Why was Margaret Thatcher called the Iron Lady?

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Margaret Hilda Thatcher, was a British political Leader, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and the Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and the first, and to date the only, woman to have held the office. Soviet press dubbed her the “Iron Lady”, a nickname that became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style. As Prime Minister, she introduced and implemented policies of her own, that later became known as Thatcherism.

Early life and first steps into politics

Margaret Thatcher was born as Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925, in Grantham, England. Daughter of a grocer and local municipal high-ranking official, she was well educated and soon influenced by her father to further pursue a political career as a conservative member. Thatcher graduated the Oxford University, where she became politically active in her youth and even served as president of the Conservative University Association. Thatcher first bid for public office in 1950 when she ran as the conservative candidate for a parliamentary seat. She earned the respect of her political party peers with her speeches. Despite her failure, Margaret bid for the second time the following year, but once more her efforts were unsuccessful. Two months after her loss, she married to became Mrs. Thatcher.[1]


In 1952, however, Thatcher put politics aside as to study law and qualify as a barrister. Nonetheless, she could not stay away from the political arena for too long. Thatcher eventually won a seat in the House of Commons and clearly very energetic woman on the rise, she was appointed parliamentary under-secretary for pensions and national insurance in 1961. When the Labor Party assumed control of the government, she became a member of the so-called “Shadow Cabinet”, representing a group of political leaders who would hold Cabinet-level posts once their party was in power. Thus, unsurprisingly, when Conservatives returned to office in June 1970, Thatcher was appointed secretary of state of education and science. After the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath lost two successive elections, Thatcher, though still low in the party hierarchy, was the only minister ready to challenge him for the party leadership and reverse the party’s decline. With the backing of the Conservative right wing, she was elected leader in February 1975 and thus began a 15-year ascendancy that would change the face of Britain.

Margaret Thatcher as the first female British Prime Minister

Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to a decisive electoral victory in 1979 following a series of major nationwide union strikes during the previous winter under the Labor Party government. As a prime minister representing the newly energetic right wing of the Conservative Party, Thatcher advocated greater independence of the individual from the state; an end to allegedly excessive government interference in the economy, including privatization of state-owned enterprises and the sale of public housing back to tenants; reduction in expenditures in social services such as healthcare, education, and housing. She also eagerly aimed at limitations on the printing of money in order to lower inflation; and legal restrictions on trade unions. The term Thatcherism came to refer not just to these policies but also to some aspects of her ethical outlook and personal style, including moral absolutism, fierce nationalism, a zealous regard for the interests of the individual, and a combative, uncompromising approach to achieving her political goals or crushing political opponents. [2]

Thatcher’s cabinets economy and taxation

The main impact of Thatcher’s first cabinet was economic. She managed to lower direct taxes on income, while at the same time increased indirect taxes on consumption. She increased interest rates to slow the growth of the money supply and thereby lower inflation, introduced cash limits on public spending, and reduced expenditure on social services such as education and housing. That sharply contradicted with her earlier calls for high educational standards accessible for all working class children. Some Conservatives in the Cabinet occasionally expressed doubt over Thatcher’s controversial policies. However, by 1987, unemployment was secured well below government targets, the economy was stable and strong, and inflation was hitting its record lows. Opinion polls showed a comfortable Conservative lead. Thatcherism effectively transformed public house ownership by making former tenants once again private home owners. Meanwhile Thatcher reformed local government taxes by abolishing the former taxes based on the nominal rental value of a home. She introduced new Community so-called poll taxes where the amount charged varied upon the number of each estate’s adult residents. That new tax proved to be among the most unpopular policies of her premiership. However, Thatcher proclaimed that the British hard earned taxes would be used for the greater good of further reforms in public services and welfare.

Industrial relations and Privatization

Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trade unions, whose leadership she accused of undermining parliamentary democracy and economic performance bringing the country to a standstill through strike actions like those preceding her premiership. Her government enacted a series of measures designed to weaken the unions ability to organize and stage strikes, forbade sympathy strikes, and rendered unions responsible for damages caused by their members. In 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers began an emblematic nationwide strike to prevent the closing of 20 coalmines that the government claimed unproductive. The strike, which lasted nearly a year, soon became commonly recognized as The Great Struggle between the Conservative government and the trade union movement. Thatcher steadfastly refused to meet the union’s demands, and in the end the miners returned to work without winning a single concession. [3]


