Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter whose overpowering personality, bruising political style and free-market views transformed Britain and transfixed America through the 1980s, died Monday after a stroke, her spokesman said in a statement. She was 87.
The first woman to lead a major Western power, Thatcher served 11 1/2 uninterrupted years in office before stepping down Nov. 28, 1990, making her the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.
Infuriated by Britain’s image as the “sick old man of Europe,” she set out to dismantle Britain’s cradle-to-grave welfare state, selling off scores of massive state-owned industries, crushing the power of organized labor and cutting government spending with the purpose of liberating the nation from what she called a “culture of dependency.”
On the world stage, she collaborated closely with her friend Ronald Reagan to modernize Europe’s anti-Soviet nuclear shield by deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Britain, a costly and controversial enterprise that some analysts would later say contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Thatcher then joined Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, in repelling Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, counseling Bush not to go “wobbly” on her.
She fought her own war as well, dispatching an armada to retake by force a colonial outpost off South America – the Falkland Islands – after it was invaded by Argentina in 1982. At the same time, she negotiated the end of Britain’s lease over another colonial relic, Hong Kong.
“It was with great sadness that I learned of Lady Thatcher’s death,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement Monday. “We’ve lost a great leader, a great Prime Minister and a great Briton.”
During her career, Thatcher was frequently at war with consensus, which she disdained as the abandonment of “all beliefs, principles, values and policies.” At a low point in her popularity ratings, facing a clamor for change from her own party members, she gave a defiant response: “You turn if you want to,” she declared. “This lady’s not for turning.”
While unapologetically advancing what she considered the Victorian values that made Britain great, Thatcher thoroughly modernized British politics, deploying ad agencies and large sums of money to advance her party’s standing. “The Iron Lady,” as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs. No one denied her political genius. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair eventually copied her methods to remake the rival Labor Party.
She was, wrote Conservative Party contemporary Chris Patten, “a political bruiser who understood the importance of an element of fear in political leadership. … While denouncing the notion that politics was the art of the possible, that is exactly what she practiced, albeit skillfully and bravely redefining the limits of political possibility.”
“Her huge political achievement was to snatch the Conservative Party from the privileged but often well meaning old upper-class gentlemen, and give it to the shopkeepers, the businessmen, the people in advertising and anyone she considered ‘one of us,'” writer John Mortimer, a staunch critic, wrote of Thatcher. “She greatly improved her party’s electability but robbed it of compassion.”
Born above grocer’s shop
She was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on Oct. 13, 1925, above her father’s grocery shop in Grantham, England. It was an era when no woman held any position of significant national authority anywhere in the world and few Britons, male or female, could contemplate rising to the top politically if not born there in the first place.
But, in Alfred Roberts, she had a father who groomed her for leadership nevertheless. In addition to running grocery, he was a lay Methodist preacher and a politician committed to the Conservative Party, serving as alderman and mayor.
He began preparing his daughter for leadership before she was 10. Lacking formal education himself, he enrolled the future prime minister at an elite local girls school. He filled the household with politically oriented newspapers and books. He brought her to lectures and prompted her to stand up and ask questions.
She attended Oxford’s Somerville College, a women’s school, majored in chemistry and became president of the Oxford University Conservative Association, where she made useful party contacts.
At 23, she won the Tory candidacy for an unwinnable seat in Dartford. It was the first of several predictable defeats before she was selected, in 1958, to run from the solidly Conservative constituency of Finchley, north of London. Finchley sent her to the House of Commons.
By then, Margaret Roberts had married Denis Thatcher, a successful paint dealer and Conservative activist. Ten years her senior and previously married, he financed her training in law and her entry into practice with a specialty in tax law. The couple had twins, Mark and Carol, in 1953.
Denis Thatcher died in 2003. Survivors include the twins, according to the statement by her spokesman, Lord Tim Bell.
‘Thatcher the uncaring’
When Thatcher arrived at the House of Commons, the Conservatives were in power but philosophically divided. The core conflict within the party, as Thatcher saw it, was between people such as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who had come to terms with socialism as part of a “postwar settlement,” and those such as Thatcher, who had not.
She relied on ferocious preparation, study and attention to detail to get noticed by party leaders. In October 1961, they plucked her from the backbenches of the House of Commons and made her parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Pensions, the lowest rung on the ladder to leadership. In 1970, after a Conservative general election victory, she ascended to the Ministry of Education.
Here was born the image of “Thatcher the uncaring” that would follow her throughout her career. Amid cuts in public spending prompted by the economic downturn of the 1970s, Thatcher was ordered by the Treasury to eliminate, among other things, free milk in schools. “Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher,” cried the tabloids.
“It was the incident that made her a truly famous politician,” wrote biographer Hugo Young. “Somehow it struck a deeper chord. It was a piece of seemingly gratuitous deprivation that conformed with the image of severity and adamant righteousness which was beginning to become Thatcher’s stock-in-trade.”
Thatcher developed a close intellectual relationship with Keith Joseph, a wealthy Conservative MP and intellectual who in 1974 challenged former Prime Minister Heath for party leadership. Thatcher was Joseph’s campaign manager. He proved a clumsy campaigner and dropped out, leaving Thatcher to carry on in his place. On a second ballot Thatcher became Britain’s first female leader of the opposition. To many Tories, she was a placeholder, awaiting a suitable male insider as choice for party leader and possibly prime minister.
The Labor government that came to office after the 1974 election oversaw a long period of crippling inflation, strikes and disaffection that came to be called Britain’s “winter of discontent.” Thatcher bided her time, then, on May 4, 1979, took advantage of public dissatisfaction to lead the Conservatives to a general election victory. She took up residence in No. 10 Downing Street.
