Farewell to the Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013)

Decades after she left office, the former Prime Minister provokes as much outrage as she does admiration. But there is little doubt that she transformed Britain

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AP Photo / File

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980, during her first term in office. She died of a stroke on April 8, 2013, at the age of 87.

Whatever you thought of Margaret Thatcher — and during an unbroken stretch in office from 1979 to ’90, the former Prime Minister, who died on April 8 after a stroke at the age of 87, attracted both passionate support and deep loathing — you never doubted her force of will. The Iron Lady showed her mettle again and again, wrenching Britain, often brutally, out of a malaise and sense of all-encompassing failure that had blighted it for much of the era after the end of World War II. This meant not only facing down opponents but also critics in her own party, who ran scared as the strong economic medicine she prescribed sickened swaths of voters. “To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say,” she declared at the 1980 Conservative Party conference. “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

(COVER STORY: The Lady Bows Out)

Britain keeps state papers secret for 30 years. A trove released at the end of 2011 revealed a leader who might have been more sensitive to public opinion, and counterarguments, than legend suggests. In July 1981 she authorized secret contacts with Irish republicans to try to halt the hunger strike by Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners that would see 10 of their number starve themselves to death. During the same month she fended off hard-liners in her Cabinet who proposed consigning the riot-torn city of Liverpool to “managed decline.” But these stirrings — of conscience or pragmatism — also prove that she was prepared to override resistance from those closest to her. Indeed, her peremptory manner with her own colleagues attracted the attention of Britain’s inspired satirical TV puppetry show, Spitting Image. In one sketch Thatcher and her Cabinet are seated in a restaurant. She orders raw steak. “And what about the vegetables?” the waiter inquires. “Oh, they’ll have the same as me,” Thatcher replies.

A Boudicca, she led her nation into battle in the Falkland Islands and fought off attempts to draw the U.K. into a closer political embrace with Europe. “She has the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,” observed French President François Mitterrand, revealing the queasy mixture of antipathy and attraction she stirred in many of her male associates.

Ronald Reagan’s feelings for his helmet-haired, be-handbagged friend in Westminster were more clear-cut. She was his ideological soul mate and theirs was a truly special relationship. Together they reinvigorated political conservatism, and by refusing to believe that history moved in only one direction, led a challenge to Soviet communism that in the end saw its fall.

(PHOTOS: Margaret Thatcher: Portrait of the Iron Lady)

As the first female Premier not only of Britain but also of any leading industrial democracy, she forged a template by which women anywhere might measure their ambitions. At the time, many of us in the U.K. found it impossible to savor her achievements. Most brands of feminism held that women were (at least) as capable as men of governing, but there was also an anticipation that we would bring different qualities to the job, not least empathy for the underdog, a consensual approach and a determination to do right by the sisterhood. Thatcher appeared to glory in her utter lack of these instincts, stigmatizing the poor as work-shy, decrying consensus politics as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies” and averring “I owe nothing to women’s lib.” In 2009, I mentioned to a friend, who had also lived through Thatcher’s polarizing reign, that I had just encountered our old bête noire at a party. More than a quarter of a century had elapsed since we had marched down a street chanting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, out, out!” but my friend reacted with undiminished hostility. “Why didn’t you punch the old bag?” she snarled.

In truth I had long since revised my views of “Maggie.” You can argue that her economic reforms ought to have been introduced with greater care for their social impact, but not about whether most of them were necessary. The history of Thatcherism is also a history of the failure of the left to articulate any viable alternative. This analysis was shared by Tony Blair, who was able to build on Thatcher’s economic legacy after remodeling the Labour Party into an electable force.

(MORE: The Frugal Lady: Newly Released Files Show Margaret Thatcher’s Thrifty Side)

But even if I still harbored resentments, the frail woman I encountered at the U.S. ambassador to London’s Christmas drinks evoked quite different emotions. A year previously, her daughter had publicly confirmed that her mother was suffering from dementia; the initial symptoms appeared in 2000. I first saw the evidence of this deterioration at a photo shoot for TIME in 2006. A devoted assistant and a brace of security officers ushered a woman with disheveled hair and a crumpled face into the studio. As the hairdresser and makeup artist plied their skills, so the familiar, imposing figure emerged and with this transformation came renewed clarity and a graciousness that endeared her to the team working on the shoot. The only residual sign of her decline was her unshakeable conviction that Mikhail Gorbachev would shortly join us, no matter how many times I assured her he would not.

