In the 1960s, while the British feminist movement was burning its bras, Margaret Thatcher was challenging the gender barrier within the Conservative Party.
She led the party in opposition and in 1979 became Britain’s first female prime minister.
She inherited an economy in chaos that made the country the ‘Sick Man of Europe.’ Her first job was to turn that around.What followed is known as Thatcherism. This meant privatisation, budget cuts and limiting trade union influence.
She stood eyeball to eyeball with union leaders and despite the long strikes, it was they who blinked first. She had beaten what she called “the enemy within.”
Thatcher’s quotable quotes
- “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” – as Education Secretary in 1973, six years before becoming Britain’s first, and so far only, woman prime minister
- “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” – Quoting St Francis of Assisi after her 1979 election victory
- “I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.” – 1979
- “I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say.” – 1980
- “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” – On the 1984-85 miners’ strike which provoked some of the fiercest union opposition to her economic policies
- “We are not asking for a penny piece of community money for Britain. What we are asking is for a very large amount of our own money back, over and above what we contribute to the community, which is covered by our receipts from the community.”- At a European Economic Community summit 1979
- “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” – 1980 Conservative Party conference, to colleagues urging her to soften her economic policies that were blamed for high unemployment
- “This is a day I was not meant to see.” – To reporters the day after surviving a deadly 1984 Irish Republican Army bomb attack on the Conservative Party conference
- “We have become a grandmother.” – On the birth of her first grandchild, 1989
- “No! No! No!” At the House of Commons in 1990, the climax of an anti-European outburst that moved Geoffrey Howe to quit as deputy prime minister and deliver a resignation speech which called for her to be challenged for her job
- “I fight on, I fight to win.” – In November 1990, after failing to win enough votes to avoid a second round in the Conservative leadership contest. She resigned the next day
- “It’s a funny old world” – On her decision to quit in 1990
Thatcher was just as merciless with her enemies abroad: the Argentine invasion of the Falklands met with a crushing response and the patriotic fervour it inspired at home swept Thatcher into a second term.
President Ronald Reagan proved an ideal partner on the international scene. They shared an ultra-liberal economic ideology and were even able to bring on board Mikhail Gorbachev. After her first meeting with the reformist Soviet leader, she reported back to Reagan, telling him “we can do business together”.
Relations with leaders in Europe though were nowhere near as friendly.
Thatcher believed the European Community as it was then should be about free trade and competition and nothing more. She saw Brussels bureaucracy as a threat to smaller London government. Disputes over Europe within the Conservative Party were a major factor in her eventual fall from power. She narrowly won a first-round party leadership vote in 1990 but it became clear to her that it was time to go. On November 28, she stood down.
Thatcher moved into the House of Lords but maintained a quiet but reverential influence over the party she had led and changed.
She withdrew from political life in 2002. A year later came the death of her husband Denis. The Iron Lady’s public appearances became fewer and further between.
In 2004 she lost another close friend, Ronald Reagan. Despite having suffered several small strokes she attended the state funeral in Washington. In 2006 Thatcher said she was “greatly saddened” by the death of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He had helped her in the Falklands invasion and the two had remained friends, with her turning a blind eye to mounting accusations of human rights abuses in Chile.
One of her last public outings saw her back in Downing Street, with Prime minister Gordon Brown, where her choice of Labour Red dress got the press excited even after all those years.
Thatcher changed not only her own Conservative Party but also its bitter rival. Labour had to become New Labour in order to become palatable to the British electorate.
Like any political colossus, she was present even after leaving the room.