Thatcherism Essay

Thatcherism, a term popularized in the 1980s, was initially used by political opponents of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to derisively refer to the political philosophy, doctrine, and programs she introduced to the country from 1979 until 1990, when she resigned from office. The intent was to stigmatize Thatcher’s programs, which her political enemies felt she advocated with great force and which they ultimately believed would lead to failure. Thatcher’s supporters, however, took the term and made it their own, elevating it from a derisive term used by opponents to a positive reflection of the prime minster and her policies.

While no universal definition exists for Thatcherism, it is a term widely used by academics, politicians, and the press to identify what took place during Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister. Numerous explanations have been offered to define the term, and several key features consistently appear in the different definitions proposed. Among them are a fiscal policy that promotes low inflation and a tight control on money supply, and a labor policy that favors privatization and limitations on labor movements, including trade unions.

Some argue that the principles of Thatcherism are nothing new and existed before Margaret Thatcher gave advent to the term. Regardless of how Thatcherism is understood as a phenomenon, it is clear that it had lasting effects on the United Kingdom.

It has been suggested that Margaret Thatcher may have alienated many of her own, the conservatives in Great Britain, with her brash and iron-fisted will to pursue what she saw as the true conservative doctrine, even if it clashed with conventionally held conservative doctrine. Not only did she clash with conservatives in her own party, but she also alienated progressives. Nonetheless, Thatcher ushered in several changes when she became prime minister, including raising interest rates to control inflation in a time of recession, attacking trade unions, and privatizing public transportation and social housing.

In many respects, Thatcherism was a conservative economic philosophy that was led by the market and reduced government intervention. Thatcher focused her energy on government reform, stating, “I was determined . . . to begin work on long-term reform of government itself. If we were to channel more of the nation’s talent into wealth-creating private business, this would inevitably mean reducing employment in the public sector.” In many respects she considered the civil service a “necessary evil” that needed to be downsized.

Thatcherism transformed the composition of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, reoriented the responsibilities of the civil service, and provided an interpretation or understanding of individualism and the capacity of human beings. It advocated well-known ideas such as the value of free trade, the benefits of lower taxes, the importance of patriotism, and support for individual responsibility (e.g., hard work, personal responsibility, forethought, and frugality). Thatcherism’s focus on the individual fostered the idea of self-worth and individual entrepreneurship rather than a reliance on government. Moreover, Thatcherism sought to centralize power in the hands of the prime minister and reduce the influence of trade unions. Thatcherism increased the United Kingdom’s international prestige and involvement and was widely accepted both in the United States and in other democracies around the world as an opponent of unbridled state growth.

In order to understand the legacy of Thatcherism, it is important to separate Margaret Thatcher from Thatcherism because each has endured quite different fortunes. Thatcher proved to be a far more successful and enduring figure in British politics even after her party lost control of Parliament and turned it over to the newly reformed Labour Party. If one analyzes the specific programs attempted by Thatcherism, it has a mixed and short-lived record. For instance, efforts to reduce the tax burden on British citizens failed to realize the long-term goals envisioned by Thatcher and her supporters. In 1996, the percentage of annual income devoted to taxation was higher than its 1979 levels. Nonetheless, Thatcherism provided a new orientation to government and individual responsibility that has lived on in the United Kingdom and reverberated beyond its shores.


  1. Evans, Eric J. Thatcher and Thatcherism. London: Routledge, 1997.
  2. Hall, Stuart, and Martin Jacques, eds. The Politics of Thatcherism. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983.
  3. Letwin, Shirley Robin. The Anatomy of Thatcherism. London: Fontana, 1992.

Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. New York: HarperCollins, 1993

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