In Depth

Margaret Thatcher’s election: what the papers said in 1979

The media broadly welcomed arrival of Europe’s first female PM but some warned of widening national divisions

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister, on 4 May 1979.

Despite her Labour predecessor Jim Callaghan’s warning that the Tories were “too big a gamble for the country to take”, voters backed Thatcher to become both Britain and Europe’s first female PM, with her party taking 339 Conservative seats to Labour’s 269 - the largest Conservative swing since 1945.

Her premiership would prove controversial, with conflict with Argentina in the Falklands Islands, the miners’ strike, IRA terror attacks, and high levels of unemployment. Yet Thatcher still became the longest-serving British leader of the 20th century.

As PM, she was undeniably polarising. Following her death, the Daily Mail’s Simon Heffer wrote: “She made Britain respected again in the world as a result of her economic achievements... Mrs Thatcher turned the ship round after almost 35 years of drift. As a result, she became both one of the most revered and loathed politicians of modern times.”

Author Ian McEwan had a very different perspective on the Thatcher years. In an article for The Guardian, McEwan said: “For those of us who were dismayed by her brisk distaste for that cosy state-dominated world, it was never enough to dislike her. We liked disliking her. She forced us to decide what was truly important... But what bound all opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s programme was a suspicion that the grocer’s daughter was intent on monetising human value, that she had no heart and, famously, cared little for the impulses that bind individuals into a society.”

But how did the media react when she first came to power? 

Following her election victory, the Daily Mirror noted that “right until the end, Labour clung to the hope that the voters would refuse to gamble on Mrs. Thatcher’s unknown qualities”, but added that “almost from the start of the counting, though, it was obvious that there was no hope”. 

The newspaper described her victory as “a triumph for right-wing politics all round, with Mrs Thatcher the most right-wing leader that Britain has had since the War, set to lead Britain until 1984”.

Others welcomed Europe’s first female PM, with the Birmingham Daily Post applauding her win as one in the eye for those on the Continent and further afield.

“It is indeed remarkable that this country, so often written off by its European neighbours and America as incurably traditional and conservative, should have been the first among them to break with custom[by electing a woman leader],” the paper said.

“She and Conservatives have taken on a most unenviable task in trying to clear up an unholy mess and get Britain on the right lines psychologically and industrially.”

Other news outlets were even more effusive in their prose. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle said Thatcher was about to “stride into Downing Street and stride into the history books”, and called her the “sweetheart of suburbia”.

Across the pond, The New York Times noted that her campaign was not without its ups and downs. “Her voice and her manner reminded many voters of unfondly remembered schoolmarms, and many of those who liked her policies could not bring themselves to help her become prime minister,” the newspaper claimed.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Robert Mackenzie told viewers that while Thatcher  had “broken the sound barrier” for women politicians, she “has disappointed many feminists - as she appears to have appointed people entirely on merit, there are very few women there”.

Foreshadowing the divide that would widen across the UK in the 1980s, The Guardian’s David McKie wrote on the morning of Thatcher’s victory that the results “had a distinct smack of ‘two nations’ about them”.

His newspaper went further in its editorial, which said: “It is hard to resist the conclusion that the have-nots, the have-littles and the have-problems bent only slightly to the wind of change whilst the have-plenty and the want-mores were eager to clip along with the Conservatives.

“That is a warning and a challenge to the new government.” 

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