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Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died this morning after suffering a stroke. She was 87 years old. Thatcher led Britain for more than 11 years. During that time, she transformed society, industry and politics in the United Kingdom; and she paid a pivotal role in the end of the Cold War. But Thatcher was also a divisive figure. Despite her great accomplishments, there's still much bitterness surrounding the woman who was dubbed the Iron Lady.
NPR's Jackie Northam has this look back at a remarkable life.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Margaret Thatcher's long journey to becoming one of Britain's most influential leaders began in humble surroundings. She was born on Oct. 13, 1925, in the small English town of Grantham. Her mother was a dressmaker; her father, a grocer and a local politician.
Thatcher often credited her father for introducing her to politics; and for instilling in her the importance of being an independent thinker, and of being able to stand on her own two feet - values that she expected from all Britains, once she gained power.
Simon Hoggart, a political sketchwriter for The Guardian newspaper, said there were early indications of this during her tenure as secretary of education; when Thatcher wanted to do away with the one-third pint of free milk, which schoolchildren had been receiving since World War II.
SIMON HOGGART: Thatcher decided it was a waste of money, and a waste of time, because by the time she became minister of education, people had enough milk; and therefore, she stopped it. And she was known as Mrs. Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.
NORTHAM: Thatcher honed a reputation as a right-wing politician after she became Conservative Party leader in the mid-1970s. At that time, the Labor Party was in power. There was high inflation and unemployment, and a series of crippling strikes that came to a head during the winter of 1978 and '79. Hoggart says that era was dubbed the Winter of Discontent.
HOGGART: Railway unions were on strike, and railroads are important for commuters in this country. Our hospital workers were on strike. Even the people who disposed of dead bodies were on strike. The sense that we were - the nation was unraveling in front of our eyes, was quite powerful.
NORTHAM: During the 1979 election campaign, Thatcher repeatedly drove home the message that it didn't have to be like this; that Britain could do much better. She won the national election hands down, and on May 4, 1979 she accepted the keys to 10 Downing Street.
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PRIME MINISTER MARGARET THATCHER: Her Majesty the Queen has asked me to form a new administration, and I have accepted.
NORTHAM: Thatcher and her Cabinet started to push through tough economic measures they thought would reverse Britain's downward spiral. There was a wave of privatizations affecting virtually every part of society - health, education, business. But there were also tax increases, and unemployment was rampant. Thatcher successfully took on the miners and other powerful unions. There were resounding calls for her resignation.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out! Out! Out! Maggie! Out!
NORTHAM: Lord David Owen, the leader of the Social Democratic Party at the time, says Thatcher's policies created an overwhelming anxiety in Britain.
LORD DAVID OWEN: A lot of people felt threatened by Margaret Thatcher. A lot of people felt that their whole way of life was challenged. And they hated her.
NORTHAM: But, Owen says, Thatcher was determined to drive through her policies, no matter how unpopular.
OWEN: She had clear ideas, and she fought for them. She was not a consensus politician. She didn't mind having divisions and driving issues through. I suspect that she believed she had to be tough as nails. She liked to give the impression that she was totally resolute.
NORTHAM: Owen says that determination - and stubbornness - also worked to Thatcher's advantage, especially after Argentina invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands in 1982. Thatcher sent in the military. Lord Geoffrey Howe, her treasurer and then foreign minister, remembers the war was a stressful time for Thatcher.
LORD GEOFFREY HOWE: I used to go in every Sunday evening and chat with her about how it was going. And she really did need emotional, personal support because people were being killed, ships were being sunk, negotiations were going on which didn't seem to get anywhere. And it was her personal tenacity that held her through that very tough time.
NORTHAM: Howe says Britain's victory in that war renewed the country's spirit. And it helped bring Thatcher another term in office. Still, Thatcher continued to press ahead with more economic reforms. At the same time, she played an increasingly important role in world politics as the Cold War was winding down. Lord Howe says Thatcher was vehemently anti-Communist, but she developed a strong attachment to then-Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
HOWE: The chemistry between Thatcher and Gorbachev at their first meeting was quite remarkable. And when she says at the end of four hours, this is a man with whom I can do business, it was a historic moment.
NORTHAM: Thatcher took her impressions of Gorbachev to then-President Ronald Reagan. The three cemented their close relationship as Communism fell. But back home, the economy began a downturn. Thatcher had pushed through an extremely unpopular community tax, which sparked violent riots. Complaints and concerns to Thatcher fell on deaf ears. The Guardian's Simon Hoggart says her Cabinet tired of her dominant, authoritarian style; and there was a sense that she had simply gone too far.
HOGGART: I think she grew slightly crazed, slightly berserk. She came to believe that she had been proved right so often, she could do no wrong; and she made a series of terrible tactical and strategic errors. Her old unpopularity returned in spades, and she was forced out by her own party.
NORTHAM: At the end of November 1990, a tearful Mrs. Thatcher handed back the keys to Downing Street.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THATCHER: Ladies and gentlemen, we're leaving Downing Street for the last time, after 11 and a half wonderful years. And we're very happy that we leave the United Kingdom in a very, very much better state than when we came here.
NORTHAM: Thatcher may have been forced out, but she maintained an influence on the Conservative Party and left a mark on the Labour Party, says Lord Geoffrey Howe.
HOWE: So Thatcher didn't just transform her party, she transformed both parties.
NORTHAM: Lord Owen thinks history will treat Thatcher well. He says she was a great prime minister, but at a price.
OWEN: I think she was the prime minister for the hour, for that decade we needed her; and she's left a permanent legacy,. But she left a good deal of unhappiness and misery and broken lives.
NORTHAM: The Guardian's Hoggart says that Thatcher was never widely loved or even liked. But, he says, you had to admire her.
HOGGART: I'd have to, in a grudging way, say that what she achieved was extraordinary and formidable, and I don't think anyone else could have done it.
NORTHAM: In the last few years of her life, Thatcher became increasingly frail after suffering a series of strokes. She was also devastated by personal loss - that of her husband, Dennis, and her friend, former President Ronald Reagan. But she had already become an historic figure in Britain - the woman who tried to change the country, on her own terms.
Jackie Northam, NPR News.
GREENE: And NPR News will be bringing you reaction to Margaret Thatcher's death from around the world throughout the day, on air and online at npr.org.
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