Love her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and so far only female Prime Minister certainly divided opinions.
She was at her most popular in foreign policy - taking on and winning the Falklands war, negotiating a rebate on UK contribution to the European Union, and building a ‘special relationship’ with the USA. But domestically her policies of privatisation and running down traditional industries caused controversy and destroyed communities. Her campaign against the trade unions and the highly unpopular Poll Tax led to riots on the streets.
I’m sure most of us have read at least one newspaper obituary of her but it’s fascinating to look back and see how she was seen by contemporaries at the time. Check out the Westminster Libraries collection of online newspaper resources (you’ll need to log in with your Westminster Library card unless you’re using a library computer) for views from all sides of the political spectrum. Let’s have a quick browse through her early career…
She appears in The Times on 29th June 1959 in an article titled ‘Hands that Rock the Cradle, do not Rock Commons’ – ‘Apart from 10 Conservative Women who are standing again, the are 19 women candidates on the Conservative list of adoptions. Of these, only two have safe seats: Mrs Margaret Thatcher at Finchley (majority 12,825) and Mrs B Harvie Anderson in East Renfrewshire (16,588).’ Betty Harvie Anderson, by the way, scored her own notable first as she was the first woman to sit in the Speaker’s Chair when she was Deputy Speaker from 1970-1973.
You can follow Mrs Thatcher’s early career including an interest in widow’s pensions, support for the re-introduction of judicial corporal punishment and her concern for her constituent Gerald Brooke, who had been arrested in the USSR for alleged anti-Soviet activity. There was also a Private Member’s Bill in 1960 which, somewhat surprisingly, concerned the rights of the press to be admitted to local authority meetings.
On 25th November 1960, The Guardian reported that she had fainted in the House of Commons, which she later attributed to ‘sheer overtiredness’. On March 23rd 1962, the Guardian published a lengthy profile of her, by the journalist Taya Zinkin, headed Political Woman:
‘Any memories of the suffragettes that might have lingered in my mind, evaporated as I listened to this smartly dressed, pretty women whose shrewd common sense comes forth in the most mellifluous of voices… “Here again, I am fortunate” said Mrs Thatcher. “Finchley, my constituency, is not far from Parliament and since I live in Kent, I need not keep a flat in London and I can go home to my husband and children. Moreover I do not have to worry about money – as you know we get no pension as of right; this can matter to those who have to support themselves ; it is expensive to be in politics ; one has to be well-groomed, and one has to entertain”.’
From which we can see that Parliament was a very different place in the days before MPs started claiming for duck houses.
For many of us, Margaret Thatcher’s first significant act on the political stage was, as Education Secretary in 1971, the abolition of free school milk which had been available to children under 18 since 1946 (though, in her defence, anyone old enough to have drunk the stuff absolutely loathed it). She did refuse to make other cuts – one Treasury proposal was for public libraries to charge for lending books but the nickname Milk Snatcher stuck with her for years.
One thing is for sure - in death as in life the debate on the Thatcher legacy will go on and on. If her recent demise has awakened a desire to know more about or reappraise the ‘Iron Lady’, read on…
The path to power
by Margaret Thatcher
This volume of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs reflects back on her life before her monumental election in 1979.
The Downing Street years
by Margaret Thatcher
These bestselling memoirs of Margaret Thatcher provide an inside look at her role as a world leader and the events and personalities that shaped her years as Britain’s prime minister.
MEMOIRS BY COLLEAGUES
The real Iron Lady: working with Mrs T, by Gillian Shephard
Gillian Shephard, who herself served as a minister under Margaret Thatcher, has brought together a group of contributors with experience of working with Mrs Thatcher during her time at 10 Downing Street.
Reagan and Thatcher: the difficult relationship, by Richard Aldous
Historians have cited the long-term alliance of Reagan and Thatcher as an example of the special bond between the US and Britain. But these political titans clashed repeatedly as they confronted the greatest threat of their time: the USSR.
Maggie and me, by Damian Barr
Maggie & Me is a touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher’s Britain; a story of growing up gay in a straight world and coming out the other side in spite of, and maybe because of, the iron lady.
Making Thatcher’s Britain, by Ben Jackson
This book draws together leading historians to locate Thatcher and Thatcherism within the political, social, cultural and economic history of modern Britain.
Thatcher and sons: a revolution in three acts, by Simon Jenkins
The history of Britain in the past thirty years, under both Conservative and Labour governments, has been dominated above all by one figure – Margaret Thatcher.
No such thing as society, by Andy McSmith
From the Falklands war and the miners strike to Bobby Sands and the Guildford Four, from Diana and the New Romantics to Live Aid and the big bang, from the Rubiks cube to the ZX Spectrum, McSmith’s narrative account uncovers the truth behind the decade that changed Britain forever.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, by Alwyn W Turner
The Eighties may seem to many of us like yesterday, but they are already two decades ago. Not only have we already become nostalgic for them, but in many ways the decade does seem like a thoroughly foreign country.
Thatcher’s Britain: the politics and social upheaval of the Thatcher era, by Richard Vinen
Britain’s first female prime minister remains a political figure of almost mythical proportions. Margaret Thatcher divided a political nation, became a cultural icon, and was the longest-serving prime minister of the twentieth century.
How I killed Margaret Thatcher, by Anthony Cartwright
Nine-year old Sean has never seen anything like what happens on the day Margaret Thatcher takes power and his grandad discovers his uncle voted for her.
GB84, by David Peace
In a bloody and dramatic fictional portrait of the year that was to leave an indelible mark on the nation’s consciousness, Peace dares to engage with the Britain’s social and political past, bringing it shockingly and brilliantly to life.
The Iron Lady
– starring Meryl Streep, 2012
[Nicky and Malcolm]