WHAT’S THE STORY?
On May 4, 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister of the UK.
The previous day – May 3, 1979 – a General Election had been held in which the Conservatives, who had been led by Thatcher since 1975, defeated the Labour Party led by serving prime minister James Callaghan.
The Tories won 43.9% of the popular vote against Labour’s 36.9%, with the Liberals a poor third on 13.8% of the vote.
That translated into 339 seats for the Tories, an overall majority of 43 in the House of Commons which then had 635 members.
HOW DID SHE WIN?
After her vote of no confidence in the Callaghan government was carried by just one vote, Thatcher was seen to be in a winning position.
Yet only nine months earlier, Labour had a lead in the polls. Callaghan was too cautious and delayed calling an election, and that decision was followed by the strike-ridden Winter of Discontent and Labour’s sabotaging of the Scottish devolution referendum, which led the 11 SNP MPs to back the motion of no confidence.
In many ways, Callaghan lost the election due to his inability to strike deals with the trade unions. Thatcher just said she’d hammer them.
Callaghan fought a campaign promising support for the NHS, a new deal with the unions, and tax cuts, though he wouldn’t say how much.
Thatcher employed the “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign and went to war on Callaghan’s failure to control inflation and unions, and emphasised her own plan to help people own their own homes.
By and large Thatcher’s gender was not an issue in the campaign, but her portrayal of herself as someone who understood a household budget was a big winner among Daily Mail-reading, middle-class English women.
It was clear for some days before the poll that Thatcher was going to win. Callaghan had started with a barnstorming speech in the Apollo in Glasgow but by the end of the campaign he was looking and sounding tired while Thatcher appeared fresh and vigorous.
HOW DID SHE REACT?
After Callaghan went to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen and resign, Thatcher followed him to be formally asked to form the new government.
She famously returned to Downing Street and was interviewed outside Number 10. She said: “Her Majesty the Queen has asked me to form a new administration and I have accepted. It is, of course, the greatest honour that can come to any citizen in a democracy.
“I know full well the responsibilities that await me as I enter the door of Number 10 and I’ll strive unceasingly to try to fulfil the trust and confidence that the British people have placed in me and the things in which I believe.
“And I would just like to remember some words of St Francis of Assisi which I think are really just particularly apt at the moment. ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’”
WHAT HAPPENED IN SCOTLAND IN THAT ELECTION?
Labour became the largest party with 44 of the 71 Scottish seats. They scored 41.5% of the vote, up from 36.1% in 1974. The Tories won 22 seats and 31.4% of the vote, compared with 24.7% in 1974. The SNP performed terribly with 17.3% of the vote gaining them only two MPs, compared to the 1974 General Election when they won 11 seats and 30.4% of the vote.
WHAT WAS HER FIRST TERM LIKE FOR SCOTLAND?
Disastrous. Thatcher’s policies meant that the industries on which Scotland depended were unable to finance the restructuring they were crying out for, and public support for industries such as coal, steel and shipbuilding ceased to exist.
Pits closed, factories shut, and unemployment soared – in some streets in Glasgow, 50% of men were out of work. The face of Scotland was changed. Even though the UK-wide economy stabilised – rampant inflation had actually been curbed under Labour – her monetarist policies and her attacks on the trade unions soon made her a hate figure destined to lose the next General Election. Then came the Falklands War.
SHOULD SCOTS BE MORE FORGIVING OF HER?