Margaret Roberts, the daughter of a grocer, Alfred Roberts, was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, on 13th October, 1925. She was educated at the Kesteven & Grantham Girls' School, and at 17 she won a place to study chemistry at Somerville College, where she was tutored by the future Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin.
After graduating in 1947 from Oxford University she worked as a research chemist. Later she studied law and eventually became a barrister. A member of the Conservative Party, Thatcher was adopted as the parliamentary candidate for Dartford. In the 1950 General Election she argued: "We are going into one of the biggest battles this country has ever known - a battle between two ways of life, one which leads inevitably to slavery and the other to freedom. Our opponents like to try and make you believe that Conservatism is a privilege of the few. But Conservatism conserves all that is great and best in our national heritage. What is one of the first tenets of Conservatism? It is that of national unity. We say one nation, not one class against another. You cannot build a great nation or a brotherhood of man by spreading envy or hatred."
On 13th December, 1951 she married Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman. In 1953, their twins, Mark and Carol, were born. She was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1954 and was elected to represent the safe-seat of Finchley in October 1959. Two years later she joined the government of Harold Macmillan as joint parliamentary secretary for Pensions and National Insurance.
The Conservative Party was defeated in the 1964 General Election and Harold Wilson became the new prime minister. Edward Heath, the new leader of the Conservatives, appointed her as Opposition Spokesman on Pensions and National Insurance. She later held opposition posts on Housing (October 1965), Treasury (April 1966), Fuel and Power (October 1967), Transport (November, 1968) and Education (October, 1969).
Following the Conservative victory in the 1970 General Election, Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education and Science. In October 1970 she created great controversy by bringing an end to free school milk for children over seven and increasing school meal charges. However, she did allow the previous government's plan to establish the Open University to go ahead. She explained in her autobiography, The Path to Power (1995): "I thought that it was an inexpensive way of giving wider access to higher education, because I thought that trainee teachers in particular would benefit from it, because I was alert to the opportunities offered by technology to bring the best teaching to schoolchildren and students, and above all because it gave people a second chance in life. In any case, the university was due to take its first students that autumn, and cancellation would have been both expensive and a blow to many hopes. On condition that I agreed to reduce the immediate intake of students and find other savings, my Cabinet colleagues allowed the Open University to go ahead."
Edward Heath, the prime minister, came into conflict with the trade unions over his attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy. His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to industrial disputes. In 1973 a miners' work-to-rule led to regular power cuts and the imposition of a three day week. Heath called a general election in 1974 on the issue of "who rules". He failed to get a majority and Harold Wilson and the Labour Party were returned to power.
In January 1975 Thatcher challenged Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party. She explained: "I felt sorry for Ted Heath personally. He had his music and a small circle of friends, but politics was his life.... Nonetheless, I had no doubt that Ted now ought to go. He had lost three elections out of four. He himself could not change and he was too defensive of his own past record to see that a fundamental change of policies was needed." On 4th February Thatcher defeated Heath by 130 votes to 119 and became the first woman leader of a major political party. Heath took the defeat badly and refused to serve in Thatcher's shadow cabinet.
Her election was welcomed by The Daily Telegraph: "What kind of leadership Mrs Thatcher will provide remains to be seen. But one thing is clear enough at this stage. Mrs Thatcher is a bonny fighter. She believes in the ethic of hard work and big rewards for success. She has risen from humble origins by effort and ability and courage. She owes nothing to inherited wealth or privilege. She ought not to suffer, therefore, from that fatal and characteristic twentieth-century Tory defect of guilt about wealth. All too often this has meant that the Tories have felt themselves to be at a moral disadvantage in the defence of capitalism against socialism. This is one reason why Britain has travelled so far down the collectivist road. What Mrs Thatcher ought to be able to offer is the missing moral dimension to the Tory attack on socialism. If she does so, her accession to the leadership could mark a sea-change in the whole character of the party political debate in this country."
James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as prime minister on 16th March 1976. Thatcher gradually adopted a more right-wing political programme placing considerable emphasis on the market economy. In January 1978 she was condemned for making a speech where she claimed that people feared being "swamped" by immigrants.
In 1978 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, controversially began imposing tight monetary controls. This included deep cuts in public spending on education and health. Critics claimed that this laid the foundations of what became known as monetarism. In 1978 these public spending cuts led to a wave of strikes (winter of discontent) and the Labour Party was easily defeated in the 1979 General Election.
Thatcher now became the first woman in Britain to become prime minister. Thatcher's government continued the monetarist policies introduced by Denis Healey. As Anne Perkins has pointed out: "Although monetarism had already been forced upon the preceding Labour government by the International Monetary Fund, under Thatcher it was presented as a crusade... In the first budget of the administration, VAT was nearly doubled to 15% while personal taxes were slashed – the top rate of income tax from 83% to 60%, and the standard rate from 33% to 30%. Over the next 10 years, the standard rate came down to 25%, and the top rate to 40%."
