In October 2010, Margaret Thatcher was invited to return to her former Downing Street office on the occasion of her 85th birthday. David Cameron, the freshly elected Conservative prime minister, had arranged a party on her behalf. Virtually every Tory luminary in the country showed up to fête the country's über-mother figure. But Thatcher had to cancel after coming down with the flu. She spent her final years in seclusion and had to visit the hospital repeatedly. On Monday, she died of stroke-related complications at the age of 87.
The scope of the impact Margaret Thatcher had on her country and the world is manifested in the many nicknames that have been coined for her over the years. US President Ronald Reagan once dubbed his political soul sister across the Atlantic "England's Best Man." And French President François Mitterrand gushed that she had the "eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe."
But her most striking nickname, "The Iron Lady," was given to her in 1976 by the enemy. At the time, then-opposition leader Thatcher thundered in a speech: "The Russians are bent on world domination!" The Soviet army newspaper Red Star paid her back by coining the label.
It was a nickname that Thatcher carried with great pride. Whether she was fighting union leader Arthur Scargill, the Argentinean military junta or her dear European friends in Brussels, Thatcher reveled in her role as the island's unbending dominatrix. Completing the image were her shrill voice and the handbag she carried under her arm, which was eternalized by cartoonists as a fictional instrument used to whack her opponents. The term "handbagging" became a dictum in Britain.
The Tory leader was a political animal who lived for controversy. With her radical cuts in social spending, she polarized the British like no other prime minister, before or after. She alienated the Europeans in Brussels with her constant mantra of "no, no, no." And she drove West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the verge of desperation with her dogged resistance to German reunification. As a member of the war generation, she didn't trust the Germans to find the right path. She also prompted head scratching around the world with her unshakable loyalty to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet right up to the bitter end because of his upstanding loathing of communists.
'Thatcherism' Dominated Political Zeitgeist
Even her own critics don't dispute that Thatcher was one of the most dominant political figures of the 20th century. Recent British history is divided into the time before and after her term in office. And there aren't many politicians after whom an entire world view is named. "Thatcherism" became the term to describe the political zeitgeist of the 1980s and 1990s, an era marked by deregulation, privatization and the dismantling of the welfare state.
Thatcher's reforms are credited with establishing the modern United Kingdom. When she was elected prime minister in May 1979, the country was suffering from hopeless self-doubt and an anemic economy. The country that was once the world's greatest empire had become the sick man of Europe. Thatcher's fight against unions and for the privatization of many state services sealed the downfall of the British industrial sector, but it also brought a boost of modernization. The UK became a service economy, and the economic "big bang" laid the groundwork for London's rise as the greatest financial hub in Europe.
The contradictions and animosity that often accompanied Thatcher's time in office has given way over the years to growing respect for the politician. All of her successors -- be they Tories, like John Major and David Cameron, or Labor, like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown -- have at their heart followed in the footsteps of Thatcher's neo-liberal economic course. Her philosophy has so saturated British society that journalist Andrew Marr summarized it thusly in his 2007 documentary "History of Modern Britain": "We are all Thatcher's children."
A New Image for the 'Milk Snatcher'
Thatcher liked to ascribe her political views to her upbringing. She was born on Oct. 13, 1925 as the second daughter of shopkeeper Alfred Roberts in the market town of Grantham. There, in a modest apartment above the shop on a corner, she internalized the principles of frugality and self-reliance from a young age, she wrote in her memoirs. Her father insisted that his daughters read two books per week, at least one of which should be non-fiction. Early on, Thatcher discussed political issues with her father, who was also a local politician.
She cultivated her humble origins to appeal to the people, though her father was among the leading residents of their town and financed her expensive studies at Oxford. The ambitious upward climber was later happy to be free of her provincial home, seldom returning for a visit. At 33, she entered the House of Commons, the UK's lower house of parliament. But she remained popular with common people, sharing their conservative prejudices and a certain naiveté.
Once she told her foreign policy advisor Sir Anthony Parsons, "Do you know, Tony, I am so glad I don't belong to your class." He replied, "What class would that be, prime minister?" And she responded, "The upper-middle class, who see everybody's point of view but have no view of their own."
Thatcher's rise to the top began in the 1970s, when she allowed television producer Gordon Reece to create a new image for her. Because she had cut free milk for school children, she was discredited by the public as "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher." But with the help of her image consultant, she reinvented herself as a grocer's daughter and a housewife who, as busy as she was, still made her husband Denis breakfast each morning. The tabloid daily The Sun forgot about the cold-hearted "milk thief" and gave her the nickname "Maggie."
In 1975, Maggie was elected head of the Conservative Party, and four years later she moved into 10 Downing Street as prime minister. She was a global sensation, the first woman to lead a major Western power. She was uncomfortable with the excitement over her gender, though, preferring to call herself the first natural scientist to head the government. She never had much to offer the women's movement, either. In her more than 11 years of leadership, she only gave one cabinet position to a woman. She had a weakness for men, particularly those who were tall, charming and elegantly dressed.
Wartime Rise to National Hero
As with all successful figures in history, Margaret Thatcher got lucky. If the Argentine military junta had not invaded the Falkland Islands off their coast in 1982, Thatcher may have remained the unpopular prime minister she was back then. But the Falklands War transformed her into a national hero. After Britain's easy victory over Argentina, she was able to continue in office and easily win re-election twice. Asked by a journalist what her memoirs would be titled, she answered, "Undefeated!"
The end of her term came in November 1990, not with an electoral defeat but a rebellion from within her own party. Her anti-EU policies had isolated her from her cabinet, leading her to resign when she realized she no longer had their support. Throughout her life she was unable to get over this betrayal.
Thatcher was not just the first, and thus far only woman to lead the British government. She also managed to hold onto her office longer than any other prime minister in the past century of British history. Even before she died her name was mentioned among a host of great British statesmen like Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George. Like both men, Thatcher was bestowed the honor of having an oil portrait of her displayed at Downing Street.
For years there was discussion of a state burial for Thatcher like that of Churchill. But the honor was ultimately refused her. Instead she is to have a memorial service with military honors, like that of Princess Diana.