Farewell to the Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013)
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980, during her first term in office. She died of a stroke on April 8, 2013, at the age of 87
Whatever you thought of Margaret Thatcher — during an unbroken stretch in office from 1979 to ’90, the former Prime Minister, who died on April 8 after a stroke at the age of 87, attracted both passionate support and deep loathing — you never doubted her force of will. The Iron Lady showed her mettle again and again, wrenching Britain, often brutally, out of a malaise and sense of all-encompassing failure that had blighted it for much of the era after the end of World War II. This meant not only facing down opponents but also critics in her own party, who ran scared as the strong economic medicine she prescribed sickened swaths of voters. “To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say,” she declared at the 1980 Conservative Party conference. “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”
Britain keeps state papers secret for 30 years. A trove released at the end of 2011 revealed a leader who might have been more sensitive to public opinion, and counterarguments, than legend suggests. In July 1981 she authorized secret contacts with Irish republicans to try to halt the hunger strike by Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners that would see 10 of their number starve themselves to death. During the same month she fended off hard-liners in her Cabinet who proposed consigning the riot-torn city of Liverpool to “managed decline.” But these stirrings — of conscience or pragmatism — also prove that she was prepared to override resistance from those closest to her. Indeed, her peremptory manner with her own colleagues attracted the attention of Britain’s inspired satirical TV puppetry show, Spitting Image. In one sketch Thatcher and her Cabinet are seated in a restaurant. She orders raw steak. “And what about the vegetables?” the waiter inquires. “Oh, they’ll have the same as me,” Thatcher replies.
A Boudicca, she led her nation into battle in the Falkland Islands and fought off attempts to draw the U.K. into a closer political embrace with Europe. “She has the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,” observed French President François Mitterrand, revealing the queasy mixture of antipathy and attraction she stirred in many of her male associates.
Ronald Reagan’s feelings for his helmet-haired, be-handbagged friend in Westminster were more clear-cut. She was his ideological soul mate and theirs was a truly special relationship. Together they reinvigorated political conservatism, and by refusing to believe that history moved in only one direction, led a challenge to Soviet communism that in the end saw its fall.
As the first female Premier not only of Britain but also of any leading industrial democracy, she forged a template by which women anywhere might measure their ambitions. At the time, many of us in the U.K. found it impossible to savor her achievements. Most brands of feminism held that women were (at least) as capable as men of governing, but there was also an anticipation that we would bring different qualities to the job, not least empathy for the underdog, a consensual approach and a determination to do right by the sisterhood. Thatcher appeared to glory in her utter lack of these instincts, stigmatizing the poor as work-shy, decrying consensus politics as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies” and averring “I owe nothing to women’s lib.” In 2009, I mentioned to a friend, who had also lived through Thatcher’s polarizing reign, that I had just encountered our old bête noire at a party. More than a quarter of a century had elapsed since we had marched down a street chanting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, out, out!” but my friend reacted with undiminished hostility. “Why didn’t you punch the old bag?” she snarled.
In truth I had long since revised my views of “Maggie.” You can argue that her economic reforms ought to have been introduced with greater care for their social impact, but not about whether most of them were necessary. The history of Thatcherism is also a history of the failure of the left to articulate any viable alternative. This analysis was shared by Tony Blair, who was able to build on Thatcher’s economic legacy after remodeling the Labour Party into an electable force.
But even if I still harbored resentments, the frail woman I encountered at the U.S. ambassador to London’s Christmas drinks evoked quite different emotions. A year previously, her daughter had publicly confirmed that her mother was suffering from dementia; the initial symptoms appeared in 2000. I first saw the evidence of this deterioration at a photo shoot for TIME in 2006. A devoted assistant and a brace of security officers ushered a woman with disheveled hair and a crumpled face into the studio. As the hairdresser and makeup artist plied their skills, so the familiar, imposing figure emerged and with this transformation came renewed clarity and a graciousness that endeared her to the team working on the shoot. The only residual sign of her decline was her unshakeable conviction that Mikhail Gorbachev would shortly join us, no matter how many times I assured her he would not.
