Margaret Thatcher was probably the most controversial Prime Ministers Britain ever had, not only because she was the first British Female leader, but because she was a paradox. Although she was a Women she certainly wasn’t a sister, she spoke up against the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and referred to them as hysterical women, and seem to take an anti-Feminist line. She became the Queen Bee of her Cabinet and only appointed one other Woman as minister and that was Edwina Curry, whom was quickly dismissed when she spoke out against government policy. Margaret Thatcher was the archetypical, “dick in a frock” and commentators claimed, “she was the only real man in her cabinet”. She was also called, “The Iron Lady” and “Attila the Hen”. She also became known for her ability to get things done through Machiavellian means, as she ruthlessly overcome all opposition.
Another paradox was that she was a Conservative politician, and the Conservatives are a party that give little support female candidates. It was expected that the first Female Prime Minister would come from the Labour party, who were more female friendly, yet even today it still looks unlikely that the Labour party will ever appoint a female leader. (Margaret Beckett was temporary the leader of the Labour party after the death of partly leader John Smith, but she lost out to Tony Blair in the leadership election.)
Margaret Thatcher claimed she had no ambitions to be leader as she was famously to say in a TV interview in 1974; “ It will be years - and not in my time - before a woman will lead the party or become Prime Minister.” Yet she herself became Prime Minister before the decade was finished, how this happened was a very fortunate chance.
In the first half of the 1970s she was the token Woman in Ted Heath’s government, and she became the Education Minister and achieved notoriety as; “Thatcher, the milk snatcher”. Up until then, schoolchildren were provided with free milk every day. So in an effort the cut public spending the Heath government decided to stop this, and Margaret Thatcher being the Education Minster had to carry this policy out. This caused uproar through out the country, and demonstrators took to the street making personal attacks on Margaret Thatcher. The irony was that Margaret Thatcher opposed this policy in cabinet but was voted down, and had to carry it out. As the result she became known as a ruthless and uncaring Woman, and this reputation was to stay with her, throughout her political life.
In the winter of 1973-74 there was a national coal strike, and the government was forced to back down as the vast majority of the country’s power stations were then burning coal, and as the coal stocks began to run out, power stations were force to close down. Ted Heath then made the mistake of calling for a general election, on the platform of, “who runs the country, militant trade unions or the elected government”. His strategy completely failed as the Labour government won by a narrow margin. This was a ‘hung parliament’ with the Liberal Party holding the balance of power so another election was called in the same year. This time the Labour party won with a comfortable margin.
Having lost two elections in the same year Ted Heath found himself very unpopular within the Conservative party, but he was determined to hand on to power. He bullied his minister not to stand against him, and only one dared to this, Sir Keith Joseph. He put himself up as a candidate against the leader, but his resolution didn’t hold and he quickly buckled under pressure and withdrew. So it looked like Ted Heath had successfully faced down his whole cabinet until a supporter of Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher, put herself forward, as a candidate. Being a Woman, Margaret Thatcher wasn’t considered a credible candidate by the media or many people within the Conservative Party, and Ted Heath was expected to win. Unexpectedly, she did so well on the first ballot, that Ted Heath was forced to resign, seeing the strength of opposition against him.
In the second ballot other members of Ted Heath’s cabinet stood up as candidates but they all had the problem, that they had allowed themselves to be bullied by Ted Heath, and this made them look weak. The Conservative party wanted a strong leader, and Margaret Thatcher was still able to do well in the second ballot, and only the two best candidates went through to the final ballot, William Whitelaw and Margaret Thatcher. William Whitelaw was seen as the natural successor to Ted Heath and he was still expected to win. So it was a surprise that in the third ballot when Margaret Thatcher won by 146 votes to 79, and became Conservative Party leader on 11 February 1975. She appointed Whitelaw as her deputy, and to his credit he was to serve her loyalty. Ted Heath never forgave Margaret Thatcher for standing against him and was bitter towards her for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile the labour party was having troubles of their own, most governments throughout the Western world they were under strong pressure by the World Bank and IMF to change their economic policies. This was at time when governments throughout the Western world were ditching Keynesian economics in favour of Monetarism. Up until then Keynesian economics was seen as by far the best way to run a country’s economy because this was how the Western world got out of the economic Depression of the 1930s and was also the reason for the post war economic boom. So it was a surprise that the World Bank and IMF suddenly turned against it.
