LONDON — Rioting on Britain's streets and criticism from colleagues during an economic crisis tested the mettle of Margaret Thatcher. Government documents released Friday detail how early challenges shaped the woman who dominated the country's political life for 11 years.
Official records for 1981 released by the National Archives depict a prime minister grappling with violent dissent, rising tensions in Northern Ireland and sharp criticism from her own allies. The papers were being made public just five days before the London premiere of "The Iron Lady," the film about Thatcher's career starring Meryl Streep.
The documents were made public under Britain's policy of withholding sensitive official documents for 30 years.
Elected in 1979, Thatcher — now aged 86 — early on cut public spending and prioritized efforts to tame Britain's rocketing inflation rate, bringing a dramatic fall in industrial output and pushing unemployment to 2.5 million. In London's ethnically diverse Brixton neighborhood, and in the impoverished Toxteth suburb of the northern city of Liverpool, anger over joblessness helped fuel the country's worst riots in decades.
Undeterred, the government's March budget had introduced a new financial squeeze, with Treasury chief Geoffrey Howe announcing plans to raise taxes.
That led to a crisis July 23 Cabinet meeting in which Thatcher was confronted by internal critics — known as the "wets" after the private school slang for "weak" — who advocated an abrupt change of economic policy to appease public anger. According to minutes of the meeting, Thatcher's critics, many of them supporters of her predecessor Edward Heath, laid out a detailed attack.
"With unemployment totals rising to 3 million later in the year, and following the recent rioting in a number of cities, the tolerance of society was now stretched near to its limit," the critics argued, according to the note.
"To give people renewed hope and confidence for the future, it was essential to take new and constructive action urgently," the document said the leader was told.
Thatcher's combative press secretary Bernard Ingham fired off a memo warning his boss that she led "a manifestly divided and warring Cabinet."
In her memoirs, Thatcher described the meeting as "one of the bitterest arguments on the economy, or any subject, that I can ever recall taking place at Cabinet."
She was not deterred.
Thatcher fired education secretary Mark Carlisle; Christopher Soames, the leader of the House of Lords; and Ian Gilmour, a senior foreign office minister. She switched Jim Prior, then the employment secretary, to the Northern Ireland Office, to stifle his influence over economic policy.
The move calmed loyalists who had feared that Thatcher could be swayed by her opponents.