This was not simply the dementia talking. There had never been a plan to photograph the former leaders together, but TIME had photographed Gorbachev the day before, for an issue of the magazine featuring the Europeans who had done most to shape the world in the 20th century. Even before President Reagan, Thatcher spotted in Gorbachev, who became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, “a man we can do business with.” She helped persuade a skeptical Washington that glasnost and perestroika were for real, and that some at least in Moscow had understood that their bankrupt society could not continue in the ways that it had done before. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Europe’s annus mirabilis, she had her vindication.

Yet in a curious sense, the end of the Cold War was also her political undoing. She would not accept, as her contemporaries Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl did, that a new, post-Soviet architecture was needed in Europe. As the U.S. gratefully looked at Europe as “job done” and turned its attention to other matters in the world — the dysfunction and violence of the Middle East, the rise of China — she stood obdurate against the impulse toward closer political and economic integration of the European nations, helping to foster divisions in her own party that would eventually lead to her ouster and are once again widening the Channel between Britain and the rest of Europe. In November 1990, she lost the Conservative leadership and was driven from Downing Street with tears glistening in her eyes.

(MORE: Meryl as Maggie in The Iron Lady: A Stunt of Genius)

It was a rare defeat for someone who had beaten Britain’s class system and dusty attitudes to women in the workplace to rise to the summit of public life. Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in 1925, the daughter of a small-town storekeeper in Lincolnshire, a featureless county in the east of England. Devoted to her father — who served as an alderman and mayor in their town — she took a degree in chemistry at Oxford, where she first dabbled in Conservative Party politics. She married Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman, 10 years her senior, in 1951, and two years later gave birth to twins, Mark and Carol. After an arduous battle to convince her own party and voters that she had the right stuff to be a politician, she won a seat in Parliament for Finchley, a constituency in North London, in the 1959 election, and was quickly recognized for her intelligence and energy. From 1964 to ’70, the Labour Party governed Britain, but when the Tories, against the odds, won the 1970 election, Edward Heath, the new Prime Minister, made her Secretary of State for Education and Science. After Heath lost power in 1974, she ran against him as party leader in 1975 and, to the astonishment of Britain’s famous chattering classes, was successful. In 1979, as the minority Labour government of James Callaghan floundered and Britain’s antediluvian labor unions visited their grievances on long-suffering voters, her party won a decisive victory. She secured two more terms of office, in 1983 and ’87, extending her majority in the House of Commons on both occasions, at the time an unprecedented feat in modern British political history.

As Prime Minister, Thatcher was motivated by a few simple principles. Government regulation — and confiscatory taxation — neutered the animal spirits of capitalism; the world was a dangerous place, in which it paid to be on one’s guard; Britain was not finished; communism was an evil that threatened the world and stunted the life chances of those who had to live under its heel. But beyond that, she understood what it was that a significant strand of ordinary people wanted from political leaders: not necessarily ringing phrases and great speechifying (though she could certainly do that), but a sense that decent lives, decently lived, were worthwhile; that growing prosperity was not a sign of capitalism’s rapaciousness but the mechanism by which families could live a little better each year.

In the first few years of her first term in office, she squeezed inflation out of the British economy and made plain that those enterprises that could not compete in the modern world would not be rescued, as had been the case under her predecessors. Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, saw its smoke-blackened heartlands rendered into rust heaps. As unemployment climbed and riots broke out in the cities, her position appeared precarious. But by 1982, the economy was beginning to show the first signs of life. That spring, she refused to accept that the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands was a done deal and dispatched her armed forces across the Atlantic to fight a fierce little war. Triumphant, she won re-election in 1983 and then took on the coal miners — the vanguard of the old left-wing English working class — crushing them in a yearlong strike. Like many of her victories, the casualty toll was high, with communities blighted and families plunged into grinding poverty with no means of escape.

(MORE: Q&A With David Cameron: Why Britain Needs a ‘Compassionate Conservative’)

She had arrived in Downing Street in 1979 improbably quoting St. Francis of Assisi. “Where there is discord,” she intoned, “may we bring harmony; where there is error, may we bring truth; where there is doubt, may we bring faith; and where there is despair, may we bring hope.” She failed in the first objective at least, and the human costs of Thatcherism — and the unequal distribution of hope — mean she may prove almost as divisive in death as in life, as Britons squabble over her legacy. At her own request she will not be granted a state funeral, though many believe she deserves one.

