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Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s reshaper, dies at 87

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

DANIEL JANIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 1987

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greeted crowds in Moscow.

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s “Iron Lady,” whose 11 1/2 years as prime minister transformed British society as much as it did British politics, died of a stroke Monday morning, her family announced. She was 87.

Lady Thatcher, who was made a life peer, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, in 1992, was Britain’s first female head of government and held office longer than any other 20th-century prime minister.

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In a statement, President Obama praised Lady Thatcher for showing “our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” He added that the “world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short a diplomatic visit to Spain and France after learning of Lady Thatcher’s death, said that “she didn’t just lead our country; she saved our country. And I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister.”

Even more remarkable than the duration of Lady Thatcher’s stay at No. 10 Downing Street was its impact.

No one realized this better than her ideological opposite, Tony Benn, for many years leader of the radical wing of Britain’s Labor Party. “The prime ministers who are remembered are those who think and teach, and not many do,” Benn once said of his much-reviled foe. “Mrs. Thatcher … influenced the thinking of a generation.”

Calling her a “unique political figure,” Labor Party leader Ed Miliband went further. “She defined the politics of a whole generation,” he said.

Lady Thatcher became prime minister in May 1979, 18 months before her friend Ronald Reagan was elected president. Deng Xiaoping, John Paul II, and, later, Mikhail Gorbachev may have played a more significant role in the worldwide rightward shift that marked the final quarter of the 20th century. None, however, more clearly symbolized that shift, or worked more enthusiastically to further it, than Reagan and Lady Thatcher.

“I am not a consensus politician,” she announced upon assuming leadership of the Conservative Party, in February 1975. “I am a conviction politician.” Lady Thatcher’s convictions — in favor of free-market economics and Victorian values, against state socialism and personal permissiveness — were deeply polarizing (something she readily, even proudly admitted) and flew in the face of several decades of British politics. “There is no such thing as society,” she said in 1987, indicating her commitment to the primacy of the individual and markets.

Prior to Lady Thatcher’s coming to power, postwar Britain had been defined by “Butskellism,” as it was called, after two leading politicians of the 1950s, the Conservative Rab Butler and the Laborite Hugh Gaitskell. The term stood for a tacit agreement on the need for government intervention in economic and social policy to provide for the common good.

“Thatcherism,” the only ism ital ever named for a British prime minister, rejected that consensus. It counted among its achievements privatizing such state-run enterprises as British Airways and Rolls-Royce, tripling the number of Britons who owned stock, and increasing home ownership by more than 25 percent. Critics, however, cited unemployment levels during the early ’80s not seen since the Great Depression and an unprecedented fraying of the nation’s social fabric.

Thatcherism was as much about style as policy. As proudly middle class as its namesake, it disdained aristocratic snobbery as well as working-class egalitarianism. Thatcherism was about getting things done rather than getting along or going along. The taste for irony and understatement evinced by such Conservative predecessors as Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home was utterly alien to Lady Thatcher. Defiantly impolitic, she said what she meant — and said it bluntly. “I always found the most effective weapon was ‘No’ or sometimes ‘No, No, No!,’“ she said in her maiden speech to the House of Lords.

Lady Thatcher’s blend of candor and assertiveness entranced supporters and enraged opponents. Unlike Reagan, whose affability helped make his policies popular, she earned a reputation for inflexibility, stridency, and arrogance. Rather than regretting such an image, Lady Thatcher seemed to revel in it. “I think sometimes the prime minister should be intimidating,” she once said. “There’s not much point being a weak, floppy thing in the chair, is there?”

Lady Thatcher’s forceful manner and disdain for compromise proved crucial in two of her greatest triumphs: Britain’s victory over Argentina in the Falklands War, in 1982; and the nationwide coal strike that began in March 1984 and ended with the crushing of the miners’ union a year later.

Further complicating Lady Thatcher’s image was her sex. “She is so clearly the best man among them,” wrote a Laborite minister, Barbara Castle, upon Lady Thatcher’s election as Conservative leader. The choice of noun was apt as well as pointed. Lady Thatcher had learned early on that she could ill afford to seem weak in what she once described as the “noisy, boisterous, masculine world” of the House of Commons.

In a statement Monday, Meryl Streep, who won a best actress Academy Award for playing Lady Thatcher in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady,” spoke of being in “awe” of “her personal strength and grit.” Streep noted that Lady Thatcher gave “women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream: the real-life option of leading their nation.”

Lady Thatcher’s being a woman proved, in some respects, even more asset than liability. It lent her a special fascination, something felt not just by voters and Conservative MPs but other world leaders. Pondering Lady Thatcher’s capacity to combine fierceness and femininity, French President Francois Mitterrand observed, “She has the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” Or as pop star Geri Halliwell put it, “We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites. Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology — Girl Power.”

