Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher?

Margaret Hilda Thatcher (née Roberts) was born on the 13th October 1925. She was the first and only female prime minister of the United Kingdom, serving in office from 1979-90 and winning three consecutive general elections for the Conservative Party.  Originally a chemist and then a barrister, Thatcher became Member of Parliament (MP) for Finchley in the 1959 general election. Over her career in British politics, she received several nicknames, a famous one being the “Iron lady” and a rather more infamous one being “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” after her removal of free school milk for over 7’s during her time as education secretary.

When Thatcher and the Conservatives came to power in 1979, Britain was in an economic meltdown – there were already strict directives from the IMF to stop the economy collapsing. This led to Thatcher making some difficult and unpopular decisions in order to save the British economy. Her time in office can be looked on either favorably or it can be torn apart by political oppositions. She made many improvements to Britain but it is her “community charge” (Poll Tax) which she is remembered for, the policy that ultimately led to her demise in 1990.

Under Edward Heath, the Conservative party won the 1970 general election, in which Margaret Thatcher gained her first cabinet role, as Secretary of state for Education and Science. She was brought to the public’s attention when she enforced spending cuts to the state-funded education system in Britain and imposed a cut that saw all school children over the age of 7 lose their entitlement to free school milk. This is where she gained the nickname “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.  She decided that the academic role of School must take priority and believed that there would be not detrimental effect is children over 7 paid for milk. This event caused criticism from outraged parents and the Labour party. She later wrote in her autobiography “I learned a valuable lesson [from the experience]. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”

Thatcher went on to challenge Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative party in 1975, following the general election defeat in 1974. Surprisingly, on the 4th February 1975, Thatcher beat Heath as leader of the Conservative party by 130 votes to 119. This was a historic victory as she became the first female leader of a major political party. This defeat upset Heath, to such an extent that he refused to serve in Thatcher’s shadow cabinet. During Labour’s time in power, the British economy fell into disrepair. Hoping that the things would improve, prime minister, James Callaghan put off the time of the election – something which proved to be a costly mistake. In 1978 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, controversially began imposing tight monetary controls, including deep cuts in public spending on education and health. Critics claimed that this laid the foundations of what became known as monetarism. In 1978 these public spending cuts led to a wave of strikes, known as the “winter of discontent” with reference to Shakespeare. The strikes reached the extent that even the grave diggers went on strike. For 10 days the dead remained un-buried in Liverpool. The Labour party was subsequently beaten by a landslide victory in the 1979 general election, making Margaret Thatcher the first female prime minister.

Thatcher didn’t want to seem like a weak and powerless woman in comparison to her male counterparts in parliament. Therefore she received elocution lessons from actor Laurence Olivier. The aim of these lessons was to give her a deeper voice so that her voice would give her speeches more power. At the top of all her speeches, she hand wrote “relax, low speaking voice, not too slow.”  Originally, she wanted to keep the knowledge of her vocal lessons a secret to avoid bad publicity.

Throughout Thatcher’s career, she was surrounded by controversy in foreign affairs. In November, Thatcher went to a meeting of the European Economic Community (EEC) to renegotiate Britain’s contribution to the EEC budget. She famously said that she wasn’t asking Europe for money, she was just asking for Britain’s money back. She went to the summit for the majority of £1,000 million of British money. She kept the leaders of Europe around the dinner table for 4 hours talking about a refund, reaching the agreement for a £700 million rebate. Thatcher wasn’t happy and demanded more, however conceded to her cabinet’s pleads and accepted the offer. Thatcher was also upset with the power that the EEC seemed to be accumulating. The biggest example of this was the directive that prioritised European law over British law through the Factortame litigation. This came about after British parliament introduced a revised Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which came about to restrict the fishing by Spanish ships in British waters. Upset by this loss of income, Spain took this case to European court and won and injunction that ruled that European law took priority of any law passed through the British legislation. This means that the waters were seen as European rather than British, allowing any European vessel to fish in them. This annoyed Thatcher as it gave Europe sovereignty and as a Eurosceptic this opposed her political philosophy.

