Obituary: Margaret Hilda Thatcher, politician

Mrs Thatcher's 12 years in office is a mixed picture. Picture: Getty
Mrs Thatcher's 12 years in office is a mixed picture. Picture: Getty
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Born: 13 October, 1925, in Grantham, Lincoln. Died: 8 April, 2013, in London, aged 87

Margaret Thatcher was the woman who, in the space of one tumultuous decade, transformed a nation.

In the view of her many admirers, she thrust a strike-infested half-pace Britain back among the front-runners in the commanding peaks of the industrial nations of the world. Her detractors saw her as the personification of an uncaring new political philosophy known by both sides as Thatcherism.

She was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, and the first leader to win three general elections in a row. Thatcher, who became Baroness Thatcher, resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990 after a year in which her fortunes plummeted.

It was a year in which she faced a series of damaging resignations from the Cabinet, her own political judgments were publicly denounced by her own colleagues, catastrophic by-election humiliations, party strife and a sense in the country that people had had enough of her.

As she transformed the nation – attempting to release the grip of the state on massive industries and public services alike – she was one of the most influential, talked about, listened to and dominant statesmen of the Western world.

Whether you liked or loathed her, and her Tory predecessor Edward Heath hated her beyond belief, you could not deny her energy and drive.

Even many political foes secretly admired this single-minded woman, who never contemplated defeat and for whom all issues were black and white. Even – indeed particularly – her most bitter political enemies were forced to praise her crusading clarity of purpose and her determination, in their eyes, to serve “her people”.

Veteran left winger Tony Benn frequently held her up as an example of how a great political party should be led, comparing her with what he regarded as Neil Kinnock’s fudged leadership of the Labour Party.

She regularly admitted she could not do her job properly without the unstinting support of her “marvellous” husband, Denis, the “golden thread” running through her life. His death, in 2003, was a blow to her.

His death came at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s own health – she was ten years younger than him – was the subject of speculation. She had suffered a series of strokes and her doctors had forbidden her to make any more speeches – instructions she occasionally breached. She conceded, too, that personal attacks on her, and on members of her family, wounded her deeply.

Her dramatic downfall came about during the second of two challenges to her leadership. She realised that if she stayed on to take her challenger Michael Heseltine – a man she disliked intensely, personally and politically – into a second ballot, he would almost certainly supplant her. That was a prospect she could not bear to see happen. After consulting her Cabinet colleagues, one by one, she decided she must go, and tearfully gave the Cabinet the news the following morning.

By doing so, she paved the way for one of her favourite “sons” John Major to follow her into 10 Downing Street.

There was no let-up in her energetic activities once she arrived in the House of Lords. She remained a ferocious critic of the European Union, and led a crusade in the Upper House against the Maastricht Treaty.

Baroness Thatcher maintained a gruelling programme of lecture tours worldwide, showing little, if any, sign of slowing down her scorching pace. But there were moments when her stamina and health came into question.

Once, in 1994, she collapsed in the middle of a speech in Chile, but she shrugged off warnings from her friends that she should start to take things more easily. But there was little doubt that her health was affected by the combination of a four-hour dental operation, and worry about reports of her son Mark’s alleged profiteering from Middle East arms deals she had negotiated as Prime Minister, as well as the apparently impending break-up of his marriage. But those reports came to nothing.

In October, 1998 she called for the immediate release of ex-president Pinochet of Chile, who was being held to face an extradition request by Spain for alleged murder.

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in 1925 in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham. She quickly had the virtues of thrift, hard work, morality and patriotism drilled into her by her beloved father Alderman Alfred Roberts, who ran two grocers’ shops and a post office, and became mayor of the town in 1943.

Alderman Roberts was a devout Methodist, a lay preacher and a proudly self-made man. Her associates at school and university – she had few close friends – recall her as industrious, serious-minded, and soberly dressed, but also possessing what one of them has since described as “an irritating sense of her own superiority”.

She went on a bursary to Somerville College, Oxford, where she read chemistry, where her principal fell short of wild enthusiasm for her abilities, describing her as “a perfectly good second-class scientist”.

She became the third woman president of the University’s Conservative Association. She continued to work as a chemist until 1954 when she switched to become a barrister specialising in tax cases.

It was in this part of her career that she demonstrated her formidable ability to master a brief and to shame those who had not bothered to do so.

And it was the kind of training which years later made her virtually invulnerable at Question Time in the House of Commons.

