Margaret Thatcher Margaret Thatcher. Photo: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo / Public Domain

As the Tories prepare to celebrate the life of much-hated former PM Margaret Thatcher, this extract from John Rees’ Timelines looks at the real history of Thatcherism

David Cameron became the first Tory prime minister for 13 years after the general election of 2010. Many of those who voted in that election had no real memory of living under a Conservative administration. For many Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979 is the stuff of history books. So what is the real story of Britain’s longest serving Tory prime minister? Thatcherism was a conservative reaction to what came before it. In the late 1960s the long post-war period of economic expansion began ebb. By the early 1970s Britain was in its most serious economic crisis since the 1940s. Inflation and unemployment were rising. Working people had become used to the idea that there was not going to be a return to the economic hardship and deprivation they had known in the 1930s. They reacted with a series of industrial disputes aimed at defending their living standards. Dockers and miners struck in 1972. And the miners struck again in 1974. Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath put the country on a three day working week hoping that voters would blame the strikers. The plan back-fired. Heath called an election in 1974 demanding that he be given a new mandate to confront the unions. He was thrown out of office by the electorate.

There was real fear among Britain’s traditional rulers at this time. The left was strong, still riding a wave of radicalism that had begun in the late 1960s. The unions had just broken a Tory government and the economy was weak. The immediate solution was to let a Labour government do the work a Tory government had been too unpopular to achieve. And this indeed is what happened. Labour’s long serving leader Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1974, but resigned a year later to be succeeded by Jim Callaghan.

But the Tories also began to re-arm and in 1975 a surprise result gave Margaret Thatcher the Tory leadership. By the time Jim Callaghan became prime minister the old welfare-state consensus of the 1950s and 1960s was falling apart in both the Labour and Tory parties. If there is a moment when this idea disappeared from British politics to be replaced with the monetarist, free-market, anti-welfare state consensus among the political elite it was in 1976, three years before Margaret Thatcher won the election of 1979. It was in 1976 that Jim Callaghan’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healy, had to run to the International Monetary Fund to get a loan that could bail out the economy.

The IMF terms for the loan meant the government imposing wage controls and cuts in public services. And that meant the Labour government having to attack its own supporters in the trade unions. This it did in a way that no Tory government could have done.

The public sector strikes of 1979, the so-called Winter of Discontent, marked the breach between the Labour government and its traditional supporters. The press and the Tories blamed the strikers. Margaret Thatcher won the general election the same year.

From the beginning Margaret Thatcher and her supporters realised that if their free market policies were to triumph they would have to break the unions. They formulated a plan to smash the weaker unions first, but not to confront the most powerful unions, like the miners, until they could choose their own ground. The steel industry was the first to be attacked. The steelworkers union struck in 1980 but its right-wing leaders were no match for Thatcher and they were defeated. But the unions were not the only ones to react to Thatcher’s economic diet of mass unemployment. Riots by black and white youth hit Liverpool, Manchester and London in the summer of 1981. Thatcher faced down critics from the more moderate wing of the Tory party and she, and the hawks in her Cabinet – Keith Joseph, Norman Tebbit – prepared more assaults on working people.

The Falklands War in 1982 gave them the chance to partially revive a kind of Little Englander patriotism that had not been dominant in Britain since the 1950s. Thatcher’s project only really reached its fullest expression after the Tories won the 1983 general election. Her strength, and continued electoral success, was to an important degree due to the fact that her opponents were divided. Labour’s left wing had reacted angrily to the self-inflicted defeat of 1979. The left, grouped around Tony Benn, tried to ensure that no future Labour government could disappoint and demoralise its own supporters in the way that the Callaghan government had done. But the rise of the left was unacceptable to the Labour right-wing. Some senior figures David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers, Roy Jenkins – split from the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981. They eventually joined the Liberals, but they split the Labour vote keeping the Tories in power even though Thatcher never gained more than 43 percent of the vote at any time during her reign.

Thatcher’s offensive was not just domestic. The Iron Lady as the Russian press dubbed her was the perfect Cold War warrior to compliment Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. Their most controversial joint venture was the agreement to station the new generation of nuclear armed Cruise, Trident and Pershing missiles in Britain. Starting from 1980 there was a public outcry in this country and in other European states where the missiles were also based. In huge marches organised by CND and at missile base at Greenham Common, where the largest protest was in 1983, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. But the decisive trial of strength between the government and its opponents was the year long miners’ strike of 1984-85, the longest mass strike in European history.

Thatcher had bided here time until she felt confident in her second term. Then she, the hawks in the Tory party and the management of the National Coal Board, drew up a plan to decimate the coal industry in a programme of pit closures. There was no economic logic to this closure programme, as miners leader Arthur Scargill repeatedly point out. The attack on the miners was political from the start. The NUM was the most powerful section of the trade union movement. If it could be defeated union opposition would be broken and demoralisation would sweep through the wider working class. The path would be open for the full Thatcherite, neo-liberal programme of privatisation, anti-union laws and welfare cuts to be implemented. The miners and their supporters fought with incredible tenacity. The courts seized NUM funds. The government sent in the police and the army. Pit villages were put under curfew. Hundreds of miners were arrested and five of them lost their lives on the picket lines. The decisive confrontation was at the Orgreave coke plant in the summer of 1984. Mass picketing had been decisive in the miners’ victories in the 1970s. To sustain the strike and to bring other workers out in solidarity it was vital in the Great Strike as well. The Tories knew they had to break the mass pickets and the pitched battle at Orgreave was where the police acted on this plan. So important was this battle that on the evening news the BBC even altered the film sequence to show the miners attacking the police,even though it had actually been the police who first attacked the miners’ pickets. In the end the long war against the miners wore them down and a year after they began the strike they voted to return to work. But it wasn’t just the military operation against the miners that had defeated them. It was the fact that the trade union and Labour Party leaders had left them to fight on their own. Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the Labour Party, began a process which eventually led to Tony Blair and New Labour, when he refused to effectively support the miners or to encourage other trade unionists to take action in solidarity with them.

