Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not the only female leader referred to as the Iron Lady, a nickname she was given in 1976 by the Soviet media for her staunch opposition to communism. Throughout history, there have been others who have earned this unofficial title, including former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir of Israel, Angela Merkel of Germany, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. Even South Africa’s Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, has occasionally been referred to as “an Iron Lady”. However, this longest serving British Prime Minister for 150 years, and first woman ever to take the role, was arguably the most distinguished and controversial.
Born Margaret Hilda Roberts on 13 October 1925, she was the younger of Alfred and Beatrice Roberts’ two daughters. Her father was a shopkeeper and mayor of the market town of Grantham, and a major formative influence on the future Prime Minister. She began her career as an industrial chemist, before qualifying as a barrister specialising in tax law. In December 1951 she married businessman Denis Thatcher, and they had two children: Carol and Mark. In 1959 Thatcher was elected a member of parliament for Finchley in north London, and first entered the Cabinet as Minister for Education & Science in 1970. Five years later she took over the Tory leadership.
In May 1979, the Conservatives won the General Election and Margaret Thatcher became PM, a position she would hold for the next 11 and a half years.
Margaret Thatcher’s government followed a radical programme of privatisation and deregulation, aimed at reducing the role of government and increasing individual self-reliance. This policy, later known as Thatcherism, brought in an economic boom, mostly for the upper and upper middle classes. However, her policies were criticised for breaking the social fabric and increasing poverty, particularly in lower income families.
During her tenure, relations with the Republic of Ireland were severely strained, and on the 12 October 1984, Thatcher narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army, which bombed the Brighton hotel she was staying in during the Tories’ annual party conference.
Vying for a second term in the 1983 elections, Thatcher believed that the recapture of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982 marked an end to Britain’s post-war decline, and used this as a campaign tool. She defended arrangements for Cape Town to be used as the staging post for building materials to be shipped to the Falklands for the construction of a new airstrip. She said the decision to use Cape Town was purely commercial. This gave a glimpse into the Thatcher government’s disjointed relationship with apartheid South Africa. Thatcher was opposed to the tactics of the apartheid state, and its brutal treatment of the majority black population. But she defended Britain’s trade and investment links with apartheid South Africa, saying economic sanctions would damage British and wider western interests and harm other countries in southern Africa.
Thatcher also vocally supported the voluntary 1977 Gleneagles Agreement which barred Commonwealth countries from having sporting contacts with South Africa. Yet at the same time, she said the British government could not ban sports links with South Africa as Britain was bound to uphold the individual rights of its citizens. While Thatcher shied away from denouncing the apartheid government outright, she had strong words for the African National Congress, when at a Commonwealth meeting in October 1987, she referred to the ANC as “a typical terrorist organisation”. In August 2006, Tory leader David Cameron, who is the current British Prime Minister, said that this had been a mistake on the part of Thatcher and the Conservatives.
Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a close personal and political relationship with United States president Ronald Reagan, as the two shared a strong opposition to communism. They also believed in constructive engagement with the South African government, instead of fully-backed sanctions.
In February 1990 Thatcher invited South African President FW De Klerk to her country home, in the first major international reaction to his dramatic opening speech to parliament that unbanned the African National Congress and released political prisoners, most notably former president Nelson Mandela.
Later in February 1990, Thatcher wasted no time, deciding to lift the voluntary ban on new investment in South Africa following Nelson Mandela’s release, along with the lifting of very minor sanctions, as a reward for De Klerk unbanning the ANC and releasing the political prisoner. However, after his release, Nelson Mandela called for sustained international sanctions against South Africa, in direct conflict with Thatcher’s position.
Thatcher’s decision to lift sanctions against South Africa also flew in the face of Britain’s European Community partners, who had implemented the ban as part of a European Community package in 1986. This was just one instance of her strident attitude against Europe, which contributed to alienating her from a growing number in her own party. When Margaret Thatcher delivered an uncompromising speech against political integration with Europe, she provoked the resignation of her deputy Geoffrey Howe, and set into motion her own downfall. In November 1990 she resigned from her party and from the premiership.
In the years immediately following her resignation, Margaret Thatcher wrote her memoirs, and joined the majority of former British Prime Ministers as a member of the Order of the Garter, the United Kingdom's highest order of chivalry. She was employed by tobacco giant Philip Morris Companies to help them break into new markets, as well as fight against a proposed European Community ban on tobacco advertising. In March 1999, she made a highly publicised and controversial visit to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet when he was under house arrest in Surrey, expressing her support and friendship for him. Pinochet had been a key ally in the Falklands war, and, when he died on 10 December 2006, she announced she was 'deeply saddened'.
In May 1991, Thatcher visited South Africa, and met with one of her staunchest supporters, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who praised her for opposing sanctions against the Apartheid State.
During this visit, the Democratic Party-led Johannesburg management committee planned to award Margaret Thatcher with the freedom of the city, an idea that was strongly opposed by the ANC and the PAC, who threatened to disrupt her visit. Joining the voices of dissent was Johannesburg Civic Association spokesman Mohammed Dangor, who said Thatcher had done little for the cause of liberation of the oppressed in South Africa. In the end, Thatcher did not receive the freedom of the city because of her full schedule.
She was made a Peer in 1992, when she was created Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire. In March 2002, following several small strokes, she announced an end to her career in public speaking. The following June, Denis Thatcher, her husband of more than fifty years, died.
In 2004, the Thatcher name was in the news for all the wrong reasons, when Mark, Margaret Thatcher’s son, found himself embroiled in the centre of a coup plot to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea. Thatcher was held on suspicion of providing financing for a helicopter linked to the mercenaries involved in the coup. He was charged with contravening two sections of South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act, which bans residents from taking part in any foreign military activity. In January 2005, Thatcher admitted his role in the coup plot. The Cape Town High Court ordered him to pay a R3 million fine and gave him a four-year suspended prison sentence.
In 2008, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol revealed for the first time, in her book, A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir, that her mother had been suffering from dementia for nearly eight years, and at times forgot that her husband Denis had died.
While Margaret Thatcher’s political career directed official government policy, it also provided material for entertainment and the arts. There were several protest songs written about her and her tenure. Satirist John Wells wrote a 1980 comedy audio album titled “Iron Lady”, which lampooned the Prime Minister. It featured noted Thatcher impersonator Janet Brown, and included a song also titled “Iron Lady”. Wells, who died in 1998, was also well-known for his caricatures of Denis Thatcher.
In January 2012, a biographical film about Thatcher titled “The Iron Lady” was released. It starred acclaimed actress Meryl Streep in the leading role. The film won several awards, including the best actress Golden Globe for Streep.