Margaret Thatcher Dead: The Former Prime Minister's Most Controversial Moments

Perhaps more than any other post-war politician, Baroness Thatcher fiercely divided opinions, but the Iron Lady did not shy from controversial headlines.

One of her defining political moments was at the Conservative Party Conference in 1980, and it was a principle that would guide her throughout her premiership.

"To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the 'U-turn', I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning."

But she faced a tumultuous decade that required many controversial decisions, including defeating trade unions, the invasion of the Falklands and social upheaval.

NUM President Arthur Scargill at the head of a march and rally by striking miners which left from Mansfield Leisure Centre in Nottinghamshire


Margaret Thatcher came to power at the end of the infamous Winter of Discontent in 1979 and spent the next decade curbing the power of trade unions.

Her year-long battle with striking miners in 1984/5 typified her confrontational attitude to the union movement and her victory paved the way for a radical shift in the balance of power in industrial relations.

Baroness Thatcher partly earned her nickname of the Iron Lady because of the way she took on once-mighty union leaders. Mass picketing was outlawed, ballots had to be held before industrial action could be taken, secondary action was made illegal and union leaders had to face regular elections to keep their jobs.

Unions were in constant conflict with the Conservative regime during the 1980s and the chant "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out, Out, Out" became a well-used anthem at countless marches and rallies.

Union membership fell from more than 12 million in 1979 to 10 million a decade later.

The miners' strike of 1984/85 was the biggest test of the legislation, and the biggest union clash she faced during her time as prime minister.

Job losses and pit closures sparked the dispute, but NUM leader Arthur Scargill decided not to hold a national ballot and the year was dominated by mass picketing, violent scenes at pits across the country and clashes with miners who refused to join the strike.

The Thatcher government held firm and the power of the NUM was destroyed, leading years later to a huge programme of pit closures.

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, said upon the news of her death: "Mrs Thatcher was a powerful politician who will be remembered by many for the destructive and divisive policies she reigned over which in the end, even in the Tory party, proved to be her downfall.

"Her legacy involves the destruction of communities, the elevation of personal greed over social values and legitimising the exploitation of the weak by the strong."

Colleagues of Scargill said he was unlikely to make any comment.

Young Bet, a very enthusiastic scholar, reading to Margaret Thatcher, then Minister of Education, at Gospel Oak Primary School, during her tour of London schools


In the Edward Heath administration in 1970, Mrs Thatcher became education secretary, where she quickly became a hate figure on the Labour benches, branded as "Thatcher the Milk Snatcher" because of her decision to stop free milk for primary school children.

Removing free school milk for the over seven’s became the most notorious cost-cutting measure of that administration, described by Edward Short, then Labour education spokesman as ‘the meanest and most unworthy thing’.

After Thatcher's cuts, subsidies were introduced to allow schools to provide milk but most of these were cut in the 1995 Budget.

Margaret Thatcher examining a minefield during her visit to the Falkland Islands when the Royal Engineers took her on a tour


Controversial it was at the time, but the Falklands offensive is still remembered as one of Thatcher's most decisive victories in office.

In 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falklands, it was probably hoping that Britain would not bother to attempt the massive long-distance operation of reclaiming them. The Argentine dictator General Galtieri had grossly underestimated the lady.

While the bloody conflict raged on - one 'of the great military achievements of modern times' - Mrs Thatcher wore nothing but black.

She was sombre and near-ecstatic in turn as the news from the front plunged and soared as each day passed. It was "our boys" at the front, and when South Georgia was recaptured by the Royal Marines midway through the conflict she stood outside Downing Street and said: "We should rejoice at that news."

Although she had support in the country, there was opposition to Britain's response and especially over the sinking of the General Belgrano. This led to a famous confrontation on the BBC1 Nationawide programme with a Geography teacher, Diana Gould, who confronted a clearly rattled Mrs Thatcher, asserting that the ship was sailing away from the Falklands and was no danger to British forces.

Punk band Crass released How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead? in 1982 - a direct attack on the waging of the Falklands War.

It led to questions being asked in the House of Commons and one MP suggested the band be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.

Not even her top military advisers could guarantee success. But typically she went ahead, outwardly proclaiming that nothing but triumph was possible.

And afterwards, announcing the ceasefire to a joyous nation, she proclaimed: "We knew what we had to do and we went about it and did it. Great Britain is great again."

Britain's victory was also regarded as one of the reasons for Mrs Thatcher's landslide election victory the following year.

Baroness Thatcher (left) visits General Pinochet (centre) and his wife at their temporary residence where the former president of Chile was under house arrest at Wentworth in Surrey


The Chilean dictator's controversial relationship with Thatcher led Labour prime minister Tony Blair to mock Thatcher's Conservatives as "the party of Pinochet" in 1999.

