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The Tudors

By 1990 Mrs Thatcher had been Prime Minister for over 11 years. She was the longest serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century. She had fought off the miners, overseen the privatisation of many significant companies, won back the Falklands and changed Britain completely. For years we had been a country which made and produced goods; ships, cars, coal, steel. Now we were a country that provided services; banking, insurance, stock market trading.

She had also almost taken on the role of royalty. British monarchs often referred to themselves in the plural “we” instead of “I”. When her daughter had a child in 1989, Mrs Thatcher announced “we have become a grandmother”. She had also fought a long battle with the European Union, negotiating a refund for Britain on the amount of money we paid in. She was totally opposed to closer ties with Europe.

But in 1990 two main factors caused her downfall. Firstly, her government introduced a new tax, called the poll tax. For years people who owned properties paid a rate tax to their local authority. It was based, roughly, on the size of the house. The poll tax was to be paid for each person in the country. This meant that a large house with one rich person in would pay far less than a small house with 5 or 6 people in. It doesn't take too much brain power to see that this tax would hurt poorer people. It resulted in demonstrations and eventually riots around the country. There was a major riot in London on 31 March 1990. Mrs Thatcher, who firmly defended the tax, was suddenly very unpopular. An opinion poll found 78% of the country opposed to the tax.

The second factor was Europe. Mrs Thatcher did not like the idea of closer ties with the European Union. Her foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who did believe in closer unity, resigned on 13 November. In his speech to the House of Commons when he announced his resignation, he politely but very strongly criticised Mrs Thatcher. He ended by saying “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.” In other words, who else thinks that Mrs Thatcher is wrong.

A top Conservative politician, Michael Heseltine, then challenged her for the leadership. All Conservative MPs would take part in the ballot. She won the first round of voting but not by enough to avoid a second ballot. She then spoke to her colleagues in the Cabinet and did not really receive the support she wanted and probably expected. On 22 November 1990 she went to Buckingham Palace and offered her resignation to the Queen.

She then announced she would support John Major in the next ballot and he beat Heseltine, at which point Heseltine withdrew and Major became Prime Minister. In his first speech to Parliament he announced that the poll tax would be abolished and replaced by something called the community charge which was more like the old rates system. Europe, however, was still a problem.

A poll sometime after Thatcher had gone found that 52% of the people thought she was good for our country while 48% disagreed. These figures, as you will see next time, were repeated in a referendum on the problem that brought about Thatcher's downfall.

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