Margaret Thatcher, Her Personality and Politics

We welcome this guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.  He has done research on Thatcher and, incidentally, grew up in Great Britain.


The death of Margaret Thatcher has prompted much reflection on her policies and her personality. One way to think about Thatcher is to consider her in light of the recurrent debate about structural forces and individual agency as shapers of political outcomes. Thatcher was certainly a distinctive presence, but did she make the political weather, or would anyone in her position have done as she did? If Thatcher as prime minister was just responding to the incentives in her political environment from 1979-1990, she was less interesting as an individual than many of the tributes suggest. If she shaped her environment in ways determined by her personality and individual beliefs, she becomes a more important focus of our attention.

Circumstances were certainly ripe for change when Thatcher came to power. The UK economy was rotten with stagnant growth and high unemployment. James Callaghan’s Labour government had been unable to reach wage settlements with its union allies, leading to widespread industrial action. Thatcher’s own Conservative Party was middle-of-the-road ideologically, accepting the broad outlines of the British postwar consensus: nationalized industries, full employment policies, strong unions, and a big welfare state. Her party was dominated by patrician proponents of One Nation conservatism. Any prime minister in Thatcher’s place would have had strong incentives to change the political direction of the country, to revivify the economy and revisit the center-left consensus.

Yet would anyone have gone so far as she did, so quickly? We forget that Thatcher was an embattled prime minister during much of her first term, leading a small group of believers in free market, monetarist policies, isolated even within her cabinet. Much of her own side, let alone the opposition, believed that her economic policies, developed outside of civil service and party structures by her personal advisor Alan Walters, were responsible for the deep recession of 1980-81. Would another prime minister have loosened the money supply and sought to reflate the economy? Thatcher would entertain no such thoughts. Opposition to her economic policies would come to a violent head with the Miners’ strikes of 1984-85, stemming from the controversial closure or privatization of the state-run industries she had inherited. To structuralists, these were the necessary birth pangs of a post-industrial Britain; to students of agency, the speed and scope of Thatcher’s reforms – and the attendant social dislocation – were redolent of her aggressive personality and rejection of the status quo.

The trajectory of her prime ministership was transformed by the conflict over the Falklands / Malvinas islands. Thatcher, consumed with her economic battles and heading for a projected defeat in the 1983 election, had given the Falklands / Malvinas relatively little attention. She hoped, as had several previous governments, that a quiet diplomatic settlement over the contested islands could be reached with Argentina. Yet, when Argentina invaded the islands, the combative, black-and-white side of Thatcher took over. She despaired of the immediate advice she was given – the islands could not be taken back by force, were not strategically significant, and diplomacy was the best way forward – stating that “we have got to get them back.” Taking huge political and military risks, she dispatched a naval task force to recapture the islands, and rejected pleas, as a clash of arms approached, to negotiate a resolution. She found that the advice of her Foreign Office evidenced “the flexibility of principle characteristic of that department” and resolved to show an “iron will.” “What was the alternative?” she wrote in her memoirs: “That a common or garden dictator should rule over the Queen’s subjects and prevail by fraud or violence? Not while I was Prime Minister.”

Striking these Churchillian tones seemed, in 1982, discordant with a post-imperial Britain in decline, yet they were consonant with Thatcher’s personality. Her rhetoric on British greatness became so hawkish that the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was seriously concerned that she was contemplating the forcible retention of Hong Kong. Her cabinet colleagues later told biographer John Campbell that, in their opinion, no one else in the prime minister’s chair at that point in time would have launched a military expedition to recapture the islands.

Thatcher’s relationship with President Ronald Reagan gives us another angle from which to consider her impact. British prime ministers have strong incentives to maintain the alliance with the American superpower, and all have attempted to do so. Yet the closeness of the alliance does vary. Harold Wilson refused Lyndon Johnson’s desperate entreaties for UK troops to fight in Vietnam. Edward Heath, Thatcher’s predecessor as Conservative party leader, was cool toward the U.S. and sought to integrate Britain more closely with the European Community. Thatcher, though, was resolutely Atlanticist and found much to admire in the similarly black-and-white temperament of President Reagan. As Thatcher’s biographer Hugo Young wrote, there was “almost nothing that divided the Thatcher from the Reagan view of the world. What typified and infused it was, above all else, a wonderful measure of certainty.”

