The United Kingdom (UK) comprises the islands of Great Britain and a fragment of north Ireland. Scotland – the northern half of the British Isles – politically merged with England in 1707 to render the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Wales lies in the western part of England. Wales was annexed by England in the mid-16th century but has retained its cultural identity over the centuries.
Executive power in Great Britain is inseparably intertwined with the tradition of monarchy, which reaches back to the early medieval kings of England, Scotland, and Wales.
The monarchy of the Kingdom of England began with Alfred the Great (849–899) and ended with Queen Anne (1665–1714), who became queen of Great Britain when England merged with Scotland in 1707.
Alfred the Great was King of Wessex at the end of the 9th century. Alfred successfully defended his kingdom against an attempted Viking conquest. Alfred had become the dominant ruler in England by the time he died.
Wessex was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in south England from 519 until the early 10th century, when England was unified by Athelstan (894–939), who became king. Athelstan centralized government. His legal reforms built upon the work of his grandfather, Alfred the Great.
Athelstan adroitly handled foreign relations, arranging the marriages of several of his sisters to continental rulers. His dominance was acknowledged by Welsh kings.
William I (1028–1087), known as William the Conqueror, was the 1st Norman King of England (1066–1087). A descendant of Viking raiders, William accomplished what Alfred had avoided.
Queen Elizabeth I
We have a wise and religious queen. ~ English bishop John Jewell in 1559
England ascended as a global power in the 16th century under Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), whose nearly half century reign (1558–1603) became known as the Elizabethan Age.
Elizabeth’s life got off to an inauspicious start, enduring events that would both sharpen her resolve and scar her emotionally.
Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his 2nd wife, Anne Boleyn. Married to his 1st wife, Catherine of Aragon, Henry lusted after Anne, who refused to become his mistress as her sister had. So, Henry defied the pope to divorce Catherine, who had borne him a daughter, Mary.
Henry’s hopes of Anne bearing him a son, thus ensuring a stable dynastic succession, were dashed with the birth of a girl (Elizabeth), followed by 2 miscarriages.
Anne’s sexual magnetism waned. It had been her main attraction, at least to Henry.
Anne’s ready wit cut 2 ways. Sharp-tongued, she had a venomous temper and tendency to hysteria. Henry lost interest in her, to the extent of having Anne’s head parted from her body.
Elizabeth was not yet 3 years old when Anne was beheaded. By the age of 6, her precocious seriousness was apparent.
Elizabeth received the rigorous classical education usually reserved for male heirs. Besides Greek and Latin, she became fluent in French and Italian. By the end of her days, Elizabeth had also mastered Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, and Irish.
Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up. ~ Elizabeth’s tutor, English scholar Roger Ascham
As a young teen, Elizabeth suffered the attentions of her adopted guardian, the unscrupulous Thomas Seymour, who married the Queen, Catherine Parr, Henry’s widow (his 6th and last wife). Parr had Elizabeth sent away in May 1548, after discovering Seymour embracing her. After Parr died in childbirth, Seymour renewed his affections to Elizabeth.
Seymour’s earlier illicit lust for Elizabeth became known then. He was arrested and beheaded on suspicion of plotting to marry Elizabeth and overthrow the Lord Protector for then King Edward VI, who was king from age 10 to his death from illness at 15.
Edward was the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Thomas Seymour’s sister and Henry’s 3rd wife. Jane died from postnatal complications less than 2 weeks after Edward was born.
Edward’s brief reign was beset by economic malaise and social unrest, culminating in riot and rebellion in 1549. An expensive war with Scotland went from early success to withdrawal.
Edward’s will excluded Mary and Elizabeth from succession, declaring instead Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, as his heir. Lady Jane was queen for all of 9 days before being deposed and later beheaded; a victim of Mary and her supporters.
On 3 August 1553, Mary rode triumphantly into London to take the throne. Elizabeth was at her side.
Mary I was a religious zealot who strove to restore England to Roman Catholicism. In 1554, Protestants rebelled against her determination to marry Catholic King Philip II of Spain. Thomas Wyatt was one of the rebellion’s leaders.