The Keynesian economic theory was the theory of full employment and good wages for all people. The Depression of the 1930s was a time of very high unemployment, and economic stagnation. Governments got out of he Depression by simply inventing jobs like building roads and other public works, to give the unemployed a good wage. The result was that everyone now had money to spare to pay for goods. This in turn would increase demand, allowing factories to go into full production. The increase in production means the factories could employ more workers and make bigger profits. Which gives a big boost to the economy. So in theory everyone would benefit, the workers, retailers and industry. It seems to good to be true, it was a win-win situation for everyone.
The problem with having full employment was that it gave greater power to the workers and the trade unions. This was because if any worker didn’t like the wages or conditions of his job, he was free to go and get a job elsewhere. This meant that the bosses had to give into worker demands or he could quickly lose his workforce. The result was that worker wages kept on steadily rising from the end of the Second World War to the end of the 1970s, though increasing wage demands from the workers also fuelled inflation. The result was that during this period the gap between rich and poor was slowly decreasing. Which wasn’t good news for the rich.
The problem also for the rich was that the two largest countries in the world, namely the USSR and China had become Communist states. So the West was in competition with the Communist countries for the hearts and minds of the people. Keynesian economics then suited Western ruling elite very well because they could rightly say to their workers; that they were far better of living in a Western democracy than in a Communist country. As the British Prime Minster Harold Macmillan was to famously say in one elections speech, to the workers; “you never had it so good”.
Then in the 1970s things began to change for the Communist. The Soviet Union was finding it very hard to keep up with the arms race with the USA. They were by then spending half of their wealth on the military. They had all ready had to drop out of the space race as they no longer could afford the expensive rockets needed to put a man on the Moon. While in China the Chinese leader Mao-Tse-Tung had died in 1976 and the leaders who took over no longer wanted to continue with the Communist system.
This was a clear sign to Western leaders that they were winning the Cold war against Communism. So at the end of the 1970s some Western countries began to adopt Monetarism. It was sold to the public as a new form of economics, but in fact it wasn’t new at all. It was the old style of economics that caused the Wall St crash and Depression throughout the West during the 1930s.
At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, all Western countries adopted Monetarism and it didn’t matter if the government at the time was socialist or conservative. The politicians claimed at the time, they needed to squeeze inflation out of the economy. What they didn’t tell the people, was they way you done this was to have high unemployment, which undermined the power of the workers and Trade Unions. This was because the workers had to accept the wages and conditions that the employers gave them or they would be sacked, and out of work. And because of high unemployment finding work now became a real problem, as it now wasn’t easy to get a new job. The result was that worker’s wages demands become less and less and this stopped inflation in its tracks.
Not only did unemployment dramatically rose throughout the West but the West went into a “Recession”, (Just another name for a Depression like we had in the 1930s). The only people who benefited from this were the rich. Since the early 1980s the gap between rich and poor has dramatically increased. In the 1970s it was claimed that with computers and robotics the workers would be even better off, but with the introduction of Monetarism the increasing wealth created by modern technology, went to the rich.
Off course the so-called “free press” of the Western countries made no mention of this in their newspapers. Neither did the so-called left wing socialist parties. Simply because all newspapers and TV channels are owned by very rich men, who had a vested interest in Monetarism economics. Likewise the leaders of left wing parties are not exactly poor either and also personally benefited from the increasing gap between rich and poor. So it means that Keynesian economics is about giving more power and wealth to the people, while Monetarism is about keeping power and wealth exclusively in the hands of the ruling elite. .
At the end of the 1970s the Labour party ran into financial problems and went to the World Bank for a loan. The World Bank agreed to the loan providing that the British Government adopted Monetarist economics. The result was that unemployment increased sharply, the unions become angry with this and strikes became commonplace. The winter of 1978-9 was dubbed by the press the 'Winter of Discontent', (A Shakespearian quotation), after a long series of strikes against government policy.
