British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Lasting Legacy

The world needs an Iron Lady every now and then to set things right. And above all else, that was what Britain’s first and only female prime minister set out to do.

Gerald Penny/AP

Let us not struggle to get past the cliché of “The Iron Lady,” because sometimes clichés bring us right to the core virtues of a public figure. And Margaret Thatcher, who died of a stroke on Monday at the age of 87, was every bit the solid, stalwart, unwavering person that the world knew well and will miss profoundly now that she is gone.

Thatcher’s steely reputation as Britain’s first and only female prime minister, serving for more than 11 years from 1979 to 1990, was based on a succession of showdowns with labor unions, with the terrorists of the Irish Republican Army, with the Argentines in the Falklands War, and with many in the leadership of her own Conservative Party. She was also a devoted friend and counselor to U.S. President Ronald Reagan in his confrontations with the Soviets’ “Evil Empire.” (As recently as a year ago her face would brighten at mention of Reagan’s name, and the memories would flood back.) Thatcher had no problem with what she saw as moral absolutes.

“She was completely uncompromising,” says Lord Peter Palumbo, a close friend and associate for many years. “She had a very, very definite view. She had vision, which politicians, really, all over the world don’t share today. She was one of those people, like Winston Churchill, who gave the country hope. She came in at a very low ebb and singlehandedly turned it around. She felt that, on the whole, the country had 1,000 years of rather glorious history, and everything good that was British should be celebrated. She was unflinching in that view.”

“It didn’t worry [Thatcher] at all who knew about her vision,” says Palumbo. “She would lay it on thick and strong. Personally, I think she is one of the remarkable figures of the 20th century.”

In the 21st century, and as age, infirmity, and memory loss affected her, Thatcher’s years in power came in for many rethinks and reevaluations. Her 1993 memoir was full of vitriol, much of it poured over her colleagues. Journalist and novelist Robert Harris compared her book to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, an analogy that he now calls a “jeu d’esprit,” but doesn’t back away from entirely. She saw her life as “my struggle,” says Harris, and not without cause.Thatcher had to crash through countless glass ceilings not only of gender but of class. “The Tories played a very risky card in selecting her,” says Palumbo. “They knew it was risky. And having won the election both as leader of the party and as prime minister, I think they rather turned up their nose about a woman who was the daughter of a grocer in Grantham, and I think she took a very hard line because it was survival time. She would have been just run over by the grandees of the party, but she ran over them.”That pattern was repeated over and over again when anyone underestimated Thatcher. In 1981, Irish prisoners staged a much-publicized hunger strike to protest British rule over Ulster and the conditions under which they were incarcerated. Ten starved themselves to death. “I don’t think any other prime minister would have allowed the hunger strikers to kill themselves as she did,” says Harris.In 1984, a bomb hidden in a Brighton hotel by the Provisional Irish Republican Army nearly killed Thatcher, and did take five other lives. “That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared,” she said as she began a session of the Conservative Party conference the next morning on schedule, “and the fact that we are gathered here now—shocked, but composed and determined—is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

With Britain’s unions, Thatcher was just as tough, facing down the country’s miners and breaking their political as well as economic clout. Then she helped press magnate Rupert Murdoch crush organized-labor opposition in his Wapping facilities. The ferocity of those confrontations has been forgotten by many in modern Britain, but not by those who covered them.

Murdoch was running his newspaper operations as “an armed camp,” says Andrew Knight, who worked for The Telegraph in those days but later went over to Murdoch’s News Corporation. “It was very violent. One or two people actually died on the picket lines. “ What Thatcher’s government did was apply force to get Murdoch’s workers “through the barbed wire and the gates,” says Knight. “At The Telegraph we only had to threaten the unions that we would ‘do a Murdoch’ and they turned heel, but he basically took all the shit.” And he got through it with Thatcher’s assistance.

In the first years of Thatcher’s premiership, her resolve, viewed from afar, could appear almost anomalous. “Her advisers in the early days were careful to make her seem as ordinary as possible—sort of a super housewife,” Harris recalls. But in the summer of 1982, when the generals running Argentina decided to invade the British Falkland Islands off the South American coast, her focus and determination to do whatever it took to win back those rocky isles in the windblown South Atlantic put her front and center on the international stage. (“The Empire Strikes Back” was the Newsweek cover story about her decision.)

The incident strained relations with her friend Ronald Reagan, whom she had known since he was governor of California. The United States had been working closely, covertly and overtly, with the Argentine generals in the fight against Latin American revolutionaries. Recently declassified documents at Britain’s National Archives suggest Thatcher might have settled for a deal with Buenos Aires short of full withdrawal, in order to placate Washington. But no public statement she made indicated anything less than complete resolve, and in the end, after sinking the pride of the Argentine fleet, she—and Britain—won a complete victory.One irony of Thatcher’s legacy, in the eyes of many observers, is the way she helped pave the way for Tony Blair and his “New” Labour party to win back Parliament in the 1990s. “Margaret Thatcher effectively invented Tony Blair,” says Knight. “Without her, the Labour Party would not have been open to reform.” Traditionally it had been identified with the workers’ movements that she had done so much not only to weaken but also to make seem utterly outmoded in a newly prosperous Britain. When Blair and his allies were campaigning, they pledged not to reverse some of Thatcher’s key policies for two years, and in the end, they never really did. (Palumbo bristles at the suggestion that Blair was in some sense Thatcher’s heir: “In my view he didn’t come up to her ankles as a person, because he lacked the vision,” says Palumbo. “His vision was to stay in power as long as he could. I don’t know how much he believed in. She was a believer. She had this very strong conviction about Britain and its place in the world. She was a woman of deep principle.)

Although Thatcher’s relationship with her husband, Denis, often was parodied and, in a recent film starring Meryl Streep romanticized, her obsession with politics—and with details—made it hard for her to sustain close and warm relations with her own family.

“She was remorseless,” says Harris, “a 24-hour-a-day politician. It came at the cost of her relationship with her children. But it made her hard to defeat in an argument. She was a lawyer and a scientist. Her technique was to get down to basics. She would get up at five in the morning to begin her reading so that she was phenomenally well prepared. She would argue fundamentals, and refuse to accept what she was told at face value.”

Yet those close to Thatcher remember her as a woman whose personal friendship and loyalty could be almost as striking as her iron-hard public image. “She was very caring and compassionate,” says Palumbo. “I know friends of mine who had serious operations in hospital when she was prime minister, and they would wake up and find her sitting by their bedside: the first person they saw was not their wife or children or their priest, it was Margaret.”

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As Thatcher continued in office, elected to three successive terms, she became more imperious and, indeed, some would suggest imperial. Robert Harris remembers the widely remarked moment when her first grandchild was born and she announced, “We are a grandmother.”

“I think it is very wise in the United States to limit presidents to two terms,” says Harris. “Once you get past eight years people tend to get slightly mad in office.” In Thatcher’s case, Harris thought he discerned “a kind of megalomaniacal glint in the eye.”

Eventually, that imperiousness helped to alienate her own party, which forced her to step down in 1990. But it was also the kind of determination that made tyrants tremble, even in the closing days of her time as prime minister. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and put the world on a course for war that summer. And as it happens, I was talking to Saddam’s ambassador to France the day the news broke that Thatcher stepped down. The Iraqi could barely repress his glee, and did a kind of jig as he walked across the room.

As even Thatcher’s most sharp-tongued critics will admit, to borrow a phrase from Harris, “hers was an epic premiership.”