Thatcher and Reagan made a shared journey in moving from the hardest of anti-communist lines to an embrace of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Here is surely definitive evidence of structure trumping agency: the incentive to peaceably end the cold war overwhelming the idiosyncratic anti-Soviet beliefs of the U.S. and UK leaders. Yet, there was a good dose of personality in Thatcher and Reagan’s shared change of mind. Those who categorize the world into definitive, clear-cut boxes such as “friend” and “enemy” respond in a distinctive way to radical changes of circumstance. Having achieved cognitive closure on an issue, they are capable of ignoring lots of information for a long period of time in favor of persisting with their settled images. Yet, once they pay attention to a change, they can rapidly reverse their views. According to her advisor George Urban, Thatcher had an instant intuition about Gorbachev: “I immediately hit it off with him.” She passed on her judgment to Reagan: “We can do business with him.” Both Thatcher and Reagan rebranded Gorbachev from “enemy” to “friend” with greater cognitive ease than the more complex thinker George H.W. Bush, who initiated a pause in cold war reconciliation after succeeding Reagan as president.

Yet it was a foreign affairs issue upon which Thatcher did not change her beliefs that brought about her political demise. Her view on European integration was always clear: “Europe” was foreign, a bloated bureaucracy pushing side-payments to special interests such as uncompetitive continental farmers. As the European Community moved toward full monetary union and ever increasing political integration, Thatcher become more resolute in her determination to retain, as she saw it, British independence and sovereignty. Her political problem was that a huge part of her own party, including many of the most senior members of the cabinet, did not share her views. Her powerful Finance Minister, Nigel Lawson, and Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, threatened to resign unless she took Britain into the “Exchange Rate Mechanism” – a precursor to the single European currency. Her extraordinarily belligerent performances at European summits and in parliament during this period, bellowing “No! No! No!” when responding to questioning on the issue, exposed fatal splits in her government. The Europe controversies were followed by the introduction of a deeply unpopular new taxation scheme, her characteristic refusal to change course in the face of public and political opposition, and the eruption of street riots in London. She was removed by cabinet coup in November 1990. “Treachery with a smile on its face,” she called it.

Thatcher’s political legacy was profound. Her successor, John Major, proved unable to seal the Conservative Party fissure over Europe, nursing his battered and exhausted party through a weak single-term in office followed by thirteen years out of power. Tony Blair, a media-savvy reformer who entered parliament in one of the few victories by a Labour party candidate in the 1983 election, saw Thatcher in full pomp as the model of what an assertive prime minister could achieve. He shifted the Labour party to the center, consolidating a new post-Thatcher consensus well to the right of the pre-Thatcher mode. His foreign policy was characterized by a definitive, assertive worldview reminiscent of the Iron Lady.

Lacking the ability to re-run the years 1979-1990 with a different person as prime minister, a weighting of the impact on history of Thatcher’s personality versus the circumstances she faced can be a matter only of thoughtful speculation. As we reflect upon the Thatcher era, and larger questions of structure and agency in political life, we should continue to ask what would have been the same, and what would have been different, if someone else had been prime minister during that long decade.

16 Responses to Margaret Thatcher, Her Personality and Politics

  1. RobW April 8, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    You seem to suggest that Thatcher’s personality led her to press on despite clear opposition, particularly during her first term. Yet elsewhere you admit that structural incentives favored change. This basic point underlies the post and is never fully worked out. Perhaps the bland and unsurprising conclusion is that structure defines the space in which agents exert influence. Here for example, it is interesting that overall public spending in Britain actually rose under Thatcher. To be sure, the character of spending changed suggesting that Thatcher was able to direct outcomes within given parameters. Or, to take Malvinas example, Dan Drezner notes that it was a series of Argentine decisions that set up Thatcher to eventually engage. Absent this set of structural forces, there is no decision for Thatcher to make. Thus, the basic distinction with all research focused on the complexity of individual leaders comes back to a choice between ideographic and nomothetic scholarship. Ignoring leaders sacrifices meaningful cross-case heterogeneity while focusing too heavily on them ignores meaningful cross-case generalizations. How much it matters will depend on the researcher and audience.

    • Stephen Dyson April 9, 2013 at 7:31 am #

      Hi RobW,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with almost all of it – I was trying to consider the relative impact of both the circumstances she faced and her idiosyncratic approach, and as you suggest, the relative weight of one against the other varied over the course of the decisions she made. The only quibble I have is with the final sentence: I think it matters more to try and accurately understand what happened and why than to tailor an argument to appeal to a camp within the discipline.

