UK’s landmark postwar elections: When Thatcher became the first female prime minister in 1979

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s upcoming general election is widely expected to lead to a change of government for the first time in 14 years. Many analysts believe it will be one of the country’s most consequential elections since the end of World War II.

Ahead of the July 4 vote, The Associated Press takes a look back at other landmark U.K. elections since the war.


Britain’s general election in 1979 is without doubt the most significant since 1945, with Margaret Thatcher becoming the country’s first female prime minister on a radical Conservative economic agenda.

At its heart, Thatcherism represented a total rethink over the role of the state.

Since Labour’s big victory in 1945, a so-called postwar consensus on the economy existed between the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives. Despite the changes in power, their economic approaches aligned. Governments targeted full employment and would intervene in the economy to pursue that goal through tax and spending policies.

That consensus was getting increasingly frayed through the 1970s as Britain went into an economic tailspin, with inflation running at postwar highs and trade unions increasingly militant in pursuit of their pay claims.

The May 1979 election took place in the wake of the so-called Winter of Discontent, a huge wave of strikes across industries and public services. The mood within the Labour government, led by Jim Callaghan, was downbeat.

Thatcher, who sought to play up to her image as the Iron Lady, said things couldn’t carry on as they were. She won a sizeable majority in the election and stayed in power for more than 11 years, a period which saw income taxes slashed, particularly on the wealthy, and the privatization of many industries such as energy and telecommunications.

On the international stage, Thatcher enjoyed a close relationship with her political soulmate, U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Both talked tough on the Soviet Union. She also grew increasingly vocal in her opposition to what was then called the European Economic Community, now the European Union, which ultimately led to her downfall.

Thatcher’s premiership, which lasted until she was effectively ousted by members of her own party in 1990, is one of the most controversial in postwar Britain.

Her admirers include current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and many other senior Conservatives who cite Thatcher as their political inspiration. But to her opponents, Thatcher was a divisive figure whose free-market economic liberalism wrecked local communities and whose growing euroskepticism fueled opposition to European integration that ultimately led to the Brexit vote in 2016.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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