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Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980. She died at age 87 on Monday, April 8, 2013.

Gerald Penny/AP

We all knew that Margaret Thatcher – the Iron Lady – would one day no longer be with us. Her struggles with the consequences of strokes she suffered had kept her off the public stage, helping to prepare the world for her departure. But the announcement of the former British prime minister's death at 87 on Monday morning still comes as a shock. She arguably was the greatest political leader of the past half-century.

Mrs. Thatcher, who governed from 1979 to 1990 (later she became Baroness Thatcher), inherited a Britain in the murky depths of a recession and in the grip of powerful unions and other vested interests that seemed determined to keep her country from moving forward. And so she acted. She stood up to the coal miners' union that had forced the government to operate unprofitable state-owned mines, and she won. She privatized utilities, which brought down rates for many consumers, and she got the state out of the steel business. She also liberalized stock exchange rules, a move that helped London grow into the world's financial capital.

These difficult decisions threw many people out of work and upended British society. But in the process Mrs. Thatcher modernized her country, prepared it for the era of freer trade, and set an example for other nations struggling with moribund economies and hidebound unions. The "Cool Britannia" era of prosperity of the late 1990s owed much to the bitter groundwork she had laid down.

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Mrs. Thatcher's name will forever be associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. She aligned herself with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and their clear-eyed views on the USSR, as well as her early engagement with the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, helped to bring down the Berlin Wall. The same iron will was on display during the short-lived Falklands War in 1982.

Toward the end of her years in power, she overreached by changing local-government finance to a system that relied on a flat-rate tax for each adult, which fell heavily on lower-income earners. But her resolute opposition to the European Monetary Union, which begot the euro and the euro zone, has proved prescient.

Margaret Thatcher restored trust in the private sector, reasserted economic principles, changed the role of the state, helped end a totalitarian regime, and stood fast in the wake of societal upheaval that she believed, correctly, was in the best interests of her country. Thanks to her, the Britain of today bears little resemblance to that of 1979, and other countries, including Canada, took inspiration from her courage. Mrs. Thatcher changed the world for the better.

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