Elizabeth was imprisoned for nearly a year for her supposed participation in Wyatt’s rebellion. But then she was recalled to court to attend the finality of Mary’s supposed pregnancy; an event which would have determined Elizabeth’s fate, had a baby been in the offing.
But Mary was not pregnant; only bloated. Medieval royals were not known for having decent diets. Henry VIII had ballooned his way out of existence, managing to go from the epitome of manhood to grotesquely obese within 3 decades.
After a series of false pregnancies, Mary – childless and depressed – died at 42.
It rained during much of Mary’s reign, with flooding leading to famine. Her people were happy to see her in the ground.
During her 5-year stint as sovereign, Mary had some 300 heretics burned at the stake, earning the sobriquet Bloody Mary. Mary’s repressive rule paved the way for heartfelt popular celebration of Elizabeth’s coronation.
Upon her accession at age 25, Elizabeth opted for Protestantism, albeit careful at first not to offend Catholics.
Though Elizabeth dallied with childhood friend Robert Dudley, she never married. She instead became the Virgin Queen, who declared that she was married to her kingdom and subjects. Elizabeth spoke of “all my husbands, my good people.”
Though war was never-ending, Elizabeth’s foreign policy was largely defensive. She actively pursued naval power, which paid off in the war against Spain, fought mostly at sea.
English seafaring prowess led to self-enrichment and piracy by those with boats; nefariousness over which Elizabeth had little control.
By 1590, conflicts with Spain and Ireland had taken their toll. Taxes had risen to riotous levels.
Poor harvests generated inflation. The general standard of living fell, and along with it, Elizabeth’s popularity. A new, less sage generation in political power spelt factionalism and a decline in Elizabeth’s authority.
During the last years of her reign, Elizabeth came to rely on granting monopolies as a seemingly cost-free system of patronage, rather than beseeching Parliament for more subsidies in a time of war. This corrupt practice soon led to price-fixing, the enrichment of courtiers at public expense, and widespread resentment. It culminated in parliamentary protest, which Elizabeth subdued by professing ignorance of the abuses, and lamenting “the wringers of the poor.”
The reign of Elizabeth I was a period of gross economic inequity and political uncertainty which nonetheless produced an unsurpassed literary flowering in England, sponsored by the patronage of the nobility and the moneyed merchant class. Playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow ushered in a golden era of English theater. Hence, the tumult of the times gradually transformed into fond remembrance of the Elizabethan Age.
In the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin. ~ Queen Elizabeth I in 1559
Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking. ~ English politician Clement Atlee
The roots of British parliamentary government trace to the 13th century Magna Carta, when King John was called to account by the nobility. The bicameral parliament that evolved in the following century served as a model for others throughout the world.
The lower house of Parliament – the House of Commons – is an elected body of 650, known as Members of Parliament (MPs). Members are elected to represent constituencies (districts) by first-past-the-post and hold their seats until Parliament is dissolved. 533 constituencies are in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland.
The US holds its elections on Tuesdays. In the UK, Thursday is election day. This convention dates to 1931, when the electoral commission set the day to coincide with market day, to make it easier for those who had travel to town to cast their ballots.
Though there are several political parties in the UK, the centre-right Conservatives (aka Tories) and centre-left Labour are by far the major parties. Labour replaced the aptly named Liberal party as the Tories’ main rival in the late 1920s.
The upper house of Parliament – the House of Lords – comprises appointed landed nobility (Lords Temporal) and clergy (Lords Spiritual).
Lords Temporal are appointed by the monarch on advice of the Prime Minister or the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Some are hereditary peers: lordship passed down through the generations.
Lords Spiritual are appointed by the Church of England. They now number no more than 26 out of 819 in the House of Lords.
The size of the House of Lords has varied greatly through time. From ~50 in the early 1700s, Lords proliferated to 1,330 in 1999. Peers were pruned the next year to 669, but in the early 21st century the number of Lords again grew.