Their closeness came during the Falkands War, when Chile, officially neutral, allowed its long range radar deployed in the south of the country to give Britain early warning of the Argentina's attack.

Pinochet visited Margaret Thatcher for tea on more than one occasion and in October, 1998 she called for his immediate release when he was being held in London to face an extradition request by Spain for alleged murder.

Baroness Thatcher said he saved many British lives during the Falklands conflict, that Chile was "a good friend to this country" and that Pinochet must be allowed to return to his own country forthwith.

She caused a stir by visiting the former Chilean leader while he was effectively under house arrest, and having lunch with him. But her appeals to the then home secretary, Jack Straw, were ignored.

Nelson Mandela meets Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street


"The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation. Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land,' Thatcher reportedly said in 1987 at a press conference following the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Vancouver.

Her government did oppose the apartheid policy of the white-minority government of South Africa, and put pressure on South Africa to free Mandela, but resisted international pressure to impose sanctions and British companies continued to operate in South Africa.

In July 1985 Thatcher said economic sanctions against Pretoria would be immoral because they would make thousands of black workers unemployed, would disproportionately injure Britain and neighbouring African countries, and argued that political and military measures were more effective.

Her decision was highly criticised by anti-apartheid activists, including Desmond Tutu, whom she met in London, and Oliver Tambo, exiled leader of the outlawed ANC guerrilla movement.

In October 1985 Thatcher finally agreed to impose limited sanctions and to set up a contact group to promote a dialogue with Pretoria. Calls for a total embargo were abandoned.


It is the interview that she will perhaps be remembered for above all others, one with Women's Own magazine, the infamous phrase "There Is No Such Thing As Society", published on 31 October 1987.

In full, she said: "I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.'

"They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.

"There are individual men and women, and there are families.

"And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.

"People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

A protester kicks the window of a fast food store in Lower Regent Street during rioting in London, which came when an anti-poll tax demonstration erupted


Thatcher was determined to push through a deeply unpopular measure of replacing "rates" with a new system of local taxation.

The new "poll tax" was eventually brought in for the 1989/90 financial year in Scotland, and for the following year in England and Wales.

Co-ordinated by the militant All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, huge protests were seen across the country and up to 30% of taxpayers refused to pay.

Unrest culminated in the infamous Poll Tax Riots in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990 where 200,000 demonstrated against the measure and 113 people and 20 police horses were injured and 340 people arrested.

Tube stations were closed, car windows smashed and smoke billowed over central London as the South African embassy was set alight..

Severely damaged when an IRA bomb killed four people and injured 32, the Grand Hotel was occupied by Margaret Thatcher and other prominent Tory Party members for the party conference


Terrorist attacks from Northern Irish extremists dominated Thatcher's premiership, and caused her a great many personal tragedies. She took a hard line with the IRA after her principal lieutenant in that leadership election campaign, Airey Neave, was assassinated by the IRA in March 1979, only months before she came to power.

She was shattered by the news, but his death served only to increase her resolution to crush terrorism, to offer terrorists no quarter, to do no deals with them. She regarded them as vicious criminals, not political partisans and refused to bow to demands over hunger strikers.

Later, Mrs Thatcher was to tell a press conference in Saudi Arabia, when questioned about "political" reasons for IRA activity: "A crime is a crime is a crime."

She denounced those who gave the terrorists, in her own striking phrase, "the oxygen of publicity".

In the 1984 Brighton bombing by the IRA, Thatcher had left the bathroom in her hotel suite only seconds before the bomb destroyed it.

Despite the deaths of her close friends and injuries to others, and the shock to herself, the conference went ahead the following morning when she defiantly told delegates: "It was an attempt not only to disrupt and terminate our conference, it was an attempt to cripple Her Majesty's democratically-elected government.

"That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared. And the fact we are gathered here, now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams reacted to the announcement of Baroness Thatcher's death with a scathing assessment of her political legacy in Ireland and elsewhere.

"Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British prime minister," claimed Adams.

"Working class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies.

"Her role in international affairs was equally belligerent whether in support of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa; and her support for the Khmer Rouge.

"Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering."

He accused her of embracing censorship, collusion and the use of lethal force in covert operations.


Margaret Thatcher forced through a wave of privatisations, determined to reverse the socialism that she believed had done great harm to the economy and labelling Britain the "sick man" of Europe.

Upon entering office, income tax was slashed and offset by a subsequent increase in VAT, representing an important shift from direct to indirect taxation.

Former Conservative party chairman Chris Patten once said that Mrs Thatcher was the only party leader he could think of who was more radical in government than in opposition.

Analysts said a prime example of this was in the way Mrs Thatcher oversaw the privatisation of huge parts of British industry.

Private firms, it was argued, were inherently more efficient than government-run businesses.

British Gas, British Telecom, British Airways, British Steel, water and electricity firms were among those privatised, leading one Tory strategist to quip: "If it moved it was privatised."