LONDON – World leaders Tuesday paid tribute to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the controversial “Iron Lady” whose polarizing 11 years in power saw her take on trade unions, go to war over the Falkland Islands and wield her signature handbag against the European Union.
Thatcher’s spokesman, Tim Bell, said she died from a stroke Monday morning at the Ritz hotel in London. She was 87.
The first woman to lead a major Western power, Thatcher served 11½ 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,” Thatcher set out to dismantle its 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 country 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 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 the Falkland Islands, a colonial outpost off South America, after they were invaded by Argentina in 1982. At the same time, she negotiated the end of Britain’s lease over another colonial relic, Hong Kong.
Queen Elizabeth II authorized a ceremonial funeral — a step short of a state funeral — for Thatcher at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London next week with military honors. British newspapers reported that the former premier had herself asked not to receive a state funeral, knowing it would prove divisive.
Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a trip to Madrid and Paris to return to Britain following news of Thatcher’s death, and said Parliament would be recalled from recess Wednesday so lawmakers could pay tribute. “It was with great sadness that I learned of Lady Thatcher’s death,” Cameron said. “We’ve lost a great leader, a great Prime Minister and a great Briton.”
Tributes also flowed in from abroad. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose positive relations with Thatcher played a part in ending the Cold War, said she would live on in “memory and in history,” while Helmut Kohl, the father of Germany’s 1990 reunification, praised her “love of freedom.”
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, and facing clamor for change from her own Conservative Party members, she gave a defiant response: “You turn if you want to. This lady’s not for turning.”
Reaction to her death was mixed in Britain. Rightwingers hailed Thatcher as having hauled the country out of the economic doldrums but the left accused her of dismantling traditional industry and destroying the fabric of society. The coal miners’ union that was defeated by Thatcher in the 1984-85 strike issued a statement that simply said, “Good riddance.”
Thatcher was the first — and still only — female prime minister in British history, yet 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 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. In that post, she earned the unwanted nickname “Thatcher the milk snatcher” because of her reduction of school milk programs. It was a taste of battles to come.
She triumphed over a weak field of indecisive candidates to take over the Conservative Party leadership in 1975 and ultimately run as the its candidate for prime minister. She profited from the enormous crisis facing the Labour Party government of Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan. Britain was near economic collapse, its currency propped up by the International Monetary Fund and its once-defiant spirit seemingly broken.
Britain seemed adrift, no longer a credible world power and 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.
Like her close friend and political ally Reagan, Thatcher seemed motivated by an unshakable conviction 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.
She formed a deep attachment to the man she called “Ronnie” — some spoke of it as a schoolgirl crush. Still, she would not back down when she disagreed with him on important matters, even though the United States was the richer and vastly stronger partner in the “special relationship.”
As prime minister, Thatcher 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.
In deciding to dispatch a military task force to the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher overruled Foreign Office specialists who warned her about the dangers of striking back. She was infuriated by warnings about the dangers to British citizens in Argentina and the difficulty of getting support from the U.N. Security Council.
Thatcher opposed closer ties with Europe, reportedly banging her handbag on the table at a 1984 European summit to demand a budget rebate for Britain.
However, she is perhaps best remembered for her hardline position during the pivotal 51-week strike in 1984 and 1985 when she faced down the National Union of Miners in an ultimately successful bid to break the power of Britain’s unions. The radical reshaping of Britain’s economic and political landscape endures to this day.
It is for this that she is revered by free-market conservatives, who say the restructuring of Britain’s economy led to a boom that made London the rival of New York as a global financial center. The left demonized her as an implacably hostile union buster with stone-cold indifference to the poor, but her economic philosophy eventually crossed party lines: Tony Blair led a revamped Labour Party to victory by adopting some of her ideas.
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 of London and other cities, leading to some of the worst riots in the British capital in more than a century. The shocking sight of Trafalgar Square turned into a smoldering battleground on March 31, 1990, helped convince many Conservative figures that Thatcher had stayed at the helm too long.
“How could a leader who was wise make 13 million people pay a tax they had never paid before? It just showed that she was no longer thinking in a rational way,” one of her junior ministers, David Mellor, said in a BBC documentary.
For Conservatives in Parliament, it was a question of survival. They feared voters would turn them out of office in the next election, and for many that fear trumped any gratitude they might have felt for their longtime leader.
On Nov. 22, 1990, she announced her withdrawal and informed the Queen. Two years later, she was appointed to the House of Lords, taking the title Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.