There are those, like my friend, who feel a more appropriate response would be to dance on her grave. I cannot share that view, and not only because I believe Thatcher left Britain, on balance, in better shape than she found it. Politicians have forfeited public trust in recent years, relying too heavily on spin and connecting too little with voters. Thatcher’s greatest flaws — a strength of conviction that brooked few moderating influences, a strength of character that rendered her viscerally incapable of understanding human vulnerabilities — were also her greatest assets. There was little difference between the public figure and private one. She was motivated by her belief in what she could deliver to public office, not by what public office could deliver to her.

(MORE: The Queen Expresses Sadness Over Thatcher Death)

So when she clutched my arm at that Christmas drinks party, I wasn’t tempted to recoil. She seemed disoriented and a little anxious. Now even the teased hair and mask of makeup couldn’t disguise that she had become the sort of person she once least understood: someone incapable of looking after herself. A colleague attempted to engage her in conversation about world affairs, but she stared at him, blankly. I commented instead on her clothing. In recent years she had taken to wearing shades of deep rose and magenta instead of her signature blue. “I do think pink is such a friendly color,” she said.

The 2011 biopic The Iron Lady focused on the poignancy of Thatcher’s declining years. While Meryl Streep’s performance in the title role was uncannily accurate, the film’s depiction of Thatcher’s legacy was far less so. That she overcame obstacles of class and sex to rise to power tempered her resolve, but it isn’t the reason she will be remembered as one of the most significant leaders of the 20th century.

By standing shoulder to shoulder with Reagan and calling Soviet communism for what it was — a cruel sham, an economic failure — she helped liberate those Russians and East Europeans who had spent generations with their dreams on hold. Many of her own countrymen will never accept that she performed a similar function for Britons. She was not an empathetic person, not one to suffer fools gladly (or at all), not one who could appreciate that men, women and families could imagine different ways to a satisfying life from the one that she thought best. She was hardheaded, perhaps hard-hearted. She was that most polarizing of beings: a conviction politician. In our current age of weak leaders transfixed by oncoming global crises like rabbits in the headlights, it’s sobering to realize that the Lady’s not for returning.

MORE: Milestones in the Life of Margaret Thatcher

43 comments
SamSweden
SamSweden

The legacy of Margaret Thatcher is that she divided the British Society: The rich got richer and the poor, poorer...this is why we will witness a state, almost royal funeral, performed by the British upper class, while the majority of the British working class have a different attitude of her demise. As for the statement of "KUHOOPS" here below, that Thatcher supported Liberty and Freedom...!!! with due respect "kuhoops", I find your statement untrue...May I remind you that Thatcher4 supported the criminal regime of Pinochet, she also supported the Apartheid regime of South Africa, shamefully calling Nelson Mandella a terrorist

TomMutton
TomMutton

Catherine in reading your article on Margaret Thatcher I could not help but think; if you used as few words, on the terrible means Chairman Mao used to change China, you could  write the same about him. She declared war on Britain and it was not a just war...people forget that Britain was just starting to come out of the horror that the British people had undergone from  two great wars. This had left them with debit levels that had not been seen until now; the outcome of  deregulation of markets, which is Thatcherism. She had so little insight that when challenged about not being in a war she replied, "You are wrong, I have been at a war every day of my life". That this great society which had suffered and given so much in resent years should be told that there was no such thing as society was insulting and insightless.  No market would have won WW11. But this lack of basic human wisdom and compassion came through then she sort to compare what she would do as Prime Minster to St Francis. This person like Mao thought that the outcome justified the means. She was at best ignorant which relates to sinfulness or at worst evil. But the responsibility for what she was allowed to do rests with those who elected her. As my father said if you live in a democracy you have an obligation to be informed. War should be a last resort to protect a society, business and markets run on greed and fear and regulated greatly help to develop our societies but neither is a way to run a society; this Margaret Thatcher did not understand. I have read that she believed the PM's before her lost an empire and that she saw one of the main causes that the communism failed, if only history was so simple. Thatcherism, the rule of markets, came from a narrow simple mind and is followed by ill-informed and the simple-minded who don't take responsibility for their own lives. St Frances served them Margaret Thatcher waged war on them.

KanmiIyanda
KanmiIyanda

From the Lows of a shabby policy on issues like South Africa and the mining communities of the North of England, to the Highs of the Falklands War and the pull-back of the UK from economic and social precipice, Margaret Thatcher will forever be remembered as the most divisive British PM of all time.

In the end, her strengths turned out to be her weaknesses....in a way, it was a classic tale of Ego, Hubris and finally, Nemesis.