Inflation was reduced but unemployment doubled between 1979 and 1980. In 1981, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced further public spending cuts. Larry Elliott has argued: "To her detractors, Thatcher is the prime minister who wiped out more than 15% of Britain's industrial base with her dogmatic monetarism, squandered the once-in-a-lifetime windfall of North Sea oil on unemployment pay and tax cuts, and made the UK the unbalanced, unequal country it is today." During this period public opinion polls suggested that Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister in British history.
Thatcher's government also raised money by a programme of privatization. This included the denationalization of British Telecom, British Airways, Rolls Royce and British Steel. The political commentator, Anne Perkins, has suggested: "Privatisation, which came to be a fundamental of the Thatcherite mission, was only hinted at in 1979, and in the depression of the early 1980s caution prevailed. When the ailing nationalised motor manufacturer British Leyland ran into trouble in early 1980, Joseph, then Thatcher's industry minister, bailed it out like a Heathite. Nonetheless, in 1980-81 more than £400m was raised from selling shares in companies such as Ferranti and Cable and Wireless. Later came North Sea oil (Britoil) and British Ports, and from late 1984 the major sales of British Telecom, British Gas and British Airways, culminating at the end of the decade in water and electricity. By this time these sales were raising more than £5bn a year."
On 2nd April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The following day the United Nations passed resolution 502 demanding that Argentina withdrew from the Falklands. On 5th April the British Navy left Portsmouth for the Falklands. Britain declared a 200 mile exclusion zone around the Falklands and on 2nd May 1982 the Argentinean battleship General Belgrano was sunk. Two days later HMS Sheffield was hit by an exocet missile.
British troops landed on the Falkland Islands at San Carlos on 21st May. Fighting continued until Port Stanley was captured and Argentina surrendered on 14th June 1982. Thatcher's personal popularity was greatly boosted by the successful outcome of the war and the Conservative Party won the 1983 General Election with a majority of 144.
Thatcher gave support to any right-wing military dictatorship that kept the left from power. This included figures such as Augusto Pinochet. Thatcher also refused to criticise Apartheid in South Africa and described Nelson Mandela as a "terrorist". Michael White pointed out this was a sign that she had underestimated the changes that were taking place in the world: "A further sign of Thatcher losing her grip came when, as a frequent defender of the apartheid regime in South Africa, she dismissed Nelson Mandela as a 'terrorist' not long before he emerged from prison to become the hero of the peaceful transition to majority rule."
Thatcher developed a close relationship with President Ronald Reagan. They both agreed to take a firm stance with the Soviet Union. This resulted in her being dubbed the Iron Lady. However, Thatcher was furious in November 1983 when the United States invaded the British dependency of Grenada without prior consultation.
Thatcher's government continued its policy of reducing the power of the trade unions. Sympathy strikes and the closed shop was banned. Union leaders had to ballot members on strike action and unions were responsible for the actions of its members. The government took a firm stand against industrial disputes and the miners' strike that began in 1984 lasted for 12 months without success. This was followed by mass closures of mines and ultimately privatisation.
As Seumas Milne has pointed out: "The 1984-5 strike, the decisive social and economic confrontation of Britain's postwar era, is how we got where we are today. A generation on, it is now even clearer than it was at the time why the year-long struggle over the country's energy supply took place, and what interests were really at stake... It was about using the battering ram of state power to break the single greatest obstacle to the transformation of the economy in the interests of corporate privilege and wealth that Margaret Thatcher was determined to carry out. The offensive ushered in the full-blown neoliberal model that has failed to deliver for the majority, generated inequality and insecurity on a huge scale, and imploded with such disastrous consequences five-and-a-half years ago. For the miners, the strike was a defensive battle for jobs and communities. But it also raised the alternative of a different kind of Britain, rooted in solidarity and collective action. The crippling of the country's most powerful union opened the way for the systematic deregulation of the labour market – and the zero-hours contracts, falling real wages, payday loans and food banks we are living with today."
Hugo Young has argued: "I think by far her greatest virtue, in retrospect, is how little she cared if people liked her. She wanted to win, but did not put much faith in the quick smile.... This is a style whose absence is much missed. It accounted for a large part of the mark Thatcher left on Britain. Her unforgettable presence, but also her policy achievements. Mobilising society, by rule of law, against the trade union bosses was undoubtedly an achievement. For the most part, it has not been undone. Selling public housing to the tenants who occupied it was another, on top of the denationalisation of industries and utilities once thought to be ineluctably and for ever in the hands of the state. Neither shift of ownership and power would have happened without a leader prepared to take risks with her life. Each now seems banal. In the prime Thatcher years they required a severity of will to carry through that would now, if called on, be wrapped in so many cycles of deluding spin as to persuade us it hadn't really happened."
