Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Britain's 'Iron Lady' never backed down

Fought long and hard to transform her beloved nation

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Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the grocer's daughter whose overpowering personality, bruising political style and free-market views transformed Britain 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 111/2 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 labour 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 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, counselling 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,'' U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said. "We've lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton."

"She was not just a great leader for Britain, but she was really one of those people who will be a truly historic figure, remembered for centuries to come," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a news conference.

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 clamour 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.

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.

She married Denis Thatcher, a successful paint dealer and Conservative activist, in 1951 and had twins -- Mark and Carol -- in 1953. Denis Thatcher died in 2003.

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 pensions ministry, the lowest rung on the ladder to leadership. In 1970, after a Conservative general election victory, she ascended to the education ministry.

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.

The Labour 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.

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.

She personally approved a British submarine's sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, in which more than 300 Argentine sailors died.

After British ground forces landed on the islands, the Argentines surrendered in June 1982.

Some of her colleagues found her performance distasteful, "a little too triumphant," her defence 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.

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 in her memoir, "not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature."

Thatcher also held to the long-standing British view a close relationship with the United States was crucial strategically in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

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.

On Nov. 22, 1990, she announced her withdrawal and informed Queen Elizabeth II. After leaving office, Thatcher embarked on a series of speaking tours.

Her public appearances came to an end when she suffered a series of debilitating strokes in 2002.

 

-- The Washington Post, with files from The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 A6

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 8:41 AM CDT: adds fact box

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