THE BIG READ: A giant in a twin set - Times LIVE
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THE BIG READ: A giant in a twin set

Stephen Addison and Adrian Croft | 2013-04-09 01:30:21.0

Margaret Thatcher was a towering figure in British 20th-century politics, a grocer's daughter with a steely resolve who was loved and loathed in equal measure as she crushed the unions and privatised vast swathes of industry.

"The Iron Lady", as she was known, died yesterday, aged 87, after a stroke.

During her life in politics some worshipped her as a moderniser who transformed the country, others bitterly accused her of entrenching the divide between the rich and the poor.

The abiding images of Thatcher's premiership will remain those of conflict: huge police confrontations with the miners' union, her riding in a tank in a white headscarf, and flames rising above Trafalgar Square in the riots in protest at an unpopular local tax that ultimately led to her downfall.

To those who opposed her, she was blunt to a degree - "The lady's not for turning", she once famously informed members of her own Conservative Party, who were urging her to moderate her policies.

Others who crossed her path, particularly in Europe, were subjected to withering diatribes, often referred to as "handbaggings" for the black leather bag she invariably carried.

Britain's only woman prime minister led the Conservatives to three consecutive election victories, governing from 1979 to 1990, the longest continuous period in office by a British prime minister since the early 19th century.

With US President Ronald Reagan, she formed a strong alliance against communism and was rewarded by seeing the Berlin Wall torn down in 1989, though she worried that a unified Germany would dominate Europe.

Her right-wing views broke the mould of British politics, changing the status quo so profoundly that even subsequent Labour governments accepted many of her policies.

The woman who became known simply as "Maggie" transferred big chunks of the economy from state hands into private ownership.

"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money," she once said.

Her personal credo, founded on competition, private enterprise, thrift and self-reliance, gave birth to a political philosophy known as "Thatcherism".

But her tough economic medicine put millions out of work and destroyed industries such as mining.

Her combative stance antagonised allies in Europe and her intolerance of dissent eventually led to her downfall.

"A brilliant tyrant surrounded by mediocrities" was how former premier Harold Macmillan described her.

"That bloody woman" was the less charitable verdict of Edward Heath, another former prime minister and her predecessor as Conservative Party leader.

A workaholic, she put in 18-hour days, after which she would relax over a glass of whisky.

After winning the May 3 1979 election, she launched social and economic reforms designed to end industrial decline, crippling taxes and intrusive state control, a period under the Labour government that had become known as the "winter of discontent".

Fighting inflation-boosting pay rises and modernising the economy meant curbing the power of organised labour.

After changes to the law and a bitter year-long strike that ended in defeat for the miners in 1985, the days when unions could dictate to British governments were over.

Britain held its breath in 1982 when Thatcher dispatched a naval task force to the Falkland Islands, which had been seized by Argentina. Despite losing several warships, the British reclaimed the islands 74 days later. A total of 649 Argentines and 255 British troops were killed.

An opinion poll in 1981 rated Thatcher Britain's most disliked prime minister of all time. But, two years later, after the Falklands war, she was swept back to power on a wave of patriotism, and in 1987 her third successive election victory gave her another big majority in parliament.

Thatcher ushered in an era of "popular capitalism" that raised home ownership in Britain to 68% and made one person in five a shareholder.

She launched a sweeping drive to privatise state monopolies such as gas, oil, steel, telephones, airports and British Airways, with electricity and water to follow.

But while Thatcherism made many better off, unemployment had doubled by the mid-1980s to more than 3million - a level not seen since the 1930s. Opponents said Thatcher had created a nation divided between the wealthier south and the poorer north.

It was the Soviet Communist Party daily newspaper Pravda that dubbed Thatcher "The Iron Lady", but she revelled in the nickname.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, however, she formed a strong working relationship with him.

After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Thatcher famously cautioned US President George Bush against being "wobbly" in opposing Saddam Hussein.

She demanded a huge refund on Britain's contributions to the European budget and brought European Community business to a virtual standstill until she got it.

She suffered a series of mild strokes in late 2001 and 2002, after which she cut back on public appearances and later cancelled her speaking schedule.

Her decline into dementia was chronicled in the Oscar-winning film The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep. - Reuters


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