Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has died of a stroke at the age of 87. She was the most important British politician of the post-war period.
Margaret Thatcher was the politician by whom all her successors are measured. Both Conservative and Labour leaders are still defined - and often define themselves - by their stand on the mix of policies that became known as Thatcherism.
One of the most influential leaders of the 20th century, and Britain's longest-serving prime minister, she had famously modest origins. She was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925, in the small town of Grantham, Lincolnshire. Her father was a grocer and Methodist lay preacher who was actively involved in local politics.
The young Margaret studied Natural Sciences at Oxford, becoming president of the university's student Conservative Association. After graduating, she continued to pursue her interest in politics while working as a research chemist.
She was selected as the Conservative candidate in a safe Labour constituency, where she stood unsuccessfully in the elections of both 1950 and 1951. In 1951 she also married Denis Thatcher, a divorcee and a successful businessman, and started to study law, qualifying as a barrister in 1953 and specializing in taxation. Her twins, Carol and Mark, were born that same year.
She was finally elected to parliament in 1959 as Member for Finchley in North London, and became a junior minister. When the Conservatives went into opposition in 1964 she was made their spokeswoman on Housing and Land, promoting the right of local authority tenants to buy their own homes, a policy she successfully implemented when she eventually came to power. An estimated 2 million council tenants have gone on to become home owners, at the cost of sharply reducing the stock of social housing.
When the Conservatives returned to power in 1970, Thatcher was promoted to Education Secretary. Told to make cuts in her department, she stopped free school milk for primary school children, winning herself the famous headline: "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher."
The 1973 oil crisis and two miners' strikes brought down the government of Edward Heath, and Thatcher stood successfully against her former ally for the leadership of the Conservatives. She was the first woman ever to lead a major British political party - and then, in 1979, became the UK's first female prime minister, winning the election against a Labour government which, like that of Heath before it, had failed to solve the problem of ongoing industrial unrest.
Thatcherism, as her political ideology came to be known, was characterized by an emphasis on low inflation, privatization, a free market economy, control of the money supply, and controlling the power of the labor movement. It was to have a profound and lasting effect on British society.
Not all Conservatives agreed with the tough line Thatcher pursued in order to break the trades unions, but they were dismissed as "wets." At the 1980 party conference she warned against a change of policy with the famous quip: "You turn if you want to - the lady's not for turning."
She was said to have liked her nickname "The Iron Lady," bestowed upon her by a Soviet newspaper in 1976. Thatcher was a staunch ally and friend of her American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, throughout the Cold War, allowing the United States to deploy nuclear missiles in Britain and tripling the UK's nuclear forces with US Trident nuclear-armed submarines.
Winning in the Falklands, and at home
On April 2, 1982, the military junta in Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands. Thatcher dispatched a naval task force, and two months later Argentina surrendered. The victory ensured her re-election in a Conservative landslide the following year.
In her second term, Thatcher continued to implement her stringent monetary policies, including stepping up the privatization of state industries. Millions of ordinary people were encouraged to buy shares in industries such as British Telecom, British Gas, Rolls-Royce and British Airways as they were sold off. Deregulation of the UK financial markets led to an economic boom, and boosted the City of London's status as the center of international financial trade.
Thatcher's hard-line approach extended to the conflict in Northern Ireland. On October 12, 1984, the IRA bombed a Brighton hotel where she was staying for a party conference. Five people were killed, but Thatcher escaped unharmed and delivered her speech as planned. The following year Thatcher and the Irish premier Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in the governance of Northern Ireland for the first time.
Opposed to German reunification
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, Thatcher found an unlikely ally in the Communist leader: "We can do business together," she said. She was, however, initially opposed to German reunification, telling Gorbachev two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall that it "would lead to a change in post-war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security."
Thatcher's "Iron Lady" stance was eventually to prove her downfall. Her refusal to back down in the face of furious popular opposition to the so-called "Poll Tax" undermined her standing at home. Then, ever skeptical where Brussels was concerned, she gave a speech in 1990 stoutly rejecting any increase in the power of what was then the European Community. The speech outraged many of her colleagues, and moved two prominent Conservative ministers to rise up against her. Her defeat was a bitter blow. "It was treachery with a smile on its face," she said later.
Thatcher announced her resignation, and was succeeded by John Major, who went on to win the next election in 1992. She stood down as an MP that year and was made a life peer, becoming Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. She continued to attend debates in the House of Lords, wrote two volumes of memoirs, campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty, and condemned ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces during the war in Bosnia. In 1998 she controversially stood by the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, speaking of the "debt" the UK owed to him over help given during the Falklands War.
In 2002 Thatcher suffered several small strokes and was advised not to do any more public speaking. She also began to suffer from dementia. She did, however, occasionally appear in public, notably for the unveiling of a bronze statue of herself in the House of Commons in 2007. "I might have preferred iron," was her response, "but bronze will do. It won't rust."