Others were much more critical of Margaret Thatcher. Andy McSmith has suggested: "This outsider's mentality made her admired - worshipped, almost - by members of the Conservative Party and its core supporters.... But to a very large minority of Britons - if not the majority - she was an increasingly unappealing embodiment of unfeeling middle-class self-righteousness. While it was her hostility to her fellow Europeans that most damaged her relations with senior Cabinet colleagues, what turned the public against her was the apparent glee with which she rode roughshod over sections of society, such as the miners and the unemployed."
At the funeral of Konstantin Chernenko on 13th March 1985, Thatcher met the new leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Thatcher's views on the Soviet Union changed after Gorbachev announced his new policy of Perestroika (Restructuring). This heralded a series of liberalizing economic, political and cultural reforms which had the aim of making the Soviet economy more efficient. Gorbachev also introduced policies with the intention of establishing a market economy by encouraging the private ownership of Soviet industry and agriculture.
At a meeting on 13th November 1985, Thatcher rejected the idea of entering the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. However, the following month she attended the Luxembourg European Council and during the meeting Thatcher agreed to sign the Single European Act. In April 1986 Thatcher was widely criticized for giving permission for US bombers to take off from Britain to bomb Libya following a series of Libyan inspired terrorist attacks.
Thatcher was returned to power for a third time when she won the 1987 General Election with a majority of 102 seats. The following year she became Britain's longest serving prime minister for over a hundred years. However, her popularity was severely damaged when the Community Charge (Poll Tax) was introduced in Scotland in April 1989 (the rest of Britain was to follow a year later). The new tax was extremely unpopular and led to public demonstrations.
In November 1990 Thatcher was challenged as leader of the Conservative Party. She won the first round of the contest but the majority is not enough to prevent a second round. On 28th November, 1990, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister and was replaced by John Major. The Daily Telegraph, who supported her throughout her premiership commented: "Margaret Thatcher was the only British prime minister to leave behind a set of ideas about the role of the state which other leaders and nations strove to copy and apply. Monetarism, privatisation, deregulation, small government, lower taxes and free trade - all these features of the modern globalised economy were crucially promoted as a result of the policy prescriptions she employed to reverse Britain’s economic decline."
The command economy required in wartime conditions had habituated many people to an essentially socialist mentality. Within the Armed Forces it was common knowledge that left-wing intellectuals had exerted a powerful influence through the Army Education Corps, which as Nigel Birch observed was "the only regiment with a general election among its battle honours". At home, broadcasters like J.B. Priestley gave a comfortable yet idealistic gloss to social progress in a left-wing direction. It is also true that Conservatives, with Churchill in the lead, were so preoccupied with the urgent imperatives of war that much domestic policy, and in particular the drawing-up of the agenda for peace, fell largely to the socialists in the Coalition Government. Churchill himself would have liked to continue the National Government at least until Japan had been beaten and, in the light of the fast-growing threat from the Soviet Union, perhaps beyond then. But the Labour Party had other thoughts and understandably wished to come into its own collectivist inheritance.
In I945 therefore, we Conservatives found ourselves confronting two serious and, as it turned out, insuperable problems. First, the Labour Party had us fighting on their ground and were always able to outbid us. Churchill had been talking about post-war "reconstruction" for some two years, and as part of that programme Rab Butler's Education Act was on the Statute Book. Further, our manifesto committed us to the so-called 'full employment' policy of the 1944 Employment White Paper, a massive house-building programme, most of the proposals for National Insurance benefits made by the great Liberal social reformer Lord Beveridge and a comprehensive National Health Service. Moreover, we were not able effectively to take the credit (so far as this was in any case appropriate to the Conservative Party) for victory, let alone to castigate Labour for its irresponsibility and extremism, because Attlee and his colleagues had worked cheek by jowl with the Conservatives in government since 1940. In any event, the war effort had involved the whole population.
I vividly remember sitting in the student common room in Somerville listening to Churchill's famous (or notorious) election broadcast to the effect that socialism would require "some sort of Gestapo" to enforce it, and thinking, "He's gone too far." However logically unassailable the connection between socialism and coercion was, in our present circumstances the line would not be credible. I knew from political argument on similar lines at an election meeting in Oxford what the riposte would be: "Who's run the country when Mr Churchill's been away? Mr Attlee." And such, I found, was the reaction now.
We are going into one of the biggest battles this country has ever known - a battle between two ways of life, one which leads inevitably to slavery and the other to freedom. Our opponents like to try and make you believe that Conservatism is a privilege of the few. But Conservatism conserves all that is great and best in our national heritage. What is one of the first tenets of Conservatism? It is that of national unity. We say one nation, not one class against another. You cannot build a great nation or a brotherhood of man by spreading envy or hatred.
