Margaret Thatcher: the Environmentalist?

Thatcher: the ‘Iron Lady’, ‘the first woman Prime-Minister’, ‘the discordant politician’.

As I sit here watching the funeral of the first and, as yet, the only woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom I thought it would be interesting to look into her own environmental agenda. Margaret Thatcher was one of the most divisive figures of the twentieth century but she was also one of the most decisive Prime Ministers that the United Kingdom has ever seen. She was also a person who knew what she thought and acted as she saw fit, characteristics I personally admire.

Although I would not go as far as saying that Baroness Thatcher was an environmentalist or indeed a ‘crucial figure’ in the movement in advancing the environmental agenda, she managed to advance the subject in her time, arguably raising it to a level of importance on par with Health and Education. Thatcher clearly cared about environmental affairs. As a trained chemist, her scientific understanding and methodology helped to influence her decision making process. Climate Change was a key interest of hers and she made great effort to raise awareness of the issue at a time when environmental issues were only beginning to gain a foothold within mainstream society.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on the subject of environmental degradation in 1989 she said

“Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all…That prospect is a new factor in human affairs. It is comparable in its implications to the discovery of how to split the atom. Indeed, its results could be even more far-reaching.”

She made several powerful environmental speeches during her time in power and was a key player in the development of the Environmental Protection Act of 1990 which unified air, soil and water pollution and waste regulations.

Of course, her actions cannot be wholly dedicated to her, as clearly the context of the 1980s green movement and the advice she took from Sir Crispin Tickell, a leading environmental policy adviser at the time, played a large part. Nonetheless, as with other issues, it was she who acted and crucially, she who acted decisively.

Iain Murray has called Thatcher a ‘truly free market environmentalist’ as she founded her environmental agenda on the Burkean conservative ideal that inheritance is worth defending but also held a classical liberal belief that ‘human wealth and progress are crucial’ for moving forward (Murray, 2004) It was this combination that meant she could never be a truly ‘green’ environmentalist. She believed that there had to be a balance between the environment and ‘human’ policy and criticised the ‘cranks and romantics’ who called for more ‘extreme’ measures like raising fuel taxes.

Thatcher can now be handed over to the historians and it is they who will decide how she will be remembered. Certainly political historians will make the greatest effort to take her under their wing but certainly, as this short article suggests, environmental historians should also look to include Thatcher in their studies. The scientist who took the environment seriously was also the lady who seemed to turn her back on contemporary environmentalists. Always one to divide, the environment could be seen to be no different to other areas of her policy and deserves serious recognition in historical study.


Murray, I., ‘Margaret Thatcher: A Free Market Environmentalist – Thatcher’s Environmental Views form a New Perspective’ in Property and Environment Research Center Report, vol.22, no.4 (Winter 2004)

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