The increasingly unpopularity of the government forced them to call a general election in 1979 and the Conservatives won easy. Margaret Thatcher then found herself the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain. Unfortunately with the economy now in the hands of the IMF and World Bank she was forced to carry on the same policies of the previous discredited Labour government. In the election campaign the Conservatives attacked Labour for the high levels of unemployment, but under the new Conservative government unemployment increased to 3 million people. Margaret Thatcher also had to follow Conservative policies of cutting taxes, and the biggest tax cuts were for the rich. She was fortunate that now Britain was receiving revenues from North Sea Oil, but this money was used on tax cuts and give benefits to the increasing army of the unemployed, and not on hospitals and schools. The result was that the new Conservative government became just as unpopular with the British public, as the previous Labour government.
The media done its best to support the government, by attacking the unemployed, and suggesting they were ‘scroungers’ and ‘workshy’. So they put the blame for high unemployment on the unemployed themselves, which is kicking people when they are down. But this campaign successfully diverted the public attention away from the fact that high unemployment was deliberate government policy.
High unemployment undermined the power of trade unions, as workers now feared losing their jobs and being unemployed. Margaret Thatcher strongly attacked the unions and used people’s fears of unions after to the coal strikes and ‘winter of discontent’ to pass laws to limit union power.
With the economy being controlled by the IMF and World Bank, the only way Margaret Thatcher could make a difference was in foreign policy. In Rhodesia a rebel white government held on to power, but because of a long civil war this government now wanted to sue for peace. The British government had talks with both the white rebel government and guerrillas and sorted out a peace deal and Margaret Thatcher flew to African to in the final signing over power. An election was called in Rhodesia of all the people black and white and Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister. He has since become a despotic dictator, terrorising his country with violence, to keep in power.
Margaret Thatcher’s resolution was tested in Northern Ireland. At one time the IRA prisoners were classed as political prisoners and given special privileges in jail. But in the 1970s the Labour government took away this special status and classed IRA prisoners as common criminals. In 1981 a number of Republican prisoners went on hunger strike in an effort to restore their political status. But Margaret Thatcher refused to bow to this pressure and nine Republicans starved themselves to death before the IRA was forced called the hunger strike off. This was to strengthen Margaret Thatcher’s reputation of being ruthlessness and heartlessness.
Then an even a stronger test of her resolution came in 1982, the military junta of Argentina invade the British Falklands islands. At the time Margaret Thatcher was in the process of cutting back on military spending and cut military forces guarding the Falklands. So this may of given the military junta in Argentina, a belief that Britain would not defend these island. It could also be, that having a female leader the Argentina didn’t think she would want a fight. This was a big mistake, as she showed herself to be a very decisive war-leader.
Britain still had powerful navy, but she now only had small aircraft carriers that used Harrier jump jets. Only two carriers were available to sail to the Falklands and these were so small they could only carry 10 jets each. Opposed to this the Argentina’s had a large ex-USA carrier that carried far more jets than both the British carriers, as well as a air-force of modern supersonic French jets. When the British task force sailed in the Southern Atlantic it found itself in a very vulnerable position. It was now completely on it’s own with little chance of reinforcements. The Royal Navy had to guard two large ocean liners that carried all the troops need to retake the Falklands islands as well as number of supply ships and the aircraft carriers. If the Argentina navy or air force could sink one of the ocean liners or aircraft carriers, then the invasion would have to be called off.
The Royal Navy had one trump card and that was nuclear powered submarines. Four of them reached the Falkland Islands first and set up a blockade zone around the islands with the British government warning that any Argentina ships approaching the island would be sunk. Then the one of the submarines, HMS Conqueror spotted the Argentina Cruiser General Belgrano. The captain radioed this information back to London and Margaret Thatcher took the very controversial decision to order the captain to sink the General Belgrano. For this, she received worldwide condemnation, because the USA at the time still trying to negotiate a peace deal between the two countries. Also, the General Belgrano at the time was not a direct threat to the British forces and was steaming back to base. So diplomatically this was a very bad decision and people were condemning her for the sinking, long after the Falklands war had finished. But military, it was the right thing to do.
The result was, that this sinking frightened the Argentina navy so much that they returned to port, and took no further part in the conflict. Most important of all, their aircraft carrier also stayed in port and although its aircraft were still used, flying from airports in Argentina, the long range from Argentina to the Falklands reduced their effectiveness.
