Friday, November 18, 2011

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher was elected the first woman prime minister of England in1979. She led England out of a recession, led a war in defense of the British Falkland Islands, confronted unions and the influence of the then Soviet Union which earned her the nickname of "Iron Lady". Her stance on European Union led to her eventual lack of party support and her resignation as prime minister in 1990.

Early Life
Politician, former British prime minister. Born Margaret Roberts on October 13, 1925, in Grantham, England. Nicknamed the “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher served as the prime minister of England from 1979 to 1990. The daughter of a local businessman, she was educated at the local grammar school. Her family operated a grocery store and they all lived in an apartment above the store. In her early years, Thatcher was introduced to conservative politics by her father who was a member of the town’s council.

A good student, Thatcher was accepted to Oxford University, where she studied chemistry at Somerville College. One of her instructors was the Dorothy Hodgkin, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Politically active, Thatcher served as president of the Conservative Association at the university. She earned a degree in chemistry in 1947 and went to work as a research chemist in Colchester and later in Dartford.

Early Foray Into Politics
Only two years after graduating college, Thatcher made her first bid for public office. She ran as the conservative candidate for a Dartford parliamentary seat in the 1950 elections. Thatcher knew from the start that it would be nearly impossible to win the position away from the liberal Labour Party. Still she earned the respect of her political party peers with her speeches. Defeated, Thatcher remained undaunted. She tried again the next year, but once more her efforts were unsuccessful. Two months after her loss, she married Denis Thatcher.

In 1952, Thatcher put politics aside for a time to study law. She and her husband welcomed twins Carol and Mark the next year. After completing her training, Thatcher qualified as a barrister, a type of lawyer, in 1953. But she did not stay away from the political arena for too long. Thatcher won a seat in the House of Commons in 1959, representing Finchley.

Clearly a woman on the rise, Thatcher was appointed parliamentary under secretary for pensions and national insurance in 1961. When the Labour Party assumed control of the government, she became a member of what is called the Shadow Cabinet, which is a group of political leaders who would hold cabinet level posts if their party was in power.

Britain's First Female Premier
When the Conservatives returned to office in June 1970, Thatcher was appointed secretary of state for education and science, becoming famous as "Thatcher, milk snatcher,” after her abolition of the universal free school milk scheme. She found her position frustrating not because of the all of the bad press around her actions, but because she had difficulty getting Prime Minister Edward Heath to listen to her ideas. Seemingly disenchanted on the future of women in politics, Thatcher was quoted as saying “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime,” during a 1973 television appearance.

Thatcher soon proved herself wrong. While the Conservatives lost power in 1974, Thatcher became a dominant force in her political party. She was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, beating out Heath for the position. With this victory, Thatcher became the first woman to serve as the opposition leader in the House of Commons. England was in a time of economic and political turmoil with the government nearly bankrupt, employment on the rise, and conflicts with the labor unions. This instability helped return the Conservatives to power in 1979. As the party leader, Thatcher made history that May when she was appointed Britain's first female prime minister.

Conservative Leadership
As prime minister, Thatcher battled the country’s recession by initially raising interest rates to control inflation. She was best known for her destruction of Britain’s traditional industries, through her attacks on labor organizations such as the miner’s union, and for the massive privatization of social housing and public transport. One of her staunchest allies was U.S. president Ronald Reagan, a fellow conservative. The two shared similar right-wing, pro-corporate political philosophies.

Thatcher faced a military challenge during her first term. In April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland islands. This British territory had long been a source of conflict between the two nations as the islands are located off the coast of Argentina. Taking swift action, Thatcher sent British troops to the territory to retake the islands in what became known as the Falklands War. Argentina surrendered in June 1982.

In her second term, from 1983 to 1987, Thatcher handled a number of conflicts and crises. The most jarring of which may have been the attempt on her life in 1984. In a plot by the Irish Republic Army, she was meant to killed by a bomb planted at the Conservative Conference in Brighton in October. Undaunted and unharmed, Thatcher insisted that the conference continue and gave a speech the following day.

As for foreign policy, Thatcher met with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, in 1984. She also signed an agreement with the Chinese government regarding the future of Hong Kong that same year. Publicly, Thatcher voiced her support for Ronald Reagan’s air raids on Libya in 1986 and allowed the U.S. forces to use British bases to help carry out the attack.

Returning for a third term in 1987, Thatcher sought to implement a standard educational curriculum across the nation and make changes to the country’s socialized medical system. But she lost a lot of support because of her efforts to implement a fixed rate local tax—labeled a poll tax by many since she sought to disenfranchise those who did not pay it. Hugely unpopular, this policy led to public protests and caused dissention within her party. Thatcher initially pressed on for fight for party leadership in 1990, but she eventually yielded to pressure from party members and announced her intentions to resign on November 22, 1990. In a statement, she said, “Having consulted widely among colleagues, I have concluded that the unity of the Party and the prospects of victory in a General Election would be better served if I stood down to enable Cabinet colleagues to enter the ballot for the leadership. I should like to thank all those in Cabinet and outside who have given me such dedicated support.” On November 28, 1990, Thatcher left office, departing from 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, for the last time.

Life After Politics
Not long after leaving office, Thatcher was appointed to the House of Lords, as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven in 1992. She experienced her experiences as a world leader and a pioneering woman in the field of politics in two books, The Downing Street Years (1993) and The Path to Power (1995). In 2002, Thatcher’s book, Statecraft, was published and offered her views on international politics.

Around this time, Thatcher had a series of small strokes. She suffered a great personal loss in 2003 when her husband Denis died—the couple had been married for more than 50 years. The next year, she had to say good-bye to an old friend and ally, Ronald Reagan. In fragile health, Thatcher gave a eulogy at his funeral via video link, praising Reagan as a man who “sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world, and to free the slaves of communism.”

In 2005, Thatcher celebrated her eightieth birthday. A huge event was held in her honor and was attended by Queen Elizabeth, Tony Blair, and nearly 600 other friends, family members, and former colleagues. Two years later, a sculpture of the strong conservative leader was unveiled in the House of Commons. While her policies and actions are still debated by detractors and supporters alike, Thatcher has left an indelible impression on Britain and world politics.

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