Love her or loathe her, one thing’s beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.
The Iron Lady who ruled for 11 remarkable years imposed her will on a fractious, rundown nation — breaking the unions, triumphing in a far-off war, and selling off state industries at a record pace. She left behind a leaner government and more prosperous nation by the time a mutiny ousted her from No. 10 Downing Street.
Thatcher’s former spokesman, Tim Bell, said that the former prime minister had died Monday morning of a stroke. She was 87.
For admirers, Thatcher was a savior who rescued Britain from ruin and laid the groundwork for an extraordinary economic renaissance. For critics, she was a heartless tyrant who ushered in an era of greed that kicked the weak out onto the streets and let the rich become filthy rich.
“Let us not kid ourselves, she was a very divisive figure,” said Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary for her entire term. “She was a real toughie. She was a patriot with a great love for this country, and she raised the standing of Britain abroad.”
Thatcher was the first — and still only — female prime minister in Britain’s history. But she often found feminists tiresome and was not above using her handbag as a prop to underline her swagger and power. A grocer’s daughter, she rose to the top of Britain’s snobbish hierarchy the hard way, and envisioned a classless society that rewarded hard work and determination.
She was a trailblazer who at first believed trailblazing impossible: Thatcher told the Liverpool Daily Post in 1974 that she did not think a woman would serve as party leader or prime minister during her lifetime.
But once in power, she never showed an ounce of doubt.
Thatcher could be intimidating to those working for her:
British diplomats sighed with relief on her first official visit to Washington, D.C., as prime minister to find that she was relaxed enough to enjoy a glass of whiskey and a half-glass of wine during an embassy lunch, according to official documents.
Like her close friend and political ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher seemed motivated by an unshakable belief that free markets would build a better country than reliance on a strong, central government. Another thing she shared with the American president: a tendency to reduce problems to their basics, choose a path, and follow it to the end, no matter what the opposition.
She formed a deep attachment to the man she called “Ronnie” — some spoke of it as a schoolgirl crush. Still, she would not back down when she disagreed with him on important matters, even though the United States was the richer and vastly stronger partner in the so-called “special relationship.”
Thatcher was at her brashest when Britain was challenged. When Argentina’s military junta seized the remote Falklands Islands from Britain in 1982, she did not hesitate even though her senior military advisers said it might not be feasible to reclaim the islands.
She simply would not allow Britain to be pushed around, particularly by military dictators, said Ingham, who recalls the Falklands War as the tensest period of Thatcher’s three terms in power. When diplomacy failed, she dispatched a military task force that accomplished her goal, despite the naysayers.
“That required enormous leadership,” Ingham said. “This was a formidable undertaking, this was a risk with a capital R-I-S-K, and she demonstrated her leadership by saying she would give the military their marching orders and let them get on with it.”
In deciding on war, Thatcher overruled Foreign Office specialists who warned her about the dangers of striking back. She was infuriated by warnings about the dangers to British citizens in Argentina and the difficulty of getting support from the U.N. Security Council.
“When you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out with an iron will to overcome them,” she said in her memoir, “Downing Street Years.” ‘’And anyway what was the alternative? That a common or garden dictator should rule over the queen’s subjects and prevail by fraud and violence? Not while I was prime minister.”
Thatcher’s determination to reclaim the islands brought her into conflict with Reagan, who dispatched Secretary of State Alexander Haig on a shuttle mission to London and Buenos Aires to seek a peaceful solution even as British warships approached the Falklands.
A private diary kept by U.S. diplomat Jim Rentschler captures Thatcher at this crisis point.
“And here’s Maggie, appearing in a flower-decorated salon adjoining the small dining room (...) sipping orange juice and sherry,” Rentschler wrote. “La Thatcher is really quite fetching in a dark velvet two-piece ensemble with grosgrain piping and a soft hairdo that heightens her blond English coloring.”
But the niceties faded over the dinner table.
“High color is in her cheeks, a note of rising indignation in her voice, she leans across the polished table and flatly rejects what she calls the ‘woolliness’ of our secondstage formulation,” Rentschler writes.
Needless to say, Haig’s peace mission soon collapsed.
The relatively quick triumph of British forces revived Thatcher’s political fortunes, which had been faltering along with the British economy. She won an overwhelming victory in 1983, tripling her majority in the House of Commons.
She trusted her gut instinct, famously concluding early on that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev represented a clear break in the Soviet tradition of autocratic rulers. She pronounced that the West could “do business” with him, a position that influenced Reagan’s vital dealings with Gorbachev in the twilight of the Soviet era.
It was heady stuff for a woman who had little training in foreign affairs when she triumphed over a weak field of indecisive Conservative Party candidates to take over the party leadership in 1975 and ultimately run as the party’s candidate for prime minister.
She profited from the enormous crisis facing the Labour Party government led by Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan. Britain was near economic collapse, its currency propped up by the International Monetary Fund, and its once defiant spirit seemingly broken.
The sagging Labour government had no Parliamentary majority after 1977, and the next year it suffered through a “winter of discontent” with widespread strikes disrupting vital public services, including hospital care and even gravedigging. The government’s effort to hold the line on inflation led to chaos in the streets.
Britain seemed adrift, no longer a credible world power, falling from second- to third-tier status.
It was then, Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, that she came to the unshakable, almost mystical belief that only she could save Britain. She cited a deep “inner conviction” that this would be her role.
Events seemed to be moving her way when she led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979 with a commitment to reduce the state’s role and champion private enterprise.
She was underestimated at first — by her own party, by the media, later by foreign adversaries. But they all soon learned to respect her. Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” nickname was coined by Soviet journalists, a grudging testament to her ferocious will and determination.
