Margaret Thatcher: The Autobiography (2013) is the definitive account of the Iron Lady. Covering everything from her upbringing to the political battles that defined her time in office, this memoir sheds light on the thinking and values of Britain’s most transformative twentieth-century leaders.
Politics, Biography and Memoir, Historical, U.K. Prime Minister Biographies, Women in Politics, Historical British Biographies, Autobiography, Leadership, Economics
Britain, 1978. Winter. And it’s a terrible winter. Hurricane-force winds tear through the country, trees are leveled, roads are blocked; much of the country is left in darkness.
The political climate isn’t much calmer. Inflation is rife, so the government tries to impose limits on wage increases. Trade unions respond with a wave of strikes.
Refuse collectors down tools. Garbage piles up in the streets. There’s panic buying in supermarkets – with truckers on strike; there’s no telling when empty shelves will be restocked.
These awful months will become known as the “Winter of Discontent.” It’s the low-point of a miserable decade.Before this, in 1973, the global oil crisis caused a surge in fuel prices, and factories shut up shop causing over a million workers to become unemployed.
Throughout the 1970s, both Conservative and Labour governments try hard to solve the crises. But neither of them can halt Britain’s economic decline.
At the election after the Winter of Discontent, the Conservatives are swept back into power. Their leader has a plan to get Britain back on track, to leave the dark days of the 1970s in the past. Her name is Margaret Thatcher, and Britain is about to change, forever.
But before we discover what Margaret Thatcher did as Prime Minister, let’s take a step back in time. How did Margaret Thatcher find herself leader of the Conservative Party in the first place?
Margaret Thatcher first told her husband, Denis, that she was going to run for the leadership of the Conservative party in 1974. He told her that she didn’t stand a chance.
It wasn’t that Denis didn’t back Margaret – no one supported her political ambitions more than he did. It was simply a statement of fact: the odds really were stacked against her.
There was her sex, for starters. A woman had never led one of the big parties, let alone the country.
Now, no one knew better than Margaret that women could get on in British politics. She was a trailblazer, after all. She’d become just the fifth woman to hold a senior government position in 1970. But, she did wonder if women like her could rise to the very top. When a journalist once asked her if she could imagine herself leading the country one day, she responded saying that she didn’t expect to see a woman prime minister in her lifetime – the male population was simply “too prejudiced.”
And sexism wasn’t the only obstacle in her path.
Margaret’s time as education minister hadn’t won her many friends. Charged with making budget cuts, she axed the popular policy of giving kids free milk with their school lunches. She emphasized that it was only middle-class parents who were being asked to pay their way and that poorer kids would still get subsidized milk. But the press’s new nickname stuck – Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.
But even if Conservative party members accepted a woman known for stealing milk from children as their new leader, there was still the question of snobbery. Conservative leaders typically had similar backgrounds. They were wealthy, educated at expensive private schools, had grand houses in London, and rubbed shoulders with the aristocracy. In many cases, they were aristocracy.
That wasn’t Margaret’s world. She was the daughter of a grocer. She grew up above the family shop in a provincial town, and attended a modest grammar school, though only after winning a scholarship.
True, she did study at Oxford University, the traditional stomping ground of the British elite, but her background was much humbler than that of most leaders. Could she really lead the Conservative Party? As it turned out, her biggest stumbling block wasn’t either of these details – it was political. Margaret was a radical – the word people who disliked her used was “doctrinaire.” It was radicalism that put her at odds with most of her Conservative colleagues.
Margaret was born in 1925, and her father’s shop was in Grantham, a market town twenty miles east of Nottingham. Her childhood, she later said, was an “idyllic blur.”
The family didn’t have a lot of money, but it was resourceful.
The ’30s and ’40s were hard decades: There was the Great Depression and then the war. The goods they sold in their store were often in desperately short supply.
But Margaret’s parents prized self-reliance. They saved when times were good so that there was enough for when they were bad, and they knew how to make a little go a long way.
