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(AFP) / 8 April 2013
Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the controversial “Iron Lady” who shaped a generation of British politics, died following a stroke on Monday at the age of 87, her spokesman said.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister David Cameron led tributes to Britain’s first woman premier, a right-wing titan and key figure in the Cold War.
“It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning,” spokesman Lord Tim Bell said, referring to Thatcher’s children.
The former premier, who led Britain from 1979 to 1990, suffered from dementia and has appeared rarely in public in recent years.
She was last in hospital in December for a minor operation to remove a growth from her bladder.
The former Conservative Party leader remains the only female premier in British history and was the 20th century’s longest continuous occupant of Downing Street.
Her daughter once revealed that the former premier had to be repeatedly reminded that her husband Denis had died in 2003.
She was told by doctors to quit public speaking a decade ago after a series of minor strokes.
“The Queen was sad to hear the news of the death of Baroness Thatcher. Her Majesty will be sending a private message of sympathy to the family,” Buckingham Palace said.
Cameron said: “It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Lady Thatcher. We have lost a great leader, a great Prime Minister and a great Briton.”
Michael Howard, Conservative leader from 2003-2005, told Sky News television: “It’s terribly sad news. She was a titan in British politics.
“I believe she saved the country, she transformed our economy and I believe she will go down in history as one of our very greatest prime ministers.”
Right-wingers hailed her as having hauled Britain out of the economic doldrums but the left accused her of dismantling traditional industry, claiming her reforms helped unpick the fabric of society.
On the world stage, she built a close “special relationship” with US president Ronald Reagan which helped bring the curtain down on Soviet Communism. She also fiercely opposed closer ties with Europe.
Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925 in the market town of Grantham, eastern England, the daughter of a grocer.
After grammar school and a degree in chemistry at Oxford University, she married businessman Denis in 1951 and two years later had twins, Carol and Mark.
She was first elected to the House of Commons in 1959 and succeeded former prime minister Edward Heath as opposition Conservative leader in 1975 before becoming premier four years later.
Her enduring legacy can be summed up as “Thatcherism” — a set of policies which supporters say promoted personal freedom and broke down the class divisions that had riven Britain for centuries.
Pushing her policies through pitched Thatcher’s government into a string of tough battles, though.
When Argentina invaded the remote British territory of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher dispatched troops and ships, securing victory in two months.
Thatcher also triggered cultural revolution
LONDON - As well as overhauling Britain’s economy, Margaret Thatcher triggered a cultural revolution here by igniting a creative burst of anger at her policies, including slashing arts funding.
The former premier “had a phenomenal impact on the cultural landscape of Britain by creating an ideological backlash,” said David Khabaz of the London School of Economics, author of a book on Thatcher’s cultural legacy.
“It was kind of a paradoxical movement: if (Thatcher) hadn’t provided that sort of attack on art, the critical edge of intellectual art would never have come about,” he said.
Thatcher swept to power in 1979, and among her many controversial reforms was a decision to progressively cut funding for the Arts Council, a public body set up after World War II to help bring culture to the masses.
In line with her fierce free market economic principles, she argued that artists — many seen as broadly leftwing and anti-government — should sink or swim on their own merits, like the rest of the population.
But more than withdrawing funds it was her wider policies — including cutting jobs in mines and elsewhere, while cosying up to the US against the Soviet threat and waging war in the Falklands — which fuelled anger.
“Thatcher polarised society far more than ever before... What you read, what you watched and listened to indicated whether you were pro- or anti-Thatcher,” said David Christopher of the European Business School.
“Thatcher affected people’s attitudes in their everyday life, her hegemony seems to permeate all aspects of life,” including fashion, cinema and music, added Christopher, author of “British Culture, an Introduction”.
The music world saw the most visible, and sometimes violent, reaction to Thatcher’s policies.
Red Wedge, an anti-Thatcher movement formed in the run-up to the 1987 election, brought together a grouping of musicians including The Clash, Paul Weller, The Communards, Madness, Billy Bragg, The Smiths and Elvis Costello.
They played benefit gigs to raise money for striking miners and urging people to vote Labour, while underground events sprung up with concerts and exhibitions in warehouses, or home-made CDs to bypass music corporations.
In 1988 Morrissey penned “Margaret on the Guillotine”, saying that was his “wonderful dream”. Dozens of other songs call for her ouster, notably over her friendship with Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The same year students from Goldsmiths College in London organised the famous Freeze “happening” in a dingy Docklands warehouse. They were led by Damien Hirst, who later became one of the world’s wealthiest artists.