Our policy is not built on envy or hatred, but on liberty for the individual man or woman. It is not our policy to suppress success: our policy is to encourage it and encourage energy and initiative. In 1940 it was not the cry of nationalization that made this country rise up and fight totalitarianism. It was the cry for freedom and liberty.
Reggie Maudling was thought to have the better chance. Although his performance as Chancellor of the Exchequer had incurred serious and in some ways justified criticism, there was no doubting Reggie's experience, brilliant intellect and command of the House. His main weakness, which grew more evident in later years, was a certain laziness - something which is a frequent temptation to those who know that they are naturally and effortlessly cleverer than those around them.
Ted had a very different character. He too had a very well organized mind. He was methodical, forceful and, at least on the one question which mattered to him above all others - Europe - a man of unyielding determination. As Shadow Chancellor he had the opportunity to demonstrate his capabilities in attacking the 1965 Finance Bill, which in those days was taken on the floor of the House. Ted was regarded as being somewhat to the right of Reggie (Maudling), but they were both essentially centrists in Party terms. Something could be made of the different approaches they took to Europe, with Reggie regarding EFTA more favourably and Ted convinced that membership of the EEC was essential. But their attitudes to specific policies hardly affected the question of which to support.
I was hailed in a modest way as the saviour of the Open University. In Opposition both lain Macleod and Edward Boyle, who thought that there were educational priorities more deserving of Government help, had committed themselves in public against it. And although its abolition was not in the manifesto, many people expected it to perish. But I was genuinely attracted to the concept of a "University of the Airwaves", as it was often called, because I thought that it was an inexpensive way of giving wider access to higher education, because I thought that trainee teachers in particular would benefit from it, because I was alert to the opportunities offered by technology to bring the best teaching to schoolchildren and students, and above all because it gave people a second chance in life. In any case, the university was due to take its first students that autumn, and cancellation would have been both expensive and a blow to many hopes. On condition that I agreed to reduce the immediate intake of students and find other savings, my Cabinet colleagues allowed the Open University to go ahead.
I felt sorry for Ted Heath personally. He had his music and a small circle of friends, but politics was his life. That year, moreover, he had suffered a series of personal blows. His yacht, Morning Cloud, had sunk and his godson had been among those lost. The election defeat was a further blow.
Nonetheless, I had no doubt that Ted now ought to go. He had lost three elections out of four. He himself could not change and he was too defensive of his own past record to see that a fundamental change of policies was needed.
I arranged to see Ted on Monday 25 November. He was at his desk in his room at the House. I need not have worried about hurting his feelings. I went in and said: 'I must tell you that I have decided to stand for the leadership.' He looked at me coldly, turned his back, shrugged his shoulders and said: "If you must." I slipped out of the room.
I was attacked (as Education Secretary) for fighting a rear-guard action in defence of "middle-class interests". The same accusation is levelled at me now, when I am leading Conservative opposition to the socialist Capital Transfer Tax proposals. Well, if "middle-class values" include the encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives and rewards for skill and hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the state and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property, then they are certainly what I am trying to defend ... If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it. Indeed one of the reasons for our electoral failure is that people believe too many Conservatives have become socialists already. Britain's progress towards socialism has been an alternation of two steps forward with half a step back. And why should anyone support a party that seems to have the courage of no convictions?
What kind of leadership Mrs Thatcher will provide remains to be seen. But one thing is clear enough at this stage. Mrs Thatcher is a bonny fighter. She believes in the ethic of hard work and big rewards for success. She has risen from humble origins by effort and ability and courage. She owes nothing to inherited wealth or privilege. She ought not to suffer, therefore, from that fatal and characteristic twentieth-century Tory defect of guilt about wealth. All too often this has meant that the Tories have felt themselves to be at a moral disadvantage in the defence of capitalism against socialism. This is one reason why Britain has travelled so far down the collectivist road. What Mrs Thatcher ought to be able to offer is the missing moral dimension to the Tory attack on socialism. If she does so, her accession to the leadership could mark a sea-change in the whole character of the party political debate in this country.
Mrs Thatcher is a confident and, I would say, a self-confident woman, the gentle charm and feminine facade disguising a rather tough and pragmatic politician. His nickname the 'Iron Lady' is very apt. I told Mrs Thatcher: "I know you are a person of staunch beliefs, someone who adheres to certain principles and values. This commands respect. But please consider that next to you is a person of your own ilk. And I can assure you that I am not under instructions from the Politburo to persuade you to join the Communist Party."
After that statement she burst into a hearty laugh, and the stiff, polite and somewhat acerbic conversation flowed naturally into more interesting talk, which continued after lunch. The subject turned to disarmament problems. We started by using our prepared notes, but eventually I put mine aside while Mrs Thatcher stuffed hers into her handbag. I unfolded a large diagram representing all nuclear arsenals, grouped into a thousand little squares.