In October, 1943, Margaret went to Oxford to study chemistry. The city was cold and imposing. Its streets were blanketed in fog and the beautiful stained glass windows of its chapels were boarded up – a precaution against German bombing raids. Food and bathwater were tightly rationed.
But Margaret’s parents had taught her that a rich intellectual and spiritual life mattered more than material comfort. And there weren’t many better places to pursue that kind of life than in Oxford. Margaret sang with a Bach choir and formed a study group with fellow Methodists. Her real passion, though, was politics.
Hard work, self-reliance, and private initiative – those were the values which Margaret admired. No faction in Oxford was more committed to those values than the Conservatives.
Margaret threw herself into politics. She took part in debates, gave speeches, and campaigned for the Conservative party in the general election of 1945.
She also started studying political philosophy. It was at Oxford, for example, that she first read Friedrich Hayek – one of the twentieth century’s most influential opponents of socialism.
When she graduated in 1946, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life – she wanted to become an MP and put Britain on the path to greater freedom and prosperity.
In 1946, that seemed more urgent than ever.
The Labour party had won the election in ’45 on a socialist platform and was busy transforming the country. Private industries were being nationalized and taxes were raised to fund a new welfare state.
Labour’s policies were popular; that, Margaret thought, was precisely the problem. As Hayek argued in his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, popularity only makes bad ideas more dangerous. A country that let the state dictate economic life, he warned, would soon find itself deprived of all liberty.
In 1950, Margaret was chosen to stand as the Conservative candidate for Dartford, a tough industrial seat just outside London. It was a safe Labour seat and she didn’t really stand a chance. She lost, but she did reduce her Labour opponent’s majority from 20,000 to 14,000 votes.
It was a great achievement for an inexperienced politician, and senior Conservatives started taking notice. Whoever she was, Margaret Thatcher clearly appealed to voters.
The campaign in Dartford marked the beginning of an eventful decade. Margaret met her husband, Denis, a fellow scientist, and gave birth to twins – Mark and Carol. Her rise through the ranks of the Conservative party continued. In 1959, she was given a safe seat of her own – Finchley, in London.
It was also a conservative decade. Winston Churchill defeated Labour in 1951, and the party would stay in power for 13 years. But there wasn’t a counter-revolution. To win power, the Conservatives had promised not to dismantle the new welfare system created by Labour.
That pledge was central to what became known as the “post-war consensus” – a set of assumptions about politics shared by majorities in both parties.
Both parties committed themselves to maintaining full employment. If the private sector didn’t create enough jobs, the state would invest money to boost economic activity. They both supported the welfare state and agreed that utilities like gas, electricity, coal, and railways should be owned by the state. Finally, they both accepted that trade unions would play an important role in shaping economic policy.
The post-war consensus seemed to work – at first, anyway. The economy grew steadily for two decades. Over a million new affordable houses were built. Unemployment was low and wages high.
Refrigerators, TVs, cars, even holidays – what had once been unaffordable luxuries for most – were commonplace by the ’60s. The “affluent society” had arrived.
But things started going wrong in the early ’70s.
British productivity hadn’t kept up with other industrial countries, and economic growth stalled. The oil crisis shut down factories, causing a spike in unemployment. In the meantime, different administrations were spending huge amounts of money propping up inefficient state-owned industries.
Then there was inflation. Government tried to control it by capping wages, but that meant that workers’ wages rose more slowly than inflation. That was effectively a pay cut and trade unions weren’t going to stand for that. They were also powerful enough to refuse it. Britain’s power grid still relied on coal. So, when unions shut down coal production or refused to load coal onto trains, Britain was plunged into darkness. And governments that couldn’t keep the lights on didn’t last long. Unsurprisingly, they often backed down. This meant that the inflationary spiral continued. Wages went up, inflation continued to rise, and governments found themselves back at square one: negotiating new pay caps with the unions.
It was a wave of strikes over pay which broke the back of a Conservative government in 1974. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath had failed to take on the unions, and the party’s membership were furious – they wanted him to take a tougher line. But Heath remained committed to the post-war consensus. He also refused to stand down until a revolt forced him to accept a leadership contest.
