Margaret Thatcher, U.K. ‘Iron Lady’ Prime Minister, Dies

Margaret Thatcher, the former U.K. prime minister who helped end the Cold War and was known as the “Iron Lady” for her uncompromising style, died yesterday. She was 87.

Thatcher suffered a stroke on the morning of April 8 and died peacefully, according to her spokesman, Tim Bell.

Thatcher was defined by the battles she won: she waged war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands, clashed with striking miners and forced fellow leaders to cut Britain’s financial contributions to the forerunner of the European Union. She survived an assassination attempt in 1984 when the Irish Republican Army bombed her hotel in Brighton during the Conservatives’ annual conference, killing five people. She stuck to her schedule and addressed party members the next day.

“We can’t deny that Lady Thatcher divided opinion,” Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said outside his No. 10 Downing Street residence, where flags flew at half staff. “For many of us, she was and is an inspiration. For others she was a force to be defined against. But if there is one thing that cuts through all of this --- one thing that runs through everything she did --- it was her lion-hearted love for this country.”

When Thatcher’s Conservative Party took office in 1979, Britain’s trade unions were strong enough to knock out party leaders, and key industries were state-owned. By the time she stepped down 11 years later, her arguments for free-market economics, lower taxes and deregulated financial markets had been adopted across the nation’s political spectrum.

Unemployment Increase

The transition was painful. Unemployment peaked at more than 3 million in the mid-1980s, and many places in the north of the country that had been world centers of manufacturing saw their decline accelerate.

“Very few leaders get to change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world,” Tony Blair, whose Labour Party ousted the Tories from power in 1997, said in a statement on his website. “Margaret was such a leader. Her global impact was vast. And some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour government, and came to be implemented by governments around the world.”

Thatcher will be given a ceremonial funeral with military honors, to be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. A similar funeral was held for the Queen Mother in 2002. No date was announced.

‘The Greatest’

“She did not just lead our country, she saved our country,” Cameron said in televised comments from Madrid. “I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister.”

After winning three elections, Thatcher was forced out of office by her own party after she refused to compromise either on her policies toward Europe or on a property tax that had led to mass non-payment and violent riots.

“Always a warrior rather than a healer, her deeply ideological determination alienated those who believed in consensus rather than in confrontation,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of “The Conservative Party From Thatcher To Cameron” (2010). “But her policies and her personality ushered in changes -- social, economic, political, diplomatic and even military -- so profound that the consequences will continue to play out for decades, even centuries, to come.”

She formed a close bond with President Ronald Reagan, whose time in office and political ideology coincided with her own.

‘Political Soulmates’

“Ronnie and Margaret were political soulmates, committed to freedom and resolved to end Communism,” Nancy Reagan, the president’s widow, said in a statement. “As prime minister, Margaret had the clear vision and strong determination to stand up for her beliefs at a time when so many were afraid to ‘rock the boat.’ As a result, she helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of millions of people.”

Though physically limited by a series of strokes, Thatcher attended the former president’s funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington in June 2004.

“We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man, and I have lost a dear friend,” she said in a videotaped message played during the tribute, referring to Reagan as “Ronnie” and “the Great Liberator.”

Nuclear Missiles

Reagan and Thatcher were both closely involved with Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who evolved from adversary to ally. In 1979, she agreed to place U.S. nuclear missiles in Britain amid protests across Western Europe. Her tough line on the Soviet Union earned her the Iron Lady nickname in the Soviet press.

“If you lead a country like Britain, a strong country, a country which has taken the lead in world affairs in good times and in bad, a country that is always reliable, then you have to have a touch of iron about you,” she said.

Gorbachev praised Thatcher yesterday, describing her as a “brilliant” individual.

While their contacts were “difficult” at first, “gradually the relationship turned more human, becoming increasingly more friendly,” he said in a statement on his fund’s website. “At the end we managed to reach a mutual understanding and that made a contribution to changing the atmosphere between our country and the west and ending the Cold War.”

EU Relations

Her relations with European leaders were strained. While contemporaries such as French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl worked for a politically united Europe, Thatcher called for a network of individual states joined only as a free-trade area, like the North American Free Trade Agreement. The debate about whether Britain should stay part of an EU seeking an ever-closer union or leave has been a recurring theme in British politics since she left office.

