Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who helped end the Cold War and was known as the “Iron Lady” for her uncompromising style, has died.
She was 87.
“She had a stroke and died peacefully,” her spokesman, Tim Bell, told Sky News television Monday. “We'll never see the likes of her again. She was one of the great prime ministers of all times.
“She changed people's lives. She is a fantastic person. She loved her country. She dedicated herself to improving people's lives.”
When Thatcher took office in 1979, Britain's trade unions were strong enough to knock out party leaders they opposed, and key industries, including utilities, were state-owned. By the time she stepped down 11 years later, her arguments for free-market economics, lower taxes and deregulated financial markets had been adopted across the nation's political spectrum.
The transition was painful. Unemployment peaked at more than 3 million in the mid-1980s, and many places in the north of the country that had been world centers of manufacturing struggled to adapt to the new service economy.
“She was, quite simply, one of the most influential political leaders that the U.K., indeed the world, has ever produced,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of “The Conservative Party From Thatcher To Cameron” (2010).
Thatcher was defined by the battles she took on: she waged war against Argentina, clashed with striking miners and forced fellow leaders to cut Britain's financial contributions to the forerunner of the European Union.
She survived an assassination attempt in 1984 when the Irish Republican Army bombed her hotel in Brighton during her Conservative Party's annual conference, killing five people. She stuck to her schedule and addressed party members the following morning.
After winning three elections, Thatcher was forced out of office by her own party after she refused to compromise either on her policies toward Europe or on a property tax that had led to mass nonpayment and violent riots.
“Always a warrior rather than a healer, her deeply ideological determination alienated those who believed in consensus rather than in confrontation,” Bale said. “But her policies and her personality ushered in changes — social, economic, political, diplomatic and even military — so profound that the consequences will continue to play out for decades, even centuries, to come.”
She formed a close bond with President Ronald Reagan, whose time in office and political ideology coincided with her own.
“Margaret was always frank and forthright in her dealings with us,” Reagan wrote in the National Review in 1989. “Generally, she and I agreed with each other. Whether we agreed or not, however, I knew that her advice came from someone who was a friend of the American people and who shared the same basic outlook. We place the same high value on freedom.”
Though physically limited by a series of strokes, Thatcher attended the former president's funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington in June 2004.
“We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man, and I have lost a dear friend,” she said in a videotaped message played during the tribute, referring to Reagan as “Ronnie” and “the Great Liberator.”
Reagan and Thatcher were both closely involved with Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who evolved from adversary to ally. In 1979, she agreed to place U.S. nuclear missiles in Britain amid protests across Western Europe. Her tough line on the Soviet Union earned her the Iron Lady nickname in the Soviet press.
“If you lead a country like Britain, a strong country, a country which has taken the lead in world affairs in good times and in bad, a country that is always reliable, then you have to have a touch of iron about you,” she said.
Her relations with European leaders were strained. While contemporaries such as French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl worked for a politically united Europe, Thatcher called for a network of individual states joined only as a free-trade area, like the North American Free Trade Agreement. The debate about whether Britain should stay part of an EU seeking an ever-closer union or leave has been a recurring theme in British politics since she left office.
In 1984, she won a permanent rebate of Britain's yearly contributions, telling European leaders, “I want my money back.” She later argued against Britain abandoning the pound for the European single currency.
She predicted in the early 1970s that no woman would lead the country in her lifetime. Before the decade ended, she had become the country's first — and so far only — female prime minister.
Her rise from a grocer's daughter to prime minister was dramatized in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady.” Meryl Streep won the best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of Thatcher both in office and in her declining years, as she began to suffer from dementia.
“In politics if you want anything said, ask a man,” Thatcher said in 1975. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.”