Despite the successful battle against trade unions, the true crucial ingredient in Thatcherism turned out to be the policy of privatization. The process itself, especially the preparation of nationalized industries for privatization, was associated with marked improvements in performance, particularly in terms of labor productivity. Margaret Thatcher truly managed to transform the face of the British economy. Some of the privatized industries, including gas, water, and electricity, were natural monopolies for decades. Unsurprisingly, their massive privatization led to almost insignificant increase in competition. However, with some optimization of the resources and facing down trade unions opposition, closing excessive unnecessary plants or reducing workforce by half and redirecting it to other sectors, the privatized industries demonstrated some marginal profitable improvements. Yet, in order to compensate the loss of direct government control, Thatcherism significantly expanded state regulations introducing new regulatory bodies. Although, the results were overall “mixed”, in most cases privatization generally benefited consumers in terms of lower prices and improved efficiency. However, it also led to a temporary unemployment rise and workforce disruption. Furthermore, Thatcher combined the privatization of public assets with financial deregulation in an attempt to fuel economic growth even more. Thatcherism started abolishing Britain’s exchange controls as early as 1979, allowing investment of more capital in more profitable foreign markets and effectively removing a great number of restrictions on the London Stock Exchange. The Thatcher government encouraged growth in the finance and service sectors to compensate for Britain’s ailing manufacturing industry. All these deregulation measures eventually led to the so-called “Big Bang” effect that transformed London into one of the major European and world financial centers.

Northern Ireland and Thatcher’s foreign affairs

In 1984, Thatcher narrowly escaped a fatal injury in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) assassination attempt in Brighton. The organized terrorist bombing at her Conservative Party conference nearly killed Thatcher and several senior members of her government. However, she was reluctant to leave and steadily refused to reschedule the meeting as advised by her security officials. Instead, Thatcher passionately delivered her speech as planned the following day. That act of bravery was widely welcomed and supported across the political spectrum and enhanced her even greater popularity with the public.


Despite all, the defining moment in Thatcher’s premiership was the Falklands war, started on 2 April 1982 when Argentina tried to invade the British-controlled Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Thatcher set up and chaired a small War Cabinet to take charge of the war conflict. She did not hesitate to dispatch a naval task force to retake the islands, as well as to authorize a controversial sink of Argentina’s cruiser “General Belgrano”, though it did not represent a direct threat. Argentina surrendered on 14 June and the operation was called a great success. The opposition criticized Thatcher soon after for the neglect of the Falklands’ defense that led to the war and especially for the decision to sink Argentina’s cruiser. Nevertheless, backed up by the British propaganda, the case and investigation were soon closed, and Thatcher remained generally recognized as a highly capable and committed war leader nationwide. The decisive win in the Falklands war, an economic recovery beginning in early 1982, and a bitterly divided opposition all contributed to Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983.


Thatcher instantly became close ally with the US President Ronald Reagan by virtue of their shared views and Cold War policies, based on mutual distrust of communism. Thatcher and Reagan, who together turned the 1980s into the decade of conservatism, shared a vision of the world in which the Soviet Union was an evil enemy deserving of no compromise. Their partnership ensured the emblematic Thatcher’s legacy of general close and warm support between Great Britain and the USA during the following decades. Passionate anti-communist but also protecting nation’s sovereignty, Thatcher strongly supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Britain’s right to conduct independent nuclear policy, a stance that proved popular with the electorate. [4] In keeping with her strong anticommunism in one of her speeches, Thatcher fiercely condemned communism and that earned her the mocking nickname “Iron Lady” given by the Soviet press. However, Thatcher and the British propaganda actually embraced the nickname and turned it in their favor. She made sure, backed up by her transatlantic ally, that the Cold War would continue in all its frigidity until the rise to power of the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Moreover, Thatcher was one of the first Western leaders to respond warmly to the reformist Soviet leader. Following reforms enacted by Gorbachev, she even went to the USSR on a state visit and in 1988 declared that “We are not in a Cold War anymore”.


