Why a Planned Statue of Britain’s ‘Iron Lady,’ Margaret Thatcher, Is So Polarizing

Set to be installed in the prime minister’s hometown of Grantham next year, the ten-foot-tall work has both supporters and detractors

Thatcher statue
Local officials approved plans to install the statue on St. Peter's Hill in Grantham. Douglas Jennings

A larger-than-life statue of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is courting controversy ahead of its planned installation in the former Conservative Party leader’s hometown of Grantham, reports Alex Marshall for the New York Times.

“If you’re a Conservative, you want a statue, and you want her recognized,” Graham Newton, news editor of the weekly Grantham Journal, tells the Times. “But if you’re not, there’s a lot of people who—not to put a fine point on it—hated her.”

Created by sculptor Douglas Jennings, the bronze statue—now slated to be installed next year—was originally set to stand in London near the Houses of Parliament. But Westminster Council rejected that plan in January 2018, citing a ten-year principle that directs officials not to erect statues of public figures until at least a decade after their death, as BBC News reported at the time. (Thatcher, the nation’s first female prime minister, died in 2013 at the age of 87.) Police also expressed concerns that protesters would target the statue, though London officials didn’t consider that specific issue when rejecting the statue’s placement.

In February 2019, planners with the local South Kesteven District Council approved plans to install the work on St. Peter’s Hill in Grantham, where Thatcher was born and raised. Per a separate BBC News article, a report to the council warned that the ten-foot-tall statue could become “a target for politically motivated vandals.”

Why a Planned Statue of Britain's 'Iron Lady,' Margaret Thatcher, Is So Polarizing
Gillian Anderson portrays Margaret Thatcher in "The Crown." Des Willie / Netflix

After the killing of George Floyd sparked protests against systemic racism this summer, activists pulled down statues of controversial historical figures in many countries. In Bristol, England, for instance, protesters threw an 18-foot-tall statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston into the harbor.

Thatcher, who served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, has a highly contested legacy. Known as the “Iron Lady” for her “hard-driving and hardheaded” approach to governing, as the New York Times noted in her obituary, she pushed the country in a conservative direction, cutting social service programs, reducing the power of unions and privatizing some industries.

The latest season of Netflix’s “The Crown” dramatizes a significant moment in Thatcher’s career: the Falklands War of 1982, in which Britain successfully fought Argentina for control of the Falkland Islands. As Meilan Solly explains for Smithsonian magazine, the episode helped Thatcher’s political career at a time when the country was dealing with a deep recession and widespread concern over its collapsing empire.

Thatcher’s relationship with much of the British public—including many back in Grantham—was strained. Her biographer, John Campell, tells the Times that as prime minister, Thatcher rarely visited Grantham or mentioned it in speeches.

“She was never very fond of Grantham, and so Grantham was never very fond of her,” he says. “She was happy to leave it behind.”

Why a Planned Statue of Britain's 'Iron Lady,' Margaret Thatcher, Is So Polarizing
Margaret Thatcher's response to the Falklands War secured her grasp on power and revitalized her faltering political career. University of Salford Press Office via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

The council initially planned to have the statue installed in Grantham in autumn 2019, Lincolnshire Live’s Nicholas Fletcher reports. But concerns about Covid-19, as well as lingering political questions, have delayed the process. Today, the 11-foot pedestal where the artwork is set to be placed remains empty; the statue itself is in storage in a secret location.

South Kesteven District Council Member Charmaine Morgan says that after the Colston statue was torn down in June, people contacted her on Twitter to ask about the Thatcher statue’s whereabouts.

“Clearly she is still at the forefront of people’s minds,” Morgan tells Lincolnshire Live. "I had to tell them the statue isn’t actually up yet, but clearly there are some people who are prepared to have that statue come down."

Another local Labour Party supporter says that given the need to unite people in the face of the pandemic, this isn’t the right time to erect a statue of such a divisive figure.

The debate over how to remember Thatcher is nothing new for Grantham. Several mayors have proposed tributes to the prime minister, but right now, the only commemoration of her in town is a small plaque on the apartment where she grew up, above her father’s former grocery store.

Per Lincolnshire Live, the Grantham Community Heritage Association says the new statue is a “fitting tribute to a unique political figure.” The group argues that the work will attract visitors “from both sides of the debate.”