Margaret Thatcher: the public view 40 years on

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
May 03, 2019, 9:07 AM GMT+0

Although divisive, Thatcher and her legacy tend to be seen in positive terms

Forty years after Margaret Thatcher was first elected as Prime Minister, a new YouGov survey reveals that the Iron Lady is still seen as Britain’s greatest post-war leader. Of the 14 PMs since 1945, Thatcher tops the list with 21% of the vote – although second-placed Winston Churchill is within the margin of error on 19%. Tony Blair comes a distant third at 6%.

Unsurprisingly, Conservative voters are much bigger fans, with 44% naming her the greatest PM (Churchill, by contrast, only sees a very modest increase to 23% among those who back the Tories in 2017). Only 6% of Labour and Lib Dem voters see her as Britain’s greatest post-war Prime Minister.

More than four in ten Brits (44%) think Thatcher was a good or great Prime Minister, compared to 29% who think she was a poor or terrible one. Again, views among the Conservatives are most positive, with 76% saying she was great/good, compared to 42% of Lib Dem voters and only 18% of Labour voters.

Asked which qualities Britons feel Thatcher possessed, the most common answers are that she “stuck to what she believed in” (60%), was “strong” (58%) and decisive (49%). However, only 14% consider her honest, 12% charismatic and just 6% in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

Thatcher’s legacy: the good

The public also tend to take a positive view of Thatcher’s legacy. Four in ten (39%) think her tenure was good for Britain, compared to 31% that think it was bad for the country. They also tend to think she left the country better off economically (38%, vs 28% who think the opposite), more respected in the world (49% vs 17%) and a place with better opportunities for women (40% vs 11%).

In terms of her achievements, being the first female Prime Minister is the one she is most commonly praised for, at 41%. After this comes winning the Falklands War (29%) and winning three general elections in a row (22%).

Thatcher’s legacy: the bad

Almost half of people (47%) think that Thatcher left Britain a less equal society – only 16% believe the nation became more equal under her stewardship. Tory voters are divided on this point – 32% think we became less equal and 31% more equal. By contrast, two thirds of Labour voters (68%) think Thatcher made British society less equal.

Introducing the poll tax is seen as her greatest failing, with 37% of Britons saying this. Overseeing the decline of mining and manufacturing comes close behind at 34%, followed by her privatisation of utilities at 31%.

Britons who live in the Midlands, North, Wales and Scotland are noticeably more likely to see the decline in mining/manufacturing as one of Thatcher’s greatest failings (37-41%) than those in London and the rest of the South (27-28%).

As with the public in general, Conservatives tend to see Thatcher’s biggest mistake as having introduced the Poll Tax (46%), while for Labour voters it is the decline of mining and manufacturing (44%).


Thatcher was famously not a fan of referendums, having described them as “a device of dictators and demagogues”.

It’s not clear how Thatcher, who died in 2013, would have reacted had she been around for the EU referendum. While she did campaign for Britain to join the EEC at the 1975 referendum, she took a more Eurosceptic tone later in her life.

This is reflected in Britons’ beliefs on how Thatcher would have voted at the EU referendum, had she been around to cast her ballot. Just over a third (35%) of Britons think the former PM would have opted for Leave, compared to 28% who think she would have chosen to Remain.

A further 34% answered “don’t know”, while the remaining 3% think she would not have voted or would have spoilt her ballot.

Remainers and Leavers both think that the former PM would have taken their side in 2016: 48% of Leave voters think Thatcher would have backed Brexit, while 42% of Remain voters believe she would have fought to keep Britain in Europe.

The public are far more united on Thatcher’s ability to negotiate Brexit: a majority of Britons (59%) think she would have done a better job than May, while just 6% think she would have done worse. A further 14% think she would have done about as well, while the remaining 21% don’t know.

Photo: Getty

See the full results here