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.
Mr. Roberts, who was also a Methodist lay preacher, lost a race for alderman when the Labor Party won its first majority ever on the Grantham local council.
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.
It was during the Dartford campaigns that Margaret Roberts met Denis Thatcher, a wealthy Kent businessman whom she married in 1951. The couple’s only children, twins Mark and Carol Thatcher, were born two years later.
Despite constant ribbing for his bland, deferential public persona, the discreet Mr. Thatcher proved the ideal political spouse for his strong-willed wife, financing her legal studies — she qualified as a barrister in 1953 — and providing the comfortable income that allowed Mrs. Thatcher to pursue her political career.
Modest and retiring to the last, Mr. Thatcher died in 2003. Mrs. Thatcher in her memoirs acknowledged, “I could never have been prime minister for more than 11 years without Denis by my side.”
Finally awarded a safe Tory seat in 1959, Mrs. Thatcher rose steadily in the party ranks, serving in increasingly influential posts in Conservative governments in the early 1960s under Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home and in the first half of the 1970s under Edward Heath. Her tenure as education secretary in Mr. Heath’s crisis-plagued government put her in direct conflict with entrenched leftist critics in the press and academia, a foretaste of her time as prime minister.
Defeated in the 1974 general election, the Tories unexpectedly dumped Mr. Heath and elected Mrs. Thatcher, making her the first woman ever to lead a major Western political party and the first to serve as leader of the opposition in the House of Commons.
Mrs. Thatcher herself would later admit she was surprised at her victory, and many of her male counterparts voted for her on the assumption they could oust her before the next general election. It would not be the first time male politicians would underestimate her.
She did not temper her style in her new post.
In early 1976, she issued a blistering attack on the Soviet Union in language that would find its echo in Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech six years later: “The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet Politburo … put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.”
An angry editorial in a Soviet defense newspaper denounced Mrs. Thatcher as “the Iron Lady,” unwittingly bestowing on her the nickname by which she would become widely known.
The Labor government of the late 1970s presided over the low point in postwar Britain’s economic fortunes, an era of labor strife, economic and currency woes, and even a humiliating bailout of the near-bankrupt government treasury by the International Monetary Fund. A series of crippling strikes sounded the death knell for Labor, and Mrs. Thatcher led the Tories back into power in the May 1979 general election with a 43-seat majority.
Even her most ardent critics — never in short supply — would concede that Mrs. Thatcher’s 11½ years in power would transform Britain, seen in the late 1970s as the “sick man of Europe,” a dispirited, bloated welfare state facing what many predicted would be an irreversible decline as a major power.
“Poor in spirit, we suffered that most demoralizing form of poverty — poverty of conviction,” Mrs. Thatcher recalled. “Britain was country without a cause.”
She gave her name to the cause Britain embraced under her government. “Thatcherism” was an undiluted dose of private enterprise, lower taxes, deregulation, privatization of sacred government cows, British patriotism and an assertive foreign policy far more in tune with the Republican revolutionaries in Ronald Reagan’s Washington than with the rule-writing European Union bureaucrats in Brussels.
She saw no value in consensus for consensus’ sake, and seemed to relish her battles with union bosses, Argentine generals, left-wing intellectuals, EU ministers and even Cabinet ministers deemed insufficiently committed to her “conservative British revolution.”
Convinced Britain required harsh medicine to reverse a culture of decline, Mrs. Thatcher instituted a series of painful cuts to restore the government’s finances and end subsidies to favored industries and constituencies. Unemployment soared and uncompetitive businesses folded, but the government stuck to its program.
Over the objections of more moderate “wet” Tories in her own government, Mrs. Thatcher even won plaudits for her courage, but the resulting economic hardship put the survival of her government in serious doubt three years into her first term. But her political resurrection was about to begin, courtesy of an obscure chain of islands half a world away from London.
A military junta in Argentina, plagued by deep economic woes at home, in April 1982 invaded the Falkland Islands, an archipelago in the South Atlantic long claimed by both Britain and Argentina. Without hesitation, Mrs. Thatcher dispatched a British force to reclaim the islands, winning a quick and decisive victory by June.
