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Thatcher, a British leader who was both loved and hated

Last updated on: April 8, 2013 20:40 IST

Thatcher, a British leader who was both loved and hated

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Dubbed the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, Britain's longest serving prime minister, has had a lasting impact on post-war British politics and beyond. And she was both loved and hated.

Ironically, the 87-year-old Conserative leader once predicted there would never be a woman prime minister in her lifetime, and yet she proved more single-minded and determined than any of her male rivals.

Some say Thatcher, who used her handbag as a prop to underline her swagger and power, was the best thing to have ever happened to Great Britain. For others, she was the closest thing this country has come to being ruled by a dictator.

Born Margaret Roberts on October 13, 1925, she was also considered the most divisive prime minister of the century, earning both great reverence but also deep hatred from the divided public, particularly for her treatment of trade unions.

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Image: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gestures during a plaque unveiling ceremony at the House of Commons
Photographs: Reuters

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First celebrity politician groomed for the TV age

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Whatever be the views, analysts said there's no denying the fact that Thatcher during her Downing Street years transformed the nation as she smashed decades of political consensus and went to war with the Labour opposition, the unions, the Argentine army and the European Union.

Daughter of a grocer, Thatcher, often claimed to be an ordinary housewife at heart, but she was the first celebrity politician groomed for the TV age. She was one of the few leaders who did not believe in popularity.

But in the end it was her strident Euro-scepticism that resulted not only in her downfall but the ousting of the Conservative Party. Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990.

It isn't an overstatement to say that almost every aspect of life was affected by the policies of the Thatcher government during her years in power, as the economic and social fabric of Britain changed.

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Image: Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak inside 10 Downing Street, London
Photographs: Roy Letkey/Reuters

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Few politicians have exercised such dominance in office

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Throughout the 1980s, Thatcher dominated political life in the UK and Thatcherism became the shorthand for a series of political initiatives all over the world. Thatcherism claims to promote low inflation, the small state and free markets through tight control of the money supply, privatisation and constraints on the labour movement.

Her legacy was such that few politicians have exercised such dominance during their term in office and few politicians have attracted such strength of feeling, both for and against.

Thatcher's popularity received its biggest boost in April 1982 with her decisive response to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.

Thatcher is remembered within Britain mostly for her role in revolutionising the fading economy in a process that caused huge social change, and for the successful retaking of the Falkland Islands, the British South Atlantic territory invaded by Argentina in 1982 --after which she declared "We have ceased to be a nation in retreat."

In Europe, she is remembered as a prickly leader who thrived on confrontation, but who ultimately agreed to foster some of the European Union's most significant developments, such as the creation of a single EU market.

Thatcher suffered from dementia in her final years, and her public appearances became increasingly rare. She is survived by her two children, Mark Thatcher and Carol Thatcher, and her grandchildren.

She was dubbed 'The Iron Lady' by the Russians after she made a speech containing a scathing attack on the Soviet Union. The name stuck, and indeed every aspect of her proved as solid as her elemental moniker would suggest.

After the Conservatives were defeated in 1974, Thatcher challenged Edward Heath for the leadership of the party and, to the surprise of many, won. In the 1979 general election, the Conservatives came to power and Thatcher became prime minister.

Adopting the persona of a housewife-politician who knew what inflation meant to ordinary families, she challenged the power of the trade unions whose almost constant industrial action peaked in the so-called "winter of discontent" in 1979.

She was an advocate of privatising state-owned industries and utilities, reforming trade unions, lowering taxes and reducing social expenditure across the board.

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Image: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher holds a three litre bottle of scotch whisky which was presented to her after a tour of a whisky distillery
Photographs: Roy Letkey/Reuters

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Dubbed 'The Iron Lady' by the Russians

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Thatcher's policies succeeded in reducing inflation, but unemployment dramatically increased during her years in power. Her term was also punctuated by several recessions.

Victory in the Falklands War in 1982 and a divided opposition helped Thatcher win a landslide victory in the 1983 general election. In 1984, she narrowly escaped death when the IRA planted a bomb at the Conservative party conference in Brighton.

In foreign affairs, Thatcher cultivated a close political and personal relationship with US president Ronald Reagan, based on a common mistrust of communism, combined with free-market economic ideology. She warmly welcomed the rise of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the 1987 general election, Thatcher won an unprecedented third term in office. But controversial policies, including the poll tax and her opposition to any closer integration with Europe, produced divisions within the Conservative Party which led to a leadership challenge.

In her later years in power, the woman who famously said "the lady's not for turning" was criticised for her inflexibility.

In November 1990, she agreed to resign and was succeeded as party leader and prime minister by John Major.

In 1992, Thatcher left the House of Commons. She was appointed a peeress in the House of Lords with the title of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and continued giving speeches and lectures across the world.

She also founded the Thatcher Foundation, which aimed to advance the cause of political and economic freedom, particularly in the newly liberated countries of central and eastern Europe. In 1995 she became a member of the Order of the Garter, the highest order of knighthood in England.

An emotional Thatcher left Number 10 Downing Street on November 28, 1990, and went to sit in the House of Lords, the upper house of the U K Parliament. As Baroness Thatcher, she continued to attack old enemies for a while, such as the European Union, and to exert a sometimes-divisive influence within the Conservative Party.

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Image: Helping to build an empire, Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher takes the controls of a crane to place an inaugural block of marble in London on July 11, 1986
Photographs: David Osborn/Reuters

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At Oxford Thatcher was elected president of the student conservative association

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After a series of small strokes in March 2002 and the death of her husband, retired oil executive Denis Thatcher, she largely withdrew from public life the following year.

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the daughter of a grocer. She went to Oxford University and then became a research chemist, retraining to become a barrister in 1954. In 1951, she married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman, with whom she had two children.

Thatcher's home and early life was in Grantham, born to humble beginnings. Her parents, Alfred and Beatrice Roberts, were Methodists and ran a grocery business, bringing up their two daughters in a flat over the shop.

Margaret Roberts attended a local state school and from there won a place at Oxford, where she studied chemistry at Somerville College (1943-47). Her studies took second place to politics in Thatcher's life.

At Oxford she was elected president of the student Conservative Association and met many prominent politicians, making herself known to the leadership of her party at the time of its defeat by Labour at the General Election of 1945.

In 1959 she was elected to Parliament as Member of Parliament for Finchley, a north London constituency, which she continued to represent until she was made a member of the House of Lords (as Baroness Thatcher) in 1992.


Image: In her stocking feet at the Japanese style dinig room at Akasaka Palace on May 5, 1986, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher presents a picture of contrast to the kimono-clad, sandle-wearing hostess
Photographs: Masaharu Hatano/Reuters

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