In 1951 she married Denis Thatcher, a successful industrialist. Contrary to common belief, Mrs Thatcher never dominated that marriage. Denis, an independent character, carried on with his business life while she pursued her political career.

Thatcher launched into her battle to get into Parliament by unsuccessfully fighting Dartford in 1950 and 1951. Their twins, Mark and Carol, were born by Caesarean after this. She finally entered the Commons in 1959 as Member for Finchley. The smartly dressed, brisk and businesslike blonde did not remain unnoticed for long.

She swiftly adapted to the strange ways of Westminster. Her friendly manner and warmth belied and disguised the white heat of her ambition.

Thatcher epitomised then, as she did throughout her career, the self-made woman. Once she said contemptuously: “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib,” when she was criticised by feminists.

In the final years of the Harold Macmillan-Alec Douglas-Home administrations, she was parliamentary secretary, Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Later, Heath took her into his shadow Cabinet in 1966, observing uncannily: “Once she’s there, we’ll never be able to get rid of her.” When the Heath administration took office in 1970, Thatcher became education secretary.

She quickly became a hate figure on the Labour benches, branded as “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” because of her decision to stop free milk for primary schoolchildren.

The two disasters that befell the Conservatives – general election defeats in February and October 1974 under the uninspiring leadership of Heath – gave Thatcher the opportunity she sought.

But by now she was the darling of Tory rank-and-file MPs sickened by what they regarded as the wishy-washy Heath brand of Conservatism. They were struck with admiration at her valour. She made short work of defeating the lugubrious, lovable Willie Whitelaw – he wept when he was beaten – who epitomised languor and lethargy. And so, in 1975 she became the first woman at the helm of the Conservative Party, hell-bent on seeing the Tories back in power.

She drove in triumph that night in 1975 from the House of Commons to Conservative Central Office where she straightaway set in train an unstoppable campaign whose momentum, four years later, was to pitch her into power.

First Harold Wilson and then his successor James Callaghan quickly found they had a tigress to deal with at the Despatch Box, compared with the lumbering bear that was Edward Heath.

She injected new heart, spirit and fire into the Conservative Party and a few months later, aged 53, was stepping into Downing Street, softly quoting from memory the exquisite prayer of St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

She set to work with fervour. As inflation continued to rise, she served notice of the strict monetary policy which she was never to betray. The state was to be “rolled back” in a huge programme of privatisation. Trade union power was to be curbed and new laws introduced to make it harder to go on strike.

Significantly, she never had a woman in her Cabinet who wielded any influence. Once she described herself as “the strongest man” in her Cabinet.

Thatcher rejected demands for increased public spending in the face of world recession, stood firm against inner city riots, and refused to bow to IRA threats over hunger strikers.

She had epitomised her style, some say her obstinacy, when she told the Tory Party conference in 1980: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch-phrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say, you turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

When President Reagan arrived on the scene there was an instant rapport, a close and abiding friendship which endured long after he left office.

Her most formidable test came in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falklands. A huge task force was soon under sail, armed to the teeth and determined to liberate the islanders. While the conflict lasted Thatcher wore nothing but black.

She was sombre and near-ecstatic in turn as the news from the front plunged and soared as each day passed. When South Georgia was recaptured by the Royal Marines midway through the conflict she stood outside Downing Street and said: “We should rejoice at that news.”

When she went to the country in 1983 the nation swept her back to power with an overall majority of more than 140. Hers was the kind of leadership Britain had not seen since the days of war.

Before long the miners’ strike was upon her. The government’s policy was “no surrender”, while Arthur Scargill, day after day, ran rings round the blundering National Coal Board chairman, Sir Ian MacGregor. The strike, one of the most bitter and bloody to hit Britain, surged on for a year, with scenes of violent clashes between mounted police and pickets almost a nightly feature on TV screens.

After almost a year it fizzled out, the miners dejected and broken and with feelings of hate likely to linger for decades in Britain’s coalfield communities between those who supported and those who opposed Scargill.

That dispute was followed by the hardly less vicious News International Wapping battle, when Rupert Murdoch abruptly sacked his printers and left Fleet Street. Violent demonstrations became commonplace, but they, too, stopped after a year.

She privatised water, electricity, gas and telecommunications. Local authorities were forced to use private companies for many of their services. She was determined to weaken the power of the state and of the official in Whitehall and town hall alike.