Caligula, Marilyn, Spice Girl: Lady Thatcher was unlike any other resident of 10 Downing Street, before or since. As she wrote in her memoirs, “My background and experience were not those of a traditional Conservative prime minister. I was less able to depend on automatic deference, but I was also perhaps less intimidated by the risks of change.”

Born in Grantham, England, on Oct. 13, 1925, Margaret Hilda Roberts was the second daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and lay Methodist minister, and Beatrice Roberts, a dressmaker. As Lady Thatcher never tired of reminding voters, she grew up “above the shop,” in an apartment that lacked both indoor plumbing and hot water. “My ‘Bloomsbury,’ ” she once wrote, referring to the cultural hub of radicalism in the 1920s and ’30s, “was Grantham — Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues cultivated and esteemed in that environment.”

The most important influence on Lady Thatcher was her father. From him, she obtained both her love of politics (a town councilor, he later became Grantham’s mayor) and strong sense of self. A favorite piece of advice, one much taken to heart, was “Never do things just because other people do them.”

Lady Thatcher excelled at school and won a scholarship to Oxford University. She majored in chemistry and was the first female president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. After graduating, in 1947, Lady Thatcher spent four years working as a research chemist (she later became a lawyer). Lady Thatcher ran for Parliament in 1950 and ’51 in a solidly Labor district. She lost both times, but drew the attention of Conservative Party leaders. She interrupted her political career to marry Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman 10 years her senior, in December 1951. His genial, unemphatic personality would prove an ideal complement to her driven, sometimes-intemperate manner. “Typical of Margaret,” Thatcher remarked after his wife gave birth to a son and daughter, Mark and Carol, in 1953. “She produced twins … and avoided the necessity of a second pregnancy.”

Sir Denis Thatcher died in 2003.

Elected to Parliament in 1959, Lady Thatcher was given a minor Cabinet position just two years later. She held various posts in the Conservative shadow Cabinet while the party was out of office, from 1964 to 1970, in such major ministries as energy, transportation, and education. She was the only woman in Edward Heath’s Cabinet. As minister for education and science she drew criticism for eliminating free milk for schoolchildren, earning her the sobriquet “Thatcher the milk snatcher.”

Dissatisfaction with Heath was growing after Labor’s victory in 1974. When more prominent party figures shrank from opposing him, Lady Thatcher stepped forward. She led her party to victory in May 1979, gaining a 43-seat majority in Parliament.

Lady Thatcher’s efforts to curb inflation and cut taxes met with success. They also led to a doubling of unemployment. As criticism of her policies mounted in 1980, Lady Thatcher declared, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only this to say. ‘You turn if you want; the lady’s not for turning.’“ By late 1981, she had the lowest popularity rating ever recorded in a public opinion poll for a British prime minister.

Yet two developments came to Lady Thatcher’s rescue. At home, Labor moved further left and the emergence of new center-left party, the Social Democrats, helped splinter opposition. Abroad, in 1982, Argentina seized the Falkland Islands. Lady Thatcher’s popularity soared with her steadfast leadership during the victorious 10-week military conflict that followed. “Great Britain is great again,” she proclaimed.

Calling for elections in June 1983, Lady Thatcher led the Conservatives to a 144-seat majority in Parliament. Four years later, Conservatives won a 102-seat majority. Yet many senior Conservatives had grown restive under Lady Thatcher’s rule. Further weakening her popularity was widespread opposition to a poll tax and the privatizing of water and electrical utilities. In addition, her growing criticism of European Community policy — especially the prospect of British participation in the European Monetary System — set the stage for efforts to overturn her leadership. The first, in 1989, proved unsuccessful. The second, in Nov. 1990, did not.

Lady Thatcher’s backing of John Major had proved crucial in his selection as her successor. He was far from being a dyed-in-the-wool Thatcherite, and his predecessor grew increasingly critical of him. In 1997, Lady Thatcher was widely quoted as saying of Major’s Labor opponent, “Tony [Blair] won’t let us down.” By 1998, though, she was saying of Blair (who had won a landslide victory two years before), “I’m worried about that young man, he’s getting awfully bossy.”

Still, it might be that the greatest tribute paid to Lady Thatcher was the way in which Blair, rather than rejecting Thatcherism, did his best to present himself as carrying on its tradition of forward-looking vigor and entrepreneurial optimism.

In addition to her children, Lady Thatcher leaves two grandchildren. A sister, Muriel, died in 2004. A ceremonial funeral will be held at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral next week.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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