Margaret Thatcher may have been a grocer’s daughter and a milk snatcher, but she promised to take the fight to the unions. That was enough for the membership. They elected her as leader in 1975. Denis Thatcher and the pundits had been wrong. She’d overcome all the obstacles and risen to the top of her party.
Then on May 4, 1979, Margaret Thatcher would go one step higher. On that date, she became Britain’s first woman prime minister. British voters had spoken: they wanted change. But, could she deliver it?
There was a large crowd of reporters and TV crews outside Downing Street that day. They were there to hear the new prime minister’s first official message to the nation.
Britain, she said, was broken, but she would put it back together again. That wasn’t going to be easy – there were lots of battles still to be fought.
Margaret Thatcher ended her speech with a quotation from the Italian saint Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.”
But before the harmony could start, there would be more conflict.
The first priority of Margaret Thatcher’s government was to curb inflation – there was too much money chasing too few goods. As her government saw it, inflation in Britain had two causes.
The first was that more money was being spent than usual, but supply couldn’t keep up with rising demand. Lots of people wanted to buy, say, houses and cars, but not enough houses or cars were being built. As a result, prices rose and people’s savings didn’t stretch as far as they used to.
All that money sloshing around the economy was the product of a “loose” money supply. Interest rates were too low, which meant people had easy access to loans. The state was also injecting cash into the economy by subsidizing state-owned enterprises. Britain’s loose money supply had been designed to generate economic activity and growth, but it ended up delivering inflation.
The second cause was rising business costs. Trade unions enforced high wages and the state crowded out private investors by running large parts of the economy itself.
In the early 1980s, Thatcher’s administration raised interest rates, thus reducing access to credit, and cut government spending, primarily by privatizing utilities and slashing welfare.
The exchange rate also rose, meaning that the British pound was worth more compared to other currencies. As a result, it was cheaper to import goods and more expensive to export them.
These policies did reduce inflation, but there were side-effects. Deprived of subsidies, lots of British firms went bust. Others became uncompetitive because their goods were too expensive to export. Soon, some three million people were unemployed – around 13 percent of the workforce. For the first time in its history, Britain became a net importer of goods.
These policies and their fallout didn’t make the prime minister popular. But she was convinced that they were right – and for Margaret Thatcher that counted for more than popularity.
That said, she had to win the next election to have a chance of seeing her vision through. Would she be able to swing the 1983 general election? In early 1982, that was anything but certain.
But then everything changed. Britain was plunged into a national crisis. It was Margaret Thatcher’s greatest challenge – and an opportunity to prove herself.
The Falkland Islands are an archipelago in the South Atlantic around 300 miles east of the Argentinian coast. Several of the larger islands are inhabited; hundreds of the smaller islands aren’t.
British sailors first landed here in 1690, but the islands were only incorporated into the British empire in 1833. The first permanent inhabitants arrived shortly after that.
Britain’s legal claim to the Falklands rests on the express wishes of the people who live there – the descendents of the settlers who came from Britain in the nineteenth century.
Argentina doesn’t recognize this claim.
Having established a presence on the islands before 1833, it believes that the Falklands – las Malvinas in Spanish – belong to Argentina, even if its inhabitants see themselves as British.
For a long time, the Argentinian claim to the Falklands was a moot point – it was something British and Argentinian governments wrangled over in diplomatic talks that never really went anywhere.
That changed in 1981. A coup in Buenos Aires installed a new dictatorship, but unlike previous regimes, when it came to the Falklands, the military junta or “council” wasn’t happy to just talk the talk – it wanted to walk the walk, too.
That was down to Admiral Jorge Anaya, the commander-in-chief of Argentina’s naval forces. A hot-headed nationalist, he pushed for a full-scale invasion of the islands.
There would be international outcry, of course, but Anaya thought Argentina could get away with it. The country was a key ally of the United States, which was trying to contain Communism in South America. Britain, by contrast, was weaker than ever before. Officially, Washington would condemn Argentina. Unofficially, Anaya believed, the US might just turn a blind eye.
