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The woman who remade Britain

In her 11 years in power,Margaret Thatcher transformed the UK’s way of thinking about its economic and political life

In her 11 years in power,Margaret Thatcher transformed the UK’s way of thinking about its economic and political life
Joseph R. Gregory

Margaret Thatcher,the “Iron Lady” of British politics who pulled her country back from 35 years of socialism,led it to victory in the Falklands War and helped guide the US and the Soviet Union through the Cold War’s difficult last years,died Monday. She was 87.

She was the first woman to become prime minister of Britain and the first to lead a major Western power in modern times. Hard driving and hardheaded,she led her Conservative Party to three straight election victories and held office for 11½ years — May 1979 to November 1990 — longer than any British politician in the 20th century. The tough economic medicine she administered to a country sickened by inflation,budget deficits and industrial unrest brought her wide swings in popularity,culminating with a revolt among her own cabinet ministers in her final year and her shout of “No! No! No!’’ in the House of Commons to any further integration with Europe.

But by the time she left office,the principles known as Thatcherism — the belief that economic freedom and individual liberty are interdependent,that personal responsibility and hard work are the only ways to national prosperity,and that the free-market democracies must stand firm against aggression — had won many disciples. Even some of her strongest critics accorded her a grudging respect.

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At home,Thatcher’s political successes were decisive. She broke the power of the labour unions and forced the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to nationalised industry,redefine the role of the welfare state and accept the importance of the free market. Abroad,she won new esteem for a country that had been in decline since its costly victory in World War II. But during her first years in power,even many Tories feared that her election might prove a terrible mistake.

In October 1980,17 months into her first term,PM Thatcher faced disaster. More businesses were failing and more people were out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. Racial and class tensions smouldered so ominously that even close advisors worried that her push to stanch inflation,sell off nationalised industry and deregulate the economy was devastating the poor,undermining the middle class and courting chaos.

At the Conservative Party conference that month,the moderates grumbled that they were being led by a free-market ideologue oblivious to life on the street and the exigencies of realpolitik. With electoral defeat staring them in the face,cabinet members warned,now was surely a time for compromise. To Thatcher,they could not have been more wrong. “I am not a consensus politician,” she had often declared. “I am a conviction politician.”

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In an address to the party,she played on the title of Christopher Fry’s popular play “The Lady’s Not for Burning” in insisting that she would press forward with her policies. “Turn if you like,” she told the faltering assembly. “The lady’s not for turning.” Her tough stance did the trick. A party revolt was thwarted,the Tories hunkered down,and Thatcher went on to achieve great victories. She turned the Conservatives,long associated with the status quo,into the party of reform. Her policies revitalised British business,spurred industrial growth and swelled the middle class.

But her third term was riddled with setbacks. Dissension over monetary policy,taxes and Britain’s place in the European Community (it would later become the European Union) caused her government to give up hard-won gains against inflation and unemployment. By the time she was ousted in another Tory revolt — this time over her resistance to expanding Britain’s role in a European union — the economy was in a recession and her reputation tarnished.

To her enemies she was — as Denis Healey,chancellor of the exchequer in Harold Wilson’s government,called her — “La pasionaria of privilege,” a woman who railed against the evils of poverty but who was callous and unsympathetic to the plight of the have-nots. Her policies,opponents said,were cruel and shortsighted,widened the gap between rich and poor and worsened the plight of the poorest.

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Her relentless hostility to the Soviet Union and her persistent call to modernise Britain’s nuclear forces fed fears of nuclear war and even worried moderates in her own party. It also caught the Kremlin’s attention. After a hard-line speech in 1976,the official Soviet news agency Tass gave her a sobriquet of which she was proud: the Iron Lady. Yet when she saw an opening,she proved willing to bend. She was one of the first Western leaders to recognise that the Soviets would soon be led by a new generation,Mikhail S. Gorbachev,and invited him to Britain. He visited Chequers,the prime minister’s country estate,in December 1984,three months before he came to power. “I like Mr. Gorbachev,” she declared. “We can do business together.”

Her rapport with the new Soviet leader and her friendship with US President Ronald Reagan made her a vital link between the White House and the Kremlin in their tense negotiations to halt the arms race of the 1980s. Brisk and argumentative,she was rarely willing to concede a point and loath to compromise. Colleagues who disagreed with her were often deluged in a sea of facts,or what many referred to as being “handbagged.”

“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar,a playwright and speechwriter for the PM. “To some she could do no right,to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option.”

First published on: 09-04-2013 at 12:24:29 am
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