Great Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, passed away today from complications from a stroke. She was 87 years old.
It is, perhaps, an oddity of British history that their greatest eras tend to coincide with the rise to power of various women. Thatcher was the first woman to be elected to the position of Prime Minister in the history of Great Britain and the United Kingdom. The eleven years that she held that post saw a mixed legacy that will be debated for some time.
Born Margaret Roberts in 1925 to Alfred Roberts and Beatrice Ethel Stephenson of Northhamptonshire, Thatcher grew up overlooking the larger of her father’s two grocery stores with her family and her elder sister Muriel. Alfred Roberts was active in local politics even holding the position of mayor of Grantham, Lincolnshire where the family lived.
Thatcher was likely influenced by her own early life where she attended a prestigious all-girls’ school on scholarship and was very busy with extra-curricular activities. She would go on to attend Oxford getting a Chemistry Bachelor of Science.
Thatcher’s rhetoric attacking the high taxation policies of the Labour Movement and the entitlement spending that goes with it began in the mid 1960′s, about halfway through her career as a back bencher for the Conservative Party. From 1970 to 1974, Thatcher served as Education Secretary, and from 1975 until 1979, as Shadow Prime Minister and leader of the opposition.
During that time, Thatcher was satirized several times, including on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In fact, the people from Monty Python were among the earliest to satirize Thatcher in their skit “How To Recognize The Different Parts of the Body” where they said that her brain was in her knee. Michael Palin would go on to satirize her on Saturday Night Live in 1979 as well.
As Prime Minister, Thatcher began the move to privatize British industry. The results were often depicted as mixed resulting in a lot of surplus work force that could never be retrained into another field and resulted in a lot of people on the dole despite lower prices and higher efficiency when it came to the end products for the people. This shift often impacted the media with movies like “The Full Monty” and was shown as well in the British TV series “Keeping Up Appearances” in the character of Onslow.
While Thatcher’s move to privatize most British industrial assets were met with some measure of success, she famously claimed that privatizing BritRail would be the Waterloo of her career. She resigned just after accepting the arguments about privatizing British Rail. Her successor, John Majors, would go on to undertake that project, only to see it be a disaster.
One of the odd things with Thatcher’s reign is that she may be responsible for one of the more famous gay men deciding to come out. in 1988, Thatcher’s government passed Section 28, an amendment to another law. Section 28 read “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” nor could they “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It stemmed from a statement that Thatcher made claiming that “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” This caused Sir Ian McKellen to openly come out of the closet in protest and a lifetime of LGBT activism on his part began. Section 28 would be enacted, but would only be repealed in 2000 throughout much of the United Kingdom.
Thatcher also oversaw an increase in the violence impacting Northern Ireland. After she refused concessions to several Irish Nationalists on hunger strike, the IRA increased the number of attacks on British interests. The hunger strikes claimed the life of Bobby Sands and nine other IRA members who were demanding political status for their crimes and for better conditions within the infamous prison The Maze.
Thatcher also oversaw one of the few solo wars that Britain had engaged in for centuries. In 1982, the British holdings known as the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina were invaded by the Argentine government. The Argentines drafted everyone they could and tried to take down the British control of the islands. Initially, the war did not go well, but ultimately, Britain was able to repel the Argentines with about a third of the casualties that the Latin American nation suffered.
The success in the war, the rebounding economy and divisions in the Labour Party lead to Thatcher winning reelection.
As with the United States at the time, the Thatcher Government was rather scattershot on the whole issue of foreign policy often supporting groups based less on ideology such as support for a particular economic system, but rather based on whose side they were on during the Cold War. For instance, Thatcher’s government supported the brutal Khmer Rouge despite the group being Communist. Also, while publicly decrying Apartheid in South Africa, the Thatcher government opposed sanctions against the African nation.
As Conservative Party support plunged, Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister seemed to be at an end. She would resign in the end rather than being outright ousted. The party leadership went to John Majors. Thatcher would then remain in Parliament for another two years as a back bencher and finally retired in 1992.
After her retirement, Thatcher would go on to write several books, create a foundation, and remain vocal about politics. In 2003, her husband of many years, Dennis Thatcher, passed away. In 2005, it would be publicly announced that she was suffering from dementia.
The Right Honorable, The Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, is survived by her two children, Mark and Carol, and Mark’s two children.