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 today. She was 87.
“She had a stroke this morning and died peacefully,” her spokesman, Tim Bell, told Sky News television. “We’ll never see the like of her again. She was one of the great prime ministers of all times. She transformed people’s lives.”
When Thatcher took office in 1979, Britain’s trade unions were strong enough to knock out party leaders they opposed, and key industries, including utilities, 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.
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 struggled to adapt to the new service economy.
“She was, quite simply, one of the most influential political leaders that the U.K., indeed the world, has ever produced,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of “The Conservative Party From Thatcher To Cameron” (2010).
Thatcher was defined by the battles she took on: she waged war against Argentina, clashed with striking miners and forced fellow leaders to cut Britain’s financial contributions to the forerunner of the European Union.Attempted Assassination
She survived an assassination attempt in 1984 when the Irish Republican Army bombed her hotel in Brighton during her Conservative Party’s annual conference, killing five people. She stuck to her schedule and addressed party members the following morning.
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,” Bale said. “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.‘Always Frank’
“Margaret was always frank and forthright in her dealings with us,” Reagan wrote in the National Review in 1989. “Generally, she and I agreed with each other. Whether we agreed or not, however, I knew that her advice came from someone who was a friend of the American people and who shared the same basic outlook. We place the same high value on freedom.”
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.”
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.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 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.‘Iron Lady’
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.”
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.Enters Parliament
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.
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, 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.”Opposition Leader
The 1974 general election defeat of Prime Minister Edward Heath after a series of policy reverses 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.
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.Persuading Voters
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.
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.Privatizing Industries
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.”
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, carried a high cost in terms of jobs. Unemployment reached 11.9 percent in the middle of the decade, still its highest-ever level.
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.Popularity Soars
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.
After fierce fighting, which 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 woman 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.Miners’ Strike
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.
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. To further expand the middle class, Thatcher ordered the government to sell public housing units to its occupants, to create owner- occupiers, rather than tenants of the state.Poll Tax
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.
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 against the policy, 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 with whom she had quarreled.Stepping Down
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 the Labour Party under Tony Blair.
Thatcher’s status meant she effectively overshadowed the next three Conservative leaders: Major, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. When Michael Howard took over the party leadership in 2003, she had retired from the public eye, and David 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.Last Contribution
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 as part of a plea-bargain settlement to spare him a possible prison term.