RIP Iron Lady

Read more at: http://www.kanmiiyanda.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/margaret-thatcher-and-division-of-memory.html

mkwrk2
mkwrk2

The following was my comment submitted a few hours ago to uk.gov Book of Condolences prior to recently accessing this comprehensive article:

“Whatever personal attitudes towards deceased's ideas and deeds could be, Margaret Thatcher's political passion, clarity and strong conviction in universality outcomes from her conclusions to bring about worldwide impress me forever since hearing her a first time.

Rest in peace, Iron Lady.”

Michael Kerjman

TerryDunleavy
TerryDunleavy

Thank you for such a perceptive and moving summary of a great and era-defining life.

Terry Dunleavy, Auckland, New Zealand

NicholeHoward18
NicholeHoward18

up to I looked at the paycheck for $6293, I didn't believe that...my... neighbours mother woz like they say actualy erning money part time from their computer.. there neighbor started doing this 4 less than eighteen months and at present cleard the morgage on their house and bought a new Fiat Panda. we looked here, Great60.comCHECK IT OUT

Tero
Tero

Farewell and Good Riddance; Iron Biatch! You will not be missed.

Sinibaldi
Sinibaldi

Le chant des feuilles désolées.


Le chant de

la première

nostalgie m'appelle,

quand le son

de la neige

encore disparaît;

cette image

invente une

poésie, le souffle

du soleil dans

la voix de la

mer.... 


Francesco Sinibaldi


paulejb
paulejb

Leftists still mourning the demise of the Soviet Union will be unmoved by the death of the Magnificent Maggie. They will never forgive her for aiding in the overthrow of their spiritual homeland.

paulejb
paulejb

Margaret Thatcher was the last of true larger than life leaders. The world is now being lead by small people with little vision or courage.

paulejb
paulejb

The last living member of the triumvirate that brought down the evil empire has gone to her reward. She now joins Ronald Reagan and John Paul II in the pantheon of defenders of human freedom. God bless you, Maggie. It was well done of you.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

For kicking the ass of those patheitc Argenentinians I commend her... The Falklands was a triumph and screw Argentina for being such whiners and wimps... They were are formidable as a sack of potatoes.

She was a hell of a Lady

PuritaFleschhut
PuritaFleschhut

The Iron Lady has flown into the sunset. Rest in peace Frau Thatcher.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Much like Reagan, whether you like them or not, left an imprint on our modern world. Their legacy - good or bad - will be with us for a lil' bit more.

Georgina
Georgina

RIP to a very strong willed lady, she has left a great legacy, its a pity the people in parliament cannot work for the Country as she did.

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

Revelation 2:27
‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron.

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

John 11:25

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

RIP, Margaret Thatcher.

...and thanks, Catherine. Most obits read facts with some honorable comments but your inclusion of clashing opinions best shows how polarizing Thatcher's politics were to folks. That's refreshing, and I wouldn't be surprised if she wanted it that way. I read in Sarah Bradford's biography of the Queen that Queen Elizabeth and PM Thatcher rather clashed, but husbands Denis Thatcher and Prince Philip got along quite well and enjoyed each other's company over drinks. It's interesting how personal dynamics often play out.

john.sinclair
john.sinclair

Pinochet and all the dictators and genocides he so much loved and cherished around the world are waiting her in hell

kuhoops
kuhoops

@TomMutton Hey Tom ... on comparing Margaret Thatcher to Chairman Mao I think you're forgetting the 70,000,000 dead Chinese under the autocratic rule of Mao and the communists.  Thatcher supported Liberty and Freedom, the exact opposite of Mao and the communists.  No matter how much you disagreed with her policies, there is no comparison between the two.  The fact that you think so says a lot more about you than her.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@Georgina 


RIP???? Really, considering the dramatic societal damage she inflicted. I hope Dante has created a special place in Hell for her. 

Padmore
Padmore

@deconstructiva I would argue the article still glosses over quite how controversial she still is. I live in the North East and she is vitriolically loathed by most people. Ken Livingston I think explains this loathing in the most mild manner possible when he says

 "She created today's housing crisis. She created the banking crisis. And she created the benefits crisis. It was her government that started putting people on incapacity benefit rather than register them as unemployed because the Britain she inherited was broadly full employment. She decided when she wrote off our manufacturing industry that she could live with two or three million unemployed, and the benefits bill, the legacy of that, we are struggling with today. In actual fact, every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact that she was fundamentally wrong."

reallife
reallife

@john.sinclair  Thanks to leaders like her you can still spew that nonsense without being sent to the gulag - 

Rest in peace Iron Lady, and thanks.



