Case Study Mrs Thatcher
Thatcher originally came to power on the back of Labour unpopularity (after the Winter of Discontent, of 1978/9) but was not a hugely popular prime minister when first elected. Her philosophy became more popular during her premiership and she was assisted by deep divisions and a full split in the Labour Party in the early 1980s.
She also was prime minister during a period of significant social change, where many of the manufacturing industries, that had once been home to large active trade unions, organising a Labour vote, were in decline. Indeed, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, some political scientists were beginning to ask if Labour could ever win elections again.
When Thatcher came to power in 1979 her first Cabinet contained a mix of "Thatcherites" and "Wets". None were still there when Thatcher left power in 1990.
Thatcher had a very eventful period in office:
In the face of mounting unemployment (it reached 2 million for the first time), she was urged by Conservative critics to “U-turn” from her spending cuts agenda, replying “You turn if you want to, the Lady’s not for turning!”
In 1981, there were riots – described as “race riots” - across several English cities. The main riots were in Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool.
IRA and INLA prisoners in the Maize prison, in Northern Ireland, went on hunger strike, demanding that they should be deemed political prisoners. Elected Sinn Fein MP, Bobby Sands, died during the hunger strike, leading to widespread international condemnation of the government’s handling of the situation (although reaction in the UK was mostly supportive of the government, standing firm against terrorism). Several other prisoners died. The already bitter conflict intensified.
In 1982, unemployment passed 3 million for the first time since the 1930s.
Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 and Thatcher sent a taskforce to retake the islands for the UK. A key moment in the conflict was the sinking of the General Belgrano – an Argentine ship. Thatcher personally ordered the torpedoing of the ship which, it later transpired, was sailing away from an exclusion zone, prompting an angry response from anti-war MPs and campaigners.
However, the general public was supportive of the Falklands War and Thatcher’s role in it, massively turning around her popularity ratings and contributing to her landslide victory in the 1983 General Election.
In 1984, the National of Union of Mineworkers (NUM) went on strike, in opposition to the closure of a large number of pits. The government had stockpiled coal and have been accused of deliberately provoking the strike (an NUM strike a decade earlier had brought down the Heath government, in 1974, and the government wanted to break the power of the union). The strike went on for over a year, with bloody scenes of conflict between pickets and police, including the infamous Battle of Orgreave. Eventually the miners went back to work and, unlike in 74, the government had won, and greatly reduced union power and militancy. The public were divided over the strike, with many on the left and in the north firmly backing the strikers, contributing to Thatcher being seen as a deeply divisive political figure even today, with many passionate in their support for and opposition to her premiership and legacy.
In 1984, the I
RA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton, during the Conservative Party conference, in an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. Five people were killed and many seriously injured, including the wife of cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit.
In 1986 there was a row over helicopters – the Westland affair – which exacerbated the disagreements between Margaret Thatcher and her charismatic cabinet member Michael Heseltine (known as "Tarzan"). Heseltine resigned and became a focus of anti-Thatcher feeling on the government backbenches and an alternative leader in waiting.
Also in 1986, Margaret Thatcher gave a famous interview where she is often quoted as saying “there is no such thing as society”. What she actually said was: “and what is society? There is no such thing! There are just individuals and their families.”
The Thatcher government won another general election in 1987, against Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party which, although less emphatic than in 1983, meant Thatcher still had a comfortable majority to push through her programme.
In 1990 there were riots in London as people protested the Community Charge, which was popularly known as the Poll Tax. There were also prison riots at Strangeways in the same year.
While the miners’ strike and industrial decline has dominated popular culture representations of the period, it was probably the “Poll tax” and divisions about Europe which dominated the closing years of the Thatcher premiership and led to her downfall.