Thatcher set about upending decades of liberal doctrine, successfully challenging Britain’s welfare state and socialist traditions, in the process becoming the reviled bete noire of the country’s leftwing intelligentsia.
She is perhaps best remembered for her hardline position during the pivotal strike in 1984 and 1985 when she faced down coal miners in an ultimately successful bid to break the power of Britain’s unions. It was a reshaping of the British economic and political landscape that endures to this day.
It is for this that she is revered by free-market conservatives, who say the restructuring of the economy led to a boom that made London the rival of New York as a global financial center. The left demonized her as an implacably hostile union buster, with stone-cold indifference to the poor. But her economic philosophy eventually crossed party lines: Tony Blair led a revamped Labour Party to victory by adopting some of her ideas.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on Oct. 13, 1925. She learned the values of thrift, discipline and industry as the dutiful daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and Methodist lay preacher who eventually became the mayor of Grantham, a modest-sized town in Lincolnshire 110 miles (180 kilometers) north of London.
Thatcher’s personality, like that of so many of her contemporaries, was shaped in part by the traumatic events during her childhood. When World War II broke out, her hometown was one of the early targets for Luftwaffe bombs. Her belief in the need to stand up to aggressors was rooted in the failure of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Adolf Hitler rather than confront him.
Thatcher said she learned much about the world simply by studying her father’s business. She grew up in the family’s apartment just above the shop.
“Before I read a line from the great liberal economists, I knew from my father’s accounts that the free market was like a vast sensitive nervous system, responding to events and signals all over the world to meet the ever-changing needs of peoples in different countries, from different classes, of different religions, with a kind of benign indifference to their status,” she wrote in her memoirs.
“The economic history of Britain for the next 40 years confirmed and amplified almost every item of my father’s practical economics. In effect, I had been equipped at an early age with the ideal mental outlook and tools of analysis for reconstructing an economy ravaged by state socialism.”
Educated at Oxford, Thatcher began her political career in her mid-20s with an unsuccessful 1950 campaign for a parliamentary seat in the Labour Party stronghold of Dartford. She earned nationwide publicity as the youngest female candidate in the country despite her loss at the polls.
She was defeated again the next year, but on the campaign trail she met Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman whom she married in 1951. Their twins, Mark and Carol, were born two years later.
“She was beautiful, gay, very kind and thoughtful,” Denis Thatcher said in an interview 25 years later.
“Who could meet Margaret without being completely slain by her personality and intellectual brilliance?”
As the first male Downing Street spouse, Denis Thatcher stayed out of the limelight to a large degree while supporting his wife on her many travels and public engagements. He was said to give her important behind-the-scenes advice on Cabinet choices and other personnel matters, but this role was not publicly discussed.
Margaret Thatcher first won election to Parliament in 1959, representing Finchley in north London. She climbed the Conservative Party ladder quickly, joining the Cabinet as education secretary in 1970.
In that post, she earned the unwanted nickname “Thatcher the milk snatcher” because of her reduction of school milk programs. It was a taste of battles to come.
As prime minister, she sold off one state industry after another: British Telecom, British Gas, Rolls-Royce, British Airways, British Coal, British Steel, the water companies and the electricity distribution system among them. She was proud of her government’s role in privatizing some public housing, turning tenants into homeowners.
She ruffled feathers simply by being herself. She had faith — sometimes blind faith — in the clarity of her vision and little use for those of a more cautious mien.
Success in the Falklands War set the stage for a pivotal fight with the National Union of Miners, which began a 51-week strike in March 1984 to oppose the government’s plans to close a number of mines.
The miners battled police on picket lines but couldn’t beat Thatcher, and returned to work without gaining any concessions.
She survived an audacious 1984 assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army that nearly succeeded. The IRA detonated a bomb in her hotel in Brighton during a party conference, killing and injuring senior government figures, but leaving the prime minister and her husband unharmed.
Thatcher won a third term in another landslide in 1987, but may have become overconfident.
She trampled over cautionary advice from her own ministers in 1989 and 1990 by imposing a hugely controversial “community charge” tax that was quickly dubbed a “poll tax” by opponents. It was designed to move Britain away from a property tax and instead imposed a flat rate tax on every adult except for retirees and people who were registered unemployed.
That decision may have been a sign that hubris was undermining Thatcher’s political acumen. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in London and other cities, leading to some of the worst riots in the British capital for more than a century.
The shocking sight of Trafalgar Square turned into a smoldering battleground on March 31, 1990, helped convince many Conservative figures that Thatcher had stayed too long.
“How could a leader who was wise make 13 million people pay a tax they had never paid before? It just showed that she was no longer thinking in a rational way,” one of her junior ministers, David Mellor, said in a BBC documentary.
For Conservatives in Parliament, it was a question of survival. They feared vengeful voters would turn them out of office at the next election, and for many that fear trumped any gratitude they might have felt for their longtime leader.
Eight months after the riots, Thatcher was gone, struggling to hold back tears as she left Downing Street after being ousted by her own party.
It was a bitter end for Thatcher’s active political career — her family said she felt a keen sense of betrayal even years later.
In 1992, she was appointed in the House of Lords, taking the title Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
Thatcher wrote several best-selling memoirs after leaving office and was a frequent speaker on the international circuit before she suffered several small strokes that in 2002 led her to curtail her lucrative public speaking career.
Denis Thatcher died the following year; they had been married more than a half century.
Thatcher’s later years were marred by her son Mark Thatcher’s murky involvement in bankrolling a 2004 coup in Equatorial Guinea. He was fined and received a suspended sentence for his role in the tawdry affair.
She suffered from dementia in her final years, and her public appearances became increasingly rare.
She is survived by her two children, Mark Thatcher and Carol Thatcher, and her grandchildren.
Love her or loathe her, one thing’s beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.
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