As far as intercontinental relations went, Thatcher had an extremely good relation with Ronald Reagan and America. However, her highly right wing views were in great opposition to the communist ideals of the Soviet Union. This poor relation led to the creation of her infamous nickname “the Iron Lady” of the west. She warmly welcomed the introduction of reformist leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. The key foreign event to occur in her time of office was the Falkland wars. The Falkland Islands are a British dependency of the south east coast of South America. The people on the island speak English and are very much British. The conflict arose over the ownership of the Falkland Islands between Britain and Argentina. In the built up to the war, both nations were in economic difficulties, but Argentina was in an economic meltdown. The Argentinian government were in favour of the military approach for the long standing claim over the ownership of the islands. In the Argentinian government’s view, Britain would not react to the invasion with military force and the acquirement of the islands would lift spirits of the public despite their poor economic circumstances. On Friday 2nd April 1982, Argentinian forces invaded the small dependencies and occupied the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Britain responded by dispatching a naval task force to engage the Argentinian navy and air force. Their instructions were to reclaim the islands through the form of amphibious assaults. Thatcher’s initial reaction was the order of three nuclear submarines and the Royal Auxiliary Fleet to be sent to the conflict area. After a crisis meeting headed by Mrs Thatcher, it was decide that Britain could and should send forces to invade and retake the islands. On the 1st April the order was sent to a Royal Navy force, which was training in the Mediterranean to prepare to set sail for the Falkland Islands. The following day, after an emergency meeting of the cabinet, approval was granted for a force to be assembled for the reclaiming of the Falkland Islands. The Task force consisted of 127 ships, 43 Royal Navy, 22 RFA and 62 merchant ships. On 6 April, the British Government set up a War Cabinet to provide day-to-day political oversight of the campaign. This was the critical instrument of crisis management for the British with its remit being to “keep under review political and military developments relating to the South Atlantic, and to report as necessary to the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee.” Until it was dissolved on 12 August, the War Cabinet met at least daily. Although Margaret Thatcher is described as dominating the War Cabinet, Lawrence Freedman in the Official History of the Falklands Campaign notes that she did not ignore opposition or fail to consult others. However, once a decision was reached she “did not look back”. This is a prime example of her strong and decisive leadership of her party, cabinet and country.

She did not only face problems abroad, but she had the British economy to fix and rebuild. Her economic policies are what shaped politics in the 80’s and are the basics of Thatcherism. Neoliberalism, also known as economic Thatcherism, was built on the free market and self-reliance. Thatcher believed that there was no such thing as society. She felt that an individual should be responsible for his/her own financial position and should fund their own and their family’s lifestyles. This was designed to get more people off benefits and for them to once again become economically active which would promote economic growth. Thatcher also used the method of privatization to increase government revenue. During her time in office she privatized many of the industries that had been nationalized by the socialist governments over the course of the 20th century. These industries included British telecoms, gas, electricity, water steel, buses and railways. Taxation was reduced significantly during the 1980’s. As Mrs. Thatcher’s government was spending less money, she was able to charge far less on taxation. Under her ideal of the free market, Thatcher deregulated many restrictions that were in place on the economy. She removed controls on the exchange rates, allowing the pound to “float” and put an end to subsidies that were supporting failing British industries. Although this increased unemployment in the short run, in promoted economic growth, which created far more jobs in the long run. An area she is most famous for is her restriction of union power. She viewed the strength of the trade unions as a “problem”. As a solution to this “problem”, Mrs. Thatcher introduced a series of laws that greatly affected the union’s ability to strike. In 1984-85, Thatcher’s government took on and succeeded in taking down a yearlong miners’ strike. These measures led to a more flexible market, which progressed to the growth of a low wage and low skill economy in the primary and secondary sectors of the economy. These policies worked as the economy entered a boom period during Thatcher’s time in office. However, they didn’t make her popular in the general opinion. Many liked that the cost of taxes were decreasing and that there was an improvement in the level of customer service in the newly privatized businesses. Other, mainly the working class, were made redundant as companies entered bankruptcy due to Thatcher’s removal of the subsidies supporting the failing firms. Their answer to this risk of unemployment was to take industrial action and go on strike. This soon came to an end as Thatcher and her cabinet took on the trade unions, leaving many workers angered without a means of expressing it.

Thatcher, although not the most popular Prime Minister throughout time, is certainly one of the most memorable and to those on the right wing on the spectrum, like myself, see is seen as one of the greatest. She is without doubt one of the most controversial Prime Minister’s the country has seen, however, I believe that no matter where your political ideals lie on the spectrum, there can be no question that Thatcher’s intentions were good and she had the country’s best interest at heart. She was clearly dedicated to the job, with reports suggesting she lived off 5 hours sleep while in the role of Prime Minister. Not only that, she was also emotionally attached to the job. Although portraying the image of an “Iron Lady”, she even shed a tear on her departure from 10 Downing Street.

Scott Culleton, A2 Politics Student.

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    • Samir
    • April 10th, 2013

    Why no mention of her other “international relations”? Pinochet, Hussein, Suharto and Zia? Or her comments on Nelson Mandela?

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