In 1984, she won a permanent rebate of Britain’s yearly contributions, telling European leaders, “I want my money back.” She later argued against Britain abandoning the pound for the European single currency.

“She had an immovable willingness, an indomitable character -- that’s why we called her the Iron Lady,” former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing told journalists yesterday. “She didn’t have much consideration for the people she was talking to because she thought they were weaker than her. With Helmut Schmidt we accepted the rebate so that was a success for Mrs Thatcher.”

‘Great Hurt’

Underscoring the bitterness she provoked among adversaries, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s former political wing, yesterday recalled “great hurt” she’d caused.

“In Ireland, her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering,” he said in a statement.

She predicted in the early 1970s that no woman would lead the country in her lifetime. Before the decade ended, she had become the country’s first -- and so far only -- female prime minister.

Her rise from a grocer’s daughter to prime minister was dramatized in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady.” Meryl Streep won the best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of Thatcher both in office and in her declining years, as she began to suffer from dementia.

“In politics if you want anything said, ask a man,” Thatcher said in 1975. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

Born in Grantham

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on Oct. 13, 1925, in Grantham, a town in the east of England. She said her father’s small business was a seminal influence on her views, including her emphasis on prudent economic management.

During World War II, she graduated with a chemistry degree from Somerville College at the University of Oxford and worked as a research chemist.

In 1951, she married businessman Denis Thatcher and gave birth to twins, Carol and Mark, two years later. During the decade she trained as a tax lawyer while looking for a chance to get into Parliament. Denis Thatcher died in 2003, at age 88.

After losing her first election in 1950 and again the following year, Thatcher entered parliament in 1959 representing Finchley, a north London suburb. At the time she was one of 25 women in Parliament, 4 percent of the total.

Political Ladder

After putting her foot on the lowest rung of government as a parliamentary bag-carrier in 1961, she rose through the ranks once the Conservatives lost power in 1964, becoming one of its leading spokesmen in 1967. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1970, Thatcher, then 44, joined the Cabinet as secretary of state for education. She was the only woman around the Cabinet table, a situation she later perpetuated for all but one year of her 11 as prime minister. To cut costs, she abolished a government program that provided free milk in schools for children older than age 7, earning the nickname “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.”

The 1974 general election defeat of Prime Minister Edward Heath after a series of policy reversals left Conservative lawmakers ready for an alternative. Thatcher had begun to deal with some of her deficiencies, including a voice that the journalist Clive James described as being “like a cat sliding down a blackboard.” She challenged Heath for the party’s leadership in 1975 and won.

Car Bomb

She served as opposition leader for four years, formulating free-market economic policies influenced by Austrian philosopher Friedrich Hayek and University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Even in opposition she got a taste of the battles to come when, weeks before the 1979 general election, the Irish National Liberation Army used a car bomb to kill her friend, fellow lawmaker and former campaign manager Airey Neave.

The start of 1979 was dubbed “the winter of discontent.” Much of the country was in chaos, with those on strike including water and rail workers, truckers and oil tanker drivers, ambulance personnel and gravediggers, teachers, dock workers and garbage collectors. Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan considered declaring a state of emergency until colleagues persuaded him not to.

Under those circumstances, it wasn’t difficult for Thatcher to persuade voters it was time for a change in the May general election. Once in office, she faced the more difficult challenge of convincing government officials, and her own ministers, of the need to cut spending.

Documents from the time show that while Cabinet members agreed in principle to the need for 10 percent staff reductions, when asked to deliver them in their own departments, most resisted.

‘Fire, Fury’

Reluctant ministers weren’t the only focus of her ire. In 1980 she accused the governor of the Bank of England, Gordon Richardson, of blocking her policy of controlling money supply. One of his aides later recalled her “breathing fire and fury” during a meeting.

The country fell into recession in 1980, with gross domestic product contracting for five consecutive quarters.

As joblessness rose, Thatcher’s popularity plummeted. She didn’t flinch. Responding to calls from within her own party to change her policies, as Heath had done, she told the 1980 Conservative Party conference: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

Job Losses

One of her main domestic policies involved reducing the state’s role in the economy by privatizing state-owned companies. This, with her rejection of Keynesian stimulus policies in favor of a focus on controlling inflation, and a desire to cut the public-sector workforce, drove up joblessness. Unemployment reached 11.9 percent in the middle of the decade, still its highest-ever rate.

