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.”
Although Mrs. Thatcher visited Canada several times, she didn’t accompany the Queen (with whom she was said to share a coolness) for the signing of the constitutional documents with Mr. Trudeau in an outdoor ceremony on Parliament Hill on April 17, 1982.
As British prime minister, her presence, although symbolic, was not essential because the political dickering was over by then. The constitutional authority belonged to the Queen. She performed her role with dignity and grace, although she did allow herself a small laugh when Mr. Chrétien muttered “ merde ” when the nib of the pen he was using broke and blotted the Royal Proclamation.
But there were other reasons why Mrs. Thatcher remained in London. She was the leader of a country at war. Although insignificant compared with the battles waged by Churchill four decades earlier, Mrs. Thatcher roused her countrymen to a patriotic fervour with her defence of the Falkland Islands. Britain had established sovereignty over the archipelago in the South Atlantic in 1833.
Argentina, ruled by a military junta, invaded and occupied the islands lying off Patagonia on April 2, 1982. Britain dispatched an armada, including the aircraft carrier Invincible, to retake the islands.
The conflict, which lasted 74 days, ended with Argentina’s surrender on June 14 and the re-establishment of the islands as a British Overseas Territory.
The Canadian leader who had the most ideologically harmonious yet politically rancorous relationship with Mrs. Thatcher was Brian Mulroney, Progressive Conservative prime minister from 1984 to 1993. In a statement yesterday he described Mrs. Thatcher as a “giant,” called her “the most transformative leader of her country” since Churchill, and praised the “crucial role” she had played in the “successful navigation of the end of the Cold War.”
Describing her as “an inspiration” to a generation of leaders, he said that the “Britain she took charge of in 1979 was a country burdened with illness, social and economic. By the time of her departure more than a decade later, Britain was a confident winner again.”
On one subject, however, the Canadian and British leaders were worlds apart: how to deal with apartheid in South Africa. Mr. Mulroney was a very young politico when prime minister John Diefenbaker took a vocal stand against apartheid at the Commonwealth Conference in London in March, 1961. Within months, South Africa left the Commonwealth and began its sorry existence as a pariah state.
Galvanized by Mr. Diefenbaker’s example, Mr. Mulroney was determined to take up the cause when he became prime minister. In July, 1985, Canada announced a list of economic and political sanctions against South Africa.
At the Commonwealth Conference in Nassau that September, Mr. Mulroney took it upon himself to persuade Mrs. Thatcher to toughen not only her own government’s position against South Africa but to join with other Commonwealth leaders in denouncing apartheid.
Mrs. Thatcher loathed apartheid, as she made clear to Mr. Mulroney, but she also abhorred economic sanctions and refused to think they could be effective. Before the Commonwealth meetings adjourned, she reluctantly agreed that a group of “eminent persons” drawn from member countries should visit African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in prison and try to engage in a dialogue with South African president P.W. Botha.
Mr. Mulroney kept up the pressure with a new round of Canadian sanctions in June, 1986. He also maintained his personal campaign to dissuade Mrs. Thatcher from her beliefs that sanctions were “immoral” and that Mr. Mandela was a terrorist and a communist.
Before the Commonwealth Conference hosted by Canada in Vancouver the following year, Mr. Mulroney decided to make a proposal to strike a Commonwealth Committee of foreign ministers, under the chairmanship of Joe Clark, his foreign affairs minister.
Mrs. Thatcher, resolute in her intransigence against sanctions, accused Canada of rank hypocrisy. By way of retort, an emboldened Mr. Mulroney closed the meetings, as he records in Memoirs 1939-1993 , by saying, “Almost unanimously, we came to the conclusion that sanctions do work, that they shall continue to be applied, that they must be applied more intensively. That is the message which, with the exception of Great Britain, we send out from Vancouver.”
And so they did. The Commonwealth Committee of foreign ministers met every two months –rather than every two years as the Commonwealth typically did – and used the opportunity to issue new sanctions to keep up the pressure. Inevitably, apartheid was unsustainable. Mr. Mandela was released early in 1990 and one of the first countries he visited was Canada.
By then, Mrs. Thatcher’s own power had declined. Having survived a bomb planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in the Grand Hotel in Brighton at the Conservative Party conference in 1984, she fell victim to political assassins in her own caucus over her refusal to countenance a closer political and economic union with Europe – a stand that many in Britain have come to admire since the economic woes of 2008.
THE LADY’S LIFE
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born Oct. 13, 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the second of two daughters of Alfred Roberts, a grocer, Methodist lay preacher and local politician, and his wife, Beatrice. An industrious intelligent girl, she followed the poor boy’s route to success by winning a scholarship to grammar school and then a place at Somerville College, Oxford.
Although she studied to be a chemist and qualified as a lawyer, politics was her vocation. She ran twice unsuccessfully before marrying businessman and decorated Second World War veteran Denis Thatcher in December, 1951.
Their twins, Carol and Mark, were born in August, 1953. They were 6 when Mrs. Thatcher first won a seat in Finchley, a middle-class suburb in North London. Her political rise was steady. Edward Heath made her education secretary after he came to power in 1970, and she soon became infamous for nixing a program that provided free milk to schoolchildren.
Mrs. Thatcher was never a compromise or a brokerage politician. Inevitably, that created enmity in large sections of society and within the ranks of her own party. After Geoffrey Howe, her deputy prime minister and a loyalist from her first cabinet in 1979, resigned, she was challenged for the leadership by Michael Heseltine, a pro-Europe politician and former defence secretary.
In a party vote, she withstood Mr. Heseltine, but could not surmount the popularity of John Major, one of her political protégés. She resigned on Nov. 28, 1990.
After politics, she lectured widely and profitably, wrote her memoirs, sat in the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and felt no compunction about expressing her views until dementia forced her to retreat from public life.