and was on the right of the party, along with such figures as Powell and Sir Keith Joseph (1918-94). She was promoted quickly to junior ministerial posts, then served in 1964-70 in shadow economics posts, where she frequently bested the hapless Jim Callaghan in debate. In 1970 she was brought into the Cabinet as Minister for Education, this being thought appropriate women’s work.

Thatcher was an energetic but conventional Education Secretary, abolishing free school milk deliveries to protect other items of spending and proceeding with a comprehensive education programme in which she did not believe, but refraining from criticism of the Heath government’s hapless economic and other policies. After Heath’s October 1974 second defeat, she launched with the encouragement of Joseph what appeared a quixotic bid for the leadership. Thanks to her able campaign manager Airey Neave (1916-79), she unexpectedly beat Heath in the first round, then won outright in the second.

She was not an especially good Leader of the Opposition, and she was surrounded by colleagues who almost all disagreed with her, but even at this stage she showed the way to a more robust pursuit of victory in the Cold War: “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western World” she said in a 1976 foreign policy speech. This was four years before President Ronald Reagan came to office; without her, it would have been much easier for Soviet-generated propaganda to dismiss him as an eccentric warmonger.

On gaining office, Thatcher immediately carried out two reforms that made a huge difference to the British economy: she reduced the top rate of income tax to 60% from the previous 83% and levels above 90% at which it had stood for almost 40 years and she abolished exchange controls, in force since 1939. These actions alone justified her election and went beyond anything her predecessors of either party had done.

Economically, the next few years were very difficult. The pound rose inexorably, from the onset of North Sea Oil revenues, increased confidence in British economic management and the high interest rates thought to be needed to squeeze inflation. This caused devastation to Britain’s enfeebled manufacturing industry and a record rise in unemployment. “Give me six strong men and true, and I will get through” she said on taking office, but later ruefully added: “Very rarely did I have as many as six.”1 By late 1981, not only did she have few supporters of her economic policies in her Cabinet, but 364 economists, including Mervyn King (1948- ), a future Governor of the Bank of England, signed a furious paper saying her economic policies were a disaster – surely a nadir in the economics profession’s credibility.

Thatcher survived through sheer determination and by an enormous stroke of luck, the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. Had the invading government been nominally a democracy, had it invaded under any other post-Churchill Prime Minister, had it invaded even five years later, when British naval capabilities had been run down, then it would probably have succeeded, opposed by nothing more than British bleating in the United Nations. As it was Thatcher, through sheer determination and courage, and with the help of some excellent military leaders, achieved total victory. At the start of the crisis Powell had said “we shall learn of what metal she is made.” After victory, he said: “the substance under test consists of ferrous matter of the highest quality, it is of exceptional tensile strength, is highly resistant to wear and tear and to stress and may be used with advantage for all national purposes.”2

Thatcher won the 1983 election by a landslide, then embarked on another test of her courage, the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Being both more determined and more competent than Heath, she won it, though it took a year. By this time, immeasurably helped by Norman Tebbit (1930- ) she had straightened out trades union legislation, for the first time since Disraeli’s 1875 Act. From this point on strikes in Britain became occasional and minor events, instead of an ever-present feature of life as they had been since the industrial unrest of 1911-12.

During this second term Thatcher’s privatisations also moved into high gear with the British Telecom deal. Thatcher had seen the inefficiency of the nationalized industries created by the Attlee government and recognized that by 1980 their losses were bleeding the Exchequer. Accordingly, she began privatizing, not only industries that Attlee had nationalized (where possible – coal mining was a hopeless case, so she ran it down) but also those such as electricity and water supply, much of which had been state-owned since pre-war times. While not always entirely successful – the railways, privatized by a half-baked scheme under John Major, were a failure – privatization became a trend worldwide, to the great benefit of the remaining London merchant banks, who advised on transactions.

After a complicated and essentially trivial scandal over the Westland helicopter company which caused the resignation of Thatcher’s rival Michael Heseltine (1933- ) Thatcher won a third election in 1987 with a majority only slightly reduced. In her third term, she reduced the top rate of income tax to 40%, reflecting the success of her work in growing the economy and shrinking the public sector. However, her attempt to replace the rates (property tax) by a personal community charge (in essence the first poll tax since 1381) was much less successful and met with huge opposition.

Nevertheless, by the time of her ouster, the British economy had enjoyed several years of rapid growth with a new focus on services, while both the public sector and the budget deficit had been substantially shrunk and inflation had been conquered. Furthermore, this period saw the fall of the Berlin Wall; her last days in office were spent at a Paris conference ending the Cold War and signing the largest disarmament agreement since World War II.

There were inevitably mistakes. Three stand out, apart from the community charge, a decent idea that was more trouble than it was worth:

First, her settlement of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe question. Rhodesia had declared independence unilaterally in 1965 under a white minority government, but in early 1979 a moderate black-led government had been installed under Bishop Abel Muzorewa. Thatcher should have left this in place, recognizing Zimbabwe’s independence, but instead she listened to President Jimmy Carter, the United Nations, the global left and party Heathites led by her Foreign Secretary Peter, Lord Carrington (1919-2018) and convened the Lancaster House conference, which handed the country over to Marxist guerrillas led by Robert Mugabe, with massacres and expropriation following.

Second, her financial services legislation. The traditional British merchant banks had suffered a miserable time during the 1970s, with high inflation decimating their capital base and not much business. It was thus unhelpful for Thatcher to invoke a Gladstonian enthusiasm for a “level playing field” through the Financial Services Act of 1986 – essentially this put the now midget British banks on a level playing field with no protection against the Green Bay Packers of the New York houses. The result was not pretty. A ten-year delay, giving the British houses time to rebuild their strength in the prosperous 1980s and 1990s would have helped greatly. The Act’s sudden enthusiasm for regulatory complexity also prevented any entrepreneurial new ventures from springing up and further biased the system towards the behemoths. The result as of today is a London financial system dominated by foreign-owned trading juggernauts, with many scandals and little innovation.

Third, Europe. Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988 awakened her supporters to the danger of a unified European super-state, but it came both too late and too early – too late for her to have time to devise an alternative plan for Britain’s future (she had only two more years in office) and too early for her colleagues to wake up to the dangers, which took another generation in many cases. As a result, her last years were clouded by leadership challenges; the first in 1989, was minor, but the second, from Heseltine in 1990, proved fatal, although she was able to pass the leadership on to John Major (1943- ) rather than to Heseltine himself.

Thatcher was untested in a major war but could have matched Churchill’s determination and rhetoric; she might however have had difficulty leading an all-party War Cabinet. However, her contribution to Cold War victory and her economic achievements were beyond anything Churchill managed. Even with her mistakes, she should rank with Pitt, Liverpool and Churchill in the top ranks of this list.

[1] “The Downing Street Years” Margaret Thatcher, HarperCollins, 1993

[2] Hansard, April 3, 1982, col. 644 and June 17, 1982 col. 1082

© 2024 Martin Hutchinson