The Thatcher image of inflexibility, which has hardened into legend since she left office, isn’t borne out by government documents released in recent years. They show that in 1981 she considered giving up British involvement in Northern Ireland in the face of terrorism and hunger strikes, and in 1982 was willing to discuss peace terms with Argentina over its invasion of the Falkland Islands.

The Falklands War, over a group of islands in the South Atlantic populated by a few thousand people, could have cost Thatcher her job had Britain lost. Argentina had disputed Britain’s ownership of the islands for more than a century and in 1982 occupied them in the belief the U.K. wouldn’t attempt to retake them by force. In the face of doubts about whether such an operation could be successfully mounted, Thatcher dispatched a task force.

Argentine Surrender

After fighting that saw ships sunk on both sides and hand-to-hand fighting on the islands, the Argentine forces surrendered. The death toll included 255 British soldiers, 649 Argentinians and three women from the islands, killed accidentally by British fire.

Thatcher’s popularity soared. In 1983, she won a national election with a 143-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.

During her second term, she faced a new opponent in Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had helped organize the strike a decade earlier that brought down Heath. In 1984, he called a national strike to protest mine closures. Thatcher didn’t waver, outlasting a violent, yearlong dispute. She then implemented rules to curb unions’ power.

Privatization Program

She also sold state-owned companies, making Britain the first European country to engage in a major privatization effort. British Airways Plc, Centrica Plc, British Telecommunications Plc, BP Plc and BAE Systems Plc all traced their origins as public companies to the Thatcher government. Ordinary people were encouraged to buy the shares.

Thatcher also ordered the government to sell public housing units to its occupants, to create owner-occupiers, rather than tenants of the state.

A third election victory came in 1987, a feat not achieved since women gained the vote on equal terms in 1928. Thatcher took it as an endorsement to continue what she now regarded as her revolution of British economic and social life.

The economy rebounded, with annual GDP growth peaking at 6.7 percent in the first quarter of 1988. Growth in the U.K. mirrored the activity in much of western Europe during Thatcher’s term of office.

Poll Tax

Buoyed by the successes of her previous policies, she moved to change local property taxes, producing a plan for the so-called poll tax, a flat-rate levy on every resident.

Public protests, including riots in central London, triggered outcries even within the Conservative Party. In 1989, Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson resigned over disagreements with her on economic policy. In November 1990 Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe quit to protest Thatcher’s opposition to Europe’s single currency. Within days she had to fend off a challenge to lead the party waged by Michael Heseltine, another former Cabinet minister.

He failed to secure enough votes to unseat her, but she didn’t win outright. Thatcher resigned Nov. 28, 1990, the night before a second ballot, nominating John Major as her favored successor. Her tenure lasted 11 years, 209 days. Only four prime ministers in British history have served longer continuous terms.

Major won, and governed until 1997, when the Conservatives were defeated by Labour under Blair.

Successors Overshadowed

Thatcher’s status meant she effectively overshadowed the next three Conservative leaders: Major, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. When Michael Howard took over party leadership in 2003, she had retired from the public eye, and Cameron, elected in 2005, represented the final break, a young leader who entered Parliament 11 years after Thatcher left office.

The Labour Party was still using her image in campaign materials in Scotland, where she remains particularly unpopular, in the 2010 election. Cameron, unable to take seats in Scotland and Northern England, led the Tories back to power at that election, in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

In her 2002 book “Statecraft,” Thatcher repeated her opposition to European integration and the euro. It was her last contribution to public life. Citing the strokes she had suffered since 2001, her office announced on March 22, 2002, that she would stop giving speeches.

“If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing,” Thatcher once said.

She is survived by her two children. Her daughter Carol gained national attention in December 2005 when she won the reality television survival program “I’m a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here!” Her son, Mark, made headlines for his alleged funding of an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea, leading to his arrest in South Africa in August 2004. He agreed to pay a fine of 3 million rand ($330,000) as part of a plea-bargain settlement to spare him a possible prison term.

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