The second half of Thatcher’s tenure was also marked by an inextinguishable controversy over Britain’s relationship with the European Community (EC, forerunner of the European Union). In 1984 she succeeded, amid fierce opposition, in drastically reducing Britain’s contribution to EC budget. After her third electoral victory in 1987, her antipathy towards European integration became even more pronounced. She outlined her opposition to EC proposals for a federal structure and increased centralization of decision making. She was similarly averse to the construction of a supranational Europe fearing that it would compromise Britain’s national sovereignty. Although, Thatcher and her party had supported British own membership of the EC in the 1975 national referendum, she believed that the role of the organization should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition. Despite her support for a single European market, Thatcher was a profound euro-skeptic. She feared that bureaucrats in Brussels would seek to force Britain to back away from the liberalizing reforms she had put in place and that the EC’s approach was at odds with her views on smaller government and deregulation. Some of her senior ministers did not agree with these views and eventually left Thatcher’s Cabinet. [5]

Challenges to leadership, resignation and later years

During her premiership, Thatcher had the second-lowest average approval rating of any post-war Prime Minister. Polls consistently showed that she was much less popular than her party. Her reforms were drastic and unpopular as she aimed at thoroughly transforming the face of the British economy and welfare nation. The falling ratings, together with Thatcher’s combative personality and willingness to override colleagues’ opinions, contributed to discontent within the Conservative Party. Unsurprisingly, in 1990, Geoffrey Howe - the last remaining member of Thatcher’s original 1979 cabinet, resigned from his position as Deputy Prime Minister. This final resignation occurred to be fatal to Thatcher’s premiership. The next day, Margaret Thatcher was challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party and after a consultation with her party officials, she was persuaded to temporarily withdraw. Later, she reportedly regarded her ousting as her own party betrayal. She remained a Member of Parliament until the 1992 election but Thatcher continued to hold public speeches and lectures. She established the Thatcher Foundation to support free enterprise and democracy, particularly in the newly liberated countries of Central and Eastern Europe. However, following a series of strokes, she retired from public speaking in 2002. Margaret Thatcher died on April 8, 2013, at the age of 87.

The legacy of the Iron Lady

Thatcher’s death prompted mixed reactions, including criticism as well as praise. However, in her efforts to reshape Britain Margaret Thatcher was truly unresting and persevering. One of Thatcher’s most notable achievements, still in effect today, was the weakening of the trade unions. Furthermore, she convinced her party members and general British voters that she would put their hard-earned taxes to great use in often unpopular and controversial reforms in public services, whilst appeasing their fears about immigration and mistrust of everything in Europe by negotiating rebates and exclusions from the EU and imposing stronger border controls. That forced the other member states, particularly France, to effectively pay more to offset Britain’s rebate - an outcome that increased her popularity at home but made her even more unpopular and further alienated in Europe. Her efforts to introduce massive government deregulation and promoting individualistic instead of collective society, resulted in the fact that speculation and financial trading became more important to the economy than industry and manufacturing. Moreover, Thatcher style deregulation of the financial markets has contributed to, if not caused, many of today’s world problems: the irresponsible risk taking behavior of many leading banks as well as the inadequate governmental regulation of Wall Street, the City of London and other stock markets around the globe. Nevertheless, despite all questionable or controversial Thatcherism policies, the Iron Lady altered the course of post-war Britain and Europe. As the leader of the Conservative Party, she consolidated a determined skepticism of European integration, setting the stage for the U.K.’s ongoing efforts to keep its distance from the European Union, making it more pro-US and anti-EU. She also liberalized the British economy and set a gold standard for Anglo-American relations, forging a close solid relationship between the two Superpowers. Perhaps most of all the United States recognized Thatcher as a Churchillian figure that stood alongside America in times of conflict and largely supported NATO and US foreign policy. Teamwork between London and Washington helped guide the course of the Cold War to a peaceful end, which was Thatcher’s most obvious achievement on the world stage. Clearly, she sought to change East/West relations based on both the western ideological reasons and clear economic agenda for growth through opening up new markets for trade among Britain, the USA, Europe and Russia.

Unsurprisingly, the Iron Lady remained a political force and government advisor in retirement. She continued to influence internal Conservative Party policies, and Thatcherism shaped even the priorities of the opposition Labor Party, which she had kept out of office for more than a decade. “Time” magazine named Thatcher one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century as well as the fourth-greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th century. In 2002, though some 20 years past her official resignation, she was still ranked 16th in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
  1. Margaret Thatcher: Early political career - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Thatcher
  2. Margaret Thatcher: Britain's First Female Premier - http://www.biography.com/people/margaret-thatcher-9504796#britains-first-female-premier
  3. Margaret Thatcher: Prime minister of United Kingdom - http://www.britannica.com/biography/Margaret-Thatcher
  4. Foreign policies and anticommunism approach - http://www.britannica.com/biography/Margaret-Thatcher
  5. Stepney, P. (2013) The Legacy of Margaret Thatcher - A Critical Assessment, University of Tampere, 135-142 - http://file.scirp.org/pdf/JSS_2014011315063698.pdf
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