Today, we mourn the loss and remember the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister, and leader of the conservative resurgence in Britain.
Margaret Thatcher was the second most important prime minister of the United Kingdom in the twentieth century. Ruling from 1979 until 1990, she dedicated her career to the expansion of freedom and achieved notable success toward this goal in her fights against the dead weight of socialism on the British economy and the iron hand of Soviet communism in Europe.
She was an unlikely prime minister. Born Margaret Roberts on October 13, 1925, in the town of Grantham in the north of England to a family of grocers, she attended Oxford University on scholarship and studied chemistry. After leaving Oxford she ran for Parliament in 1950 and 1951; though she lost both times, she gained publicity as the youngest woman candidate then standing for election. Thatcher used the rest of the 1950s to read for the bar and start a family with local businessman Denis Thatcher. By the end of the decade she was ready to enter the ring of politics again. In 1959 she won a seat in Parliament representing Finchley (a north London constituency), which she would represent for more than thirty years.
Upon her ascension to Parliament, Margaret Thatcher quickly established herself in the circles of the Conservative Party’s leadership. Within two years she was holding a junior office in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s administration. Starting in 1964, when the Conservatives were in the opposition, she served as a shadow minister, and then in 1970 when the Conservatives returned to office under Edward Heath, she became the education secretary. She was reviled for her job in that position. Education in Great Britain, as elsewhere, was at a low point, and Thatcher’s term as education secretary made her infamous. When the government abolished the entitlement of free milk for elementary school students, she became known as “Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.”
Thatcher was rescued from the dead end of education politics by the Heath administration’s disastrous rule. Promising economic revival through free-market reforms, Heath did just the opposite and further extended the government’s numbing reach into the economy. He was defeated at the polls in 1974 and Thatcher was freed for greater things. In 1975 she ran against Heath for leadership of the Conservative Party and, riding a crest of Tory dissatisfaction with the seemingly inexorable leftward drift of the party and government, won. The United Kingdom had its first female leader of a political party. In 1979 it had its first female prime minister.
The challenges facing Thatcher in her first term were immense. What in America was called economic malaise was called in the United Kingdom “the British Disease”—and it was much worse. The combination of zero employment growth and high inflation had crippled the British economy. Thatcher’s economic reforms had the quality of a shot in the arm: the painful effects were felt immediately, but the benefits would take time. Taxes were cut, the budget was balanced, and interest rates shot up to bring inflation under control. The end of Thatcher’s first term (1983) saw unemployment at more than three million as one inefficient manufacturing industry after another contracted severely. The high tide of unemployment would only start to recede in 1986.
But the ebbing of the worldwide recession of the early 1980s revealed Thatcher’s determination to master the economy. In the 1970s inflation was thought to be endemic to democracies. Thatcher checked inflation and showed that she intended to keep it under control. Ending the expectation of unremitting inflation and instead creating the hope of price stability opened the field for private economic investment to bloom. Thatcher showed that modern democracies could have sound economic policy—they had not had it to that point not because of its impossibility, but because of a lack of will among the political class. This was a revolution in thought.
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