The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) was the first woman to serve as leader of the Conservative party, the United Kingdom’s first female Prime Minister, and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. She was born in Grantham, and she was raised with her sister Muriel by their parents Alfred and Beatrice Roberts in the flat above the grocery shop they owned and ran. Alfred Roberts was a local councillor and Methodist preacher. “I just owe almost everything to my own father,” Margaret Thatcher said when she became Prime Minister after winning the 1979 general election. “I really do. He brought me up to believe all the things that I do believe and they’re just the values on which I’ve fought the Election.”
Thatcher studied chemistry at Oxford University from 1943 to 1947, and was elected president of the university’s Conservative Association in her final year. After graduation, she initially worked as an industrial chemist, but started training to become a tax lawyer in 1951. She was selected as the Conservative candidate for Dartford in the 1950 and 1951 elections—on both occasions she was the youngest female candidate in the country—but lost to Labour’s Norman Dodds. She met her husband Denis in Dartford. They married in 1951, and their twins Carol and Mark were born 1953. Four months after they were born, Thatcher passed her final exams to become a barrister.
Thatcher won Finchley for the Conservatives in 1959. On entering Parliament, she broke with convention, using her maiden speech on 5 February 1960 to introduce a private Member’s Bill to require local authorities to hold their meetings in public, declaring that her constituents would wish her to “come straight to the point”. The following year, she became a junior Minister in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. After the Conservatives lost the 1964 and 1966 elections, she served in the shadow ministerial team, joining the shadow Cabinet in 1967 as fuel and power spokesperson.
When the Conservatives returned to power in 1970 she was made Education Secretary, and was the only woman in the Cabinet. With the Conservatives in opposition again after the 1974 election, she said that “it would be extremely difficult for a woman to make it to the top”, but stood for leadership of her party in 1975, winning in the second round of voting, and becoming the first woman to serve as Leader of the Opposition. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet news agency Tass called her the “Iron Lady”—a term she came to relish.
Thatcher became Prime Minister when the Conservatives won the 1979 election. Her period in office was transformative for the nation. In her first term (1979-83), she introduced the right to right to buy for council tenants in 1980, and went to war over the Falkland Islands in 1982. She developed a close working relationship with US President Ronald Reagan, and established “real political dialogue on the most critical issues” with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev
Thatcher’s second term (1983-87) was marked by bitter industrial disputes with the miners and print workers. She survived an IRA attack in 1984, when a bomb went off at the Conservative party conference, and in 1985 negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Republic of Ireland which sought to improve security links between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as well as co-operation between the Republic and Northern Ireland. She also initiated privatisation of state industries and utilities, along with deregulation of the financial service sector, known as the “Big Bang”.
In her final term (1987-90), Thatcher introduced controversial reforms to education, including the introduction of a national curriculum, and to local government. Proposals to introduce a poll tax provoked riots in London in March 1990 that helped to precipitate challenges to her control of the Conservative party. She withdrew from the ensuing leadership contest in November 1990, and retired from the House of Commons at the 1992 election, becoming a life peer. Although a firm believer in the European single market, she took a tough stance on European integration, and in the House of Lords she opposed the Maastricht Treaty, which she said she could “never have signed”. She wrote her memoirs and toured the world as a speaker and lecturer, but withdrew from public life in 2002 after a series of strokes.
After her death in 2013, having refused in advance a state funeral, Thatcher’s body lay overnight at the Chapel of St Mary’s Undercroft at the Palace of Westminster before a procession to St Paul’s Cathedral, where the service was attended by Queen Elizabeth II.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Margaret Thatcher, maiden speech, 5 February 1960 PUBLIC BODIES (ADMISSION OF THE PRESS TO MEETINGS) BILL (Hansard, 5 February 1960) (parliament.uk)
Baroness Thatcher, speech on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, 7 June 1993: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1993/jun/07/european-communities-amendment-bill