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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
Thatcherism is a branch of Conservative ideology that originated from the ideals and teachings of Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister from 1979 until 1990. Essentially, Thatcher believed in the primacy of competition and a free market, and possessed a fundamental distrust of the power of government. She also believed in the right of individuals to have the freedom to determine their own lives, as long as they remained within certain boundaries. For this reason, Thatcherism has also been called “neo-liberal”.
Thatcher had a passionate dislike of any forces outside Parliament interfering with the role of government. This included trade unions, the civil service and local authorities. The context for this is that the country had been run from 1945 until 1979 on a broadly agreed consensus that the government should aim for full employment, intervening whenever that was threatened, the government should also own and run certain production (e.g energy and communications) and that decisions should be made in consultation with the trade unions and business community (corporatism).
The economic situation at the end of the 1970s, with the UK having needed a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as suffering the effects of a series of strikes (leading to the 1978 ‘Winter of Discontent’ in which rubbish piled up on the streets of London), meant the public gave Margaret Thatcher a mandate to make the changes she did.
Thatcherism can be contrasted with ‘one-nation’ Conservatism, in which government has a duty to look after the unfortunate and narrow the gap between rich and poor. Thatcher managed over time to force those Conservatives who still believed in this old approach out of Government and her approach became part of what is called the New Right.