LONDON — Love her or loathe her, one thing’s beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.
The Iron Lady, who ruled for 11 remarkable years, imposed her will on a fractious, rundown nation – breaking the unions, triumphing in a far-off war, and selling off state industries at a record pace. She left behind a leaner government and more prosperous nation by the time a political mutiny ousted her from No. 10 Downing Street.
Thatcher’s spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister died from a stroke Monday morning at the Ritz hotel in London.
As flags were flown at half-staff at Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Downing Street for the 87-year-old, praise for Thatcher and her leadership poured in from around the world.
“Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly was one of the most remarkable political figures of the modern world,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Obama said many Americans “will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President (Ronald) Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history. We can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”
Queen Elizabeth II authorized a ceremonial funeral – a step short of a state funeral – to be held for Thatcher at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London next week with military honors.
Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a trip to Madrid and Paris to return to Britain following news of Thatcher’s death, and said Parliament would be recalled from recess on Wednesday so lawmakers could pay tribute.
For admirers, Thatcher was a savior who rescued Britain from ruin and laid the groundwork for an extraordinary economic renaissance. For critics, she was a heartless tyrant who ushered in an era of greed that kicked the weak out onto the streets and let the rich become filthy rich.
Thatcher was the first – and still only – female prime minister in Britain’s history. But she often found feminists tiresome.
A grocer’s daughter, she rose to the top of Britain’s snobbish hierarchy the hard way, and envisioned a classless society that rewarded hard work and determination.
Like her close friend and political ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher seemed motivated by an unshakable belief that free markets would build a better country than reliance on a strong, central government. Another thing she shared with the American president: a tendency to reduce problems to their basics, choose a path, and follow it to the end, no matter what the opposition.
She formed a deep attachment to the man she called “Ronnie” – some spoke of it as a schoolgirl crush. Still, she would not back down when she disagreed with him on important matters, even though the United States was the richer and vastly stronger partner in the so-called “special relationship.”
Thatcher was at her brashest when Britain was challenged. When Argentina’s military junta seized the remote Falklands Islands from Britain in 1982, she did not hesitate, even though her senior military advisers said it might not be feasible to reclaim the islands.
In deciding on war, Thatcher overruled Foreign Office specialists who warned her about the dangers of striking back. She was infuriated by warnings about the dangers to British citizens in Argentina and the difficulty of getting support from the U.N. Security Council.
“When you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out with an iron will to overcome them,” she said in her memoir, Downing Street Years.
“And anyway what was the alternative? That a common or garden dictator should rule over the queen’s subjects and prevail by fraud and violence? Not while I was prime minister.”
Thatcher’s determination to reclaim the islands brought her into conflict with Reagan, who dispatched Secretary of State Alexander Haig on a shuttle mission to London and Buenos Aires to seek a peaceful solution, even as British warships approached the Falklands.
The relatively quick triumph of British forces revived Thatcher’s political fortunes, which had been faltering along with the British economy. She won an overwhelming victory in 1983, tripling her majority in the House of Commons.
After leading the Conservative Party to victory in 1979,
Thatcher set about upending decades of liberal doctrine, successfully challenging Britain’s welfare state and socialist traditions, becoming reviled by the country’s left wing.
She is perhaps best remembered for her hardline position during the pivotal strike in 1984 and 1985 when she faced down coal miners in an ultimately successful bid to break the power of Britain’s unions. Her reshaping of the British economic and political landscape that endures to this day.
She survived an audacious 1984 assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army that nearly succeeded. The IRA detonated a bomb in her hotel in Brighton during a party conference, killing and injuring senior government figures, but leaving the prime minister and her husband unharmed.
Thatcher won a third term in another landslide in 1987, but may have become overconfident.
She trampled over cautionary advice from her own ministers in 1989 and 1990 by imposing a hugely controversial “community charge” tax that was quickly dubbed a “poll tax” by opponents. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in London and other cities, leading to some of the worst riots in the British capital in more than a century.
Eight months after the riots, Thatcher was gone, struggling to hold back tears as she left Downing Street after being ousted by her own party.
It was a bitter end for Thatcher’s active political career – her family said she felt a keen sense of betrayal even years later.
She suffered from dementia in her final years, and her public appearances became increasingly rare.
She is survived by her two children, Mark Thatcher and Carol Thatcher, and her two grandchildren.