The power of the House of Lords has waxed and waned over the centuries. Nobility suffered during the civil wars of the 15th century (Wars of the Roses) but remained more powerful than the House of Commons until the mid-17th century, when Lords’ power evaporated in the wake of the English Civil War. The House of Lords regained stature during the 19th century but remains subordinate to the lower House of Commons.
The House of Lords holds the government to account, scrutinizing bills approved by the House of Commons. The House of Lords cannot veto bills, but may delay passage, and so force reconsideration.
Most bills are introduced in the Commons, but Lords may introduce legislation, though not money bills, which are beyond their purview.
In 2015, the House of Commons passed a measure to cut tax credits the next year. Objecting to a reduction of welfare for those most in need, the Lords rejected the bill, delaying its passage. This raised a constitutional question, as to whether the House of Lords had the right to interfere. In this instance, to stifle debate in the Commons, the bill was set as a statutory instrument, not a money bill, which the House of Lords could not have touched.
Theoretics aside, the British government is primarily held accountable by the House of Commons. The prime minister (PM) stays in office only as long has s/he retains MP majority support.
Since 2011, Commons terms are nominally 5 years. But a vote of no confidence in the prime minister brings about a general election. A prime minister may resign, in which case the premiership goes to whoever can command a majority in the House of Commons.
The prime minister is typically the leader of the largest party in the Commons. Since 1963, by convention, the prime minister is a member of the House of Commons.
Prime ministers must be an MP or Lord. The handful appointed to the post who were outside parliament subsequently entered, either by a Commons by-election or by receiving a peerage.
The prime minister picks a cabinet from Parliament colleagues with functions as the PM sees fit. Unlike the US, the task areas assigned cabinet ministers do not necessarily have a strict one-to-one correspondence to executive bureaucracies. There is considerable flexibility.
Words are the only things which last forever. ~ Winston Churchill (“Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.”)
Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was born into an aristocratic family. Neglected by his parents, Winston became close to his nanny, Elizabeth Ann Everest.
Independent and rebellious by nature, Churchill was a poor student, but he grew to love the English language. In his early years, Winston had some trouble speaking it: he had a lisp and tended to stutter. Churchill overcame these speech impediments to be remembered as a powerful orator, most notably inspiring the public in radio broadcasts to keep a stiff upper lip during the dark days of World War 2.
Winston’s poor academic record convinced his father that a military career was the ticket for his son. On his 3rd attempt, Churchill managed pass the entrance exam to the Royal Military College. Once there, he applied himself, graduating 20th in a class of 130.
During military service, Churchill used family influence to arrange postings to active campaigns. He watched the Spanish fight Cuban guerrillas during the Cuban War.
In India, Churchill was considered one of the best polo players in his regiment. More significantly, Churchill’s courage in combat was unquestionable. He proved it in India, Egypt, and South Africa.
Churchill left military duty in May 1899, and attempted politics upon invitation by the Conservative Party.
On his 1st run for office, Churchill went door to door soliciting votes. An irritable old man answered his door upon Churchill’s knock. Churchill introduced himself. The man said, “Vote for you? Why I’d rather vote for the devil!” “I understand,” Churchill empathetically replied. “But in case your friend is not running, may I count on your support?”
Churchill’s vigorous campaigning did not earn him a seat in the Commons on his 1st try, so he went to cover the 2nd Boer War as a newspaper correspondent. On a scouting expedition with troops, where his gallantry was commendable, Churchill was captured and imprisoned. He escaped, and with a companion traveled 480 km on foot to safety in Portuguese East Africa.
Churchill’s escape made him a minor national hero for a time. Instead of returning home, he rejoined the army in South Africa to fight as part of the cavalry.
In 1900, Churchill retired from the regular army. He gained a seat in the Commons and wrote 2 books on his Boer War experiences. In 1902, he volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry, a British cavalry regiment.
