A leader revered and reviled

A leader revered and reviled

Margaret Thatcher, who has died following a stroke, was one of the most influential political figures of the 20th Century. Her legacy had a profound...

Margaret Thatcher, who has died following a stroke, was one of the most influential political figures of the 20th Century. Her legacy had a profound effect upon the policies of her successors, both Conservative and Labour, while her radical and sometimes confrontational approach defined her 11-year period at No 10. Her term in office saw thousands of ordinary voters gaining a stake in society. But her rejection of consensus politics made her a divisive figure and opposition to her policies and her style of government led eventually to rebellion inside her party and her downfall.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born on October 13, 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer, and his wife, Beatrice. Her father, a Methodist lay preacher and local councillor, had an immense influence on her life and the policies she would adopt. "Well, of course, I just owe almost everything to my own father. I really do," she said later. "He brought me up to believe all the things that I do believe." She studied natural sciences at Somerville College, Oxford, and became only the third female president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. After graduating she moved to Colchester where she worked for a plastics company and became involved with the local Conservative Party organisation. In 1949, she was adopted as the prospective Conservative candidate for the seat of Dartford in Kent which she fought, unsuccessfully, in the 1950 and 1951 general elections. However, she made a significant dent in the Labour majority and, as the then youngest ever Conservative candidate, attracted a lot of media attention.
In 1951 she married a divorced businessman, Denis Thatcher, and began studying for the Bar exams. She qualified as a barrister in 1953, the year in which her twins Mark and Carol were born. She tried, unsuccessfully, to gain selection as a candidate in 1955, but finally entered Parliament for the safe Conservative seat of Finchley at the 1959 general election.Within two years she had been appointed as a junior minister and, following the Conservative defeat in 1964, was promoted to the shadow cabinet. When Sir Alec Douglas-Home stood down as Conservative leader, Mrs Thatcher voted for Ted Heath in the 1965 leadership election and was rewarded with a post as spokeswoman on housing and land. She campaigned vigorously for the right of council tenants to buy their houses and was a constant critic of Labour's policy of high taxation. When Ted Heath entered Downing Street in 1970, she was promoted to the cabinet as education secretary with a brief to implement spending cuts in her department. One of these resulted in the withdrawal of free school milk for children aged between seven and 11 which led to bitter attacks from Labour and a press campaign which dubbed her "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher". She herself had argued in cabinet against the removal of free milk. She later wrote: "I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit." As one of the few high-flying women in politics there was, inevitably, talk of the possibility that she might, one day, become prime minister. Similar press speculation surrounded the Labour minister Shirley Williams. Margaret Thatcher dismissed the idea. In a TV interview she said she did not believe that there would be a woman prime minister in her lifetime. The Heath government was not to last. Battered by the 1973 oil crisis, forced to impose a three-day working week and facing a miners' strike, Edward Heath's administration finally collapsed in February 1974. Thatcher became shadow environment secretary but, angered by what she saw as Heath's U-turns on Conservative economic policy, stood against him for the Tory leadership in 1975. When she went into Heath's office to tell him her decision, he did not even bother to look up. "You'll lose," he said. "Good day to you." To everyone's surprise, she defeated Heath on the first ballot, forcing his resignation, and she saw off Willie Whitelaw on the second ballot to become the first woman to lead a major British political party. She quickly began to make her mark. A 1976 speech criticising the repressive policies of the Soviet Union led to a Russian newspaper dubbing her "the Iron Lady," a title which gave her much personal pleasure. Adopting the persona of a housewife-politician who knew what inflation meant to ordinary families, she challenged the power of the trades unions whose almost constant industrial action peaked in the so-called "winter of discontent" in 1979. As the Callaghan government tottered, the Conservatives rolled out a poster campaign showing a queue of supposedly unemployed people under the slogan "Labour Isn't Working". Jim Callaghan lost a vote of confidence on 28th March 1979. Mrs Thatcher's no-nonsense views struck a chord with many voters and the Conservatives won the ensuing general election. As prime minister, she was determined to repair the country's finances by reducing the role of the state and boosting the free market. Cutting