TomMutton
TomMutton

@kuhoops @TomMutton kuhoops you remind me of Francis Pym quote about Margaret Thatcher, "She likes everything to be clear-cut, absolutely in favour of one thing, absolutely against another" You have to love her and Thatcherites  for their childlike simplicity.

TomMutton
TomMutton

@kuhoops @TomMutton I totally agree with your last two lines. We can remain free to express our views in our great democracies and allow history to be the judge. Cheers. 

kuhoops
kuhoops

@TomMutton @kuhoops I thought you were taking your ball and going home.  You say you missed the argument, I say you missed the point.  I wasn't the one who brought Mao into the equation ... now you back away from it.  That's a good thing because such a comparison - whether you intended it or not - is patently unfair.

You have also failed in your attempt to read my mind.  I'm a proud Ronald Reagan supporter.

I'm not going to debate the Iraq war here, but as Patrick Moynihan said "You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts".  Every intelligence agency in the world, including the Mossad thought that Saddam Hussein had WMD's.

In any case, glad we have this forum to joust.  It's clear we won't agree, but it's good to have the exchange,

TomMutton
TomMutton

@kuhoops

Further reflections on Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher on the day of her funeral:

Sir you like Margaret Thatcher and George Bush went off on your own personal crusade starting by disregarding of the facts. The fact is I never compared Mao to Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher followed her own personal view of Friedrick Hayek works, a great deal excellent, in the face of an overwhelming response from economists who wrote to her that what she was doing was based on a poor understanding of economic theory. Had she intervened using what Keynes and Hayek agreed on, and that was much, the outcome would have been far less destructive, we may not be in the debt crisis we have today and the positives would still be here. President Bush fulfilled his personal belief that the US should intervene to remove the Iraqi leadership by ignoring the advice that the facts he was using to go to war were wrong. This he was advised by Germany, France, Turkey, Israel and most within his own and British intelligence community. When we stop using facts to build our case we soon start making up or selecting facts (sic) to suit the ends. Many then pay an undeserving price and it divides our great societies in very destructible ways; I guess that is not a problem for anyone who does not believe societies exist. We do in our societies, thanks to our great democracies, overcome such terrible mistakes by taking the positives from the outcomes left and forge on as we continue to do today. But to stand by and watch the canonization (Catherine you were not one of those) of Margaret Thatcher by the British upper class lead by a break in tradition with the Queen leading the honors is a bridge too far. Clement Attlee who brought in such a positive change, one agreed with by Friedrick Hayek, to the UK and now much of the world, a National Health Service, was not honored by the Queen in such a way in 1967. I hope this over the top provocation by The Queen and the Tories does not provoke those terrible hurts by Margaret Thatcher into equality poor responses to this tragically flawed person.

We can see from the work of Albert Ellis and others that we humans are born deluded and few, if any, achieve rationality. We more often disregard the truth of a situation and develop our feelings and actions from what we tell ourself.

We can thank the work of the great minds of humankind that we govern our societies with the checks of cabinets, parties, oppositions, bureaucracies and the personal interests and values of voters to govern ourselves and not a dictatorship or a Royalty. Unfortunately it took the poll tax for the majority of all these groups, we should remember they all turned against her, to understand the depth of the self-delusion that drove her conviction in her own right, along with her use of the royal “we”.

TomMutton
TomMutton

@kuhoops @TomMutton Argument, I missed that. But then Margaret Thatcher allowed no discussion even in her own cabinet, she sacked anyone who did not fall in behind her view. That Sir is not argument. Maybe you could have expressed it better in the words of another great thinker I'm sure you support and who left a mess as terrible as the Margaret Thatcher, I know I can,"mission accomplished"

kuhoops
kuhoops

@TomMutton @kuhoops More name calling!  That, sir, is the last refuge of someone whose lost the argument......


TomMutton
TomMutton

@kuhoops @TomMutton I explained why I thought Margaret Thatcher was wrong and  I have ended up here...I think I will take my ball and go home,,,it's pointless; but I will let Dr. Johnson be my last word,"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"

kuhoops
kuhoops

@TomMutton @kuhoops  "childlike simplicity" ... I'm cut to the quick!  There's nothing simple about Freedom and Liberty.  They're straightforward concepts, but hardly simple.