Adam McGee looks back on one of Britain’s most controversial prime ministers
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the downfall and resignation of arguably the most successful British prime minister of the 20th century: Margaret Thatcher. To ecstasy and delight from many on the left, and despair and despondency from many on the right, Thatcher left the highest office of the land for the last time on November 28th 1990.
Today, just the mention of her name can generate feelings of hatred and love – hers is one of the defining legacies of our times. But what of her controversial, radical and iconic premiership?
After beating Edward Heath in the leadership election, Thatcher became leader of the Conservatives in February 1975. Following the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and a number of economic collapses in the late seventies under Labour, her party won the 1979 general election with a majority of 43. Her unrelenting plan to solve the economic crisis through slashing public spending led to serious revolts in England’s inner cities. Her refusal to U-turn on this led the majority of commentators to claim she was headed for one of the worst election defeats of the twentieth century.
However, as became typical of the Thatcher premiership, things did not play out as expected. Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 and Thatcher’s subsequent decision to send a naval force to reclaim the islands generated a patriotic fever within Britain, which played a vital part in bolstering her support and easing her back into Number Ten with a landslide election victory and an increased majority of 65.
A Troubled Second Term
Her second term proved to be even more controversial as the infamous and bitter miner’s dispute of 1984 took hold of Britain, bringing the country to a halt. Thatcher’s uncompromising policies were based upon the view that the miners would have to go back to work at some point; she would simply hold out until then.
In the October of the strike, the IRA attempted to assassinate Mrs Thatcher by bombing the hotel where the Conservative cabinet where staying during their conference. Five died and several more were injured. Despite this, a defiant Thatcher continued the conference as scheduled, speaking at the first session at 9.30am the following morning with a composed yet austere declaration against her assailants.
“The fact that we are gathered here now—shocked, but composed and determined—is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”
Her ‘coolness’ in the aftermath of the attack won her almost universal admiration and her popularity once again soared to the level it had been after the Falklands War.
Not everyone was so glad of her survival, however. Smiths frontman Morrissey wrote that “the only sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed”. Such was the dislike for Thatcher and her policies that further serious protests occurred, most prominently in the north of the country.
Her relationship with US President Ronald Reagan also blossomed in this period, based on a common distaste of communism and a shared free-market ideology. As these market reforms and her state asset sales gathered pace towards the end of her second term, the economy began to stabilise.
The Difficult Third Term
In the 1987, Mrs Thatcher won an unprecedented third term in office. Her increasingly hard line on Europe and her continuing privatisation policies caused controversy, epitomised by the Poll Tax. This led to opposition from the electorate and increased divisions within the party. Her increasingly autocratic attitude towards her ministers and her willingness to override their opinions led to open discontent within the Conservative party.
On 1st November 1990, after over eleven years in power and three general election victories, Geoffrey Howe resigned from his position as deputy prime minister. This was fatal to Thatcher’s premiership and led to Michael Heseltine, the former Secretary of State for Defence, mounting a challenge for the party leadership. Although Thatcher won the first ballot, she did not win an outright majority (she was 4 votes short), causing need for a second ballot.
After initially stating that she intended to “fight on”, consulting individually with her Cabinet caused her to realise she would not have the required support. On 22nd November she announced to the Cabinet that she would not stand for the second ballot. On November 28th she left office for the final time, making a tearful farewell speech on the steps of Downing Street, claiming how she was “happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came here”.
Mrs Thatcher won an unprecedented three consecutive general elections and was the longest serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century. She is still the only female Prime Minister this country has had. However, her Premiership is perhaps the most dividing in British history. The mention of her name still elicits a sincere feeling of nostalgia and pride in some, and anger and rage in many more. Regardless, as often the case in history, it is the most unexpected leaders and the most unprecedented actions which give us the most to talk about.
Featured image credit: US Military