"Each of these squares," I told Mrs Thatcher, "suffices to eradicate all life on earth. Consequently, the available nuclear arsenals have a capacity to wipe out all life a thousand times."
Her reaction was very eloquent and emotional. I believe she was quite sincere. Anyway, this conversation was a turning point towards a major political dialogue between our countries.
I think by far her greatest virtue, in retrospect, is how little she cared if people liked her. She wanted to win, but did not put much faith in the quick smile. She needed followers, as long as they went in her frequently unpopular directions. This is a political style, an aesthetic even, that has disappeared from view. The machinery of modern political management – polls, consulting, focus groups – is deployed mainly to discover what will make a party and politician better liked, or worse, disliked. Though the Thatcher years could also be called the Saatchi years, reaching a new level of presentational sophistication in the annals of British politics, they weren't about getting the leader liked. Respected, viewed with awe, a conviction politician, but if liking came into it, that was an accident.
This is a style whose absence is much missed. It accounted for a large part of the mark Thatcher left on Britain. Her unforgettable presence, but also her policy achievements. Mobilising society, by rule of law, against the trade union bosses was undoubtedly an achievement. For the most part, it has not been undone. Selling public housing to the tenants who occupied it was another, on top of the denationalisation of industries and utilities once thought to be ineluctably and for ever in the hands of the state. Neither shift of ownership and power would have happened without a leader prepared to take risks with her life. Each now seems banal. In the prime Thatcher years they required a severity of will to carry through that would now, if called on, be wrapped in so many cycles of deluding spin as to persuade us it hadn't really happened.
These developments set a benchmark. They married the personality and belief to action. Britain was battered out of the somnolent conservatism, across a wide front of economic policies and priorities, that had held back progress and, arguably, prosperity. This is what we mean by the Thatcher revolution, imposing on Britain, for better or for worse, some of the liberalisation that the major continental economies know, 20 years later, they still need. I think on balance, it was for the better, and so, plainly did Thatcher's chief successor, Tony Blair. If a leader's record is to be measured by the willingness of the other side to decide it cannot turn back the clock, then Thatcher bulks big in history.
But this didn't come without a price. Still plumbing for the essence, we have to examine other bits of residue. Much of any leader's record is unremarkable dross, and Thatcher was no exception. But keeping the show on the road is what all of them must first attend to, because there's nobody else to do it. Under this heading, Thatcher left a dark legacy that, like her successes, has still not disappeared behind the historical horizon. Three aspects of it never completely leave my head.
The first is what changed in the temper of Britain and the British. What happened at the hands of this woman's indifference to sentiment and good sense in the early 1980s brought unnecessary calamity to the lives of several million people who lost their jobs. It led to riots that nobody needed. More insidiously, it fathered a mood of tolerated harshness. Materialistic individualism was blessed as a virtue, the driver of national success. Everything was justified as long as it made money – and this, too, is still with us.
Thatcherism failed to destroy the welfare state. The lady was too shrewd to try that, and barely succeeded in reducing the share of the national income taken by the public sector. But the sense of community evaporated. There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with. This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn't care if it happened or not. But it did, and the consequences seem impossible to reverse.
Second, it's now easier to see the scale of the setback she inflicted on Britain's idea of its own future. Nations need to know the big picture of where they belong and, coinciding with the Thatcher appearance at the top, clarity had apparently broken through the clouds of historic ambivalence.
She was also lucky in her opponents. The miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, was a vain and often foolish strategist. So was General Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentinian president who launched his Falklands invasion in the winter.
Jacques Delors, the fierce French socialist whom she came to see as embodying the ambitions of Brussels – "the Belgian empire" in Thatcher-speak – to destroy British sovereignty, was also a good whipping boy.
Most important was her good luck with events in domestic politics, whichhelped Thatcher, deeply unpopular as recession and inflation worsened in 1981, survive early challenges. Michael Foot succeeded the wily Callaghan as Labour leader, triggering the breakaway from Labour of the "Gang of Four" who formed the SDP. Its leader, Roy Jenkins, won the Hillhead byelection promising to "break the mould'' of British politics, just days before the Falklands crisis broke it in quite a different fashion.
Thatcher emerged from the recapture of Port Stanley and the 1983 election with a majority of 144, Labour almost beaten into third place in the popular vote but well ahead of the SDP-Liberal alliance in seats. Neil Kinnock succeeded Foot and began the long modernisation that culminated in Tony Blair's three victories of 1997-2005.
But Kinnock was never comfortable dealing with an aggressive older woman and lacked both her experience and her command of detail. Thatcher held him at bay, crucially so when he failed to land the killer blow that might have ended her premiership in the 1986 Commons debate over Westland. That followed Michael Heseltine's resignation as defence secretary over the fate of a Yeovil-based helicopter company: should it be merged into Europe or US partnership? Thatcher was mixed up in leaks and skulduggery, but escaped, damaged but still in charge...