Thatcher’s narrowest escape came in the 1984 Brighton bombing when the IRA just failed to assassinate her with an explosion which shattered the Grand Hotel, temporary home for most of the Cabinet during the Tory Party conference.

She had left the bathroom in her hotel suite only seconds before the bomb destroyed it.

It was in 1984, also, that she stirred up massive trade union anger by banning union membership at GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham. The activities of trade unions at GCHQ had caused concern in Washington.

Late in 1985 another crisis suddenly hit her – the Westland Helicopter affair, a row over a small helicopter company which grew on a scale which, unbelievably, came close to destroying the government itself.

It erupted into an internal Cabinet battle between Michael Heseltine, defence secretary, and Leon Brittan, trade and industry secretary. With the leaking to the press in January, 1986, of damning but selective parts of a letter written to Mr Heseltine by the then Solicitor-General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the affair assumed a grotesque importance out of all proportion to the size of the company involved.

Both Heseltine, dramatically – by storming out of the Cabinet room – and later Brittan, more formally, quit the Cabinet. It was a blow to Thatcher and a sign to that all was not well within the government. Her line towards the Common Market remained firm: loyal support but fiercely against any idea of a United States of Europe.

She went to the country again in 1987 on the advice of her party chairman, Norman Tebbit, with whom she had had some acrimonious rows. But fences were mended – temporarily anyway. Thatcher made several blunders during the campaign but swept home with a 101 majority. Once again, she could at least partially thank Labour for her victory since its campaign was even worse than the Tories’.

Immediately after that election victory, she set about an inner-city clean-up policy designed to sweep Labour out of office in key city councils. But things were starting to go wrong again. Inflation began to creep up, and her NHS policies were being greeted with suspicion and dislike.

Mrs Thatcher’s final year in Downing Street was uncomfortable, full of rumblings, discontent among some Cabinet ministers, whispering on the back benches, calamitous by-election defeats and a feeling nationwide that the “indestructible” lady had been there too long, and was fraying at the edges.

She remained dominant, but there were moments when her boldness began to look more like rashness. It started in July 1989 when she unceremoniously ejected Sir Geoffrey Howe from the Foreign Office, invested him with the spurious title of Deputy Prime Minister, and made him Leader of the Commons. John Major, then no more than a face in the crowd, was put into the Foreign Office. Three months later Nigel Lawson – described by Thatcher only days earlier as “unassailable” – resigned as Chancellor.

It was a blow to her government. She responded by putting Major in the Treasury where a few months earlier he had been Chief Secretary.

Sir Anthony Meyer, an old and obscure backbencher, dared to challenge her for the leadership. She won by 314 votes to 33 but some 60 Tory MPs had either voted against her or refused to vote for her. It was very bad news indeed. Then two more veteran Cabinet ministers – Sir Norman Fowler and Peter Walker – deserted the ranks and it began to appear her government was crumbling.

It was, however, the European Summit in Rome in early November which set up a train of events which propelled her out of Downing Street.

She returned to Britain fulminating about the way the summit was conducted, accusing the hosts of incompetence. This was more than Sir Geoffrey could stomach and he resigned.

Heseltine wrote an open letter to his Henley constituency party overtly attacking the Prime Minister’s handling of European affairs.

Sir Geoffrey made a resignation statement in the Commons so untypically ferocious and damning that Thatcher, bleak-faced, could scarcely believe what she heard. She visibly wilted as Sir Geoffrey plunged in the dagger and twisted it without mercy. The words were so shocking that MPs audibly gasped at their savagery.

If she had not realised it already, Thatcher must then have known that her time was nearly up. The following day Heseltine challenged her for the leadership. Not long after this she stunned the world by announcing her resignation. Her exit was as grand as were all her entrances. She followed this up by delivering a shattering speech in the Commons in the face of a vote of no confidence.

There were tears visible in her eyes as she was driven away from Downing Street for the last time after 11 years as Prime Minister. Some days later, the Queen appointed her a member of the Order of Merit and her husband, Denis, was made an hereditary baronet. Not long after this she entered the House of Lords. She seemed incapable of living without some confrontational forum in which to operate. And there was no diminution to her style. It was as fiery, unequivocal and straightforward as ever. Her ardour was undimmed and her contributions were no less full-blooded than ever they had been.

She was an extraordinary woman, who never understood why the Tories had discarded her. And she found life virtually impossible to live without a battle to fight – and to win.