This was not simply the dementia talking. There had never been a plan to photograph the former leaders together, but TIME had photographed Gorbachev the day before, for an issue of the magazine featuring the Europeans who had done most to shape the world in the 20th century. Even before President Reagan, Thatcher spotted in Gorbachev, who became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, “a man we can do business with.” She helped persuade a skeptical Washington that glasnost and perestroika were for real, and that some at least in Moscow had understood that their bankrupt society could not continue in the ways that it had done before. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Europe’s annus mirabilis, she had her vindication.
Yet in a curious sense, the end of the Cold War was also her political undoing. She would not accept, as her contemporaries Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl did, that a new, post-Soviet architecture was needed in Europe. As the U.S. gratefully looked at Europe as “job done” and turned its attention to other matters in the world — the dysfunction and violence of the Middle East, the rise of China — she stood obdurate against the impulse toward closer political and economic integration of the European nations, helping to foster divisions in her own party that would eventually lead to her ouster and are once again widening the Channel between Britain and the rest of Europe. In November 1990, she lost the Conservative leadership and was driven from Downing Street with tears glistening in her eyes.
It was a rare defeat for someone who had beaten Britain’s class system and dusty attitudes to women in the workplace to rise to the summit of public life. Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in 1925, the daughter of a small-town storekeeper in Lincolnshire, a featureless county in the east of England. Devoted to her father — who served as an alderman and mayor in their town — she took a degree in chemistry at Oxford, where she first dabbled in Conservative Party politics. She married Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman, 10 years her senior, in 1951, and two years later gave birth to twins, Mark and Carol. After an arduous battle to convince her own party and voters that she had the right stuff to be a politician, she won a seat in Parliament for Finchley, a constituency in North London, in the 1959 election, and was quickly recognized for her intelligence and energy. From 1964 to ’70, the Labour Party governed Britain, but when the Tories, against the odds, won the 1970 election, Edward Heath, the new Prime Minister, made her Secretary of State for Education and Science. After Heath lost power in 1974, she ran against him as party leader in 1975 and, to the astonishment of Britain’s famous chattering classes, was successful. In 1979, as the minority Labour government of James Callaghan floundered and Britain’s antediluvian labor unions visited their grievances on long-suffering voters, her party won a decisive victory. She secured two more terms of office, in 1983 and ’87, extending her majority in the House of Commons on both occasions, at the time an unprecedented feat in modern British political history.
As Prime Minister, Thatcher was motivated by a few simple principles. Government regulation — and confiscatory taxation — neutered the animal spirits of capitalism; the world was a dangerous place, in which it paid to be on one’s guard; Britain was not finished; communism was an evil that threatened the world and stunted the life chances of those who had to live under its heel. But beyond that, she understood what it was that a significant strand of ordinary people wanted from political leaders: not necessarily ringing phrases and great speechifying (though she could certainly do that), but a sense that decent lives, decently lived, were worthwhile; that growing prosperity was not a sign of capitalism’s rapaciousness but the mechanism by which families could live a little better each year.
In the first few years of her first term in office, she squeezed inflation out of the British economy and made plain that those enterprises that could not compete in the modern world would not be rescued, as had been the case under her predecessors. Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, saw its smoke-blackened heartlands rendered into rust heaps. As unemployment climbed and riots broke out in the cities, her position appeared precarious. But by 1982, the economy was beginning to show the first signs of life. That spring, she refused to accept that the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands was a done deal and dispatched her armed forces across the Atlantic to fight a fierce little war. Triumphant, she won re-election in 1983 and then took on the coal miners — the vanguard of the old left-wing English working class — crushing them in a yearlong strike. Like many of her victories, the casualty toll was high, with communities blighted and families plunged into grinding poverty with no means of escape.
She had arrived in Downing Street in 1979 improbably quoting St. Francis of Assisi. “Where there is discord,” she intoned, “may we bring harmony; where there is error, may we bring truth; where there is doubt, may we bring faith; and where there is despair, may we bring hope.” She failed in the first objective at least, and the human costs of Thatcherism — and the unequal distribution of hope — mean she may prove almost as divisive in death as in life, as Britons squabble over her legacy. At her own request she will not be granted a state funeral, though many believe she deserves one.
