The 1980s. In 1979 a hitherto little noticed former minister of education, who had become leader of the Conservative party after Edward Heath in 1975, led the party to general election victory. Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to be British Prime Minister, and remained at the head of the UK government and parliament until her resignation in November 1990. She is widely credited with changed the political and cultural face of Britain, and of being the defining figure of the decade of the 1980s. In the 1970s there was a world recession and it was felt by all economies and people. This produced social and political unrest in its wake, and created the context for a driven ideologue of traditional conservative values and beliefs.
Margaret Thatcher set out upon a programme of privatisation of public services (which she famously termed 'rolling back the state'), and legislation designed to minimise or even destroy the power of the Trades Unions. She redefined the political terrain of the UK by claiming that there was no area of life that is not political, and by defining political activity as necessarily adversarial. In 1983 she initiated and won a patriotically fuelled war with Argentina over possession of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. In 1984 she interpreted a strike by miners over pay and conditions as a challenge to government, and used legislation and troops quell it; in the same year the IRA bombed the conference where the Conservative party was holding its annual conference and killed 5 people.
Her most controversial innovation, occasioning demonstrations around the country and contributing in no small measure to her eventual resignation, was the introduction of the so-called 'Poll Tax' – a per capita tax applied to all those on the electoral roll and replacing another tax ('the Rates') which had been based only on the value of owned property. Her influence on other politicians and the politics of the US and other European countries was substantial. She was extremely close personally and politically to Ronald Reagan, President of the USA for nearly the entire decade (1981-1989)
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev took over as leader of the Soviet Union. A reformer, he introduced the concepts of glasnost and perestroika, and the idea of reconstructing the communist system. This reached its climax in 1989 when the East and West German authorities reached agreement on pulling down the Berlin wall. After this, Czechoslovakia, Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe initiated a flurry of reforms that were to lead in the next decade to the complete collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. However the remaining major world communist power, China, responded to this perceived threat to its political ideology with a wave of domestic political repression, culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre when hundreds of demonstrating students were killed and thousands injured – and seen to be so on televised news around the world.
Artistically and culturally this decade began the post-modernist trend. In youth culture the decade belonged to Punks – a style of dress and behaviour modelled on anarchism, and styled as anti-authority, traditional values and organised society. Popular music was dominated by punk, and new romanticism – which positioned itself in opposition to punk.