13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
4 May 1979 – 28 November 1990
At the age of 87, The Baroness Thatcher, arguably Britain’s greatest peacetime Prime Minister, passed away. According to her spokesman Tim Bell, she died of a stroke at the Ritz Hotel, having suffered from dementia for years and been in poor health for months.
Her passing marks the end of a meteoric career that took her to the very pinnacle of power in British politics. Mrs. Thatcher was the first woman to become prime minister of Britain, leading her Conservative Party to three straight election wins and holding office for a period of 11 years – longer than any other British prime minister in the 20th century.
Inheriting a country that was beset by inflation, budget deficits and industrial unrest, her strong economic medicine for an ailing Britain – reducing the role of the state and boosting the free market – was exactly the prescription the country needed. When rumblings started coming from her own Conservative Party colleagues about potential defeat at the ballot box, Thatcher was unmoved. “I am not a consensus politician,” she said. “I am a conviction politician”. Her policy agenda with its emphasis on individual responsibility and unleashing entrepreneurial creativity came to be branded as “Thatcherism”.
Thatcher’s government introduced bills to cut taxes, curb union militancy, privatise state industries and allow council home tenants to buy their houses.
Millions of people who had once had no or little stake in the economy now found themselves able to own their own homes, and buy shares in former state-owned enterprises. The ‘Big Bang’ catapulted the City of London to its position as one of the world’s leading financial centres, a distinction that it retains to this day.
By early 1982, Thatcher’s tenacity had paid off, and the economy began to respond to her changes, and her standing among the British electorate also shifted. But on April 2 in 1982, one of the biggest tests of her leadership occurred: the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentine troops. Located in the South Atlantic, the Falklands are a British territory, but the Argentines have had a long-standing sovereignty claim over the island, claiming it had inherited them from Spain in 1800s and citing its proximity to South America.
However, the United Kingdom, which had ruled the islands for 150 years, chose the course of decisive military action. For Thatcher, it didn’t matter that the territory lay almost 13, 000 kilometres away, and had only 1, 800 inhabitants. They were “of British tradition and stock”, and so, in the biggest UK naval operation since the Second World War, a task force was dispatched to reclaim the island. They were ultimately successful, recapturing the capital of Port Stanley on June 14. However, there had been a heavy price to pay: 255 British and 655 Argentine servicemen, as well as 3 Falkland Islanders, died in the conflict.
Throughout the Falklands War, Thatcher wore black. Wanting to always be kept abreast of the latest developments, she stayed awake through the night, taking 20-minute catnaps in the day and catching up on sleep during the weekend. The plight of British soldiers fighting in the Falklands weighed heavily on her, and she ended up writing hand-written letters to the families of every fallen soldier.
British success in the Falklands combined with a Labour Party in disarray ensured that the Conservatives were returned to power in a landslide victory for a second term.
The following spring, the National Union of Mineworkers called for a nationwide strike. However, Thatcher would not c give in. Her government had built up substantial stocks of coal at power stations in advance of the industrial action, and following brutal clashes between pickets and police, the strike eventually collapsed.
In Northern Ireland, Mrs Thatcher faced down IRA hunger strikers, and although she attempted to ease sectarian tensions by offering Dublin a role, peace efforts collapsed under the weight of Unionist opposition.
Her clashes with the IRA escalated to a deadly and personal enmity, and she became the first British prime minister to be the subject of an IRA assassination attempt. A bomb ripped through the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative Party conference, killing 5 and injuring 30, with many of those injured maimed for life. Thatcher ,of course, managed to survive.
Her reaction however, was typically Thatcherite. She refused to beintimidated, defiantly addressing the conference on the same day: “This attack has failed. All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”. Thatcher would eventually push through the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, in the face of furious opposition from Unionists, paving the way for a constructive role for the Dublin government in the peace process.
Abroad, Margaret Thatcher was an ardent advocate for democracy and Britain as a great power on the world stage. Finding a kindred spirit in her conservative counterpart US President Ronald Reagan, they worked to strengthen the West’s nuclear defenses during the Cold War.
She fiercely opposed the Soviet bloc, sympathising with dissident movements behind the Iron Curtain in places like Czechoslovakia and Poland. She would ultimately be given the sobriquet of the “Iron Lady” by the Soviet press, a title that has stuck. But she also knew when to temper the use of force with diplomatic tact. She recognised Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man we can do business with”, even before he was elevated to the helm of Soviet leadership.
Back home, with the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock still reeling from in-fighting, the Conservatives won an unprecedented third term at the 1987 general election. But the issue of closer ties with Europe eventually brought about her downfall. After a summit in Rome, she ripped into her European counterparts, refusing to countenance any increase in the power of the European Community and outraging many of her colleagues.
Sir Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s Deputy Prime Minister and her longest-serving member of Cabinet, seized the moment to deliver a devastating resignation speech and invite challengers to her leadership.
Vowing to fight on, Thatcher was eventually persuaded by close colleagues that she would lose a leadership contest. She used the next cabinet meeting to announce her resignation, reminiscing bitterly later: “It was treachery with a smile on its face”. John Major was elected as her successor and Thatcher returned to the backbenches. She finally stepped down as an MP in 1992, following a fourth consecutive victory by the Conservatives at the ballot box.
Thatcher inherited an economically stagnating Britain, and surmounted the courage to push through the reforms that it so desperately needed, even if many weren’t able to swallow it. It paid off, with Britain regaining ground in the 1980s, and for the next two decades out-performing countries like America, Germany and Japan.
Her foreign policy gave Britain back its prominent standing on the world stage. It was guided by principle, opposing Argentine aggression in the Falklands, Saddam Hussein’s invasion in Kuwait and Soviet oppression behind the Iron Curtain. But her principles were tempered by realism, as illustrated by her embracing of her Soviet counterpart Gorbachev.
To people who lived during her time in power, she dominated the political landscape. Their children grew up learning in school how she redefined Britain. For unborn generations to come, Thatcher’s life and accomplishments will be relived in the books of history. RIP.