In Parliament, Churchill looked after the working man. In 1908, Churchill introduced the bill that set up the 1st minimum wages in Britain. The next year he was instrumental in setting up labour exchanges that helped the unemployed find work. Churchill helped draft the 1st unemployment pension legislation in 1911.
The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. ~ Winston Churchill
A supporter of eugenics, Churchill participated in drafting the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which institutionalized people deemed “feeble-minded” or “morally defective.” This followed on the 1886 Idiots Act, which made a legal distinction between “idiots” and “imbeciles.”
Churchill favored compulsory labour camps for “mental defectives,” and forced sterilization for the feeble-minded. These measures did not become law.
Churchill resigned from the government and rejoined the British Army in 1915. He did not fight in World War 1 but did expose himself to danger with excursions to the front lines.
The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. ~ Winston Churchill
Churchill saw a sensational rise to prominence in national politics before World War 1; switching from the Conservative to Liberal Party in 1904. But he acquired a reputation for erratic judgment during the war and in the decade that followed. Churchill rejoined the Conservative party in 1924.
In his life, the 2 people to whom Churchill felt the most affection were his nanny and his wife, Clementine; but he regarded women as nothing more than the abettors of men. Churchill had opposed women’s suffrage as “contrary to natural law and the practice of civilized states.” Women were “adequately represented by their husbands.”
In this, and democracy in general, Churchill was reactionary. As late as the 1930s, Churchill wrote newspaper articles advocating the abandonment of “complete democracy,” favoring return to the traditional system that favored “more responsible elements.”
In the House of Commons one day, Churchill observed an elderly MP listening to Stanley Baldwin through an ear trumpet; whereupon Churchill inquired, “Why does that idiot deny himself his natural advantage?” (of being hard of hearing).
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill oversaw Britain’s disastrous return to the gold standard in 1925, which caused deflation, unemployment, and led to the General Strike of 1926. Though returning to the gold standard was a popular move at the time, several economists, including Keynes, who was consulted before the decision was made, foresaw dire consequences. Churchill later called the gold standard decision the greatest mistake in his life.
Very few men are able to make more than one really bad mistake. ~ Winston Churchill
Politically suspect in consequence, Churchill was a lonely public figure for over a decade.
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable. ~ Winston Churchill
Tribal to the core, Churchill lacked a general humanitarian streak.
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. ~ Winston Churchill
This from a man who hated communism because of “the bloody and devastating terrorism which they practice in every land into which they have broken.” Needless to say, Churchill’s reading on the rise of imperial Britain may have been a bit biased.
We are for the ladder. Let all try their best to climb. They [socialists] are for the queue. ~ Winston Churchill
Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and using his position of privilege to the hilt as a young man, Churchill had no taste for socialism.
One might as well legalise sodomy as recognise the Bolsheviks. ~ Winston Churchill
From the Russian Revolution on, Churchill was concerned about communists and “the schemes of the International Jews”: a “sinister” worldwide conspiracy by “atheistical Jews” to “overthrow civilisation.”
Tell your boss that anti-Semitism may be a good starter, but it’s a bad sticker. ~ Winston Churchill to Hitler associate Putzi Hanfstaengl in 1932
Churchill favored the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
I hope we shall try in England to understand the position of Japan, an ancient state. On the one side they have the dark menace of Soviet Russia. On the other the chaos of China, 4 or 5 provinces of which are being tortured under communist rule. ~ Winston Churchill
Churchill opposed Gandhi’s peaceful resolve to end British rule in India, proclaiming in 1920 that Gandhi “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”
I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. ~ Winston Churchill
Though he spoke often of the danger in letting Germany rearm after the Great War, Churchill’s attitude toward fascism was ambiguous.
If I had been an Italian, I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism. ~ Winston Churchill to Benito Mussolini in 1927
Churchill continued to praise Mussolini until 1937. In contrast, against Hitler’s Nazis, Churchill was adamant.
If I had to choose between communism and Nazism, I would choose communism. ~ Winston Churchill in 1937
English Conservative politician Neville Chamberlin was prime minister from May 1937 to May 1940. His response to the rise of Nazism was appeasement.