Margaret Thatcher then allowed the military to get on with their job without further interference, and they successfully re-took the Falklands. The whole campaign was greeted with patriotic furore and Margaret Thatcher suddenly found herself very popular. A slight economic recovery was engineered and an election was called in 1983 that resulted Margaret Thatcher winning another election. After this win the trade unions realised they were now in deep trouble. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had defeated the Heath government in the 1970s and it was hoped that they could do the same again. Unfortunately for them Margaret Thatcher knew what was coming and was preparing herself to take them on. This is where the Machiavellian side of her come out, as she ruthlessly out smarted the NUM. She made sure all the coal powered, power stations in the country were well stocked with coal, she then went out of her way to provoke the NUM in the spring where there is a less demand for coal in the coming months, right through the spring, summer and autumn. Surprising this tactic worked, and NUM in the spring of 1984 called a coal strike at the worst possible time of the year, for them to do this. Had they called the strike just before winter started, when the demand for power would be at its peak, and they might of stood a better chance.
Unfortunately not all the coal miners agreed with the strike, and some pits remained open. The NUM tried to close these pits through picketing, which led to extremely violent clashes with the police. The strike lasted a full year with many miners’ families falling into destitution, and the mineworkers were forced to go back to work having achieved nothing. Margaret Thatcher had won again, but the bitterness felt against her by those of the left wing, was now very strong.
Then in 1984 she was nearly assassinated by the IRA. At the Conservative conference in Brighton the IRA managed to plant a bomb in the hotel where she and her cabinet was staying. Although the suite in which she was staying was damaged she and her husband suffered no injury, but five other people in the hotel died and many others were injured. In spite of the bombing Margaret Thatcher insisted that the conference open on time next morning and she make her speech at the conference as planned. To demonstrate she wasn’t intimidated by the violence of the IRA.
When she first became Prime Minister she followed the usual British Government policy in Northern Ireland of supporting the Unionist, but over time she became increasingly frustrated by the inaction in solving the Northern Ireland problem. The majority Unionist parties held the power in Northern Ireland and weren’t interested in any form of power sharing with the minority Roman Catholics. So Margaret Thatcher decided to shake them out of their complacency. In 1985 she had talks with the Irish Prime Minister and signed the Anglo-Irish agreement, which gave the Irish Government a say in the governance of Northern Ireland. The Unionists reacted with fury at this agreement and done all they could to destroy it, but Margaret Thatcher stood firm and didn’t give way to their pressure. This made the Unionists realise that that they couldn’t depend on the British Government always supporting them and it gave hope to the Roman Catholics. After that, both sides did begin to make concessions, which resulted in making a peace deal, possible in the 1990s.
Up until the 1970s large parts of the British industry was in public ownership and Margaret Thatcher set about privatising most of it, claiming that private ownership would be more efficient. To be fair, in some cases this was true, but in other cases it was a complete disaster. She also got on very well with the then USA President Ronald Reagan, and strongly supported his foreign policy decisions. Like the US bombing raid on Libya from bases in the UK in 1986, in defiance of other European Countries, who all were against this action. And to allow the US to deploy cruse missile bases in Britain, which caused widespread protest and started the Women’s Greenham Common Peace Camp. Where Women at Greenham Common airbase were daily protesting and fighting US personal and British policemen.
Back in the 19th century it was proposed that a Channel tunnel be constructed between England and France. Many attempts were made to do this throughout both the 19th and 20th century, but opposition mainly from England ended all these projects. Margaret Thatcher decided to back another attempt to do this. She was strong enough to stand up against all opposition to the project and bulldozed her way forward. The Tunnel was started in 1987 and finished in 1990.
Before 1987 another economic ‘recovery’ was engineered which allowed Margaret Thatcher to win a third Election. But after the election, Monetarist economic policy dictated that unemployment needed to rise again. So the economy slumped again, making her very unpopular again. In 1988, she made a major speech accepting the problems of global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain. In 1990, she opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research. She was one of the first world leaders to take global warming seriously, and in comparison with the rest of the world at the time; her government did have a very good environmental record.
In 1989-90 Margaret Thatcher introduced for local government the Community Charge or as it became widely known, the poll tax, his was a fatal mistake. The poll tax, was the same for all house owners and this was so unfair, it caused widespread protest and street riots with 18 million people refusing to pay. Resulting in ordinary people being put into jail for refusing to pay. Unfortunately Margaret Thatcher stubbornly refused to back down, she had a reputation of facing down opposition and was not going to do so, this time.
