The Soviets were the first to call her the Iron Lady, but the canny and belligerent Margaret Thatcher turned it to her advantage as the first female prime minister of Great Britain. Like Boudica, she was a warrior; like Winston Churchill, she remade her country.
At home she fought inflation, the unions and nationalized industry, promoted individual over collective rights and espoused hard work and personal responsibility as the route to prosperity. As the personification of the right-wing conservative ideology that came to be known as Thatcherism, she liked to declare: “I am not a consensus politician, I am a conviction politician.”
Together with that other Cold Warrior, Ronald Reagan of the United States, she recognized the intelligent, progressive thinking of Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union. By befriending him and supporting glasnost , she helped speed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A daughter of the working class, she pulled herself up by her shoelaces to forge a political career, against the prevailing and misogynist view about a woman’s place in society. Succeeding on her own merits, she was largely unsympathetic to the needs and frailties of others.
Having had the effrontery to contest the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, she shocked many of her political colleagues by trouncing not only the sitting leader, Edward Heath, but several other male contenders.
She led her party through three national elections, serving as prime minister for nearly a dozen years, from May, 1979, to November, 1990, until she, like Mr. Heath before her, was ousted by a rebellion in the parliamentary ranks.
After years of declining health and dementia, she died of a stroke in London, on Monday, April 8.
As British prime minister, Mrs. Thatcher’s tenure overlapped with that of two Canadian prime ministers, Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney and Liberal Pierre Trudeau. In the early 1980s, Mr. Trudeau led the campaign to patriate the constitution, which until then could be amended only by an act of the British Parliament. And he wanted enshrined in the Constitution a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One of his key negotiators was Jean Chrétien, his justice minister, and later prime minister from 1993 to 2003.
Talking with reporters in Ottawa yesterday, Mr. Chrétien said he has fond memories of Mrs. Thatcher despite their political differences. “She was a very colourful and, you know, tough prime minister,” he said, remembering the role he played in negotiating with the British government about the Constitution. “I had to spend a lot of time in Great Britain to explain to a lot of the authorities there ... about what we were doing, and you know she understood well that they had no choice but to give us our Constitution,” he said.
“I’m a centrist, I’m not a hard right-winger, and she was,” he continued. “On that, I would not have done everything she’s done [because] we were not of the same political persuasion. But as a politician I respected her … she was a fighter. I respect that a lot.”
As for Mr. Trudeau, who was known to refer to Mrs. Thatcher as his “ideological sparring partner,” he wrote in Memoirs that “we disagreed on many things, including East-West relations and North-South relations.” After their “tiffs” at international summits, where she typically agreed with U.S. president Reagan, and he with French president François Mitterand, the two would “make sure we had a walk in the garden together and have tea, and talk of other things.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Trudeau was complimentary about Mrs. Thatcher’s role in the patriation of the Constitution. He wrote in Memoirs : “I always say it was thanks to three women that we were eventually able to reform our Constitution – the Queen, who was favourable, Margaret Thatcher, who undertook to do everything that our Parliament asked of her, and Jean Wadds [a Conservative who had been appointed high commissioner to Great Britain by Joe Clark when he was briefly prime minister, and who was kept on in the post by Mr. Trudeau when he returned to power in 1980], who represented the interests of Canada so well in London.”