She helped end the Cold War and transformed the British economy away from its old industrial base, and her resolute character still sparks fierce debate 23 years after leaving office.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher won lavish praise and strong criticism as news of her death swept around the world Monday. Tributes poured in from friends and foes, some calling her a great British leader on par with Winston Churchill, while others derided her as a destructive, divisive force whose policies ruined much of the country.
Lady Thatcher, who was 87, had been largely out of the limelight after suffering several strokes in 2002 and losing her husband, Denis, in 2003. She was admitted to hospital last December for a bladder operation and released a couple of weeks later in frail condition. In need of constant care, she reportedly moved into a suite in the Ritz Hotel, at the invitation of the owner, because she needed more space than she had in her townhouse in central London.
Her family said she died Monday of a stroke.
“We’ve lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. “The real thing about Margaret Thatcher is that she didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country. And we should never forget that the odds were stacked against her.”
Mr. Cameron’s office announced that Lady Thatcher will receive a ceremonial funeral, one step short of a state funeral, with military honours at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. The ceremony will be held next week and it will be followed by a private cremation.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the “world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.” Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called her “brilliant” and said that while their initial contacts were difficult, in “the end we managed to reach a mutual understanding and that made a contribution to changing the atmosphere between our country and the West and ending the Cold War.” And Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that “with the passing of Baroness Thatcher, the world has lost a giant among leaders.”
But there were also plenty of detractors, with some talking about a counter-demonstration during her funeral. “In actual fact, every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact she was fundamentally wrong,” said former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who clashed with Lady Thatcher repeatedly during his political years.
“Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British prime minister,” added Gerry Adams, president of the Sinn Fein party in Northern Ireland. “Working-class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies.”
The woman who once told opponents “the lady is not for turning” famously grew up a grocer’s daughter in Grantham, a small city in the Midlands not far from the many mines she would force to close as prime minister. She went to Oxford University, becoming a chemist, got elected as a member of Parliament and eventually took on the Conservative Party’s male establishment to become prime minister in 1979.
Known as the Iron Lady for her uncompromising leadership style, Lady Thatcher won three elections but was forced out of office in 1990 after a bitter fight for the Tory leadership. A strong ally of U.S. president Ronald Reagan, she helped bring down communism across Eastern Europe by striking a working a relationship with Mr. Gorbachev in the 1980s, telling reporters, “I could work with this man.” She won a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982 and introduced sweeping changes to the British economy through widespread privatization, radical reforms to social housing and reforms to local taxation.
Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron, said Lady Thatcher leaves a mixed legacy but cited the Falkland Islands war as a key moment in her career. “That was a bit of a turning point for a nation that had begun to regard itself in some ways as a little bit of a kind of soft touch in international relations,” Mr. Bale said from London, where he is also professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “To some extent [the war] helped British people think of themselves as a nation that meant something once again in the world.” While the countries have not gone to war since, tension over the islands remain.
On the domestic front, Prof. Bale said “she will be remembered on both sides of the political divide for her willingness to restructure the economy and shake out the old industrial heartland of this country. For good or for ill.”