Margaret Thatcher

Lived:October 13, 1925—April 8, 2013 (aged 87)
Career:Prime minister of the United Kingdom, 1979-1990
Leader of the Opposition, 1975-1979
Leader of the Conservative Party, 1975-1990
Shadow secretary of state for the environment, 1974-1975
Secretary of state for education and science, 1970-1974
Shadow secretary of state for education and science, 1967-1970
Parliamentary secretary to the minister for pensions, 1961-1964
Member of Parliament, 1959-1992
Education:Oxford University

Margaret Thatcher became the first (and for two decades the only) woman to lead a major Western democracy. She won three successive general elections and served as Great Britain's prime minister for more than eleven years (1979-90), a record unmatched in the twentieth century.

Thatcher was born in 1925 in Grantham, England. She attended a local state school and continued onto Oxford, where she studied chemistry at Somerville College (1943-47). She ran as the Conservative candidate for the strong Labour seat of Dartford in the general elections of 1950 and 1951, winning national publicity as the youngest woman candidate in the country. In the 1950s, she trained as a lawyer, specializing in taxation. She was elected in 1959 as member of Parliament for Finchley, a north London constituency, which she continued to represent until she was made a member of the House of Lords in 1992. Within two years, she was given a junior office in the administration of Harold Macmillan and from 1964 to 1970, established her place among the senior figures of the party, serving continuously as a shadow minister. When the Conservatives returned to office in 1970, under the premiership of Edward Heath, she achieved cabinet rank as education secretary.

In February 1975, Thatcher defeated Heath on the first ballot and won the contest outright on the second, though challenged by half a dozen senior colleagues. She became the first woman ever to lead a Western political party and to serve as leader of the opposition in the House of Commons. In the 1979 general elections, the Conservative party ousted the Labour party from power and Thatcher became prime minister.

By the end of Thatcher's first term, unemployment in Britain was more than three million and it began to fall only in 1986. A large section of Britain's inefficient manufacturing industry closed down. The budget of spring 1981, increasing taxes at the lowest point of the recession, offended conventional Keynesian economic thinking, but it made a cut in interest rates possible.

During her second term as prime minister, Thatcher's government found itself challenged by the miners' union, which fought a strike in 1984 through 1985 under militant leadership. The labor movement as a whole resisted the government's trade union reforms, which began with legislation in 1980 and 1982 and continued after the general election.

In October 1984, when the strike was still underway, the Irish Republican Army attempted to murder Thatcher and many of her cabinet by bombing her hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party's annual conference. Although she survived unhurt, some of her closest colleagues were among the injured and deceased, and the room next to hers was severely damaged.

Thatcher's policy was implacably hostile to terrorism, republican or loyalist, although she matched that stance by negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 with the Republic of Ireland. The agreement was an attempt to improve security cooperation between Britain and Ireland and to give some recognition to the political outlook of Catholics in Northern Ireland, an initiative that won warm endorsement from the Reagan administration and the U.S. Congress.

The economy continued to improve during the 1983-87 parliament and the policy of economic liberalization was extended. The government began to pursue a policy of selling state assets, which in total had amounted to more than 20 percent of the economy when the Conservatives came to power in 1979. The British privatizations of the 1980s were the first of their kind and proved influential across the world.

For her third term, Thatcher's government created measures to reform the education system (1988), introducing a national curriculum for the first time. There was a new tax system for local government (1989), the Community Charge, or "poll tax" as it was dubbed by opponents. There was also legislation to separate purchasers and providers within the National Health Service (1990), opening up the service to a measure of competition for the first time and increasing the scope for effective management. All three measures were deeply controversial.

On November 1, 1990, Sir Geoffrey Howe took up his position, resigned and in a bitter resignation speech precipitated a challenge to Thatcher's leadership of her party. In the ballot that followed, she won a majority of the vote. Yet, under party rules, the margin was insufficient and a second ballot was required. Receiving the news at a conference in Paris, she immediately announced her intention to fight on. But a political earthquake occurred the next day on her return to London, when many colleagues in her cabinet—doubting that she could win a fourth general election—abruptly deserted her leadership and left her no choice but to withdraw. She resigned as prime minister on November 28, 1990.

Thatcher returned to the backbenches as MP for Finchley for two years after leaving the premiership. She retired from the House at the 1992 election.

Thatcher passed away April 8, 2013.

Photo provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.