An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last. ~ Winston Churchill
In September 1938, Chamberlain went to Germany, where he and France’s head of state agreed to Hitler’s many demands, including ceding the Sudetenland, which were areas in Czechoslovakia heavily populated by Germans. In this, appeasement meant leaving Czechoslovakia defenseless.
Chamberlain returned to England a popular hero. He spoke of “peace for our time,” while nonetheless ordering the acceleration of British war preparations.
Chamberlain repudiated his placation policy when Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia. When Hitler attacked Poland, Britain declared war on Germany (3 September 1939).
Churchill’s political isolation ended that day. Chamberlin appointed Churchill to his previous post in charge of the Admiralty.
Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash. ~ Winston Churchill
Though the navy was essential to the initial wartime missions, Chamberlin got blamed for early military defeats, and resigned 10 May 1940: the day that Germany invaded the Low Countries. Chamberlin wanted his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax to succeed him, but Halifax declined.
From there it was obvious that Churchill was the only one who could unite and lead the nation. A coalition government was formed, leaving out only the elements on the far left and right. Besides prime minister, Churchill also took the post of minister of defence.
A haunted, morbid being, who, to their eternal shame, the German people in their bewilderment have worshipped as a god. ~ Winston Churchill on Adolf Hitler
On 13 May 1940, Churchill addressed the House of Commons for the 1st time as prime minister. He warned of the hard road ahead: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground. ~ Winston Churchill to his Cabinet in 1940
The situation for Britain was dire. Some wanted to negotiate peace, but Churchill committed himself and the nation to all-out war until victory was achieved.
We shall never surrender. ~ Winston Churchill
Halifax thought Churchill “foolish,” dismissing his adamant resistance to exploring peace as “the most frightful rot.”
Halifax’s virtues have done more harm in the world than the vices of hundreds of other people. ~ Winston Churchill
Churchill’s erratic judgment never left him. In 1938, he criticized the Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes which would save England in 1940.
Churchill was initially convinced that armored ships were practically invincible against bombers. He persisted in believing, contrary to experience, that resistance movements inside occupied countries could be effective. During the war, Churchill ordered studies of chemical warfare as a reprisal scheme for destroying German towns one by one.
The wielding of power keeps men young. ~ Winston Churchill
That Churchill was an inspiring war leader, working well with Parliament, is doubtless. The war energized Churchill, who was 65 when he became prime minister.
If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons. ~ Winston Churchill
France fell like a house of cards, leaving Britain the sole bulwark against Germany until 1942, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, and the United States joined World War 2 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941).
The coalition government broke up in May 1945, just before the war was won. Churchill lost the election that followed, spending the next 6 years as leader of the opposition.
Churchill became prime minister again in the general election of October 1951. His domestic priorities went toward workers’ well-being and improving housing.
Domestic affairs were overshadowed by a series of foreign policy crises which stemmed from Britain’s decline as a world power. Though Churchill proclaimed that he would “not preside over a dismemberment” of the British Empire, that was exactly what he did, even as he fought against it.
Churchill fostered the “special relationship” that the UK had with the US. He visited America 4 times during his 2nd term as prime minister.
Though his physical and mental health was declining – having suffered a series of strokes from 1949 – Churchill hung on as prime minister until 1955. Sunk into the melancholy of old age, he reluctantly retired from Parliament altogether in 1964.
When Churchill stepped down from office for the last time, he lost focus, becoming slower, deafer. He nostalgically spent hours listening to recordings of his speeches.
Churchill suffered a severe stroke in mid-January 1965 and expired shortly thereafter, dying 70 years to the day after his father’s death. He was 90 years old.
Once asked whether he was flattered by the crowds drawn to his speeches, Churchill reflected, “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that, if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”
Since 1902, all prime ministers have been Commons members, except Alec Douglas-Home, who disclaimed his peerage 3 days after becoming prime minister, and was a month later elected to the House of Commons.