      • RobW April 9, 2013 at 11:07 am #


        Yes, I agree. Audience was a poor word choice and doesn’t properly convey my point. I am thinking more about the usefulness of simplified models; a point expressed far better by someone like Phil Arena. In essence, you are going to face a tradeoff between descriptive accuracy, tractability, and broader applicability.

        • Stephen Dyson April 9, 2013 at 11:24 am #

          That’s life, I guess! So long as we are clear and consistent (i.e. don’t pretend our idiosyncratic explanations are generalizable, or our broad models explain every case) I think it’s all good.

  2. Jonny R April 9, 2013 at 5:19 am #

    As RobW has suggested, I’m also not at all convinced by your discussion of structure / agency / personalities in regards the end of the Cold War. You can’t argue their personalities were important, they changed their mind…yet it was structure.

    Also, the idea that policy changed because leaders “got on” with Gorbachev is quite a simplification and…odd. There was a structural change occurring in the power relations between the US / USSR but that was political, economic and social changers within both blocs (particularly Eastern). I could go on…

    So, yep, lots of structural forces going on…much more convincing that the role of agency. But, you’ve just stuck with agency.

    P.s. Bush had good reason for not accelerating the end of the CW (even seeming tepid). There was an understanding that policy had to ensure some stability in the USSR to prevent it descending into conflict (growing internal resistance to Gorbachev was evident), so a rush to the end was not useful. It’s nothing to do with their cognitive behaviour!!

    • Jonny R April 9, 2013 at 5:31 am #

      P.s. few typos above but you get the gist! If there is one major problem I have with the Thatcher commentary that has emerged it is that foreign policy was a result of and largely governed by personality. Maybe…but our understanding of the end of the Cold War does not support this.

      • Stephen Dyson April 9, 2013 at 7:38 am #

        Hi Jonny R,

        Thanks for the interesting propositions. I’m not sure the post was all about agency with no consideration of structure, but if it reads that way that is a failure of writing on my part. “Our understanding of the Cold War” seems dependent upon which perspective we adopt when discussing it – I’ve read arguments on all sides about, for instance, change versus stability in the relative power of the parties and what behaviors it should logically have produced. I agree Bush had that understanding about stability. I would pose this question in return: was that understanding determined by the objective circumstances, or did the circumstances permit several interpretations, one of which was chosen by Bush?
        Thanks again for the comment.

  3. Pepe April 9, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    The fact that she decided to sink the General Belgrano (making her a terrorist and a dark figure) certainly reflects agency.

    • Nathan Goldblum April 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

      Sinking an enemy warship in a war is NOT agency, it’s common sense.

      • Nathan Goldblum April 10, 2013 at 3:52 am #

        *Terrorism, of course.

      • Rachel April 11, 2013 at 3:13 am #

        NOT when it’s retreating it’s not.

        Although I wouldn’t go as far as to dance in the street now that she’s dead, as some in the UK have, let’s just say there are no tears in my house. Thatcher was despicable and was largely responsible for the destruction of many British lives during her years in power.

        And, as for her financial policies, the crash 0f 2008 was a direct result of those.

  4. Person April 9, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Circumstances were certainly ripe for change when Thatcher came to power. The UK economy was rotten with stagnant growth and high unemployment.

    Unemployment in the UK in January of 1980 was under 6%. Thatcher came to power in 1979.

    • Barry April 10, 2013 at 9:39 am #

      Adding onto this, does anybody have a source of charts for UK/Eurpean growth during the 70’s and 80’s? I see people asserting things about the 70’s, but evidence is much less in supply.

      And, of course, any evidence which mentions OPEC is in even shorter supply – I think that that is deliberate on the part of right-wingers, because they can then assign the damage from the 1973-early 80’s period on their opponents, while taking credit for the rebound effects of lower oil prices later.

    • Scott Monje April 10, 2013 at 10:04 am #

      Unemployment and GDP growth were both just above 5% when Thatcher took office. Growth had been lower but was on the rise, while unemployment had been steadily low. Both got worse while she was there. On the other hand, inflation had been very high (over 20%) and labor strikes had been endemic. Her focus, and I presume her own definition of success, related to lowering inflation, breaking unions, and privatizing state industries. These may have been seen as positive goals on their own and/or she may have believed they would lead to higher growth and lower unemployment eventually. (When she left office, growth was falling back toward zero and inflation back up around 10%.) As happened here, her deregulation of financial markets helped set up the country for the crisis of 2008.

      • Scott Monje April 13, 2013 at 10:01 am #

        When she entered office, one in seven British children lived in poverty. When she left, the figure was one in three.