Just when America and the West needed a shot of testosterone, with Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard settling in to swallow Kuwait's oil, Margaret Thatcher stepped up with a word from the warrior queen. "Don't go wobbly on us, George," she told President George H.W. Bush. He didn't, and the West won.
Mrs. Thatcher, the Methodist grocer's daughter who won three straight general parliamentary elections and rewrote the book on what a conservative with conviction and true grit could accomplish, died after a stroke Sunday night in London at the age of 87. Throughout a career that stretched from the end of World War II to the end of her life, she never flinched.
She brought Britain back from the precipice and taught free-market economics even to the socialists of the Labor Party, and did it with such fierce determination that years later she told a friend with a certain rue, "I made the Labor Party electable."
She offered her countrymen a taste of Winston Churchill's famous wartime promise to Britain on the eve of war of "blood, toil, tears and sweat" with her election in 1979. "Unless we change our ways and our direction," she said, "our greatness as a nation will soon be a footnote in the history books, a distant memory of an offshore island, lost in the mists of time like Camelot, remembered kindly for its noble past."
David Cameron, the prime minister, recalled Mrs. Thatcher's grim prescription in his tribute Monday. Calling her "a great prime minister, a great leader and a great Briton," he said: "Margaret Thatcher didn't just lead our country she saved our country. [She] took a country that was on its knees and made Britain stand tall again. We can't deny that Lady Thatcher divided opinion. For many of us she was and is an inspiration. For others she was a force to be defined against. But if there is one thing that cuts through all this one thing that runs through everything she did it was her lion-hearted love for this country."
When she retired as prime minister she left behind a legacy of deregulation, smaller government, lower taxes and an appreciation of free trade as the engine that drives capitalism. She and Ronald Reagan, both often sneered at by the ruling elites in their own countries, emerged from the Cold War as the two great figures of that perilous era. In class-conscious England, where the wrong school and the wrong accent can cripple ambition, Mrs. Thatcher towered over her colleagues of more genteel birth. Margaret Hilda Roberts grew up working in her father's grocery along with her sister Muriel and her mother, and the great influence of her early life was her father. He was a serious man of wide education, largely self-taught, and was revered as a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, the "wrong religion" in a nation steeped in the class traditions of the Anglican state church. He bequeathed to his daughter an appreciation of the faith and an intense interest in politics. She further inherited a strong sense of duty to God, country and neighbors.
Through her father's membership in a local Rotary Club, the family took in a Jewish girl from Austria in 1938. Maggie was 13 and listened to the little girl's stories of Nazi persecution of her family and it filled Maggie with a fierce loathing of anti-Semitism, which became a tie with her constituency years later when she was elected to Parliament from the heavily Jewish district of Finchley. She enrolled at Oxford in 1943 and studied chemistry under a professor described by one London newspaper as "extremely left wing." The professor left no political imprint on his student, and four years later, when she was 22 and working as a research chemist in plastics, she first stumped for a Tory candidate for Parliament. She was in politics at last, and never left it, nor was she ever again associated with anything remotely "plastic."
But the reach of Maggie Thatcher's courage and conviction stretched far beyond Britain. She was Ronald Reagan's faithful companion-in-arms when Mr. Reagan faced down the Soviet Union as it groaned, twitching occasionally, and finally died. She bucked up the determination of George H.W. Bush as he assembled the coalition that won "the mother of all battles" (as Saddam Hussein insisted on calling it) and restored the sovereignty of Kuwait. In her retirement, forced on her when her Cabinet ministers traded their loyalty for selfish ambition, she continued to demonstrate why Britain, through war and peace, remains America's most enduring friend. Margaret Thatcher embodied the special relationship.
She was never a pushover for anyone, friend or foe. When Argentina seized the Falkland Islands, which had been British for centuries, she felt personally affronted and vowed the seizure would not stand. But her anger was not unanimously shared. She sacked her foreign minister. Several officials in the Reagan administration pushed her to consider a compromise with Argentina. She single-mindedly set out to retrieve the islands, dispatching a task force to the South Atlantic, and prevailed. She said forever afterward that she regarded the Falklands restoration her most important achievement.
The Falklands war was a political triumph as well and British prestige soared. The parliamentary election in 1983 returned a Conservative majority of 144, the largest margin since the general election of 1945. A headline in a London newspaper said it all: "It's Maggie by a mile." Her confidence grew, and she governed with a steel backbone and an iron will. A Russian journalist called her "the Iron Lady," and the name, to her delight, stuck. Iron lady she was, regarded by the left as a slasher of taxes who would put hungry children on the street; one embittered critic called her "Satan in pearls." On the right she was adored, as the woman who saved her country as surely as Joan of Arc saved ancient France.
She was impatient with those who disdained hard work. When a speechwriter complained that it was 1 in the morning and he was exhausted, Mrs. Thatcher replied: "I get a new lease on life this time of the morning." She once told a journalist who thought he had put her on the defensive: "What a very silly question." But another speechwriter recalled to Gillian Shephard, author of "The Real Iron Lady," that after working at 10 Downing Street until 3 a.m. Mrs. Thatcher drew a bath for her and the next morning appeared at her bedside with a cup of coffee.
Through friendships with Ronald Reagan and George Bush, she came to love America much like Churchill, her childhood idol, had. She visited America frequently, particularly after she retired. At a dinner party in Washington, Wesley Pruden, then the editor in chief of The Washington Times, told her that it was too bad she was constitutionally ineligible "because a lot of Americans think you would make a very good president of the United States." A year later, back in Washington, they met again and she asked: "How is the campaign to amend your Constitution coming along?"
Most prime ministers, like old soldiers, simply fade away. Margaret Thatcher didn't. Her political philosophy, described by the Independent, a skeptical London newspaper, as "a brisk, unsentimental pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach," became "Thatcherism," known all over the world as a prescription for prosperity. She became a character in plays and movies, usually not favorably. In the hours after her death she was called many things: Towering, divisive, revered. The prime minister who changed the world. Indifference was never an option.
These were epitaphs Margaret Thatcher might have written for herself.
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