There are those, like my friend, who feel a more appropriate response would be to dance on her grave. I cannot share that view, and not only because I believe Thatcher left Britain, on balance, in better shape than she found it. Politicians have forfeited public trust in recent years, relying too heavily on spin and connecting too little with voters. Thatcher’s greatest flaws — a strength of conviction that brooked few moderating influences, a strength of character that rendered her viscerally incapable of understanding human vulnerabilities — were also her greatest assets. There was little difference between the public figure and private one. She was motivated by her belief in what she could deliver to public office, not by what public office could deliver to her.
So when she clutched my arm at that Christmas drinks party, I wasn’t tempted to recoil. She seemed disoriented and a little anxious. Now even the teased hair and mask of makeup couldn’t disguise that she had become the sort of person she once least understood: someone incapable of looking after herself. A colleague attempted to engage her in conversation about world affairs, but she stared at him, blankly. I commented instead on her clothing. In recent years she had taken to wearing shades of deep rose and magenta instead of her signature blue. “I do think pink is such a friendly color,” she said.
The 2011 biopic The Iron Lady focused on the poignancy of Thatcher’s declining years. While Meryl Streep’s performance in the title role was uncannily accurate, the film’s depiction of Thatcher’s legacy was far less so. That she overcame obstacles of class and sex to rise to power tempered her resolve, but it isn’t the reason she will be remembered as one of the most significant leaders of the 20th century.
By standing shoulder to shoulder with Reagan and calling Soviet communism for what it was — a cruel sham, an economic failure — she helped liberate those Russians and East Europeans who had spent generations with their dreams on hold. Many of her own countrymen will never accept that she performed a similar function for Britons. She was not an empathetic person, not one to suffer fools gladly (or at all), not one who could appreciate that men, women and families could imagine different ways to a satisfying life from the one that she thought best. She was hardheaded, perhaps hard-hearted. She was that most polarizing of beings: a conviction politician. In our current age of weak leaders transfixed by oncoming global crises like rabbits in the headlights, it’s sobering to realize that the Lady’s not for returning.http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/08/us-thatcher-margaret-profile-idUSBRE9370E820130408
Obituary: Iron Lady Thatcher changed face of Britain
(Reuters) - Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady", was a towering figure in British 20th century politics, a grocer's daughter with a steely resolve who was loved and loathed in equal measure as she crushed the unions and privatized large swathes of industry.
She died on Monday, aged 87, after suffering a stroke. During her life in politics some worshipped her as a modernizer who transformed the country, others bitterly accused her of entrenching the divide between the rich and the poor.
The abiding images of her premiership will remain those of conflict: huge police confrontations with the miners' union, her riding a tank in a white headscarf, and flames rising above Trafalgar Square in the riots over a local tax which ultimately led to her downfall.
During her 11 years in power, she clashed with the European Union, agreed to hand back the colony of Hong Kong to China, and fought a war to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentine invaders.
She struck up a close relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Cold War, backed the first President George Bush during the 1991 Gulf War, and declared that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a man she could do business with.
She opposed sanctions on South Africa as a means to end apartheid and was a firm supporter of Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator.
To those who crossed her she was blunt to a degree - "the lady's not for turning", she once informed members of her own Conservative Party who were urging her to moderate her policies.
Others who crossed her path, particularly in Europe, were subjected to withering diatribes often referred to as "handbaggings", named after the glossy black leather bag she invariably carried.
Britain's only woman prime minister, the tough, outspoken Thatcher led the Conservatives to three election victories, governing from 1979 to 1990, the longest continuous period in office by a British premier since the early 19th century.
With Reagan, she formed a strong alliance against communism and was rewarded by seeing the Berlin Wall torn down in 1989 though she worried a unified Germany would dominate Europe.
Gerry Adams, head of the Irish Republican Army's political wing, said her policies in Northern Ireland, where thousands died in a struggle over British rule, had done "great hurt" to people there.
Her reformist - some would say radical - conservative agenda broke the mould of British politics, changing the status quo so profoundly that even subsequent Labour governments accepted many of her policies.
The woman who became known simply as "Maggie" transferred big chunks of the economy from state hands into private ownership.
"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money," she once said.
Her personal credo, founded on competition, private enterprise, thrift and self-reliance, gave birth to a political philosophy known as "Thatcherism".
