Britain’s ‘Iron Lady’ prime minister dies

Shaping the nation: Margaret Thatcher at her desk in Downing Street, 1987 © Getty Images

Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the UK, has died aged 87. Her vision and determination has left an indelible mark in Britain and beyond – for better or for worse.

To her supporters, she was a heroic visionary who single-handedly rescued Britain from moral and economic decay. To her opponents, she was a callous individualist who devastated proud industries and left communities in tatters. But all agree that Margaret Thatcher, who yesterday died of a stroke, was one of the greatest and most influential politicians of recent times.

When she first became a Conservative MP in the 1950s, British politics was dominated by men. The idea that a woman might become Prime Minister seemed far-fetched – as Thatcher herself admitted. Yet she quickly built a reputation as a forceful advocate of free market ideals, and when the Tory leadership became vacant in 1975, she pounced.

Four years later, as Britain went to the polls, the country was in disarray. Inflation was soaring, constant strikes brought the economy to a standstill and the government was crippled by its reliance on powerful trade unions.

Thatcher was elected on a promise of radical change; and she kept her word. From her first term in power, she dedicated herself to privatising government industries and cutting taxes. When she met with fierce opposition and poor economic results, many called for a change of track. But in a now iconic speech, Thatcher refused to flinch: ‘The lady’s not for turning,’ she declared.

After leading Britain to victory in a war for control of the Falkland Islands, Thatcher was re-elected with an enormous majority. She redoubled her efforts to transform Britain’s economy, shutting down coal mines in defiance of the mighty mining unions. For a full year, striking miners and the police faced off in what many saw as a battle for the control of the nation; Thatcher stood firm, and in 1985 the strike was broken.

Thatcher led Britain for five more years before finally succumbing to internal opposition. By the time she left office, the UK was transformed beyond recognition. ‘As much as you can say of any human being ever,’ says one former colleague, ‘she changed the world.’

Breaking the mould

Margaret Thatcher possessed a rare ability to impose her vision on the world around her. At every step in her career, she faced calls for compromise and moderation; but she believed that only radical solutions would work. By the sheer strength of her convictions, she took a country and rebuilt it according to her own ideals.

This remarkable force of will is the reason why almost all commentators – even those who bitterly opposed her politics – admire and respect the ‘Iron Lady’. But is it really right, some ask, for one individual to force their ideals on a nation? Or is compromise the only way to build a society which is fair and acceptable for all?

You Decide

  1. Is it right for one great person to impose their vision on a society?
  2. ‘Economics are the method. The object is to change the soul.’ What did Margaret Thatcher mean by this? Do you agree?

Activities

  1. What is meant by ‘Thatcherism’? Do some research and write a brief explanation.
  2. ‘Margaret Thatcher did not just lead our country,’ said Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, ‘she saved it.’ Conduct a class debate based on whether or not you agree.

Some People Say...

“Don’t follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you.’Margaret Thatcher”

What do you think?

Q & A

Would the world really be so different if it wasn’t for Thatcher?
Before Thatcher, many of Britain’s industries (such as gas, water and trains) were owned by the state, while high earners were taxed 83p in the pound. She changed all that, and her reforms have been accepted by all Britain’s subsequent leaders – even those on the left.
But what about the rest of the world?
For a start, Thatcher’s foreign policy shaped global events: she strengthened British ties to America, was influential in the dismantling of the Soviet Union and outspokenly opposed the EU. She is an inspiration to right-wing rulers worldwide; but also, as Barack Obama points out, to women across the political spectrum: ‘She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered’.

Word Watch

Free market
Thatcher believed that individuals and businesses should be free from government interference in their finances. That means low taxes, little state intervention in industry and limited assistance for those who struggle to make ends meet.
Inflation
In a healthy economy, it is normal for prices and wages to gradually rise, meaning that the real value of a unit of currency gradually decreases over time. But if money is introduced into an economy too fast, inflation can get out of control, leading savings and salaries to quickly lose their worth. So-called ‘hyperinflation’ is one of the most serious economic problems a country can face.
Trade unions
Organisations that represent workers in a particular industry, defending their rights and pressuring employers for better working conditions.
Falkland Islands
A group of islands in the Atlantic which are governed by Britain, but claimed by Argentina. The inhabitants almost all identify as British, but geographically the Falklands is located far closer to the South American nation.
Internal opposition
Unlike many of her colleagues, Thatcher was highly suspicious of the European Union, and opposed to British integration within Europe. It was this disagreement that ultimately brought her down, after a key cabinet minister used his resignation speech to call for change.

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