What were the defining features of Thatcherism in the 1980s? Why did Margaret Thatcher stay in power for so long?
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a tough road ahead of her when she stepped into office in May 1979. The main factor that was going against her, and that was causing a lot of dislike and controversy, was the fact that she was the first woman in British history to become Prime Minister. However, during her tenure as Prime Minister, her leadership style and politics not only shocked the nation, but also pulled Britain out of its Cold War state. ‘Thatcherism’ became a defining part of the 1980s in Britain, and Thatcher was able to stay in office for eleven years, even with her drastically ever-changing popularity. The ‘Iron Lady’ defined an important period in British history and was able to prepare the nation for the impending 21st century.
The defining features of Thatcherism received both positive and negative feedback from not only the population, but the government as well. Upon moving into Number 10 Downing Street, Thatcher was determined to fix the post-war nation, by decreasing unemployment, pulling the country out of recession, privatising businesses, reducing the power of trade unions, and alerting the nation to the importance of environmental protection. With other road bumps during her time as Prime Minister, like the Falklands War in 1982, Thatcher proved her determination and leadership strength that enabled her to pull through not only the 1983 election, but also the 1987 election, allowing her to serve Britain for eleven years, becoming the longest serving Prime Minister in the 20th century.
Thatcher’s main aim when she came to power was to fix Britain’s economy. When Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, Britain was falling into economic difficulties as a result of the early 1970s boom. E. H. H. Green believes that a combination of increasing unemployment and rapid inflation caused Thatcher to make the economy her priority when she stepped into office in 1979. However, Thatcher’s attempts to decrease the rate of inflation by increasing interest rates, caused unemployment to skyrocket and between 1979 and 1981, unemployment numbers nearly doubled from 1.3 million in 1979. During this time, the Thatcher government also lowered direct taxation, introduced cash limits on public spending, encouraged property ownership, and reduced the welfare state.
By 1982, the economy was steady with reduced inflation and the manufacturing output steadily rising. However, unemployment was still increasing, and it was believed that Thatcher would not be able to make it through another election. It was during a steady economy that Thatcher was confronted with the Falkland Island War as a result of Argentina invading the British-controlled islands in April 1982. Over the next month, Thatcher and the political leaders of the United States and Argentina discussed a peaceful resolution of the situation. The only controversial aspect of the otherwise peaceful war, was the torpedoing of an Argentine ship, which was actually sailing away from British ships. On June 24, Argentina surrendered, and Britain regained control of the Falkland Islands.
Despite the various opinions about Thatcher’s handling of the Falkland War and the loss of 255 British servicemen, she proved to be a strong war leader, and most of Britain were impressed by her handling of the situation. Terence Lewin, the Chief of Defence Staff (1979-82) stated that “from a military man’s point of view, she was the ideal Prime Minister for an operation.” With the Falkland’s victory and an economy coming out of recession, Thatcher went into the 1983 election positive she would win. Her opposition, however, believed she was exploiting the war for political gain to secure a second term as Prime Minister. Denis Healey, the Shadow Foreign Secretary (1980-87), commented that she “milked it for all it was worth in domestic politics – she kept talking about the ‘Falkland’s Factor,’ which means ‘I’m always right.’” The combination of a sound economy, a divided Labour Party and the ‘Falkland’s Factor’ secured Thatcher a second term as Prime Minister.
Despite her slightly increased popularity going into her second term, Thatcher was still faced with problems, but despite the issues that arose during her second term, it has been seen as her most successful in terms of Thatcherism. During the annual Conservative Party conference in October 1984, Thatcher and her colleagues were involved in an assassination attempt when a time-delayed bomb exploded at the Brighton hotel where they were staying. Thatcher and her husband Dennis were lucky enough to survive, but 31 people were left inured, and five people died as a result of the attempt. The Irish Republic Army, whose aim was to take Northern Island back from Britain, admitted to trying to assassinate the Prime Minister, and put a stop to the conference. Despite the bomb being set-off in the early hours of the morning of the conference, Thatcher was determined to continue on schedule, with the conference running on time as planned. Thatcher was praised and supported for her decision, and showed that nothing was going to stop her from running the country.
With the British economy now stable, Thatcher turned her attention towards privatisation and the trade unions. Her ambitious privatisation program saw state-owned businesses in aerospace, television, electricity, and British Steel sold to private investors. More the 1.5 million public houses were also sold during this time, with more than £47 billion made through the process of privatisation. The act of privatisation had increased the productivity of the labour force, and was seen as a positive improvement to Britain. During this time, Thatcher also displayed her strong anti-European beliefs when she managed to reduce Britain’s contribution to the European Community budget. For the Conservative Party, who believed in Britain being a part of the European Community, this came as a shock for many of the ministers, causing several senior ministers to resign from Cabinet.