All the while, Thatcher's nemesis was creeping up on her in the shape of the poll tax. The "community charge" represented her ambitious plan to replace unpopular household rates with a headcount tax that even council tenants would pay: it would dampen their enthusiasm for services paid for by others, she reasoned.
Ideologues, by now firmly in the ascendant, encouraged her to pilot the scheme in Scotland, which had stubbornly resisted both her analysis and English nationalist tone, then to introduce it in one fell swoop south of the border.
More unpopular even than water privatisation, the poll tax prompted riots in Trafalgar Square. There had been riots before in Brixton and Liverpool, triggered by unemployment and deprivation in the early 80s, but the rioters now were expressing doubts shared by mainstream voters.
A further sign of Thatcher losing her grip came when, as a frequent defender of the apartheid regime in South Africa, she dismissed Nelson Mandela as a "terrorist'' not long before he emerged from prison to become the hero of the peaceful transition to majority rule.
Reversing Britain's long-term economic decline. That was the daunting task Margaret Thatcher set herself when she arrived in Downing Street in May 1979 at the end of a traumatic decade that had seen a three-day week, inflation topping 25%, a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the winter of discontent.
She gave it her best shot. The last remnants of the postwar consensus were swept away in the ensuing decade – a period that saw the crushing of the trade unions, the Big Bang in the City, council house sales, the privatisation of large chunks of industry, the encouragement of inward investment, tax cuts, attempts to roll back the state, a deep manufacturing recession, a boom in North Sea oil production, and support for the creation of a single market in Europe.
As far as her supporters are concerned, this radical transformation worked. Britain ceased to be the sick man of Europe and entered the 1990s with its reputation enhanced. The economy had become more productive, more competitive and more profitable. Deep-seated and long overdue reforms of the 1980s paved the way for the long 16-year boom between 1992 and 2008.
To her detractors, Thatcher is the prime minister who wiped out more than 15% of Britain's industrial base with her dogmatic monetarism, squandered the once-in-a-lifetime windfall of North Sea oil on unemployment pay and tax cuts, and made the UK the unbalanced, unequal country it is today.
The truth lies somewhere between these extremes. Thatcher came to power when the economy was approaching a moment of truth after three decades of poor performance relative to other western countries. Had Jim Callaghan won the 1979 election, he too would have faced the challenge of how to modernise an economy beset by high inflation, weak management and poor industrial relations.
Indeed, many of the policy innovations associated with Thatcher had already been pioneered by her predecessor. Full employment had been ditched in 1976, while Labour had introduced monetary targets and cash limits for Whitehall departments while Denis Healey was at the Treasury.
Nor, contrary to myth, did Thatcherism emerge fully formed in May 1979. Privatisation did not feature in the Conservative election campaign, while the tougher approach to trade union reform had only really become evident since the winter of discontent, and even then was a gradual process.
That said, by the mid-1980s it was clear that the Conservative government's economic policy was based on a handful of core principles. Firstly, control of inflation rather than the pursuit of full employment was the centrepiece of macro economic strategy. The government's job was to keep inflation low, not to boost growth through demand management.
Secondly, the balance of power in industrial relations was shifted decisively in favour of employers. Three separate pieces of legislation between 1980 and 1984 attacked the closed shop, toughened up the laws on picketing and imposed secret strike ballots. Symbolically, the key moment was the defeat of the miners after the year-long pit strike in March 1985.
Thirdly, industrial policy was all but abandoned. The state retained control of some nationalised industries – the railways, for example – but BT, British Airways, British Steel, British Gas and the British Airports Authority were among the big companies sold off. Thatcher did not believe in "picking winners"; instead she preferred to rely on market forces to ensure the survival of the fittest. To the extent that there was an industrial strategy, it was to sell Britain as a destination for Japanese car companies and to shift the focus of the economy away from manufacturing towards financial services.
Fourthly, policy was aimed at those who, according to the prime minister, wanted to get on in life. There were big tax cuts for those on the highest incomes, driven by the belief that this would encourage entrepreneurship. But there were also cuts for basic-rate taxpayers: the 1988 budget, for example, cut the top rate of tax from 60% to 40% and the standard rate from 27% to 25%. Council house sales and advertising campaigns that encouraged the public to buy shares in privatised companies were meant to broaden the appeal of capitalism.
Narrowly judged, the Thatcher economic revolution was a success. Britain's relative decline came to an end, although that was more due to slowdowns in countries such as France and Germany than an acceleration in UK productivity growth. The number of days lost through strikes tumbled. Nissan's arrival in the north-east showed that Britain was no longer the west's industrial pariah.