But her tough economic medicine put millions out of work, alienated many and largely destroyed industries such as mining.
Her combative stance antagonized allies in Europe and her intolerance of dissent eventually led to her downfall.
"A brilliant tyrant surrounded by mediocrities," was how former premier Harold Macmillan described her. "That bloody woman," was the less charitable verdict of Edward Heath, another prime minister and her predecessor as Conservative Party leader.
At the peak of her powers, Thatcher's sheer personality made her one of the West's best known figures. A workaholic, she put in 18-hour days, after which she would relax over a glass of whisky.
CLASH WITH UNIONS
After winning the May 3, 1979 election, she launched social and economic reforms designed to end what she saw as a spiral of industrial decline, crippling taxes and intrusive state control, a period under the Labour government that had become known as the "winter of discontent".
Fighting inflation-boosting pay rises and modernizing the economy meant curbing the power of organized labor.
After changes to the law and a bitter year-long strike which ended in defeat for the miners in 1985, the days when unions could dictate to British governments were over.
Britain held its breath in 1982 when Thatcher dispatched a naval task force to the Falkland islands, which had been seized by Argentine invaders. Despite losing several warships, the British eventually reclaimed the south Atlantic islands 74 days later. A total of 649 Argentines and 255 British troops died.
An opinion poll in 1981 rated Thatcher Britain's most disliked prime minister of all time. But, two years later, after the Falklands war, she was swept back to power on a wave of patriotism and in 1987, her third successive election victory gave her another big majority in parliament.
Thatcher ushered in an era of "popular capitalism" that raised home ownership in Britain to 68 percent and made one person in five a shareholder.
She launched a sweeping drive to privatize state monopolies such as gas, oil, steel, telephones, airports and British Airways, with electricity and water to follow.
But while Thatcherism made many better off, unemployment doubled by the mid-1980s to more than three million - a level not seen since the hungry 1930s. Opponents said Thatcher had created a nation divided between the wealthier south and the poorer north.
Thatcher developed a close relationship with Reagan, who called her "the best man in England".
It was the Soviet army newspaper Red Star that dubbed Thatcher the "Iron Lady", but she reveled in the nickname.
But when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, she formed a strong working relationship with him.
After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Thatcher cautioned President Bush against being "wobbly" in opposing Saddam Hussein.
Relations with Britain's European neighbors were strained over her reluctance to embrace plans for closer integration.
She demanded a huge refund on Britain's contributions to the European budget and brought European Community business to a virtual standstill until she got it.
She exerted a strong personal magnetism. The late French President Francois Mitterrand once said she had "the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe".
In 1984 an Irish Republican Army bomb attack on her Brighton hotel nearly killed her entire cabinet. She was unscathed, but five people died and some close colleagues were badly injured.
Next morning condemning the bombing, she told reporters: "This is a day I was not meant to see."
Within hours of the attack, and on schedule, she gave the closing address to her party's annual conference, vowing there would be no weakening in the fight against terrorism.
In 1984 Thatcher and China's then-Premier Zhao Ziyang signed a declaration under which Britain agreed to hand over Hong Kong to China in 1997 after 156 years of British colonial rule.
After 11 years in power, Thatcher bowed to a revolt and pulled out of a leadership contest with her former defense minister Michael Heseltine. A new local tax, known as the "poll tax", which had led to riots, contributed to her downfall.
"I fight on, I fight to win," she declared during the party leadership vote, but she resigned the next day.
Thatcher retained enough influence to ensure Heseltine did not succeed her, advancing the claims of her protege John Major, who served as prime minister until 1997.
"We are leaving Downing Street for the last time after 11 and a half wonderful years and we are very happy that we leave the United Kingdom in a very, very much better state than when we came here," Thatcher said with tears in her eyes.
She suffered a series of mild strokes in late 2001 and 2002, after which she cut back on public appearances and later canceled her speaking schedule.
Her decline into dementia was chronicled in the Oscar-winning film "The Iron Lady", with Meryl Streep. Cast as a bewildered widow, the very lonely Iron Lady was left only with her memories.
(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood)
What Margaret Thatcher understood about the West’s values that today’s leaders do not.
By Anne Applebaum