LONDON – Love her or loathe her, one thing’s beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.
The Iron Lady, who ruled for 11 remarkable years, imposed her will on a fractious, rundown nation – breaking the unions, triumphing in a far-off war and selling off state industries at a record pace. She left behind a leaner government and more prosperous nation by the time a political mutiny ousted her from No. 10 Downing Street.
Thatcher’s spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister died from a stroke Monday morning at the Ritz hotel in London.
As flags were flown at half-staff at Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Downing Street for the 87-year-old, praise for Thatcher and her leadership poured in from around the world.
“Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly was one of the most remarkable political figures of the modern world,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
Putin said Thatcher “made a significant contribution to the development of the Soviet-British and Russian-British ties, which we will always remember with gratitude.”
President Obama said many Americans “will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President (Ronald) Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history. We can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”
Queen Elizabeth II authorized a ceremonial funeral – a step short of a state funeral – to be held for Thatcher at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London next week with military honors.
Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a trip to Madrid and Paris to return to Britain after news of Thatcher’s death and said Parliament would be recalled from recess Wednesday so lawmakers could pay tribute.
For admirers, Thatcher was a savior who rescued Britain from ruin and laid the groundwork for an extraordinary economic renaissance. For critics, she was a heartless tyrant who ushered in an era of greed that kicked the weak out onto the streets and let the rich become filthy rich.
“Let us not kid ourselves. She was a very divisive figure,” said Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary for her entire term. “She was a real toughie. She was a patriot with a great love for this country, and she raised the standing of Britain abroad.”
Thatcher was the first – and still only – female prime minister in Britain’s history. But she often found feminists tiresome.
Her boxy, black handbag became such a recognizable part of her image that her way of dressing down ministers and opponents became known as “handbagging.”
A grocer’s daughter, she rose to the top of Britain’s snobbish hierarchy the hard way and envisioned a classless society that rewarded hard work and determination.
She was a trailblazer who at first believed trailblazing impossible: Thatcher told the Liverpool Daily Post in 1974 that she did not think a woman would serve as party leader or prime minister during her lifetime.
But once in power, she never showed an ounce of doubt.
Thatcher could be intimidating to those working for her. British diplomats sighed with relief on her first official visit to Washington, D.C., as prime minister to find that she was relaxed enough to enjoy a glass of whiskey and a half-glass of wine during an embassy lunch, according to official documents.
Thatcher seemed motivated by an unshakable belief that free markets would build a better country than reliance on a strong, central government. Another thing she shared with the American president: a tendency to reduce problems to their basics, choose a path, and follow it to the end, no matter what the opposition.
Thatcher was at her brashest when Britain was challenged. When Argentina’s military junta seized the remote Falkland Islands from Britain in 1982, she did not hesitate, even though her senior military advisers said it might not be feasible to reclaim the islands.
She simply would not allow Britain to be pushed around, particularly by military dictators, said Ingham, who recalls the Falklands War as the tensest period of Thatcher’s three terms in power. When diplomacy failed, she dispatched a military task force that accomplished her goal, despite the naysayers.
She trusted her gut instinct, famously concluding early on that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev represented a clear break in the Soviet tradition of autocratic rulers. She pronounced that the West could “do business” with him, a position that influenced Reagan’s vital dealings with Gorbachev in the twilight of the Soviet era.
It was heady stuff for a woman who had little training in foreign affairs when she triumphed over a weak field of indecisive Conservative Party candidates to take over the party leadership in 1975 and ultimately run as the party’s candidate for prime minister.
Britain seemed adrift, no longer a credible world power, falling from second- to third-tier status.
It was then, Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, that she came to the unshakable, almost mystical belief that only she could save Britain. She cited a deep “inner conviction” that this would be her role.
Events seemed to be moving her way when she led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979, with a commitment to reduce the state’s role and champion private enterprise.
She was underestimated at first – by her own party, by the media, later by foreign adversaries. But they all soon learned to respect her. Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” nickname was coined by Soviet journalists, a grudging testament to her ferocious will and determination.
She is perhaps best remembered for her hardline position during the pivotal strike in 1984 and 1985 when she faced down coal miners in an ultimately successful bid to break the power of Britain’s unions. It was a reshaping of the British economic and political landscape that endures to this day.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on Oct. 13, 1925. She learned the values of thrift, discipline and industry as the dutiful daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and Methodist lay preacher who eventually became the mayor of Grantham, a modest-sized town in Lincolnshire, 110 miles north of London.
Margaret Thatcher first won election to Parliament in 1959, representing Finchley in north London. She climbed the Conservative Party ladder quickly, joining the Cabinet as education secretary in 1970.
As prime minister, she sold off one state industry after another: British Telecom, British Gas, Rolls-Royce, British Airways, British Coal, British Steel, the water companies and the electricity distribution system among them. She was proud of her government’s role in privatizing some public housing, turning tenants into homeowners.
She survived an audacious 1984 assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army that nearly succeeded. The IRA detonated a bomb in her hotel in Brighton during a party conference, killing and injuring senior government figures but leaving the prime minister and her husband unharmed.
Thatcher won a third term in another landslide in 1987 but may have become overconfident.
She trampled over cautionary advice from her own ministers in 1989 and 1990 by imposing a hugely controversial “community charge” tax that was quickly dubbed a “poll tax” by opponents. It was designed to move Britain away from a property tax and instead imposed a flat rate tax on every adult except for retirees and people who were registered unemployed.
That decision may have been a sign that hubris was undermining Thatcher’s political acumen. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in London and other cities, leading to some of the worst riots in the British capital in more than a century.
Eight months after the riots, Thatcher was gone, struggling to hold back tears as she left Downing Street after being ousted by her own party.
It was a bitter end for Thatcher’s active political career – her family said she felt a keen sense of betrayal even years later. In 1992, she was appointed in the House of Lords, taking the title Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
She is survived by her two children, Mark Thatcher and Carol Thatcher, and her two grandchildren.