On the other hand, growth has been depressed because weak trade unions can no longer ensure wage increases keep pace with inflation. The government's welfare bill has been swollen by tax credits and housing benefit caused by the labour market reforms and council house sales of the 1980s. Britain's record on innovation and investment have been extremely poor, while the hollowing out of manufacturing left the economy over-dependent on the de-regulated City. Oil helped Thatcher paper over the cracks, but Britain's age-old problem – finding a way to pay its way in the world – remains. The last time the UK ran a trade surplus was the year of the Falklands war.
Even more than the government’s trade union reforms, victory in this strike finally broke the back of militant trade unionism and established Britain’s reputation as a safe place in which to invest. Margaret Thatcher’s own steely resolve was again demonstrated by her conduct in the wake of the IRA bomb attack on the 1984 Brighton party conference: hours after the outrage she appeared on the platform to declare: “All attempts to destroy democracy will fail.”
Soon, though, her own position, and indeed her own integrity, were questioned as a result of the upheavals resulting from intra-Cabinet warfare surrounding the future of the Westland helicopter company. The loss of two Cabinet Ministers - Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan — and doubts about the veracity of Mrs Thatcher’s own accounts of events constituted a blow which many imagined that she would not survive.
The anti-Americanism upon which Heseltine had drawn in his campaign over Westland was also fuelled by widespread political opposition to Britain’s support for America’s raids on Libya in the spring of 1986. Thatcher had needed much persuading by the Reagan administration that the action was required (the raids would be carried out by American F-111s based in the UK). Indeed, Thatcher’s support for Reagan throughout their partnership was never unqualified: she had, for example, disapproved of American policy in Lebanon, and had sharply disagreed with Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. But in public she now robustly defended her old friend’s decision. Although unpopular ar home, her loyalty to the United States at this juncture secured her a unique standing in Washington for as long as Reagan was President.
In fact, from about this time the Prime Minister’s position began to improve domestically as well. The economy was growing; meanwhile, Neil Kinnock was proving an erratic and unconvincing Leader of the Opposition. Above all, by her “discovery” of the future Soviet Leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom she formed a close personal empathy and political friendship, Mrs Thatcher had ensured for herself a unique position on the world stage. Gorbachev, she had claimed in December 1984, was someone with whom the West could “do business”, and her other political friend, Reagan, was prepared to take her word for it. In March 1987 Thatcher made a triumphant five-day tour of the USSR.
That June’s general election was not, however, Thatcher’s finest hour. She was often tetchy (partly the result of toothache) and she became involved in a dispute about private health insurance at the expense of other, less prickly, issues. Some of the radical reforms in the manifesto turned out to have been insufficiently refined. This led to a disagreement with Kenneth Baker, the Education Secretary, over the details of the new Grant Maintained (GM) Schools. It would also later lead to the disaster of the community charge or poll tax - devised as an ambitious replacement for local authority rates. But the Conservatives and Thatcher were, for the present, untouchable. The party was returned with a healthy majority of 102.
There has been no other leader quite like Margaret Thatcher in post-war Britain. No other post-war Prime Minister has been so admired, or so reviled. She was the first woman to lead a major political party in Britain, the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, and almost the only Prime Minister whose name is synonymous with an ideology. "Thatcherism" remained in political diction when the holder of that name was an elderly frail, lonely widow.
She was never much loved, though she would have liked to have been. She believed that she had a direct line to the British people, or at least the section of it from which she sprang: the hardworking, law-abiding, self-denying lower middle class. Although she dominated her party and the government machine, her self-image was of an outsider battling with an inert establishment. Evening visitors to the flat above Downing Street would sometimes find her and her husband, Denis, watching the news, and grumbling about the state of the nation, wanting something done.
This outsider's mentality made her admired - worshipped, almost - by members of the Conservative Party and its core supporters. Others felt grudging respect for her immense willpower. Even the satirists who thrived during the Thatcher years unwittingly enhanced the very reputation that they were mocking. One famous Spitting Image sketch showed Thatcher settling down to dinner with a collection of half-witted Cabinet ministers. Approached by the waiter, she ordered raw steak. "And what about the vegetables?" she is asked, to which she replied: "They'll have the same." Jokes such as this only reinforced her image as a strong leader. She was also lucky in the choice of enemies that fate threw in her path - the Kremlin, Argentina's General Galtieri, and the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, all unwittingly helped her from success to success.
But to a very large minority of Britons - if not the majority - she was an increasingly unappealing embodiment of unfeeling middle-class self-righteousness. While it was her hostility to her fellow Europeans that most damaged her relations with senior Cabinet colleagues, what turned the public against her was the apparent glee with which she rode roughshod over sections of society, such as the miners and the unemployed.
