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Thatcher blazed trails around the world
She would prove a staunch ally of the United States by backing Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the foreign policy crises that marked the twilight of the Cold War.
She strongly supported Reagan’s hard line against the Soviet Union and defied Britain’s powerful anti-nuclear movement to station U.S. cruise missiles at bases on British soil. Unlike some European NATO allies, she backed the 1986 U.S. airstrikes in Libya ordered by Reagan after a terrorist attack on U.S. troops in Germany.
On Monday, Nancy Reagan said that “Ronnie and Margaret were political soul mates, committed to freedom and resolved to end Communism.”
Despite her strong anti-Soviet record, Mrs. Thatcher was an early champion in the West of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, famously declaring him “a man we can do business with” just three months after he took power in Moscow in 1984.
She provided crucial moral and material support for Mr. Bush’s military campaign to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait after Iraqi troops invaded in 1990. “This is no time to go wobbly,” she told him in a telephone conversation in the critical days before the U.S.-led coalition succeeded in liberating Kuwait.
Her electoral triumph in the June 1987 general election with a 102-seat majority may have been her high-water mark, with Britain’s economy soaring and the Labor Party opposition in complete disarray. The slow-motion collapse of the Soviet European empire highlighted by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 appeared to vindicate Mrs. Thatcher’s and Reagan’s tough line.
Mrs. Thatcher continued to press her conservative domestic political agenda, including education, welfare, health and housing reforms. A levy on local governments, slammed as a “poll tax” by its many opponents, would prove particularly divisive, but many of the reforms adopted in this period were endorsed and expanded under Mr. Blair’s “New Labor” governments.
But the prime minister’s long and controversial tenure, fresh worries about the economy, her divisive and often hectoring personal style, and rivalries within her own Tory majority already were sowing the seeds for her political downfall.
Never beaten in an election, Mrs. Thatcher was done in by a palace coup, which she later described as “treachery with a smiling face.”
Politically weakened by public hostility to the poll tax and by Conservative divisions over her “Euro-skeptic” approach to the European Union, her government was rocked by the November 1990 resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe in protest over her European policies.
Former Cabinet minister Michael Heseltine, another male Tory rival Mrs. Thatcher had bested, then launched a party leadership challenge. Although Mrs. Thatcher led in the first round of party voting, her margin was insufficient to prevent a second round. She vowed at first to fight on, but faced with fading support in her Cabinet, resigned before the second tally could be held.
She did prevent Mr. Heseltine from winning the top post, as the Conservatives chose John Major to succeed her. Largely on the strength of her government’s record, Mr. Major would win an unexpected term of his own with a much-reduced Tory majority in the April 1992 general election.
Out of office, Mrs. Thatcher remained an outspoken Euro-skeptic and a hero to British and U.S. conservatives. She resigned from Parliament in 1992 and wrote two best-selling volumes of memoirs, “The Downing Street Years” and “The Path to Power.” She was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1991 and was made a baroness a year later.
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About the Author
Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.
At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...
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