The Iron Lady

by Hugo Young

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The life of Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to be prime minister of Great Britain, is the subject of Hugo Young's Iron Lady, published in 1989.

The daughter of a grocery-shop owner in suburban Grantham, Thatcher was raised in a strict, conventional, religious, upwardly-striving environment that shaped her values and later politics. Her childhood seems to have given few hints of what was to come, and it was only as a student at Oxford, where she began to take a keen interest in politics, that she would reveal her future path.

Following the war, Margaret Thatcher was employed as an industrial chemist in various jobs, at one of which she was dubbed "The Duchess"; this was due to her excessively precise personal behavior and voice, the latter likely a result of the elocution lessons mandated by her ambitious father to erase her Midlands accent. Despite her apparent lack of social skill, she continued to pursue a political career, running unsuccessfully for parliament in Dartford twice in the early 1950s under the banner of the Conservative Party.

It was during this period that Thatcher met her husband, Denis, the scion of a wealthy manufacturing family. Her new spouse, a strong proponent of her political career, encouraged her to attend law school in the belief that it would bolster her career. In 1959, her political dreams became a reality when she won a seat in the London district of Finchley.

In 1970, after being named Minister of Education under the Heath government, Thatcher began to display the first traces of the "Iron Lady" the world would come to know. She was responsible for closing more grammar schools than any previous education minister and became famous for cutting free milk to schools; the latter was an action she would later come to regret.

With the Heath government rocked by a steady succession of problems, from the Arab oil embargo to recalcitrant unions and the IRA Bloody Sunday bombing, the Conservatives were defeated by the Labor Party in 1974. Thatcher's pragmatism seemed more persuasive than what was now perceived as the failed ideology of Heath, and she was elected as the leader of the Conservative opposition. Under the tutelage of Conservative politician and ideologue Keith Joseph, she began to educate herself about free-market economics, becoming especially conversant with the work of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Thatcher's defeat of James Callaghan for the office of Prime Minister in 1979 was the result of a terribly weakened British economy and a series of strikes which caused the press to label the winter of 1978–79 the "Winter of Discontent." Treating her election as a mandate to reorganize the financial state of the nation, Thatcher began to slash government spending on a scale not seen since before WWII. Unemployment rose dramatically, and British manufacturing was nearly obliterated by exorbitant interest rates.

Thatcher's political life was given oxygen by the Falklands War, which rallied the British public to patriotic support of her stalwartly Churchillian aggression—though the entire conflict was due to her own government's botched diplomacy. The British victory over Argentina caused her popularity to skyrocket, transforming her into a global icon. As an added political benefit, it cemented her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who was already enamored of her economic views.

From this point on, Young says, Thatcher had a dangerous penchant for believing her own press; she often refused to listen to advice from anyone, and her decision-making process bordered on megalomania.

In concluding, Young commends Thatcher for restoring luster to the national image of Great Britain. Her tenure was witness to strong economic growth and the reduction of a crippling level of debt. However, he wonders how much damage she may have done to the educational and cultural life of the nation; Oxford refused to grant her an honorary doctorate because of the "deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain" caused by her government.

Thirty years on, readers may draw their own conclusions about the value of her legacy.

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