Margaret Thatcher dies

LONDON - Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has died following a stroke, a spokesman for the family said.

"It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother, Baroness Thatcher, died peacefully following a stroke this morning," Lord Tim Bell said.

Britain’s only woman prime minister, the tough, outspoken Thatcher, 87, led the Conservatives to three election victories, governing from 1979 to 1990, the longest continuous period in office by a British prime minister since the early 19th century.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday it was with great sadness that he had learnt of the death of Thatcher.

"We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton," Mr Cameron said in a statement shortly after a spokesman for the Thatcher family said the former prime minister had died peacefully. He has cut short a European visit to return to the UK.

Queen Elizabeth also expressed sadness and said she would be sending a private message of sympathy to the family.

Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady, was a towering figure in 20th-century British politics, a grocer’s daughter with a steely resolve who was loved and loathed in equal measure as she crushed the unions and privatised vast swathes of industry.

Some worshipped her as a moderniser who transformed the country, others accused her of entrenching the divide between rich and the poor.

The abiding images of her premiership will remain those of conflict: huge police confrontations with the miners’ union, her riding a tank in a white headscarf, and flames rising above Trafalgar Square in the riots over an unpopular local tax which ultimately led to her downfall.

To those who opposed her she was blunt to a degree — "the lady’s not for turning", she once famously informed members of her party who were urging her to moderate her policies.

Others who crossed her path, particularly in Europe, were subjected to withering diatribes often referred to as "handbaggings", named after the black leather bag she invariably carried.

With US President Ronald Reagan, she formed a strong alliance against communism and was rewarded by seeing the Berlin Wall torn down in 1989 though she worried a unified Germany would dominate Europe.

Her radical, right-wing views broke the mould of British politics, changing the status quo so profoundly that even subsequent Labour governments accepted many of her policies.

The woman who became known simply as Maggie, transferred big chunks of the economy from state hands into private ownership.

"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money," she once said.

Her personal credo, founded on competition, private enterprise, thrift and self-reliance, gave birth to a political philosophy known as Thatcherism.

But her tough economic medicine put millions out of work, alienated many and largely destroyed industries such as mining.

Her combative stance antagonised allies in Europe and her intolerance of dissent eventually led to her downfall.

"A brilliant tyrant surrounded by mediocrities," was how former premier Harold Macmillan described her.

"That bloody woman," was the less charitable verdict of Edward Heath, another prime minister and her predecessor as Conservative Party leader.

At the peak of her powers, Thatcher’s sheer personality made her one of the West’s best known figures. A workaholic, she put in 18-hour days, after which she would relax over a glass of whisky.

An opinion poll in 1981 rated Thatcher Britain’s most disliked prime minister of all time. But, two years later, after the Falklands war, she was swept back to power on a wave of patriotism and in 1987, her third successive election victory gave her another big majority in parliament.

Thatcher suffered a series of mild strokes in late 2001 and 2002, after which she cut back on public appearances and later cancelled her speaking schedule.

Her decline into dementia was chronicled in the Oscar-winning film The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep. Cast as bewildered widow, the very lonely Iron Lady was left only with her memories.

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