Home was prime minister from October 1963 to October 1964. He was appointed after Harold Macmillan resigned the post, ostensibly over illness.
Home was criticized as an out-of-touch aristocrat by the opposition Labour Party. The Conservative Party had been in office since 1951 but was weakened by the Profumo affair.
John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Macmillan’s government, had a sexual affair with Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model and showgirl. At first, he denied the liaison, but was forced to admit the truth a few weeks later.
The scandal grew when it came out that Keeler was letting Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché and spy, sail into her harbor contemporaneous with Profumo being pleasured. Aside from vital fluids, a spurious rumor sprung of a possible security leak.
After a narrow defeat in the general election, Home resigned the leadership of his party. His was the 2nd-shortest premiership of the 20th century. (Bonar Law was the prime minister with the shortest term of office (211 days) in the 20th century. Having been elected prime minister in November 1922, he resigned in May 1923 owing to severe throat cancer. He died later that year.)
She was a tigress surrounded by hamsters. ~ English Conservative politician John Biffen on Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013) was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century (1979–1990).
Thatcher was a research chemist before becoming a barrister. She was first elected as a Conservative Party MP in 1959. Thatcher’s drive earned her rapid promotion.
Thatcher’s positions were not always consistent with her party. She supported capital punishment and favored restoring birching as a corporal punishment. (Birching is beating, typically on the buttocks or back, with a birch rod.) Thatcher supported decriminalization of male homosexuality and legalization of abortion but voted against relaxing divorce laws. She voted to ban hare coursing.
Thatcher was a staunch supporter of markets unfettered. She opposed tax hikes, as well as wage and price controls to combat inflation.
When the Conservatives took power in 1970 under Edward Heath, Thatcher was appointed to the cabinet as Secretary for Education and Science. She garnered the public’s attention by cutting the public education budget, most notably abolishing free milk for school children. Opposition MPs cried: “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher.”
At the time, the government was spending more on free milk than on books for school. Much of the milk was never drunk, partly because the crates of little bottles were not properly refrigerated, and partly because children’s tastes had moved on from milk.
Labour had already stopped the supply to secondary schools with no public outcry. Thatcher was simply continuing an establish policy.
I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit. ~ Margaret Thatcher on her lesson learned as reputed milk snatcher
The Heath government fumbled union demands for wage increases and had the bad luck to be prime minister during the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Heath lost the February 1974 general election. In the aftermath, Thatcher gained party leadership.
In January 1976, in a breathtaking display of anti-diplomacy, Thatcher made a scathing attack on the Soviet Union. From that a Soviet newspaper dubbed her the “Iron Lady,” a sobriquet she gladly adopted.
Later, as prime minister, Thatcher aligned herself with the anti-Communist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. But she never did trust Reagan after he lied to her about the October 1983 US invasion of Grenada, which she strongly opposed.
Grenada was a former British colony. The UN declared the invasion “a flagrant violation of international law.”
Thatcher took tutelage from economists opposed to the welfare state, and government in general, instead favoring unbridled business. Friedrich Hayek was her favorite: an Austrian-born Brit who embraced classical liberalism. With his simple-minded supply-side economics, Reagan attempted much the same thing.
The incumbent Labour government struggled over the weak economy in the late 1970s. Confidence was lost after a series of strikes in what became known as the “Winter of Discontent” (1978–1979).
In the election that followed, Conservatives won. Thatcher became prime minister on 4 May 1979. Thus began what came to be called Thatcherism.
There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty. ~ Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher immediately went to work implementing her radical ideological vision, which ran counter to compassion and conventional economic theories. Inheriting a weak economy, Thatcher reduced or eliminated many governmental regulations, and subsidies, to businesses. This purged the manufacturing industry.
Production output dropped precipitously. Inflation doubled in 14 months, climbing to over 20%.
Unemployment soared. 1.3 million were out of work in 1979. By 1982, unemployment had doubled. Property crime surged as the destitute struggled to survive.
Thatcher lowered direct taxes on income while increasing indirect taxes. She increased interest rates to lower inflation, and curbed public spending, especially social services such as education and housing.
