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When 23-year-old Margaret Roberts applied for a job as a research chemist in 1948, the interviewer rejected her outright. “This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated,” wrote a personnel department employee at Imperial Chemical Industries.
For friends and foes, those traits came to symbolize the public career of the woman who joined the Conservative Party and stood as the youngest candidate ever for Parliament in 1950. She married businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951 and—after a steady rise through Tory ranks—became the first woman to serve as England’s prime minister in 1979.
In a century of renowned British heads of government, Thatcher served continuously the longest, surviving voluble detractors and IRA assassins to win three terms as prime minister and usher in an era of Conservative dominance that lasted until Tony Blair’s election in 1997.
“They say that cometh the hour, cometh the man. Well in 1979 came the hour, and came The Lady,” said Prime Minister David Cameron after her April 8 death at age 87. “She made the political weather. She made history. And let this be her epitaph: that she made Britain great again.”
Abroad she joined U.S. President Ronald Reagan in a tough stand against the Soviet Union, including a highly unpopular move by NATO to deploy nuclear-armed cruise missiles in Europe. The buildup and subsequent arms talks with Soviet leaders led to the downfall and breakup of the Soviet Union. At home she took a hard line against militants fighting British control of Northern Ireland. She pushed a domestic agenda that rescued Britain from its postwar, Socialist-leaning malaise with a strike-prone, lagging industrial labor force.
Along with cutting government spending, she slashed income tax rates while increasing a tax on purchases (the value added tax, or VAT). Then she set about turning over to the private sector utilities and other industries long nationalized: British Telecom, British Airways, and others all sold. She broke the power of entrenched and corrupt labor unions, prompting a violent miner’s strike in 1984 that ended in defeat for mineworkers and closure of nearly 100 coal mines (the rest were later privatized).
Her stern policies led to violence and mass protests. When even her own party threatened revolt in 1981, she told them, “The lady’s not for turning.”
The results proved unassailable: Britain’s GDP grew by over 23 percent from 1979 to 1990 and manufacturing output increased by 7.5 percent during Thatcher’s time in office. Even with the closures and without the unions, more miners kept their jobs under Thatcher than in the 1960s and 1970s.
As U.S. diplomat Ronald Spiers cabled Washington from the London embassy, “hers is the genuine voice of a beleaguered bourgeoisie, anxious about its eroding economic power and determined to arrest society’s seemingly inexorable trend towards collectivism.” Even before she took office, he described Thatcher in the 1975 cable as a “forceful” politician who “espouses middle class values of thrift, hard work, and law and order.”
Thatcher began and remained “the thrifty Methodist grocer’s daughter of Grantham,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy. Her father was a lay pastor who took in Jewish refugees from Nazism in the 1930s, and she grew up a frequent church attender. She called Methodism “the most marvelous evangelical faith” in a 1978 interview with the Catholic Herald.
She loved C.S. Lewis, converted to Anglicanism upon marriage, and even as a political leader spoke often in churches and religious gatherings. The Bible, she said in a 1988 speech to the Church of Scotland, offers a “view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life.” She said Scripture taught hard work, creating wealth, and using wealth not selfishly but to glorify God. At a time of rapidly rising secularism, she insisted that Christianity “is a fundamental part of our national heritage” and championed what she called “the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ.’”
But the courage of her convictions had a political price tag. By 1990, her approval rating in Britain long lagging at 40 percent, Conservative Party members, worried over 1992 elections, forced her resignation. Thatcher had been defeated without ever losing a national election.
It all could have ended more abruptly. In October 1984 as Thatcher worked into the morning hours on a speech to Conservative Party leaders gathered in the English Channel resort town of Brighton, a powerful explosion ripped through the hotel where she was staying. Thatcher’s fifth-floor suite “seemed to lift and then subside,” said an aide, as windows in the sitting room where she worked blew out and walls caved. Thatcher escaped out a back door of the badly damaged hotel to be driven away in a speeding police car.
The bomb blast, planted by the IRA and intended for the prime minister, had taken a toll: five killed, including two longtime party leaders, and 34 injured. But Thatcher insisted the conference continue and gave her speech as scheduled the next day—“defiant but icily composed,” according to one reporter. It set a tone for Western leaders confronting similar threats in decades to come—even those planning her funeral only days after the Boston Marathon bombing: “The fact that we are now here, shocked but determined to continue, is a sign not only that this attack has failed but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
That grit and raw patriotism seemed to overwhelm staunch opponents in the days following Thatcher’s death. Labour Party adversary Tony Blair called Thatcher “a towering figure.” British editor Allister Heath, while critical of many of her policies, wrote: “If only one of her disciples had been in power in the 2000s, we wouldn’t be in anything like the mess we are in today.”
Once blasted as “Thatcher the milk-snatcher” for cutting universal free school milk, and lampooned by comedians, Thatcher in death drew outsized attention bordering on downright admiration. The Daily Telegraph carried a look at “how Thatcher inspired the fashion world,” noting that she described her always-present handbag as “the only safe place in Downing Street.”
As Thatcher’s funeral procession began through London on April 17, crowds six deep greeted the gun carriage bearing her coffin. They applauded, cheered, and whistled, some throwing flowers and most drowning out anti-Thatcher demonstrators. Inside St. Paul’s Cathedral, Queen Elizabeth (attending her first funeral for a former prime minister since Winston Churchill’s in 1965) drew top billing among a throng of heads of state and other dignitaries.
Bishop of London Richard Chartres in his homily quoted Thatcher: “Christianity offers no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that we cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them.” That was the heart of the British leader, who championed a firm moral order, limited government, individual freedom, and the will to pursue each.