Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first – and only - female Prime Minister, was the longest-serving British leader of the 20th century. Joanna Andrews pays tribute to the Iron Lady who died on April 8, aged 87.
Baroness Margaret Thatcher changed the face of Britain. The Conservative Prime Minister came to power in 1979 at a time when the country was in the “winter of discontent”, crippled by trade unions and national strikes and when the Cold War was casting a dark cloud over Europe.
Her job at Number 10 Downing Street seemed a daunting task; her tenure started when inflation was high, unemployment was even higher and the unions were untamable – or so it was believed – until they met their match. Cutting no corners, Thatcher stripped the unions of their powers and eventually privatised British industry – from steel to gas, telecoms to water. Tens of billions of pounds of much-needed funds were raised from the plan. But she didn’t stop there. Not only did she revoluntionise the social order in her country but her reach went much further. With her close ally, US President Ronald Reagan, with whom she built a “special relationship”, she helped the West win the Cold War – bringing the curtain down on the crumbling Soviet empire. She was also fiercely opposed to closer political ties with Europe and very much against a single European currency.
And when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, Thatcher barely blinked an eye before sending a 25,000-strong military task force to reclaim the small colony 8,000 miles from home. The conflict lasted 74 days. The Falklands victory helped secure her image at home and abroad. Thatcherism was well and truly born. It is no surprise that on news of her death, the tributes from leading figures around the world flooded in.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Margaret Thatcher didn't just lead our country, she saved our country, and I believe she'll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister”.
He added, “Margaret Thatcher took a country that was on its knees and made Britain stand tall again. She was the patriot prime minister. When people said Britain could not be great again, she proved them wrong.”
US President Barack Obama said, “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend. She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered”.
Reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered his condolences saying, “Margaret Thatcher was a heavyweight politician and a striking person. She will remain in our memories, and in history.”80
But sadly, anarchist groups celebrated news of her death by holding parties and the social media response to her demise from anti-Thatcher protesters was equally as shocking. The 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz’s ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ made it to number two in the UK charts, 74 years after it was first aired. There was also an increase in sales to the 1961 cover version of the song by Ella Fitzgerald.
Thatcher was a woman with the strongest of morals who gave no leeway to terrorism whatsoever, and soon became the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) number one target. At 2.54am on October 12, 1984, she had just finished working in her room at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when a bomb exploded destroying much of the building and killing five friends and colleagues attending the Conservative Party conference. After she emerged from the wreckage, at 4am, she announced that the conference would start as planned five hours letter. To her word, at 9.30am she appeared defiantly on the platform. In her keynote speech she said, “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
A statement from the IRA on the same day read, “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.” She knew how lucky she was, telling reporters, “This was the day I was never meant to see.”
BRITAIN’S FIRST LADY
Thatcher herself never dreamed of becoming Prime Minister. How could she? In the early 1970s British politics was very much dominated by men. She once said, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” She proved even herself wrong. Britain’s one and only female prime minister went on to win three consecutive general elections.
Words like courage, radicalism, arrogance and toughness have been used to describe Thatcher. It was her strength and ability to make tough decisions that earned her the title, the ‘Iron Lady’ – a label first used by the Russians.
The Iron Lady wasn’t born into wealth and power. Margaret Hilda Roberts came into the world in 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire at the time of the Depression. She was the youngest daughter of Alfred, a corner-shop grocer and Beatrice, a seamstress.
Her education cannot be faulted. She took elocution lessons at school and later read chemistry at Oxford - a major achievement for a woman of her origins at that time. It was in Oxford that she joined the university’s Conservative Association and quickly climbed the ranks.
She later went on to marry wealthy businessman Denis Thatcher, a man 10 years her senior. In 1953 the couple had twins, Carol and Mark.
When she eventually bowed to pressure to resign as Prime Minister in November 1990, she famously left Downing Street for the last time with her husband, sobbing in the back of her limousine.
Thatcher often said she couldn’t achieve what she did without the help and support of her husband. Their marriage lasted 50 years until he died in 2004.
Baroness Thatcher suffered from poor health over the past decade following the death of her husband. She suffered from short-term memory loss and had a series of strokes. She was given a full ceremonial funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral – one step below a state funeral. The last politician to receive that honour was Winston Churchill in 1965.
Margaret Thatcher leaves behind a great legacy. She will be forever remembered for her strong will and as a champion for freedom. Whether you love her or hate her, you cannot deny she was an effective political and movement leader that made a lasting impact on the world.