Reducing the power of the trade unions had always been an issue that Thatcher wanted to tackle. She believed that the unions had too much power when it came to organising strikes, which had the ability to put the entire nation to a halt. Thatcher met with discord from the trade unions, who were unhappy by their loss of power. Things were made worse in 1984 when miners across the country went on strike as a result of the proposed closing of 20 out of the 174 state-owned mines, as they were deemed unprofitable. This strike lasted nearly a year, and demonstrated everything that Thatcher was trying to prevent the trade unions from doing.
In the lead up to the 1987 election, Thatcher visited the Soviet Union in an attempt to mend the rift between the Soviet Union and Western nations. This was a clever tactic on Thatcher’s behalf, as she was positively headlining in the British media, increasing her appeal and popularity with the crucial voters. Charles Powell, Thatcher’s Private Secretary (1984-90), believed that her trip to Moscow helped her win the election. Thatcher’s third and final term as Prime Minister was defined by her economic changes, with the main focus on the Community Charge, or poll tax, of 1989. The Community Charge made taxing equal, with all adults now paying the same rate, regardless of their personal income. Thatcher was heavily criticised for the decision, and her popularity, which had always been low, dropped, with outbreaks of street violence. Alarm bells started to ring for party members, as they realised that Thatcher would not be able to lead the party through another election.
By 1990, many within the Thatcher Cabinet were unsure about the chance of a fourth election win. Many feared that Thatcher’s leadership and policies would cause the Conservative party to lose in the next election, and many of the Ministers would lose their seats. Even though they believed Thatcher would be unable to win another election, they knew the party still had a chance of leading the nation, as long as they had a suitable leader. Michael Heseltine, a former Minister in the Thatcher Cabinet, challenged the Prime Minster for the leadership of the party. In order to secure her place as leader, Thatcher needed a majority vote, plus 15 percent in order to win and avoid a second ballot. The first ballot returned a majority, but was just short the 15 percent. Initially, Thatcher was determined the fight to win the second ballot, but with the Cabinet fearing a loss which would have serious consequences for the future of the Conservative Party, many of her ministers refused to support her, and urged her to step down. On 22 November 1990, Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, taking the advice of her Cabinet who believed that the party would be able to survive under a new leader. On November 28, Margret Thatcher officially left Number 10 Downing Street, with John Major replacing her as Prime Minister.
Despite her unpopularity, controversial leadership, and gender, Margaret Thatcher was able to lead the Conservative party has Prime Minister for eleven years. The era of Thatcherism in Britain has become an iconic and important part of British political history. E. H. H. Green has pointed out that she has been the only Prime Minister ‘whose name has given rise to an ‘ism,’’ showing that, even though she was one of the most unpopular leaders of Britain, her time in power was a turning point for the nation. Her strength and determination was able to push her through two elections that many thought she would be unable to win, and she demonstrated that a woman was just as capable of leading a nation as a man.
The defining features of Margaret Thatcher’s eleven years in office, defined not only the decade, but an important part of British history. Thatcherism was able to pull Britain out of the Cold War as a strong nation on the world stage, and enabled future leaders to build upon her legacy and bring Britain into the 20th century. Thatcher’s politics enabled her to become the longest serving 20th century Prime Minister and made Thatcherism a turning point in British history, economy and society. Despite the negative opinions of the late former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was an instrumental part of British politics, and without her time in office, Britain would not be the strong nation it is today.
 Green, E. H. H. 1999. “Thatcherism: An Historical Perspective.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 9(6). Pg. 18.
 Young, Hugo. 2014. Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister.
 Green, E. H. H. 1999. Pg. 19.
 Thatcher: The Downing Street Years. (1993). Directed by Denys Blakeway. Episode 2, 16:52
 Margaret Thatcher Foundation. 2014. Biography.
 Thatcher: The Downing Street Years. (1993). Episode 2, 16:02.
 Ibid. 20:56.
 McCann, Daryl. 2013. "The Determination of Margaret Thatcher." Quadrant 32-36
 Young, Hugo. 2014.
 Thatcher: The Downing Street Years. (1993). Episode 3, 24:28.
 Young, Hugo. 2014.
 Green, E. H. H. 1999. Pg. 17
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