Britain’s greatest peacetime prime minister

As her creditors and detractors fight over her legacy, few doubt that Margaret Thatcher played a big part in transforming Britain. Matthew Partidge reports.

Margaret Thatcher, who this week died of a stroke aged 87, "was Britain's greatest peacetime prime minister of the 20th century", writes Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail. "A champion of freedom and liberty", she defeated the unions and opened up the opportunity to own property and shares to the wider public. She "took office with this country in economic ruins and transformed it into a force in the world".

But while she "abhorred disorder, decadence and bad behaviour", says The Guardian, her policies led to a "process of social and cultural atomism that has fostered all of them, and still does". Her real legacy is one of "public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free".

In fact, Thatcher was far more of a "pragmatic politician" than either her supporters or detractors like to admit, says Martin Wolf in the Financial Times. "True believers view her as a Saint Joan of free markets, dedicated to rolling back the state in all its dimensions." Yet during her time in office "public spending never fell below 39% of gross domestic product".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

And while she "staunchly opposed" the single currency, she "played a large role in Europe, contributing to launching the single market programme and the concomitant Single European Act".

Maybe so, but "no one was ever in any doubt about what she believed and why", says Lord Alton, writing in The Catholic Herald. That's a stark contrast with today's politicians, who are too fixated on "seeking the main chance and the appeasement of special interest groups".

Yet "if she had fallen under a bus in 1978, would Britain today be so different"? asks Dominic Sandbrook on "I doubt it." The changes ascribed to her would have happened anyway, albeit more slowly. "Thatcher's Britain was as much our creation as it was hers."

By the time she entered Downing Street, "the old working-class world of busy factories, crowded pubs and cobbled streets was already dying, while a new Britain, more ambitious, morematerialistic and more individualistic, was already emerging".

But this idea that Britain's transformation was inevitable is wrong, says Matthew Parris in The Times. "Nobody could have led the country in the same direction." Thatcher proves the ability of "strong individuals" to "change the course of history". It also undermines the idea that those "we call leaders are really creations of powers stronger than themselves".

But individuals can only achieve so much, notes Ferdinand Mount in The Daily Telegraph. Thatcher was "a towering figure" in the project "to bring Britain back from economic collapse". But "on the whole, politicians can only think about one thing at a time".

Under her leadership, "other abiding imperatives were lost sight of". These include "the need to maintain the shape of our institutions, the need to preserve the local dimension, the proper governance of companies and the importance of making them fully accountable to their shareholders and the public". These problems "are the challenges for the current crop of politicians".

How a shopkeeper's daughter rose to power

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire in 1925, the second daughter to Alfred, a grocer, alderman and Methodist preacher, and his wife Beatrice, a seamstress. Her parents taught her "to follow the tenets of Methodism: personal responsibility, hard work and traditional moral values", says Joseph Gregory in The New York Times. She also "learned politics at her father's knee, joining him as he campaigned for alderman and borough councilman as an independent".

Albert, "a member of the respectable middle classes, the petit-bourgeoisie of Marxist derision", was by far the biggest influence on her career, agrees The Economist. "Young Margaret, ever earnest, was inspired by the moral and political example that her father set." Her relationship with her mother was less significant: "I loved my mother dearly but after I was 15 we had nothing to say to each other. It wasn't her fault. She was weighed down by the home".

She won a place to read chemistry at Oxford, at the time an incredible achievement for a woman of her background. She took both Latin tutoring and elocution lessons to help fit in with her new elite classmates. She also "threw herself enthusiastically into politics", says The Times. "Though the mood in her college was left-wing, Thatcher was a committed Conservative."

After graduating with a 2:1, she worked as a research chemist but spent a lot of time in Dartford, Kent, where she was a Tory party candidate. While she failed in her first two attempts to get elected, she met and married Denis Thatcher. The wealthy divorcee would "give her unstinting support emotionally and financially throughout her career", notes Sue Cameron in the FT.

Indeed, says David McKittrick in The Independent, Denis was "the ultimate Thacherite: an old-fashioned businessman who, in his sixties, cast aside many of his ingrained instincts to rise to the challenge of acting as a consort to the UK's first woman PM".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri