Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who transformed Britain in the 1980s with a core of conservative convictions and history’s most formidable handbag, died Monday of a stroke. She was 87 years old.
The daughter of a provincial English grocer, Mrs. Thatcher shattered class and gender barriers to win election in 1979 as Britain’s first female prime minister, engineer Britain’s victory over Argentina in the 1982 war over the Falkland Islands, and become a critical ally and ideological soul mate of President Ronald Reagan in the West’s Cold War triumph over Soviet communism in Europe.
Mrs. Thatcher was famous for her uncompromising political style and unapologetic embrace of bedrock British middle-class values.
“The lady’s not for turning,” she once famously remarked in a political debate.
By the time she was forced to step down by an internal Conservative Party revolt in November 1990, Mrs. Thatcher was the longest-serving prime minister since William Gladstone in the late 19th century and had the longest continuous term in power since Robert Banks Jenkinson, the Lord Liverpool, retired in 1827.
But her plain-spoken, bulldozer style was employed in a career marked by paradoxes.
An outsider with a professional degree in chemistry, she defied the odds repeatedly in her improbable rise to Tory party leader and then to 10 Downing Street. A devoted wife with no sympathy for the modern feminist movement, she was to become the most powerful female political leader in the world, easily dominating her male counterparts both in the Cabinet and in the opposition.
And perhaps most remarkably, she used her deeply conservative beliefs to fashion a radical transformation of her country, taking on entrenched labor unions and left-wing political barons to carry out an economic and social revolution that reversed more than a decade of slow decline in Britain.
Mrs. Thatcher relished ideological combat and made no apologies for a domineering style of leadership that doomed any male politician rash enough to underestimate her intelligence or will. She introduced the verb “to handbag” into the English language — the brusque metaphorical dismissal of political opponents or rivals standing in one’s way.
“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing,” she once said.
The greatest tribute to her impact may have come from her political opponents. Tony Blair was an open admirer of Mrs. Thatcher’s political style and used her resurrection of Britain’s Conservatives in the late 1970s as a blueprint for the revamping of the center-left Labor Party in the 1990s.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on Oct. 13, 1925, in Grantham in eastern England. Her father, Alfred Roberts, whom Margaret adored, ran a grocer’s shop and was active in local politics. Margaret and her sister, Muriel, were raised in an apartment above the shop.
Mrs. Thatcher showed pronounced Tory sympathies early on, becoming president of Oxford’s Conservative Association soon after arriving at the school in 1944 to study chemistry. She worked briefly as a chemical researcher after graduation, at one point serving on a team that studied new methods for preserving ice cream.
But she almost immediately became involved in politics, earning her first national notice as the youngest Tory candidate in the country in failed races in 1950 and 1951 for “safe” Labor seats in the working-class southeast England town of Dartford.