Share story

As word of Margaret Thatcher’s death spread Monday, her successor several times removed, Prime Minister David Cameron, cut short a trip to Spain intended to address what had been among her greatest concerns — British suspicions about deeper ties with Europe.

Mrs. Thatcher, 87, who was Britain’s first female prime minister, had been in poor health for months and had dementia. She died after a stroke.

Mrs. Thatcher’s imprint on the politics and economics of her nation, Europe and the world extended well beyond her proud nationalism. The approach she imposed on a divided and reluctant Britain, starting with her election as prime minister in 1979, continues to echo even at her death.

It was built on a faith in market forces and skepticism or even hostility to the fiscal and social costs of the welfare state cherished by much of Europe.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Along with President Reagan, with whom she helped define modern conservatism, Mrs. Thatcher developed a strain of capitalism that became dominant around the world with the fall of communism. But she also unraveled social compacts in ways that many societies have yet to come to grips with.

Even on the day of her death, leaders and citizens around the world were enmeshed in emotional debates over her legacy.

She transformed Britain, imposing sweeping privatization and deregulation, and unleashing acquisitive, entrepreneurial passions among her compatriots that still seem to make continental Europeans uncomfortable.

She also passionately defended her view of Britain as a significant power in the world, independent of the 27-nation European Union.

Abroad, she won new esteem for a country that had been in decline since its costly victory in World War II. After leaving office, she was honored as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. But during her first years in power, even many Tories feared her election might prove a terrible mistake.

Her funeral, with full military honors, is to take place next week at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Officials said the arrangements will be similar to those of Diana, princess of Wales, whose coffin was carried through crowds in London in 1997 on a horse-drawn caisson with a military honor guard.

Unlike Diana, Margaret Thatcher was not universally beloved.

Polarized reactions

Around the world, as in Europe, the response to her death appeared to oscillate between similar poles. Many foreign leaders and commentators spoke about her as President Obama did, as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty,” and as an example to women that “there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.”

But the commemorations were accompanied, too, by more acerbic, even vitriolic, remembrances from those, particularly on the political left, who saw her as a destructive figure, who had ruptured the economic and social fabric of postwar Britain and left a country that was more divided, more selfish, and, for the have-nots, more resentful than at any time in its recent history.

Speaking to the BBC, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Mrs. Thatcher was a “great leader” and a “good friend of the United States.” She was known particularly for her close working relationship alliance with Reagan, with whom she shared a profound ideological rejection of Cold War communism.

But she also won the respect of some interlocutors in Moscow, notably Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who described her on Monday as “a politician whose word carried great weight.”

“Our first meeting in 1984 marked the beginning of a relationship that was at times difficult, not always smooth, but was treated seriously and responsibly by both sides,” Gorbachev, 82, said, according to Reuters. “We gradually developed personal relations that became increasingly friendly. In the end, we were able to achieve mutual understanding, and this contributed to a change in the atmosphere between our country and the West and to the end of the Cold War.”

The ideological divisiveness of her legacy in office was also evident in reactions to the news of her death. Paul Kenny, a labor union leader, said Mrs. Thatcher would be “remembered by many for the destructive and divisive policies she reigned over.”

She broke the power of the labor unions and forced the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to nationalized industry, redefine the role of the welfare state and accept the importance of the free market.

In October 1980, 17 months into her first term, Mrs. 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 smoldered so ominously that even close advisers worried that her push to stanch inflation, sell off nationalized 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 they were being led by a free-market ideologue oblivious to life on the street. With electoral defeat staring them in the face, Cabinet members warned, now was surely a time for compromise.

To Mrs. Thatcher, they could not be more wrong. “I am not a consensus politician,” she often declared. “I am a conviction politician.”

But her third term was riddled with setbacks. Dissension over monetary policy, taxes and Britain’s place in the European Community 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.

Despite her being the first woman to lead a major political party in the West, she rubbed many feminists the wrong way. “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won,” she declared. “I hate those strident tones we hear from some women’s libbers.”

Her father’s daughter

Born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, 100 miles north of London, she lived with her family in a cold-water flat above a grocery store owned by her father, Alfred, the son of a shoemaker. Alfred Roberts was a Methodist lay preacher and local politician, and he and his wife, Beatrice, reared Margaret and her older sister, Muriel, to follow the tenets of Methodism: personal responsibility, hard work and traditional moral values.

Margaret learned politics at her father’s knee, joining him as he campaigned as an independent candidate for alderman and borough councilman.

At Somerville College, Oxford, she studied chemistry, then worked as a chemical researcher and studied law.

At 23 she was selected to be a Conservative Party candidate for Parliament. She married Denis Thatcher, a well-to-do businessman and former artillery officer, in 1951, and they later had twins.

She was admitted to the bar and came to specialize in patent and tax law, achieving financial independence so she could devote herself to politics.

Mrs. Thatcher was elected to the House of Commons in 1959 from the largely middle-class Finchley district in North London.

When the Conservatives ousted Labour Party leader Harold Wilson as the economy grew more feeble and the unions more militant in1970, Tory leader Edward Heath appointed Mrs. Thatcher secretary for education. Her efforts to restrict a program that provided free milk to schoolchildren made her a national figure. The tabloids labeled her “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.”

In 1974, the Conservative Party revised its rules for choosing a leader and Mrs. Thatcher, in what many regarded as an act of political gall, declared her candidacy. One British bookmaker put the odds against her at 50-1, but on Feb. 11, 1975, she defeated the other contenders, all male.

By the mid-1970s, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Nearly half the average taxpayer’s income went to the state, which now determined compensation for a third of the nation’s workforce: those employed by nationalized industries.

