Thatchers Britain in the 80s
Every decade sires its own tumult, positing leaders as both heroes and villains. Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as British prime minister, from 4th May 1979 to 22 November 1990 , was no different.
After assuming leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, Baroness Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister, and one of the most controversial figures of the ‘80s. Under her governance, the country experienced a cavalcade of tectonic societal shifts, leaving many struggling for a foothold in a rapidly changing country. Thatcher’s Britain was a country engaged in a class war, as industry took an about turn. The decade would forever be scarred by the bitter miners’ strikes , pitting industrial leaders and trade unionists against the most redoubtable of leaders. Britain’s languishing economy, its flabby public sector debt, was all but renovated and drained during the Conservative Party’s policy of aggressive privatisation of public sector companies. Selling off the family silver was government policy. British Rail, British Telecom, British Steel… the sale of such publicly owned behemoths radically changed the direction of the economy, creating that combustible debate that festers in the fissures between public sector responsibilities and private sector interests.
When Margaret Thatcher moved into Number Ten, her brief was explicit: an ageing economy, riven with unemployment and inflation, needed profound changes. Government policy sought to establish the hegemony of market power. The political landscape, where trade unionism was still a fierce bargaining dynamic, was heavy going. Thatcher’s economic renovations would be remembered for the picket line warfare of the miners’ strikes.
There was also the attendant drama of the Cold War, whose exchanges Thatcher had willfully engaged in whilst leader of the opposition. Perhaps it won’t be one theatre of debate which defined her, but it did give her the ‘Iron Lady’ nickname, one which stuck throughout her time in government. Across the Atlantic Ocean, president Ronald Reagan’s similarly aggressive capitalist policy, afforded her an obvious ally. Reagonomics and Thatcherism were comfortable bedfellows in a decade when Hollywood informed us that ‘Greed is good’, while stockbrokers manoeuvering financial markets dined out on that as if it were a Divine maxim.
Aligning her political fortunes with that of the economy, it was natural that a recession in the early ‘80s would dent Thatcher’s popularity. Yet her steely resolve, coupled with wars with Argentina for custody of the Falklands Isles , saw her reelected for a second term. Throughout her reign, the security situation in Northern Ireland was an acute problem, one which saw her endorse the criminalisation of the IRA’s campaign. The refusal to grant Republican prisoners Special Category Status, even in the midst of hungerstrikes, was again testament to her stubborn rule. It was a style which won her as many enemies as it did friends. To the Conservative Party faithful, she was Maggie: to working class Britain, she was the antichrist. The latter may seem like hyperbole, but it is borne out of hard facts: Thatcher divided people. Her approval rating as prime minister rarely soared. The dawn of a service led economy cast a shadow over manufacturing and heavy industry. A boisterous Pound made exports expensive.
She was again reelected in 1987, defeating a shambolic Labour Party under Neil Kinnock , and was unique for a British leader in that she lasted three terms. Her end was precipitated by the poll tax , with local taxation trialled in Scotland, before being reviled throughout Britain. Riots pockmarked that measure, and for many, this was the beginning of the end. For a prime minister minted on economic revolution, this was one change too far.
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