Remembering the Iron Lady

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With the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death to stroke broke last week, tributes began pouring in for one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders of the post-war era.

Born in 1925, the daughter of a green grocer, Margaret Hilda Roberts became a chemist and barrister before marrying Denis Thatcher in 1951 and turning her attention to politics. Elected to England’s House of Commons in 1959, she quickly rose through the party ranks, becoming its leader in 1975. When the Conservatives won the general election of 1979, Thatcher became England’s first female Prime Minister. She would go on to win two more elections before being ousted by the Conservatives in 1990.

At the time of her first election, England was a basket case, with high unemployment, striking unions, crime and a crumbling infrastructure the sad remains of the once-powerful British Empire. Distressed by its ramshackle state, she often referred to it as “the sick old man of Europe.”

Thatcher, who had lived through World War Two, remembered how England had stood alone against the Nazi menace and wanted to rekindle these forgotten traits into modern England. Relying on her legendary stubbornness and political resolve, she planned to accomplish this through championing the free-market economy and ending Briton’s cradle-to-grave reliance on government handouts.

Out of this vision grew her defining philosophy: Thatcherism. It meant stomping out England’s growing welfare state and reducing the power that trade unions wielded over the economy. As influential as her domestic policies were, she also left her mark on foreign affairs as she “handbagged” her way through international talks. Forging a close alliance with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, she helped end the Cold War and usher in an era of global peace. And her refusal to join the European Union, while it eventually cost her the leadership of her own party, seems remarkably prescient today.

Thatcher’s great strengths – her intransigent personality and her unapologetic political beliefs – also made her a villain to the Left. Yet despite her many detractors, then and now, history will credit her with reviving England’s moribund economy and returning the country to a position of influence in world affairs.

As current British Prime Minister David Cameron said in his tribute to Thatcher: “We’ve lost a great prime minister, a great leader, a great Briton. She saved our country and I believe she will go down as the greatest British peace-time prime minister.”

Let’s take a look back at some of the important benchmarks on her accomplished political life.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” First elected as a member of parliament in 1959, Thatcher quickly rose through party ranks, eventually becoming Conservative leader in 1975. She became Prime Minister in 1979.

“You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” During the early 1980s, Thatcher’s attacks on the welfare state were not always popular with party members. This is typically how she responded.

“The Iron Lady of the Western World. Me? A Cold War warrior? Well, yes – if that is how they wish to interpret my defense of values of freedoms fundamental to our way of life.” Thatcher never apologized for her political beliefs. In fact, she often reveled in them, especially her Iron-Lady nickname, which was a creation of a Moscow newspaper.

“We fought to show that aggression does not pay and that the robber cannot be allowed to get away with his swag. We fought with the support of so many throughout the world. … Yet we also fought alone.” England’s involvement in the 1982 Falkland War reminded Britons of the old Empire days and helped Thatcher win a majority government in 1983.

“We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” Thatcher’s all-out war with the coalminers in 1984 divided the country but helped end the stranglehold unions had on Britain’s labour force.

“I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Thatcher had many high-level meetings with Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, which ultimately helped wind down the Cold War.

“We have lost a great president, a great American, and a great man, and I have lost a dear friend.” Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan were more than just friends: as the faces of the neo-Conservative movement, they completely revamped the political and ideological Right.