For the next four years, as Labour ran the country, she fought to reshape her party based on the ideas of conservative economists Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. Hayek believed that political and economic freedom were inseparable; Friedman argued that economic productivity and inflation were determined by the amount of money the government put into the economy.

In late 1978 and early ’79, strikes paralyzed Britain.

On election day 1979, the Tories walked away with 43.9 percent of the vote. Labour received 37 percent and the Liberals 13.8 percent.

Mrs. Thatcher moved swiftly. “I came to office with one deliberate intent,” she later said. “To change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation.”

It was a painful beginning. Income-tax cuts balanced by rising gasoline duties and sales taxes fueled inflation. Unemployment spread as she slashed subsidies to faltering industries. Tight money policies drove up interest rates to as high as 22 percent, strengthening the pound, hobbling investment at home and hurting competitiveness overseas. A record 10,000 businesses went bankrupt. Saying it would take years to cure Britain of the havoc wrought by socialism, Mrs. Thatcher warned, “Things will get worse before they get better.”

In summer 1981 — the same one in which Charles, the Prince of Wales, married Diana Spencer — discontent boiled over into days of rioting in the London district of Brixton and in the inner cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and many other areas. Televised reports of rioting, arson and looting shocked the nation.

Resisting advisers who counseled more social spending and jobs programs, Mrs. Thatcher called for greater police powers. Yet, amid national shame over the violence, she was forced to give way.

There were other compromises. The government retreated from its declaration that state industries must sink or swim in the free market and came to the aid of British Airways and British Steel.

Mrs. Thatcher later said that 1981 was her worst year in office. But by spring 1982, things were looking up. Inflation was falling; so was the value of the pound, which gave a boost to Britain’s exports and, along with tax cuts, began to feed economic growth.

Then on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.

British settlers had lived on those remote islands in the South Atlantic, long claimed by Argentina, since the 1820s. Negotiations over their future had dragged on for years when the Argentine military junta under Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, eager to divert attention from economic and social unrest, moved to take the Falklands by force, gambling that Argentine forces would never be ousted.

As the U.S. and other allies pushed for talks to avoid bloodshed, Mrs. Thatcher ordered a Royal Navy fleet to the South Atlantic. In a 10-week war, the British retook the islands in fighting that left some 250 British servicemen and more than 1,000 Argentines dead. The victory doomed Argentina’s military government and cemented Mrs. Thatcher’s reputation as a leader to be reckoned with.

In 1980, she and President Carter had agreed to deploy U.S. intermediate-range cruise missiles in Britain in response to a Soviet arms buildup in Eastern Europe. Under Reagan, who succeeded Carter the next year, the United States, with Mrs. Thatcher’s support, persuaded other European allies to deploy the missiles. The arms buildups ignited demonstrations across Western Europe.

It was an axiom of British politics that one never picked a quarrel with the pope or the National Union of Mineworkers. Mrs. Thatcher flouted it. The coal mines, nationalized in 1947, were widely seen as unprofitable, overstaffed and obsolescent, and in 1984 the government announced plans to shut down several mines and to eliminate 20,000 of the industry’s 180,000 jobs.

In response, Arthur Scargill, the Marxist president of the union, used union rules to elude a rank-and-file vote and, on March 6, 1984, called a walkout.

It was a violent strike. Night after night, the television news broadcast images of hundreds of miners and police battling.
The strike finally ended in March 1985, after 362 days, without a settlement.

Mrs. Thatcher now pushed harder to fulfill her vision of “popular capitalism.” The sale of state-owned industries shifted some 900,000 jobs to the private sector. More than 1 million public-housing units were sold to their occupants. And chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, announced in 1985 that for the first time since the 1960s, the Treasury would not require deficit spending in its next fiscal budget.

Working abroad

Across the Atlantic, Reagan cheered Britain’s turnaround. He and Mrs. Thatcher did not always agree; he thought she was too reluctant on cutting taxes, while she was wary of his casual disregard over rising federal deficits. When Reagan, without warning the British, ordered troops to invade Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth, after a Communist coup, Mrs. Thatcher gave him a dressing down. Nevertheless, the Reagan-Thatcher axis was an enduring alliance.

On the evening of Oct. 12, 1984, as she worked on a speech in her hotel room, a bomb exploded on the floor below, killing four people and wounding more than 30. The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility. The next day Mrs. Thatcher addressed the party as scheduled, declaring, “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

Despite the violence, Northern Ireland was not high on her agenda. She saw the troubles there as intractable and her policies as simply preserving the status quo.

She was more flexible over South Africa. Though she regarded institutionalized racism as repugnant, she initially refused to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, arguing that apartheid would ultimately be undone by greater trade and the yearnings for democracy that come with it. But pressured by other Commonwealth countries, she grudgingly reversed herself and endorsed some sanctions.

On Nov. 20, as the prime minister was attending a summit meeting in Paris, the Tories, rife with internal dissension over a stumbling economy and policy missteps, chose a new party leader: the soft-spoken chancellor of the Exchequer, John Major, a Thatcher protégé. When someone remarked that her colleagues had done an awful turn, she replied, “We’re in politics, dear.”

During her final months in office, she had bolstered President George H.W. Bush in his efforts to build a U.N. coalition to oppose Iraq after it invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. “Remember, George,” she is said to have told him, “this is no time to go wobbly.”

In retirement, she continued to call for firmness in the face of aggression, advocating intervention to stop the ethnic bloodshed in the Balkans in the early 1990s. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she endorsed President George W. Bush’s policy of sanctioning pre-emptive strikes against governments that sponsored terrorism. She also backed the war to oust the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

By then, according to her daughter, Mrs. Thatcher had begun to show signs of the dementia that would overtake her and become, to much criticism, the focus of “Iron Lady,” a 2011 film about her with Meryl Streep in the title role.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.