Margaret Thatcher Dies at 87

Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to ever serve as prime minister of the United Kingdom, has died at the age of 87. This is the story of a respected, controversial life as reactions arrive from across the globe.

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Margaret Thatcher, the first and only woman to ever serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has died at the age of 87. A spokesperson announced this morning that she had a stroke, though she had been in poor health in recent years and was reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

A family statement (via the BBC) said"It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning." She is survived by her two children with her husband, Denis, who died in 2003.

The longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, Thatcher was elected to three terms, starting in 1979. A lion of the conservative movement, both in the U.K. and abroad, she took over a Britain that was mired in the economic decline of the 1970s and oversaw a strong and sometimes controversial recovery. Almost no sector of British society was unaffected by her government's philosophy of free markets, privatization, and tighter welfare spending that would eventually come to bear her name as Thatcherism.

Current PM David Cameron said of Thatcher today that "She didn't just lead our country, she saved our country." A statement from the Queen said she was saddened by Thatcher's death and she would send a private message of condolence to her family.

Along with her American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, "The Iron Lady" led the global opposition to the Soviet Union and became an icon of the Cold War, finally leaving office just as the communist grip on Eastern Europe had finally fallen away. Even her toughest political opponents could not deny the mark she left on her nation and the world.

Among the controversial decisions from her tenure were the 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands; a miner's strike that broke one of the nation's most powerful unions (while costing several protester their lives); her negotiations with China on the return of Hong Kong; and her support of South Africa's apartheid government of the 1980s.

An uncompromising figure—she once said, "There are dangers in consensus: it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything"—she is still seen as a divisive figure in Britain and continues to have her share of detractors and enemies. Yet, her political skills were undeniable and allowed her to remake the British government and society in her own philosophy: slashing unemployment and inflation; privatizing previously nationalized industries, like energy; while preserving vital programs like the National Health Service. Her continual electoral victories forced the U.K.'s Labour party to remake itself in response, leading to the "Third Way" of Tony Blair that eventually dominated the 1990s.

She was ultimately forced out of her own party in 1990, due to internal disagreement over Britain's approach to the European Union. Although she could proudly say that she never lost an actual election.

After leaving office, Thatcher was made a member of the Order of Merit (a gift given only by the Queen) and was given a lifetime peerage as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, which admitted her to the House of Lords. She will receive a state funeral with "military honors" at St. Paul's Cathedral, but will not lie in state, per her own wishes


There are numerous obituaries of Thatcher that were obviously prepared ahead of time, but thoughtfully offer a comprehensive overview of her life and times. Here are some of the key passages and some moments from her life:

From the BBC:

In 1949, she was adopted as the prospective Conservative candidate for the seat of Dartford in Kent which she fought, unsuccessfully, in the 1950 and 1951 general elections.

However, she made a significant dent in the Labour majority and, as the then youngest ever Conservative candidate, attracted a lot of media attention.

In 1951 she married a divorced businessman, Denis Thatcher, and began studying for the Bar exams. She qualified as a barrister in 1953, the year in which her twins Mark and Carol were born.

From The Wall Street Journal:

In moves that were widely copied, Mrs. Thatcher took on Britain's all-powerful trade unions and privatized state-run industries, governing with a take-no-prisoners style that earned her both admiration and dislike.

"She showed everyone what a political leader with a powerful agenda could accomplish," said George Shultz, who was secretary of state to Ronald Reagan.

From Bloomberg:

Thatcher was defined by the battles she took on: she waged war against Argentina, clashed with striking miners and forced fellow leaders to cut Britain’s financial contributions to the forerunner of the European Union.

She survived an assassination attempt in 1984 when the Irish Republican Army bombed her hotel in Brighton during her Conservative Party’s annual conference, killing five people. She stuck to her schedule and addressed party members the following morning.

From The Washington Post:

“The Iron Lady,” as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs. No one denied her political genius. Future prime minister Tony Blair eventually copied her methods to remake the rival Labor Party.

“Her huge political achievement was to snatch the Conservative Party from the privileged but often well meaning old upper-class gentlemen, and give it to the shopkeepers, the businessmen, the people in advertising and anyone she considered ‘one of us,’ ” writer John Mortimer, a staunch critic, wrote of Mrs. Thatcher. “She greatly improved her party’s electability but robbed it of compassion.”

From The Telegraph:

As for the effects of the Thatcher phenomenon upon British society, these were both more ambiguous and more debatable. Her remark “there is no such thing as society” was wrenched altogether out of the context of the interview in which it was made, and made to seem to be an advocacy of naked individualism, when she was really calling for more personal responsibility. Yet, rightly or wrongly, the 1980s came to be seen as a time of social fragmentation whose consequences are still with us. 

From The Economist:

ONLY a handful of peace-time politicians can claim to have changed the world. Margaret Thatcher, who died this morning, was one. She transformed not just her own Conservative Party, but the whole of British politics. Her enthusiasm for privatisation launched a global revolution and her willingness to stand up to tyranny helped to bring an end to the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill won a war, but he never created an “ism”.

The essence of Thatcherism was to oppose the status quo and bet on freedom—odd, since as a prim control freak, she was in some ways the embodiment of conservatism. She thought nations could become great only if individuals were set free. Her struggles had a theme: the right of individuals to run their own lives, as free as possible from the micromanagement of the state.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.