Other galleries, like that of Charles Saatchi, also served as a breeding ground for the counter-culture new British art.
Meanwhile one thorn in Thatcher’s side came from the heart of the British establishment: the internationally-respected and fiercely independent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The Tory leader was not slow to try to clamp down on the BBC, which broadcast damaging news investigation programmes like Panorama.
Thatcher “hated the BBC. She became increasingly worried about the BBC until she managed to appoint chairmen who were sympathetic to the government,” said Christopher.
Channel Four, a public TV station created in 1982, nurtured a new generation of directors whose edgy social films started on the small screen but then became cinema hits.
“My Beautiful Launderette”, a powerful satire on race and class directed by Stephen Frears with the writer Hanif Kureishi, was among the most successful products of that collaboration.
Other openly anti-Thatcher filmmakers included Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, while playwright and later Nobel Literature prize laureate Harold Pinter also joined the cultural onslaught on her government.
The creative burst continued well beyond her departure in 1990, which presaged the demise of Tory government in 1997.
In December 2011 Meryl Streep portrayed her in the film “The Iron Lady”, although it was criticised in some parts for focusing on her dementia.
“She has become a British icon... Thatcher is not Thatcherism: Thatcher started the project but Thatcherism became much, much bigger than her,” said Khabaz.
“Half of the country still despise her. It has not gone away,” he said.
Cold warrior who forged special bond with Reagan
LONDON - Margaret Thatcher was credited with restoring Britain’s reputation on the world stage and her close bond with US president Ronald Reagan was seen as a key factor in ending the Cold War.
From “handbagging” European leaders in demanding Britain’s money back to sending a task force to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina, she cultivated the “Iron Lady” image to cunning effect.
When she took power in 1979 as Britain’s first female premier, Thatcher had little experience and even less interest in foreign affairs, with her main priority being to shore up the crumbling economy.
But that same year she approved the deployment of US cruise missiles in Britain, despite mass protests at home, as part of NATO’s efforts to counter what it saw as the growing threat from the Soviet Union.
When Reagan took office in 1981 she quickly formed a close bond with him.
Despite their different upbringings, the former Hollywood star and the shopkeeper’s daughter shared a free-market economic philosophy and a deep mistrust of communism.
“I have lost a dear friend... such a cheerful and invigorating presence,” she said in a video eulogy after Reagan died in 2004. “Thank you for your presidency, thank you for your testament of belief.”
But despite their shared distrust for Moscow and its allies, Thatcher was also the first Western leader to reach out to reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1984, three months before he took power, Thatcher met him and declared “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.”
Her Cold War judgment was not always so forward looking, though, as she told Gorbachev that “we do not want a united Germany”, just two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Yet it was a conflict over a windswept archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean that was in many ways the making of Thatcher as a foreign policy player on the global stage.
British forces drove out Argentine invaders from the Falkands in 1982 despite Washington’s refusal to offer any support — a sore point between Thatcher and Reagan — ending a long period of post-imperial military decline.
“We have ceased to be a nation in retreat,” she declared afterwards.
Geopolitics professor Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway University in London told AFP that the effect of her stance over the Falklands was “to give successive prime ministers the confidence to project British forces into various other theatres.”
“When you think about where Britain’s gone after the Falklands — Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — a lot of that has come off the back of the Falklands,” said Dodds.
From then on she lived up to the nickname she was given by a Soviet newspaper after a tirade against the Soviet Union in 1976 — the Iron Lady — and deepened Britain’s strategic relationship with the United States.
That toughness manifested itself particularly in her increasing opposition to growing European unification.
She had supported British membership of what was then the European Economic Community in 1975 but at a European summit months after she took office in 1979 she was taking on the French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing and German chancellor Helmut Schmidt over the amount Britain paid.
In a victory that has hung over her successors, Thatcher then won a budget rebate for Britain at a summit in 1984, when she said: “We are simply asking to have our own money back”.
Europe became an “obsession” for her, said William Wallace of the London School of Economics, adding that she became “less and less interested in compromise.”
But it also led to her downfall.
In 1990, soon after she delivered an incendiary House of Commons statement vowing “No! No! No!” to increased powers for Europe, one of her closest allies, Geoffrey Howe, quit with a devastating resignation speech which blamed her entrenched Euroscepticism.
That triggered the chain of events that led to her quitting in November that year.
Summing up her foreign policy, Christopher Hill, director of the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge, said her economic policies had had more of an influence at an international level.
Hill told AFP she had a “short-sighted” view of international affairs and was too much under Washington’s spell, much like her successor-but-one Tony Blair, who took Britain into Iraq alongside the United States in 2003.
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