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Margaret Thatcher: the divisive creator of modern Britain

Though loved and loathed equally in Britain, the former prime minister was undeniably a force for change, breaking the British unions and helping the West win the cold war.

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A boy stands in front of a statue of former British Prime Mnister Margaret Thatcher in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London today. The prime minister, who died this morning, was one of the country’s most divisive leaders of the last century.

Olivia Harris/Reuters

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Loved and loathed in equal measure, Margaret Thatcher was one of Britain's most divisive leaders of the last century, when the country's left and right battled for the soul of modern politics. 

Mrs. Thatcher, who died today, served for 11 years as Britain's first female prime minister. The country she left behind when forced from office in 1990 was very different from the one she inherited when her Conservative party won power on the back of the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979.

Rejecting the political consensus politics of postwar Britain, she ushered in a more combative era based on tighter monetarist policies, privatization of inefficient nationalized industries, individual shareholding, and a curbing of the power of trade unions, which had dominated politics.

A conviction politician by nature, she also was the first to embrace public relations using stylists and voice experts to soften her image but also employing modern marketing techniques such as advertisements and posters to attack her opponents.

Robert Saunders, who teaches history and politics at Oxford University and co-wrote "Making Thatcher’s Britain," says she was the most important British prime minister since World War II.

“She came to power with two objectives: to break the power of the trade unions and eliminate socialism, and by and large she achieved both," Dr. Saunders says. “She saw herself as a kind of war leader fighting an internal war against something she thought was alien to the country. She saw these things as immoral – and this at the same time as the other, external threat of the cold war."

Economic reformer

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A former grocer’s daughter from Grantham in Lincolnshire, Thatcher studied natural sciences at Oxford University. Margaret Roberts, as she was then, tried unsuccessfully to become a member of Parliament in the early 1950s before training as a barrister and marrying husband Denis in 1951. She had twins, Carol and Mark, in 1953 and finally became MP for Finchley in 1959, working her way up the party ranks to defeat former Prime Minister Edward Heath, becoming Tory leader in 1975.

As Britain limped through the 1970s under increasing union domination, earning the sobriquet "the sick man of Europe," Thatcher bided her time until exploiting the public sector union strikes in 1979, when rubbish wasn’t collected, hospital operations were canceled, and bodies lay unburied in mortuaries.

Upon taking office as the first female prime minister, she steered a collision course with the unions, with legislation banning mass pickets, forcing unions to hold ballots before strikes, and requiring regular elections of their leaders. The policies culminated in the pivotal year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85, led by charismatic union leader Arthur Scargill, which she defeated, effectively ending union power over politics in Britain.

She sold state-owned council houses to their tenants, privatized nationalized industries, and encouraged individuals to buy shares to create a shareholding democracy. She embraced the entrepreneur and oversaw huge growth in the financial sectors, ushering in the modern "yuppie."

'Now you know what we have to put up with'

Former trade union leader Alex Smith, a onetime president of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), says, "She was a deeply divisive figure and a lot of us old Labour supporters can’t forgive her for what she did to our manufacturing industry. I can’t pretend I liked her."

"The legacy she left, with people thrown on the dole and communities ruined, doesn’t make me feel nostalgic. Maybe a lot of the heavy industries like coal and steel were inefficient and would have closed in time, but I’d have preferred a managed decline rather than her brutal medicine."

Mr. Smith recounts a meeting with the prime minister.

“I remember going to Downing Street for a meeting with her and the TUC about rising unemployment. We sat there and listened and only two of our party spoke. When she was talking, one of her people passed a note to her and she read it, gave him a withering look, and screwed it up."

“After four or five minutes, she said, ‘You’ve probably heard enough from me. I’m going to let one of my boys talk to you now.'"

“On the way out of the cabinet room, a senior Tory figure said to us, ‘Now you know what we have to put up with,'" Smith says. "It was incredible.”

A global player

On the world stage, she joined with US President Ronald Reagan as a flag-waver for Western democracy against what Reagan branded the "Evil Empire": the Soviet Union. Happy to let the United States put nuclear weapons on British soil and use the country as an air base to attack Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya – incurring the wrath of Britain’s left and anti-nuclear lobbies – Thatcher was also astute to spot the potential of incoming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a man she could "do business" with.

However, it wasn’t all victories for the so-called Iron Lady. Her cost-cutting in the early 1980s was blamed for the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands and the subsequent war in 1982. The planned withdrawal of a naval vessel HMS Endurance was seen as London’s reluctance to defend the islands by the Argentine junta, prompting the invasion.

“She clearly had a close relationship with Ronald Reagan but they didn’t always see eye to eye. They disagreed in the early stages of the Falklands War, the invasion of Grenada, and his nuclear disarmament plans," Saunders says.

But the conflict – in which Britain sent a task force of 27,000 men and 100 boats 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic – was crucial to her landslide election victory in 1983.

A year later, she survived an assassination attempt when, at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, the Irish Republican Army blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton where she and some of the cabinet were staying. Five people died and several were injured, but Thatcher made a robust speech at the next day’s Conservative conference saying she would never give in to terrorism.

Political decline

But it was her battles with Europe – which still overshadow Britain’s domestic politics – and her ill-fated "Poll Tax" that would become the negative legacies of her premiership.

A natural Euroskeptic, she battled wings of her own Tory party and European leaders against closer political integration, despite signing numerous key European treaties.

“In the early years of the 1970s she was pro-Europe, seeing it as a bulwark against communism tying in countries to the capitalist system which may otherwise have gone communist," says Saunders. "But by the 1990s, she turned against it as she saw the regulations grow and thought it was a threat to enterprise.”

At home, the poll tax, officially known as the "community charge," transformed the country's means of funding local councils from being based on property value to number of residents. The change, which shifted the tax burden from wealthy landowners to poorer, multiperson homes, sparked widespread opposition, culminating in riots in Trafalgar Square in 1990.

Fearing a fall in popularity – and following a devastating resignation speech by former loyalist and Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe in Parliament – senior Tories deserted her in a leadership battle with Michael Heseltine in 1990, prompting her resignation in November  and succession by John Major.

Like other prime ministers, she withdrew from frontline politics and in later years succumbed to dementia. She lost her "rock," her husband, Denis, in 2003. She returned to the House of Commons in 2007 to unveil an eight-foot tall bronze statue of herself.

Two years ago, Meryl Streep portrayed her in controversial film "The Iron Lady," which some people criticized as exploitative and biased. However, for a generation not living in the 1980s, when Britain and the West stood on the brink of nuclear conflict with the USSR and the Warsaw Pact and when the economy was dogged by the so-called British disease, the film did give an insight into a traumatic political era.

A lasting legacy

Thatcher will not have a state funeral, but will be accorded the same status as Princess Diana and the Queen Mother. The ceremony, with full military honors, will take place at London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

Saunders said it was difficult for Britains under age 35 to realize the impact Thatcher had on individual lives and the country.

“A lot of my students were born after 1990," he says, "and when I ask them what they think of her, they see her as a dynamic, persuasive figure – the first female prime minister, she broke the glass ceiling and with strong feelings."

“But what they don’t understand is her place in what was a combustible period of British and world politics. Here we are – more than 20 years after she was in office, a third of a century after she became prime minister – and talking about her role in our lives.”

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