For then United States president Ronald Reagan and his assistant secretary of state, Chester Crocker, combating communism was paramount. Underpinning "constructive engagement" was the conviction that, when it came to a choice between apartheid and democracy, the devil they knew was preferable. Thatcher reached the same conclusion from a different angle, perhaps because her South African roots ran deeper. Her curmudgeonly husband, Denis, had an uncle who was a Durban businessperson, a factor the prompted his extensive South African investments.
In 1972 they sent their son, Mark, to Johannesburg for a year's work experience, and two years later they went on a tour of the country. One of their hosts was Botha, who pronounced himself highly impressed with Mrs Thatcher. There is no record of the Thatchers expressing moral misgivings about the apartheid they witnessed, but how much of this blinkered response was a product of racism?
Bob Carr, Australia's foreign minister, said he was astonished by Thatcher's racial outbursts when she visited in the 1990s. He said she warned him against Asian immigration, saying: "You'll end up like Fiji, where the Indian migrants have taken over."
Back in the 1970s, her views on South Africa were being moulded by the racist attitudes of her friend Laurens van der Post. In addition to being a Jungian mystic, a teller of tall tales about himself and a man who fathered a child with a 14-year-old, he believed in innate racial characteristics. Mandela's Xhosas were treacherous; Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Zulus were noble savages. Thatcher therefore did her best to champion the latter's cause.
It is said in her favour that although she might have lacked moral repugnance for apartheid she opposed it because it represented a barrier to a free market. This was also her argument for so resolutely opposing sanctions and disinvestment. Even when Britain was forced to follow the minimalist Commonwealth sanctions programme, she stressed that she had warded off a more stringent stance.
In 1984, Thatcher became the first British prime minister in 23 years to host an apartheid head of state. Three years later, she declared: "The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation." Her stance fostered a toxic ethos within her party. Thatcher's most loyal Cabinet colleague, Norman Tebbit, called Mandela a "terrorist". South Africa hosted regular apartheid-sponsored visits from Tory MPs, and Young Conservative leaders wore "Hang Nelson Mandela" badges.
As a rule, the most effective trade unionists have to die before the mainstream media and politicians will say anything decent about them. That's certainly what has happened to the rail and seafarers' leader Bob Crow.
Instead of the industrial dinosaur, political throwback and strike-happy hypocrite demonised for more than a decade, it now turns out that Crow was in fact a modern and effective workplace champion. The scourge of the London commuter didn't just drive up rail workers' living standards, we are told, but fought successfully for low-paid contract cleaners into the bargain.
Part of that is about not speaking ill of someone cut off in their prime, of course. But it also reflects establishment awareness of the chord that an authentic workers' leader strikes with a public living the reality of the race to the bottom in pay and conditions – and a public life purged of working-class figures and populated by plastic political and corporate professionals.
As it happened, Crow died on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the start of the miners' strike. It is doubtful that even death will win Arthur Scargill the national treasure treatment currently being given to Crow, given the scale of his vilification and the extent of the challenge he represented to political and economic power from the 1970s to the 1990s.
But the 1984-5 strike, the decisive social and economic confrontation of Britain's postwar era, is how we got where we are today. A generation on, it is now even clearer than it was at the time why the year-long struggle over the country's energy supply took place, and what interests were really at stake.
The Thatcher government's war on the miners – her chancellor Nigel Lawson described preparations for the strike as "like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler" – wasn't just about class revenge for the Tories' humiliating defeats at the hands of the miners in the early 1970s. It was about using the battering ram of state power to break the single greatest obstacle to the transformation of the economy in the interests of corporate privilege and wealth that Margaret Thatcher was determined to carry out. The offensive ushered in the full-blown neoliberal model that has failed to deliver for the majority, generated inequality and insecurity on a huge scale, and imploded with such disastrous consequences five-and-a-half years ago.
For the miners, the strike was a defensive battle for jobs and communities. But it also raised the alternative of a different kind of Britain, rooted in solidarity and collective action. The crippling of the country's most powerful union opened the way for the systematic deregulation of the labour market – and the zero-hours contracts, falling real wages, payday loans and food banks we are living with today.
Every couple of years, evidence emerges to underline the unparalleled nature of the state onslaught and ruthless rule-breaking to overcome resistance in the mining communities, bought at a cost of £37bn in today's prices.
In January, newly released cabinet papers confirmed that, just as Scargill had warned at the time, there was indeed a secret hit list to close 75 collieries with the loss of 75,000 jobs when the strike began. Thatcher lied about it and planned to send thousands of troops into the coalfields, as her government faced imminent defeat.
In media and establishment mythology, of course, it was the insurrectionary incompetence of the miners' leadership that led to the breakneck destruction of the mining communities, rather than the government that ordered it. That is abject nonsense.
There was simply no option of a gentle rundown of the industry in 1984, with or without a national ballot, as the treatment of pits that worked during the strike demonstrated. The only choice was between the certainty of mass closures and the chance of halting the assault.