The invasion began on April 1, 1982.
Argentinian forces landed on the islands and overwhelmed British marines in the early hours of April 2. The news soon reached London: the Falklands were under Argentinian control.
As Anaya predicted, the US condemned the invasion and demanded a withdrawal but was hesitant about imposing sanctions on its Cold War ally. Margaret Thatcher’s response, however, caught him by surprise. Her position was unequivocal: “We’ve got to get them back.”
She recalled the words of the enlightened Prussian king, Frederick the Great, who once said that diplomacy without arms is “like music without instruments.” In any case, Argentina had already closed down all lines of communication.
There would have to be a war.
On April 5, 1982, a British task force of 100 ships carrying 25,000 men set sail for the Falklands.
The fighting lasted 74 days. It claimed 649 Argentinian and 255 British soldiers’ lives, as well as those of three Falkland Islanders. It ended on June 14 with Argentina’s total surrender.
It was a decisive victory and a surge of patriotism swept Britain. The prime minister had shown that a British government could still defend the national interest on the global stage. For many voters, Margaret Thatcher had put the “Great” back in Great Britain.
The triumph also suggested that she really was an “Iron Lady” – a nickname given to her by the Soviet press after she delivered a speech condemning Communism in 1976. Both her supporters and opponents came to see her as a woman who wasn’t to be taken on lightly.
That reputation helped her to a resounding victory in the general election of 1983. Having defeated an enemy on the other side of the world, she now had a mandate to complete her domestic agenda.
Margaret Thatcher’s critics often quoted Francis of Assisi’s line about harmony back to her.
They were suggesting that she was a hypocrite – it was, after all, hard to recall a prime minister as combative as the Iron Lady.
She reminded them of the rest of the quotation, which is less well known. Francis doesn’t just speak about harmony and discord – he also talks about bringing truth “where there is error.”
The forces of error, Margaret Thatcher believed, were firmly entrenched in Britain. Overcoming them simply wasn’t possible without some measure of discord.
Britain’s trade unions toppled Margaret Thatcher’s predecessor, Edward Heath. When he tried to impose limits on wage rises in 1973, they went on strike and brought the country to a standstill.
The National Union of Mineworkers played a key role in those strikes. They stopped coal production and caused severe fuel shortages. Heath’s government collapsed the following year.
Margaret Thatcher was determined to avoid that fate.
Conflict with the unions was inevitable, however – they were opposed to her plans to privatize or close state-owned industries. Coal was at the center of this disagreement.
The coal industry racked up huge annual losses. But even efficient mines weren’t competitive. It was cheaper to buy coal abroad than to mine it in Britain. Then there were the recently discovered oil fields in the North Sea which provided an alternative energy source.
So, in March, 1984, Thatcher’s government announced that it was reducing Britain’s annual coal output by four million tons. According to the National Union of Mineworkers, that would mean the closure of at least twenty collieries or “pits,” and the loss of over 20,000 jobs.
The union’s leader, a Marxist called Arthur Scargill, declared war on the government. It wasn’t the first time he’d done that – Scargill was on the frontlines of the strikes which toppled Heath in ’74.
The strikes began on the day the government announced its plan to cut coal production. Miners in Yorkshire were the first to down tools. Sympathy strikes soon spread to other areas of the country.
This wasn’t 1974, though, and Margaret Thatcher was no Edward Heath. The government had stockpiled enough coal to keep the country running for at least half a year and struck agreements with non-union truckers to transport it around the country.
The lights stayed on and the government weathered the storm. Slowly but surely, defeated miners started returning to work. On March 3, 1985, the National Union of Mineworkers voted to end the strike. Scargill had failed to win a single concession from the government.
But the miner’s strike wasn’t just about the future of coal pits – it was a political strike.
Between 1970 and 1985, the conventional wisdom in Britain was that no government could rule the country without the consent of its trade unions.
The Iron Lady had shown that, with decisive leadership, it could.
