Obit of the Day: “The Iron Lady”
Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest serving prime minister of the 20th century, died on April 8, 2013 at the age of 87. Mrs. Thatcher was also the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister in the country’s history.
During her eleven years at 10 Downing Street (1979-1990) Mrs. Thatcher would earn international praise for her handling of foreign affairs, especially working with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union began to crumble.
Mrs. Thatcher who grew up the daughter of a grocer would attend Oxford University and study chemistry. While at Oxford she was elected the president of the university’s Conservative Association.
She ran for office for the first time in 1950, and again in 1951, losing in a strong Labour (liberal) district. She was only 25 at the time. (During this time she was also working as a chemist, studying law, and passing the bar exam.)
In 1959 she was elected to Parliament from Finchley (northern London) and was seen as a rising star in the Conservative Party. She would continue to climb the political ladder. Appointed to her first national post under Prime Minister Edward Heath as Education Minister, who lost the general election in 1974 after only one term, Mrs. Thatcher came through relatively unscathed. (Though in her first year she was called “Thatcher, the milk snatcher” by the Labour party for eliminating the school free milk program.)
The following year Margaret Thatcher was the first woman selected as leader of any British political party and under the term of PM James Callaghan she was the “leader of the Opposition.” Only two years earlier Mrs. Thatcher said, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” She was wrong.
Swept into office by economic concerns Mrs. Thatcher would spent much of her first two terms working to bring about a recovery. (It did not happen quickly as unemployment did not fall until well into her second term. In addition, although a staunchly anti-tax conservative, Mrs. Thatcher allowed for certain tax increases to control inflation.)
But Mrs. Thatcher earned her greatest recognition for her foreign and military policy. In April 1982 Argentina invaded the disputed Falkland Islands and the British responded with force taking back the islands in only two months. It led to an increase in her popularity and a landslide victory for Conservatives in the next general election.
Conflict with Northern Ireland was a pressing, and violent, issue while Mrs. Thatcher was in office, She would deal with the 1981 IRA hunger strike. In public Mrs. Thatcher refused to negotiate with IRA prisoners who had demanded reforms in the prisons. Beginning in March 1981 and lasting until October 3 ten IRA members died. It hurt Mrs. Thatcher’s reputation in Northern Ireland and led to increased support for the IRA political arm - Sinn Fein. (Ironically, Mrs. Thatcher’s administration did try to negotiate an end to the strikes in return for concessions but her refusal to make that public tarnished her reputation forever amongst many Irish Catholics.) In 1984 she narrowly avoided a bombing at a Brighton hotel set to kill her.
Her work with President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War truly built her international reputation. Mrs. Thatcher was strongly anti-Soviet from the moment she became leader of the Conservative party. (it was the Soviets who nicknamed her “the Iron Lady” for a strongly worded speech she delivered in 1976.) President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher would strengthen the resolve of both the U.S. and the U.K. to speak out against the U.S.S.R. and build up militarily while simultaneously negotiatiing with Secretary Gorbachev.
When Secretary Gorbachev visited the prime minister in 1984 she began a Cold War thaw by stating that she liked Mr. Gorbachev and telling an interviewer, “we can do business together.” (Mr. Gorbachev signalled his interest in a new U.S.S.R. with the introduction of glasnost, which called for increased transparency and accountability in the Soviet government and perestroika a restructuring of the political and economic systems in the country.)
The Soviet Union would not officially fall until 1991 but most historians srecognize that Mrs. Thatcher played an important role in ending the Cold War.
Margaret Thatcher resigned from party leadership in November 1990. During her retirement she wrote two memoirs The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power, Her health began to deteriorate in 2002 when she suffered a series of small strokes. A party was held for her 80th birthday and Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance.
In 1995 she was awarded the Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest order of chivalry. President George H.W. Bush, President Reagan’s Vice-President, awarded Mrs. Thatcher the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. And January 10 is celebrated as Margaret Thatcher Day in the Falkland Islands.
(Image of Margaret Thatcher, 1993, copyright Helmut Newton and courtesy of margaretthatcher.org)