Resistance continued after the miners were defeated. The police brought the tactics they had been encouraged to use in the miners’ strike to the policing of the inner cities. Cynthia Jarrett died during a police raid on her north London home in 1985. Tottenham exploded in a riot. Another Black woman, Cherry Groce, was shot by police in a raid on her home in Brixton. The south London centre of the Black community also rioted.

And there was resistance to Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council then headed by Ken Livingstone, an action which also involved cancelling the March 1985 elections to the GLC. On the industrial scene more defeats followed miners. Dockers and printers, two of the strongest sections of the trade union movement were defeated. Neil Kinnock and the leaders of the unions were no more supportive of these workers than they had been of the miners. Perhaps the Kinnock strategy of distancing the Labour party from the left and the strikers might have been forgiven if it had worked. Some would have seen it as worthwhile if it had got Thatcher out of 10 Downing Street. But Kinnock’s strategy failed even in its own terms. He was beaten in the 1987 election and Thatcher returned for a third term. There was however another kind of revenge waiting for Margaret Thatcher. Partly as a result of the huge sums spent on defeating the miners, the Tories had to raise taxes.

The introduction of the poll tax to replace local rates was to be Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. The poll tax embodied the inequality and class discrimination that was the hallmark of Thatcherism. It was a flat rate tax…that is you pay the same amount irrespective of how rich you are. As Tory Secretary of State for the Environment Nicholas Ridley boasted, ‘A duke would pay the same as a dustman’. Introduced first in Scotland and then England and Wales it provoked a massive non-payment campaign organised by the anti-poll tax groups that mushroomed in every town and city.

By August of 1990 one in five of the entire population had refused to pay, with figures reaching up to 27 percent of people in London. Some 20 million people were issued with court summons for non-payment. Many local authorities were faced with a crisis, and councils faced a deficit of £1.7 billion for the next year. The anti-poll tax campaign culminated in a huge national demonstration in London March 1990. As the march reached Trafalgar Square, the police attacked it. A huge battle ensued and a riot spread through central London. Cars were burnt outside the English National Opera in St Martins Lane, jewellers windows were broken in Regent Street and, back in Trafalgar Square the crowd tried to set fire to Apartheid South Africa’s Embassy. When they failed another building on the south side of the Square was set ablaze. As the struggle with the police reached its peak a handmade banner reading ‘Yorkshire Miners Against the Poll Tax’ could be seen heading into the thick of the struggle. A few months later Thatcher was gone. The immediate cause was a struggle over Europe in the Tory party. But the real reason was that Thatcher was massively unpopular and the poll tax had shown that she was presiding over a society where the government was losing its authority. Even after this popular revolt had got rid of Thatcher, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party was too weak to beat her successor, John Major, in the 1992 election. Five more years of accumulated discontent with the Tories, and another economic crisis, were necessary before the Tories were confined to political oblivion for more than a decade by the landslide victory that brought Tony Blair to power in 1997.

The 1980s were a low and dirty decade. Mass unemployment, poverty, casual jobs, privatisation, worsening health and education services corroded the lives of working people as they had not done since the 1930s. The basic dignity that working people have from being able to organise themselves in trade unions to defend their wages and conditions at work was eroded. Their self confidence was undermined and their political freedoms diminished. But for the rich and the corporations it was the ‘loads o’ money’ decade, a Champagne decade like the roaring 20s. New Labour, which Margaret Thatcher herself has claimed as her greatest achievement, accepted that Thatcherism was here to stay. It mimicked and extended her policies, squandering its huge victories in three general elections. Now the political wheel turned full circle. In 2010, as in 1979, an exhausted Labour government that has disappointed its own supporters is about to faced an angry electorate. David Cameron wanted to distance himself from the Thatcher era in order to profit from this mood. The Tories have tried to re-position themselves by borrowing style from Tony Blair just as he borrowed policy from them. But even this was not enough to give the Tories outright victory and they had to depend on coalition with the Liberal Democrats to regain office. The massive government debts accumulated in the recession meant that David Cameron had to launch an even wider offensive on working class living standards and the welfare state than Thatcher ever dared to mount.


  • 1972 Dockers and miners’ strike against Heath government
  • 1974 Miners’ strike and general election
  • 1975 Margaret Thatcher becomes Tory leader
  • 1976 IMF austerity package
  • 1979 Winter of Discontent, Thatcher wins election
  • 1980 Steelworkers strike defeated
  • 1981 Inner city riots
  • 1982 Falklands War
  • 1983 Thatcher’s second election victory and Cruise missile protests
  • 1984-85 Great Miners’ Strike
  • 1985 Tottenham and Brixton riots
  • 1986 Abolition of the Greater London Council
  • 1990 Poll tax riot and the fall of Thatcher
  • 1992 Labour loses general election to John Major
  • 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour wins election landslide

This is an extract from Timelines: A Political History of the Modern World by John Rees. Published by Routlege (2012). More details here.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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