The first years of her administration went badly. Her government’s attempt to tame inflation by boosting interest rates and sales taxes produced even higher inflation and unemployment. The Irish Republican Army staged dramatic acts of terrorism, killing, among others, the war hero Lord Mountbatten and dozens of British soldiers and engaging in fatal hunger strikes that served to highlight the government’s inability to end the sectarian troubles of Northern Ireland.
In 1984, Thatcher was nearly a victim of the IRA herself — a bomb that the group planted devastated a Brighton hotel where she was staying during a party conference, killing five people and injuring 34. She emerged unhurt and went on to give a rousing speech of denunciation.
At other times, she quarreled with Cabinet members, frustrated that she had not felt politically able to install true-blue Thatcherites in most jobs, politicians whom she would come to call “one of us.” In December 1981, satisfaction with her leadership reached a new low, 25 percent, in public opinion polls.
Then, in the spring of 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.
Thatcher responded with fury, dispatching a large naval task force to South America and making statements that seemed designed to discourage compromise by effectively calling for Argentina’s unconditional surrender.
“No one would be more pleased than I should be if either President Leopoldo Galtieri or the commander of their local garrison should say, ‘This is absurd that we should sacrifice our young people in this way and we will not fight further,’ ” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
She personally approved a British submarine’s sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, in which more than 300 Argentine sailors died. The attack came as the vessel was sailing away from the British naval task force, and critics charged that it was done to block any compromise settlement.
After British ground forces landed on the islands, the Argentines surrendered in June 1982.
Thatcher heralded a “new spirit” for her country. “Things cannot be the same again,” she declared. “For we have learned something about ourselves … a lesson which we desperately needed to learn. When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthearts. The people who thought that Britain could no longer seize the initiative for herself.”
Some of her colleagues found her performance distasteful, “a little too triumphant,” her defense minister, John Nott, would say later. But the Falklands campaign revived Thatcher’s popularity and sped her toward a second general election, in June 1983.
After that, Thatcher repeatedly invoked “the spirit of the Falklands” as she waged war on “the enemy within,” the nation’s trade unions. Her target was the National Union of Mineworkers, led by a symbol of militant unionism, “King” Arthur Scargill.
In 1984, the Thatcher stared down striking coal miners as she closed government-owned coal mines across the country, deeply dividing and weakening the labor movement and undermining her political opposition.
Gushing over Reagan
When Thatcher took office, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Although the two had a polite relationship, she gushed over Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 election. “I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did,” she wrote, “not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature.”
Thatcher also held to the long-standing British view that a close relationship with the United States was crucial strategically in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Over considerable domestic opposition, she collaborated with Reagan in deploying U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles. The Soviets could not counter that move, which, in the view of some analysts, advanced later negotiations for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987.
“All over Europe the peace marchers demonstrated to prevent Western missiles from being installed for their defense,” Reagan wrote in 1989 article in the National Review, “but they were silent about the Soviet missiles targeted against them! Again, in the face of these demonstrations, Margaret never wavered.”
She befriended Mikhail Gorbachev even before he became Soviet leader, believing she had found someone with whom she could “do business,” and later served as an intermediary between Reagan and Gorbachev.
Reagan and Thatcher did not always agree, however. The Reagan administration was slow to support Britain in the Falklands. And Thatcher was furious and deeply embarrassed at home when the Reagan administration failed to warn her in advance of its 1983 invasion of Grenada, a British Commonwealth nation.
The Conservatives won a third general election in 1987, but with a narrower majority. Thatcher’s relationships with senior ministers deteriorated dramatically, as arguments flared first over her resistance to further integration with Europe and then over a botched plan to restructure local taxes as part of her effort to disempower local governments.
As she and her Cabinet squabbled over the “poll tax” and scattered rioting broke out across the country, the party’s popularity plummeted.
Thatcher, isolated, badly underestimated the strength of an emerging challenge to her leadership and left London for a summit in Paris, where she remained even as a first ballot was taken among Conservative MPs in the battle for her job. She won, but not by the margin necessary to prevent the second ballot that could seal her fate.
When she returned to London, even her husband advised her that she could no longer prevail. Then, one by one, she spoke with members of her Cabinet, who to a man told her that though they were loyal, others were not.
“Weasel words,” she would call them in her memoir.
On Nov. 22, 1990, she announced her withdrawal and informed Queen Elizabeth II.
Thatcher remained in the House of Commons for another two years before accepting an appointment, as Baroness Thatcher, to the House of Lords.
Her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, later wrote: “There was a void opening up. … She’d no interests outside politics. … When you’d spent all that time not just strategizing, but mastering detail in a way that was quite frightening … every waking moment was filled. Now, it was all pure pleasantry and commiseration.”
After leaving office, Thatcher embarked on a series of speaking tours that garnered her $50,000 per speech in the United States. She controversially performed consulting duties for $250,000 per year with Philip Morris, the tobacco company.
She wrote memoirs that, along with her occasional comments in the British press, served to undermine her Conservative successor, John Major, who was already confronting a party deeply divided over Britain’s role in Europe. Tony Blair’s Labor Party defeated the Conservatives in 1997.
Thatcher’s public appearances came to an end when she suffered a series of debilitating strokes in 2002.
Her last turn in the global spotlight was in June 2004 at Washington National Cathedral, at Reagan’s funeral. Draped in a black veil, Thatcher sat two rows behind first lady Nancy Reagan and next to Gorbachev. Her touching eulogy to Reagan was delivered on a video screen, as she sat silently in her chair.
© 2013, The Washington Post