by Guy Jackson
LONDON, April 08, 2013 (AFP) – A towering yet divisive figure, Margaret Thatcher rose from humble grocer’s daughter to the woman who changed the face of Britain and helped tear down the Iron Curtain.
Thatcher, who died following a stroke on Monday aged 87, was an arch-conservative and free-marketeer, and to her supporters she was uncompromising in defending Britain’s interests abroad.
Yet Thatcher divided opinion like few other politicians.
Right-wingers hail her as having got Britain working again after the economic crises of the 1970s.
But few tears will be shed for her in Britain’s industrial heartland, where her policies left coalmines redundant and the men who toiled in them bloodied in violent clashes with the police.
The left accused Thatcher of dismantling traditional industry, claiming that her reforms frayed the fabric of society.
But her most famous riposte to critics of her economic policies summed up her straight-talking, no-nonsense style.
“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning,” she said in 1980.
On the world stage, she built an extremely close “special relationship” with US president Ronald Reagan which helped bring down the curtain on Soviet communism.
In 1982, she dispatched a naval taskforce to retake the Falkland Islands after they were invaded by Argentinian troops — the victory also helped her to reverse sinking poll numbers and win the next general election as she rode a wave of patriotism.
She fiercely opposed closer ties with Europe, reportedly banging her handbag on the table at a 1984 European summit to demand a budget rebate for Britain.
But in her final years, Thatcher — the 20th century’s longest continuous occupant of 10 Downing Street, from 1979 to 1990 — withdrew from public life as dementia took hold following a series of minor strokes.
Where once her distinctive voice had rung out, there was silence.
Her daughter Carol made no secret of the fact that the former premier had to be repeatedly reminded that her husband Denis — a gin-loving businessman to whom she was married for more than 50 years — had died in 2003.
Thatcher briefly — albeit unwittingly — burst back into the public eye when Meryl Streep portrayed both her rise to power and her period of failing health in the Hollywood film “The Iron Lady”, which hit the screens in December 2011.
Behind the bouffant hair, trademark handbag and schoolma’am voice was an uncompromising Conservative who regularly cut her male colleagues and opponents down to size with a sharp tongue and even sharper political brain.
She remains the benchmark for Conservative politicians such as current prime minister David Cameron.
– An uncompromising style proved her undoing –
Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925, in the market town of Grantham, eastern England, where her father ran a grocery store.
After grammar school and a degree in chemistry at Oxford University, she married Denis in 1951, and two years later had twins, Carol and Mark.
She was first elected to the House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament, in 1959 and succeeded former prime minister Edward Heath as opposition Conservative leader in 1975 before winning a general election four years later.
Her enduring legacy can be summed up as “Thatcherism” — a set of policies which supporters say embraced the individual, promoted personal freedom and broke down class divisions that had riven Britain for centuries.
Her critics say she recklessly pursued her aims.
When Argentina invaded the remote Falklands, Thatcher dispatched troops and ships, securing victory in two months.
The human cost was high — 255 British troops and 649 Argentinian soldiers lost their lives — but the retaking of the Falklands restored wavering public confidence in her leadership and the Conservatives were re-elected in the 1983 election.
Buoyed by the victory, her government crushed a coalminers’ strike against pit closures in 1984-85 after a bitter year-long struggle.
In Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and south Wales, police fought pitched battles with striking miners, but Thatcher stood firm.
As a result of the dispute, union powers were severely curbed.
In 1984, she narrowly escaped death when an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb planted at her hotel in Brighton nearly killed her and her cabinet at the Conservatives’ annual conference.
Three years later, she led the Tories to a third consecutive general election win in 1987.
Internationally, Thatcher made her mark quickly, forging a close personal and political relationship with Reagan in the Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union. It was a Soviet newspaper that dubbed her the “Iron Lady”.
But it was the same uncompromising style that initially earned her respect which proved her undoing.
In 1990, soon after she delivered an incendiary House of Commons statement vowing “No! No! No!” to increased powers for Europe, one of her closest allies, Geoffrey Howe, quit with a devastating resignation speech which blamed her entrenched Euroscepticism.
She faced a leadership challenge shortly afterwards and stepped down herself after failing to receive the expected level of support. She was replaced by her finance minister John Major.
After a tearful departure from Downing Street, she was appointed to the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of parliament, as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven — the name of the area where she grew up.
She also wrote her memoirs, delivered lectures around the world — and continued to make her views known as a self-confessed political “backseat driver” before bad health took its toll.
In her final years, a string of politicians from across the political spectrum paid tribute to her, pointing to the emergence of a consensus in Britain over her achievements.
Labour’s former premier Gordon Brown, once one of her harshest critics, described Thatcher as a “conviction politician” and held talks with her when he took power in 2007.
But her public appearances became more and more scarce as her health deteriorated.
She spent several spells in hospital battling a series of illnesses, most recently being admitted in December 2012 to remove a growth from her bladder.
Thatcher did, however, live long enough to see another Conservative prime minister in Downing Street after a gap of 13 years — albeit with Cameron at the head of a coalition government after the 2010 election.
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