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Europe

Britain’s ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher dies at 87

© AFP

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2013-04-09

Margaret Thatcher, whose 11-year period as UK prime minister brought profound changes to the British way of life, has died aged 87 after suffering a stroke, her former spokesman said on Monday.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who led the UK as head of the Conservative Party from 1979 to 1990 and was responsible for profound changes to the country’s economic and political landscape, has died aged 87.

Her former spokesman Tim Bell said that Thatcher, known in her heyday as the “Iron Lady”, passed away on Monday morning after suffering a stroke.

Thatcher, who had been suffering faltering health for at least a decade, left a profound legacy from her bruising 11 years as prime minister and remains a contentious figure, loved and hated in equal measure.

For her admirers, Thatcher rescued the United Kingdom from the economic penury of the late 1970s and began a startling renaissance that turned the country into a financial powerhouse.

Detractors see her as a heartless tyrant whose legacy was a sense of greed and personal entitlement, the emasculation of the trade unions and a widening gap between the working classes and the country’s super-rich.

Following the announcement of her death, Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Britain has lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton.”

Queen Elizabeth II, who held weekly meetings with Thatcher throughout her time as Prime Minister, was “sad” at hearing the news, Buckingham Palace officials said.

Defiance

The United Kingdom Thatcher led when she first took office in 1979 was on the brink of economic ruin while the country’s fighting spirit ebbed amid endless strikes that marked the 1978 “Winter of Discontent”.

Having campaigned on a promise to reduce state involvement in public businesses and to liberalise private enterprise, the press and foreign adversaries quickly learned to respect her will and determination, and it was Soviet journalists who coined the term “Iron Lady”.

That will and determination was put to the test halfway through her first term in office in 1982, when the Argentinean Junta led by Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands, a disputed British territory in the South Atlantic.

Her military advisers told her that retaking the Islands would be a near impossible task. But Thatcher insisted, sending a taskforce that successfully defeated the Argentinean force.

“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.”

Victory in the South Atlantic all but guaranteed her 1983 election win, a landslide that saw her Conservative Party tripling its seats in parliament.

With a strong mandate, she was in a position to push her reform agenda more aggressively at a time when unemployment had doubled – to some three million - since she had taken office.

Her government sold off one state-owned business after the other, from British Telecom, British Coal, British Gas Rolls Royce, British Airways to the publicly-owned water and electricity utilities.

While the impact of these sell-offs gave British citizens of modest means an opportunity to buy shares in potentially lucrative newly-private enterprises, the reactions from employees facing uncertain futures led to protracted conflicts with the country’s powerful unions.

Thatcher is probably best-remembered for the hardline position she took during the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, in which she waged an ultimately successful battle to defeat the dominance of the unions, which fundamentally and permanently re-shaped Britain’s political and economic landscape.

Humble beginnings

Born Margaret Roberts in 1925, Thatcher grew up in the small Lincolnshire town of Grantham in the English East Midlands.

The daughter of a grocer, she lived in her family’s small flat above their shop and was heavily influenced by her father’s approach to running a business, becoming convinced that greater economic liberalism was the key to transforming Britain’s ailing post-war economy.

“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.”

Her liberal attitude towards business cemented Britain’s “Special Relationship” with the United States, marked by close personal relations with US president Ronald Reagan said to have been akin to a schoolgirl crush.

She also made an impact on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who would later oversee the demise of the USSR and the end of Cold War.

"Margaret Thatcher was a great politician and a bright individual,” Gorbachev told reporters on Monday, calling her death “sad news”.

"Our first meeting in 1984 gave the start to relations that were at times difficult, not always smooth, but which were serious and responsible for us both," he added. "Thatcher was a politician whose words carried great weight."

Downfall

Thatcher, who narrowly escaped death in an audacious 1984 IRA bomb attack on a Brighton hotel during her party’s annual conference, was at the apex of her power by the time she secured a third election victory in 1987.

But having tamed the unions and overseen an economic rival that placed the City of London on a par with New York as a hub for international finance, she may have become over-confident.

Against the advice of her own ministers in 1989 and 1990, Thatcher imposed a massively contentious “community charge” that was dubbed the “poll tax”, a flat-rate levy to be imposed on all adults that was designed to replace the UK’s Council taxes which are based on property values.

Tens of thousands of Britons took to the streets, climaxing with a huge protest in March 1990 that saw London’s Trafalgar Square turned into a battleground.

The effect of this was to convince Conservative Ministers that to ensure their party stayed in office, Thatcher had to be removed.

Eight months later, Thatcher left 10 Downing Street in tears after a leadership challenge by her ministers fatally undermined her credibility as prime minister. She was succeeded by John Major and was made a life peer two years later.

In the following years, Thatcher wrote bestselling memoirs and worked on the international lecture circuit before suffering a series of strokes in 2002.

Her health deteriorated and her last years were marked by increasing senility. He husband Sir Denis Thatcher died in 2003. She is survived by her two children, Mark and Carol Thatcher, and her grandchildren.

 

Date created : 2013-04-08

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