A decisive but divisive leader

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died Monday from a stroke at the age of 87. What characterized her as a political leader was her strong will and leadership, which earned her the nickname “Iron Lady.”

As Britain’s first female prime minister, Ms. Thatcher stayed in power for 11½ years beginning in 1979, becoming the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century. She brought sweeping changes to the United Kingdom’s economy and society, and played an important role in ending the Cold War. A champion of neoliberalism, she turned the “sick old man of Europe” into a powerful center of financial globalization.

But her policy widened economic disparities in British society. Her detractors say she destroyed local economies and communities and the lives of members of the working class and even the middle class. She has also been criticized for doing little to promote the rights of women and socially marginalized groups. Her leadership record will no doubt continue to stir controversy for years to come.

When Ms. Thatcher succeeded James Callaghan of the Labour Party as prime minister in May 1979, the British economy was in the doldrums, suffering from a series of strikes and inflation. In 1976, Britain’s unemployment and inflation were so bad that it had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a £2.3 billion bailout. Ms. Thatcher carried out bold deregulation, privatized scores of inefficient state-owned enterprises and confronted powerful labor unions. By carrying out tax and spending cuts, she pursued the idea of small government, an antithesis to Britain’s traditional cradle-to-grave welfare state.

The financial big bang introduced by Ms. Thatcher eventually transformed Britain into one of the world’s financial centers. By making Britain a model example of an economy based on market competition principles, she changed the orientation of conservatism. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone emulated her policy.

Her influence continued into later years. U.S. President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi followed the same path. This so-called neoliberalist approach freed businesses from the shackles of regulations and brought prosperity for a period of time to the countries that adopted it. But, today, developed countries are plagued by economic difficulties and growing income disparities. It must be asked whether neoliberalism has really enhanced the lives of the majority of citizens in these countries.

In the international arena, Ms. Thatcher managed to establish a trustful relationship with Soviet leader Mr. Michail Gorbachev and is said to have influenced his thinking. She served as a mediator between him and Reagan, and during the U.S.-Soviet arms reduction talks — which ended up being a great success — she provided support to Reagan.

In responding to Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands by dispatching a naval task force to repel the occupiers, Ms. Thatcher demonstrated her great determination to protect “freedom and democracy.” During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, she strongly supported U.S. President George H.W. Bush.

Ms. Thatcher will be mainly remembered for her political, economic and social policies, known collectively as “Thatcherism.” But the neoliberalism epitomized by Thatcherism had a splintering effect on society. Citizens should be wary of efforts by conservative politicians to resort to nationalism in an attempt to restore the human bonds broken by neoliberal policies.

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