With the economic slump and the unpopularity of the Poll tax, Margaret Thatcher became extremely unpopular and the Conservative party, realised she would now be an electoral liability in the next election. On 1 November 1990, Sir Geoffrey Howe, one of Thatcher's oldest and staunchest supporters, resigned from his position as Deputy Prime Minister in protest at Thatcher's European policy. Margaret Thatcher was clearly pro-USA and anti-European in her policies and this upset people like Sir Geoffrey Howe, who in his resignation speech in the House of Commons made a scathing attack her. The Michael Heselitine another pro-European who had also resigned from her cabinet over her European policies, challenged her for leadership of the party. Like when Margaret Thatcher had challenged Ted Health for the leadership Michael Heselitine done so well in the first round of voting, that she was forced to resign. This decision was greeted with jubilation throughout the country, so unpopular had she become in her last days in power.
From the viewpoint of encouraging Female power Margaret Thatcher was a failure. On the positive side she did show that a Female could be a strong and decisive leader. On the negative side, she showed very little of the feminine nature of caring and nurturing in her leadership. In fact, she was so macho in her behaviour, that people didn’t see her leadership as being any different from that of a male politician. And many people see her as being even more ruthless and uncaring than most male politicians today. Because of this, after she left, the British people are not enthusiastic about having another Female Prime Minister. As they imagine another Female leader will be as ruthless and uncaring as her.
She was to continue this ruthless image after she left power. Angusto Pinochet the former Chilean President visited Britain in 1998, and the Spanish government asked the British government to arrest him for crimes against Spanish people living in Chile. They then wanted Britain to send him to Spain to stand trial. Pinochet’s lawyers managed to delay this and in the legal and political debate over his extradition, Margaret Thatcher made is very clear she was supporting Pinochet.
Now, Pinochet overthrew a democratic elected government through a military takeover and then started a reign of terror where he murdered and tortured his political opponents. And this was the sort of despotic dictator that Margaret Thatcher was publicly praising and supporting.
She also wasn’t a ‘sister’ she criticised feminism while in power and promoted, “family values”. Which in practise meant undermining the gains feminism made in the 1960-70s. She only allowed one other female in her government and that was Edwina Curry. In 1986, she became a Junior Health Minister, but in 1988 she was forced to resign over salmonella in British eggs. Because of British factory farming practices; hygiene was compromised and salmonella was allowed to get into eggs. The government’s response, helped by the media, was to cover-up this fact. But Edwina Curry took her job seriously and was worried over the increase in deaths and illness because of salmonella poisoning. Because the general public were unaware that dangers of eating British eggs not properly cooked. (British eggs before this had a very good reputation of being salmonella free, so people assumed they were safe). So she defied government policy and made this fact public. She wasn’t supported by Margaret Thatcher or the media and was forced to resign.
Margaret Thatcher did nothing to encourage more Conservative Women to become MPs or the become part of the government. So when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minster he was shocked when in one of his first press conferences a newspaper reporter pointed out he had no Women in his government. Apparently it never entered his mind to have female Ministers, so he had to quickly find two token Women as Junior Ministers. Yet in spite of her not wanting to be of any help to other Women she did famously say:
“In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
“Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”
“I've got a woman's ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it.”
“It may be the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lays the eggs.”
“The woman's mission is not to enhance the masculine spirit, but to express the feminine; hers is not to preserve a man-made world, but to create a human world by the infusion of the feminine element into all of its activities.”
To be fair to Margaret Thatcher there was no way that she could have become leader of the Conservative Party unless she acted and behaved like a macho male. A caring and nurturing Woman would never of become a Minister or Leader of a male dominated political party. This then shows the weakness of Feminism, yes Feminism has made big advances in the 20th century to bring about sexual equality. But what Feminism has gained for Women is not sexual equality but equal sexual opportunities. The problem is that we still live in a patriarchal society created by men, for men. So although Margaret Thatcher has shown clearly that a Woman can inspire to the highest office in the land, but to do this, she still had to act like a ruthless male.
What Margaret Thatcher shows clearly that a lone Woman, even if she becomes the leader, is limited to what she can change. The only way true change can come about is for the whole government to be dominated by Women. This can only be done if Women take over existing political parties, or start their own Matriarchal political party, with Women taking control of every aspect of government. Only then are they are in a strong position to instigate genuine change for a truly caring society, based on the feminine principles of nurturing and caring.