Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s “Iron Lady”, Dies

The former prime minister’s legacy still divides Britons, but there is no question she changed the country.

President George H.W. Bush greets Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom at Camp David, Maryland, November 24, 1989
President George H.W. Bush greets Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom at Camp David, Maryland, November 24, 1989 (White House)

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher died in London on Monday at the age of 87 after suffering a stroke.

The former Conservative Party’s leader’s sheer willpower and courage sustained her political ascendancy over male rivals. She was the first and so far only woman prime minister of the United Kingdom, the first to win three consecutive elections and the last successful wartime leader. Her premiership was the longest in British history since the early nineteenth century and the most formidable since Winston Churchill’s. She survived an assassination attempt by Irish republicans in 1984.

Known as “Thatcher the milk snatcher” among opponents due to her decision while education secretary to withdraw the provisions of free school milk for children aged seven to eleven and earning the title of “Iron Lady” for her steadfast opposition to communism, no other British leader has been so decisive.

Thatcher inspired a generation of political leaders on both the left and the right who were determined either to fight what they saw as unfair policies or to stand with her and carry on her legacy.

In her determination to reverse what she saw as the ruling liberal elite’s fatalistic acceptance of “managed decline” in the home of modern liberty, Thatcher overthrew much of Labour’s welfare state. The National Health Service alone defeated her. The “right to buy” scheme gave many the first taste of what it was like to own a property while privatizations gave many Britons their first shares and a taste of economic power. But detractors also allege that financial deregulation enacted under Thatcher’s watch planted the seeds for the recent financial crisis.

What Thatcher is probably most passionately remembered for is how she faced up to the trade unions — and won.

Thatcher recognized that high pay, closed shop unions and declining industry made for an unhealthy combination and determined to take action. Britain is still undecided whether she choose the right course of action, which prompted long and violent strikes, but what’s certain is that the unions never quite recovered from the Thatcher era and Britain emerged from it no longer the “sick man of Europe.”

More unifying was Thatcher’s winning of the Falklands War in 1982. She defended the islanders after a brutal Argentinian invasion and succeeded in recapturing them for the United Kingdom — and boosting her popularity tremendously.

Whatever one’s opinion of Thatcher’s policies, there is no denying that she changed Britain and the decisions she took continue to influence the country up to this day.