inflation was central to the government's purpose and it soon introduced a radical budget of tax and spending cuts. Bills were introduced to curb union militancy, privatise state industries and allow council home owners to buy their houses. Millions of people who previously had little or no stake in the economy found themselves being able to own their houses and buy shares in the former state-owned businesses. New monetary policies made the City of London one of the most vibrant and successful financial centres in the world. Old-style manufacturing, which critics complained was creating an industrial wasteland, was run down in the quest for a competitive new Britain. Unemployment rose above three million. There was considerable unrest among the so called "wets" on the Conservative back benches and that, coupled with riots in some inner city areas, saw pressure on Margaret Thatcher to modify her policies. But the prime minister refused to crumble. She told the 1980 party conference: "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch phrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to... the lady's not for turning." By late 1981 her approval rating had fallen to 25%, the lowest recorded for any prime minister until that time, but the economic corner had been turned. In early 1982 the economy began to recover and, with it, the prime minister's standing among the electorate. Her popularity received its biggest boost in April 1982 with her decisive response to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.The prime minister immediately despatched a naval task force and the islands were retaken on 14th June when the Argentine forces surrendered. Victory in the Falklands, together with disarray in the Labour Party, now led by Michael Foot, ensured a Conservative landslide in the 1983 election. The following spring the National Union of Mineworkers called a nationwide strike, despite the failure of their firebrand president, Arthur Scargill, to ballot his members. Margaret Thatcher was determined not to falter. Unlike the situation Edward Heath faced in 1973, the government had built up substantial stocks of coal at power stations in advance of the industrial action. There were brutal clashes between pickets and police but the strike eventually collapsed the following March. Many mining communities never recovered from the dispute that hastened the decline of the coal industry. In Northern Ireland, Mrs Thatcher faced down IRA hunger strikers, though her hard-line approach infuriated even moderate nationalist opinion and critics claimed it drove many young Catholics towards the path of violence. Although she attempted to ease sectarian tensions, offering Dublin a role, peace efforts collapsed beneath the weight of Unionist opposition. In October 1984, an IRA bomb exploded in the Conservative conference hotel in Brighton. Five people died and many others, including cabinet minister Norman Tebbit, were seriously injured. Characteristically, the prime minister insisted on delivering a typically robust response in her keynote conference speech a few hours later. "This attack has failed. All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail." Her foreign policy was aimed at building up the profile of the UK abroad, something she believed had been allowed to decline under previous Labour administrations. She found a soulmate in the US president, Ronald Reagan, who shared many of her economic views, and she struck up an unlikely alliance with Mikhail Gorbachev, the reforming Soviet president. "We can do business together," she famously said. Labour, now led by Neil Kinnock, had still not recovered from years of in-fighting and Mrs Thatcher won an unprecedented third term at the 1987 general election. One of her first actions was to introduce the poll tax or community charge, a flat-rate tax for local services which was based on individuals rather than the value of the property in which they lived. It sparked some of the worst street violence in living memory. Tory MPs, alarmed that the tax could cost them their seats, saw no way of getting rid of it so long as Margaret Thatcher was in charge. She easily survived a leadership challenge from an unknown back-bencher in 1989 but the challenge was just a symptom of increasing dissatisfaction among Conservative MPs over her policies. It was the issue of Europe which, eventually, brought about her downfall. John Major was elected her successor and Margaret Thatcher returned to the back benches, finally standing down as an MP in 1992 when the Conservatives, against all predictions, were again returned to power. She was elevated to the peerage as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire, receiving the Order of the Garter in 1995. She wrote two volumes of her memoirs while remaining active in politics, campaigning against the Maastricht Treaty and condemning the Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. She was forced to curtail her activities in 2001 when her health began to deteriorate. After a series of minor strokes, her doctors advised her against making public speaking appearances and she appeared increasingly frail. Her husband Denis died in 2003 aged 88. � Courtesy: BBC
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