It was her second great triumph.
The country’s economy grew steadily after the showdown with the miners, and Margaret Thatcher was rewarded with a third general election victory in 1987.
Voters were behind the Iron Lady. The same couldn’t be said of her party, though.
A growing number of Conservative MPs wanted rid of Margaret Thatcher. The bone of contention was an issue which causes divisions within the party to this day: Europe.
The European Community or EC – the forerunner of today’s European Union – had been designed to foster trade and economic cooperation between its members.
In the 1980s, though, there was a push to transform it into a political union.
European states would keep certain powers, but they’d also be integrated into a single federal structure. In some areas of political life, Brussels, not national parliaments, would have the final say.
A key part of the vision for a federal Europe was the single currency. Members of this new political union would use the same money, which would be printed and managed by a European central bank.
The Conservative party was traditionally pro-European. It was Margaret Thatcher’s predecessor, Edward Heath, for example, who oversaw Britain’s entry into the EC in 1973.
The reason for that support was self-interest. The EC was one of the largest trade blocs in the world. Membership, many thought, would help boost the British economy. They were right: joining the EC did help halt economic decline.
But by the mid-1980s, however, some Conservatives had come to see things differently. Britain’s economy was doing well and the costs of membership now seemed to outweigh its benefits. So, in 1984, Margaret Thatcher renegotiated Britain’s contributions to the EC budget and won significant reductions.
She became increasingly skeptical about the EC as time went on, though. The more powers that were delegated to Brussels, the more she worried that the EC was eroding democracy in member states.
Finally, in late October, 1990, she drew a line in the sand, giving a spirited speech in which she rejected the EC’s proposals to expand its powers. It ended with three words: “No, no, no!”
The pro-European wing of the Conservative party revolted. On November 13, the minister for finance and foreign affairs, Sir Geoffrey Howe, stepped down in protest. His resignation speech put wind in the sails of the prime minister’s opponents.
Michael Heseltine, a self-made multimillionaire who, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, had long been “lurking in the wings,” saw his opportunity, and made a challenge for the leadership of Conservative party.
The vote was held on November 20. The results reached Margaret Thatcher in Paris, where she was attending a summit. The news wasn’t good: she’d failed to win an outright majority.
Her control of the party was now in jeopardy. Back in London, she held one-on-one meetings with senior members of the party in her private office. Would they back her through this crisis?
They wouldn’t. And so in the early hours of November 22, 1990, Margaret Thatcher told her staff that she was resigning. She held one last cabinet meeting before informing the Queen of her decision.
Standing outside Downing Street for the last time, she tried to hold back her tears as she addressed the nation.
She was leaving after eleven-and-a-half wonderful years, she said, but she was happy to leave the UK in a much better state than when she first took office.
About the author
Born in 1925, Margaret Thatcher rose to become the first woman to lead a major Western democracy. She won three successive general elections and served as prime minister for more than eleven years, from 1979 to 1990, a record unmatched in the twentieth century.
Published in a single volume for the first time, Margaret Thatcher is the story of her remarkable life told in her own words–the definitive account of an extraordinary woman and consummate politician, bringing together her bestselling memoirs The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power.
Margaret Thatcher is the towering political figure of late-twentieth-century Great Britain. No other prime minister in modern times sought to change the British nation and its place in the world as radically as she did.Writing candidly about her upbringing and early years and the formation of her character and values, she details the experiences that propelled her to the very top in a man’s world. She offers a riveting firsthand history of the major events, the crises and triumphs, during her eleven years as prime minister, including the Falklands War, the Brighton hotel bombing, the Westland affair, the final years of the Cold War, and her unprecedented three election victories.
Thatcher’s judgments of the men and women she encountered during her time in power-from statesmen, premiers, and presidents to Cabinet colleagues-are astonishingly frank, and she recalls her dramatic final days in office with a gripping, hour-by-hour description from inside 10 Downing Street. Powerful, candid, and compelling, Margaret Thatcher stands as a testament to a great leader’s significant legacy.