Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’

  

R.I.P. / guardian.co.uk

R.I.P. / guardian.co.uk

  Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born in 1925 in Lincolnshire, the daughter of the owner of a small grocer’s shop. She was a scholarship girl, brainy and hard-working, who moved rapidly upwards, starting with Magdalen College, Oxford, where she achieved everything she wanted.

She became the leader of the British Conservative Party in 1975, in the teeth of serious opposition from fellow conservatives such as Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine, who could hardly believe that any mere woman might have such targets. In 1979 she became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, and went on to serve the longest in that office in the 20th century.

She was known for her will, so determined that the Russians rapidly nicknamed her ‘the iron lady’; her monetarist policies, and her insistence on free enterprise. She disliked ideas about welfare states, and said so. Grantham people, she said, were accustomed to working hard for their living and their ideals. She liked learning, and rapidly consumed everything she needed to know about defence, foreign affairs and economics. It is said that she disliked poetry (‘no time for it d’you see?’), or any romanticism (but she married and stayed happily with Denis, a businessman).

Moving easily in international circles, she associated herself with the policies and the person of US President Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II of the Vatican. With them, she loathed Soviet communism and was prepared to fight it. She was never corrupted by her power, but tended to lecture everybody except possibly her husband. She smashed the supposedly all-powerful trade unions because they ran blindly into her claws, behaving stupidly and violently, which put the British nation behind their Prime Minister. The same trade unions had been challenged before by Edward Heath, and had destroyed him.

When the military leaders in Argentina decided to occupy the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she instantly spotted a chance to become a national leader in the Churchillian mode. She displayed the courage to fight, and go on to win a dangerous and very long distance war with another country over a tiny group of islands mostly populated by sheep. But they (and their keepers) were British, and that is what critics must learn about Margaret Thatcher. That and the fact that, like Reagan, she was sure anyone who disagreed was ‘wet’, and ‘not one of us’. It is certain that she had no idea how much her colleagues disliked her, but she learned after she was forced to resign. Then they attacked her verbally in public, which they would never have dared to think of when she was at No. 10.

As Prime Minister she fell at last, but she did not need to. The chief reason for her fall was the Poll Tax, unpopular enough to unseat many other forthright prime ministers before her. It is possible that had she been left to herself she would not have fallen. Her instinct was to fight her ‘fellow’ politicians, those members of her own party who had decided she must go. But her husband persuaded her to resign when, as Paul Johnson says, ‘he detected that she was not the woman she was’. She had worked incredible hours six days a week for nearly twelve years. In 1992 she was made a Baroness by the Queen, with whom she had naturally never got on, both puissant ladies being formidable as well as feminine.

Close friends soon noticed that her mind soon after retirement showed every sign of a retreat from normality, in fact the first signals of the mental affliction which would lead her to dementia and finally her recent death.  She will be remembered for simplicity, belief in herself and what she could achieve, iron will, persistence, courage and the rare ability (shared with Reagan and Gorbachev) to get your ideas across the great chasm that lies between national leaders and the public.

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