“We were defending our honor as a nation and principles of fundamental importance to the whole world — above all that aggressors should never succeed and that international law should prevail over the use of force,” she would recall in her 1993 memoir, “The Downing Street Years.”
“The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world,” she wrote.
The resulting surge of British national pride, coupled with the first stirrings of economic recovery and a badly divided Labor opposition, led to a stunning Thatcher victory in the June 1983 election, with the Conservatives tripling their majority to 144 seats.
As with Mr. Blair, Mrs. Thatcher enjoyed massive parliamentary majorities through Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system without ever winning overwhelming popular support. Her 1983 majority came despite the fact that the Conservatives took just 42.4 percent of the vote.
The dangers of her post were brought home in October 1984, when the Provisional Irish Republican Army bombed the Brighton hotel where the Tories were holding their annual party conference. Mrs. Thatcher barely escaped injury, but five persons were killed in the attack, including a Conservative member of Parliament.
The prime minister insisted that the conference proceed, giving her opening address as planned the day after the attack. The next year she would sign a landmark accord with the government of Ireland, giving Dublin for the first time a limited voice in the future of Northern Ireland.
If the Falklands War was the highlight of her first term, an epic domestic battle of wills dominated Mrs. Thatcher’s second four years in office.
Determined to break the stranglehold unions had on the British economy, she faced down a yearlong series of strikes by the powerful National Union of Mineworkers in 1984-1985, refusing any concessions until the union leaders saw their own membership rebel.
The labor war proved an unconditional triumph for the Conservative government, which in 1985 proceeded to shut down scores of unprofitable coal mines and privatize the rest. Britain’s trade unions never recovered from the defeat.
In an economic reform with far-reaching political consequences, Mrs. Thatcher accelerated the sell-off of unproductive state enterprises and pushed strongly to increase homeownership among ordinary Britons. While the trade union wars left Mrs. Thatcher deeply unpopular in industrial pockets of northern England and Scotland, the vastly expanded class of middle-class homeowners would provide the backbone for her political coalition.
She prized individual initiative and private enterprise, disdaining the ambitious social engineering dreams of her leftist adversaries.
Asked about those who instinctively turn to government to solve social problems, she said in a 1987 interview, “There is no such thing as society” — perhaps her most widely cited quote.
She continued, “There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, and then to look after our neighbor.”
She once remarked her policies were “not based on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.”
She would prove a staunch ally of the United States, backing Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the foreign policy crises that marked the twilight of the Cold War.
She strongly supported Mr. 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 Mr. Reagan after a terrorist attack on U.S. troops in Germany.
Despite her strong anti-Soviet record, she 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 Mr. Reagan’s tough line.
Mrs. Thatcher continued to press her conservative domestic political agenda, including education, welfare, health and housing reforms. A new 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 even 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 were already sewing the seeds for her political downfall.
Never beaten in an election, Mrs. Thatcher was done in by a palace coup, one 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 unexpectedly would win a term of his own — with a much reduced Tory majority — in the April 1992 general election.
The Conservative revolution Mrs. Thatcher embarked on in 1979 would last 18 years, only being swept from power with Mr. Blair’s huge Labor win in the 1997 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.
Her charismatic personal and political style has proved a burden for her party, which to date has been unable to produce another figure of the similar stature. Her own political pronouncements became even less frequent after she suffered a series of small strokes in 2002, but she did deliver a moving videotaped tribute to Mr. Reagan at his 2004 funeral.
Mrs. Thatcher rarely dwelt on her status as a pioneering woman dominating as a traditional male preserve, but “Maggie” would prove a cultural icon as well as a political giant. She showed little sympathy for modern feminism, but political leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have followed a trail Mrs. Thatcher blazed.
“I owe nothing to Women’s Lib,” she once said, but she also never showed the slightest sense of being intimidated by the powerful men with whom she worked.
“It may be the cock that crows,” she once noted, “but it is the hen that lays the egg.”