Britain fell into recession. As it grew deeper, Thatcher increased taxes, to the dismay of most economists: 364 of which publicly condemned her policies.
This lady is not for turning. ~ Margaret Thatcher in 1980
There were riots over these policies that worsened unemployment. Only 23% of the electorate approved of the Iron Lady, the lowest ever recorded.
The British economy hit bottom by the end of 1981 and started a cyclical upturn in 1982. Inflation went down from 18% to 8.6%.
But unemployment was over 3 million for the 1st time since the Great Depression. Though the economy continued to recover in the next 2 years, the jobs situation did not improve. Unemployment peaked at 3.3 million in 1984.
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On 2 April 1982, Argentina’s ruling military junta insanely ordered the invasion of the British-controlled Falkland Islands and South Georgia. It triggered the Falklands War, which lasted all of 2 months; 3 weeks of which involved Britain bringing its warships down from the North Sea. After a few brief battles, Argentina surrendered 14 June.
Though she had neglected the islands’ defense beforehand, Thatcher was a competent war leader. The war inspired confidence in her government, and so was instrumental in the economic recovery that was getting underway (economics being a confidence game).
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We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty. ~ Margaret Thatcher on trade unions
Thatcher was no friend to the working class. According to the BBC, “she managed to destroy the power of the trade unions for almost a generation.” Work stoppages fell steadily during the Thatcher reign, as did trade union membership.
Privatization was a key ingredient of Thatcherism, as was financial deregulation. The aim was to fuel economic growth.
Thatcher sold off government-owned steel and airline companies, and many state utilities (water, gas, electricity, telecoms), but adamantly resisted privatizing rail transport. She changed her mind shortly before her resignation.
Railway privatisation will be the Waterloo of this government. ~ Margaret Thatcher in 1983
John Major implemented the privatization of British Rail that Thatcher had relented to. The Economist magazine later considered the decision “a disaster,” as Thatcher had first feared.
Overall, privatization proved a mixed picture with regard to performance improvement and benefit to consumers. The government increased regulations on the natural monopolies that went private.
Thatcher supported protecting the environment. She helped raise awareness of pollution, acid rain, and climate change in the early 1980s.
Throughout the 1980s, the British government had a windfall from a 90% tax on North Sea oil extraction. Thatcher used it as a buffer to shift taxes.
Her imposition of a poll tax provoked riots in May 1990. Her successor, John Major, abolished the charge.
Thatcher’s reign illustrates how leaders of parliamentary democracies may rely upon short memories. Following on the heels of the Falkland victory, with the economy in an upswing, Thatcher called for an election in May 1983. A divided opposition helped propel her to reelection.
Thatcher was reelected for a 3rd term in June 1987, taking credit for a revived economy. Inflation stood at 4%. Unemployment had fallen below 3 million for the first time since 1981.
In the 1987 election, the opposition Labour Party improved its position considerably from 4 years earlier; but it was not enough to knock Thatcher off her perch.
To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects. ~ Margaret Thatcher
The Conservative Party was always more popular than Margaret Thatcher. A politician of conviction, not polls, Thatcher’s combative personality and willingness to ride roughshod over colleagues’ opinions sowed discontent.
I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say. ~ Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher’s management style was evident in the difficulties she had in handling her cabinet. It led to her downfall.
On 1 November 1990, Geoffrey Howe, the last remaining member of Thatcher’s original cabinet, resigned. His final embitterment was Thatcher’s refusal to join the European mechanism for currency stability.
Howe’s resignation signaled the death knell for Thatcher as prime minister. She was deposed and replaced by John Major as party leader.
Thatcher stayed 2 years in the backbenches as MP, then retired from the Commons.
Besides becoming a highly paid consultant for tobacco company Philip Morris, Thatcher kibitzed on world affairs. Her last hurrah in that regard was to promote the 2003 invasion of Iraq that US President George W. Bush undertook, backed by the current PM, Tony Blair.