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Margaret Thatcher - Ave atque Vale

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Update: From the liberal Editorial Board of the Washington Post, an appreciation of Margaret Thatcher.

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Update: The Telegraph obituary

Nick Robinson, writing for the BBC, recalls the great strengths and achievements of Margaret Thatcher, who died peacefully in the morning on April 8th:

Margaret Thatcher, who has died following a stroke, was one of the most influential political figures of the 20th Century.

Her legacy had a profound effect upon the policies of her successors, both Conservative and Labour, while her radical and sometimes confrontational approach defined her 11-year period at No 10.

Her term in office saw thousands of ordinary voters gaining a stake in society, buying their council houses and eagerly snapping up shares in the newly privatised industries such as British Gas and BT.

But her rejection of consensus politics made her a divisive figure and opposition to her policies and her style of government led eventually to rebellion inside her party and unrest on the streets.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born on 13 October 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer, and his wife, Beatrice.

Her father, a Methodist lay preacher and local councillor, had an immense influence on her life and the policies she would adopt.

"Well, of course, I just owe almost everything to my own father. I really do," she said later. "He brought me up to believe all the things that I do believe."

She studied natural sciences at Somerville College, Oxford, and became only the third female president of the Oxford University Conservative Association.

After graduating she moved to Colchester where she worked for a plastics company as a research chemist, and became involved with the local Conservative Party organisation.

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.

She tried, unsuccessfully, to gain selection as a candidate in 1955, but finally entered Parliament for the safe Conservative seat of Finchley at the 1959 general election.

Within two years she had been appointed as a junior minister and, following the Conservative defeat in 1964, was promoted to the shadow cabinet.

When Sir Alec Douglas-Home stood down as Conservative leader, Mrs Thatcher voted for Ted Heath in the 1965 leadership election and was rewarded with a post as spokeswoman on housing and land.

She campaigned vigorously for the right of council tenants to buy their houses and was a constant critic of Labour's policy of high taxation.

When Ted Heath entered Downing Street in 1970, she was promoted to the cabinet as education secretary with a brief to implement spending cuts in her department.

One of these resulted in the withdrawal of free school milk for children aged between seven and 11 which led to bitter attacks from Labour and a press campaign which dubbed her "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher".

She herself had argued in cabinet against the removal of free milk. She later wrote: "I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit."

As one of the few high-flying women in politics there was, inevitably, talk of the possibility that she might, one day, become prime minister.

Margaret Thatcher dismissed the idea. In a TV interview she said she did not believe that there would be a woman prime minister in her lifetime.

The Heath government was not to last. Battered by the 1973 oil crisis, forced to impose a three-day working week and facing a miners' strike, Edward Heath's administration finally collapsed in February 1974.

Thatcher became shadow environment secretary but, angered by what she saw as Heath's U-turns on Conservative economic policy, stood against him for the Tory leadership in 1975.

When she went into Heath's office to tell him her decision, he did not even bother to look up. "You'll lose," he said. "Good day to you."

To everyone's surprise, she defeated Heath on the first ballot, forcing his resignation, and she saw off Willie Whitelaw on the second ballot to become the first woman to lead a major British political party.

She quickly began to make her mark. A 1976 speech criticising the repressive policies of the Soviet Union led to a Russian newspaper dubbing her "the Iron Lady," a title which gave her much personal pleasure.

Adopting the persona of a housewife-politician who knew what inflation meant to ordinary families, she challenged the power of the trades unions whose almost constant industrial action peaked in the so-called "winter of discontent" in 1979.

As the Callaghan government tottered, the Conservatives rolled out a poster campaign showing a queue of supposedly unemployed people under the slogan "Labour Isn't Working".

Jim Callaghan lost a vote of confidence on 28 March 1979. Mrs Thatcher's no-nonsense views struck a chord with many voters and the Conservatives won the ensuing general election.

She entered Downing St in 1979 with a mission to shrink the state and repair the country's finances. As prime minister, she determined to repair the country's finances by reducing the role of the state and boosting the free market.

Cutting inflation was central to the government's purpose and it soon introduced a radical budget of tax and spending cuts.

Bills were introduced to curb union militancy, privatise state industries and allow council home owners to buy their houses.

Millions of people who previously had little or no stake in the economy found themselves being able to own their houses and buy shares in the former state-owned businesses.

New monetary policies made the City of London one of the most vibrant and successful financial centres in the world.

Old-style manufacturing, which critics complained was creating an industrial wasteland, was run down in the quest for a competitive new Britain. Unemployment rose above three million.

There was considerable unrest among the so called "wets" on the Conservative back benches and that, coupled with riots in some inner city areas, saw pressure on Margaret Thatcher to modify her policies.

But the prime minister refused to crumble. She told the 1980 party conference: "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch phrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to... the lady's not for turning."

By late 1981 her approval rating had fallen to 25%, the lowest recorded for any prime minister until that time, but the economic corner had been turned.

In early 1982 the economy began to recover and, with it, the prime minister's standing among the electorate.

Her popularity received its biggest boost in April 1982 with her decisive response to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.

The prime minister immediately despatched a naval task force and the islands were retaken on 14 June when the Argentine forces surrendered.

Victory in the Falklands, together with disarray in the Labour Party, now led by Michael Foot, ensured a Conservative landslide in the 1983 election.

The following spring the National Union of Mineworkers called a nationwide strike, despite the failure of their firebrand president, Arthur Scargill, to ballot his members.

Margaret Thatcher was determined not to falter. Unlike the situation Edward Heath faced in 1973, the government had built up substantial stocks of coal at power stations in advance of the industrial action.

There were brutal clashes between pickets and police but the strike eventually collapsed the following March. Many mining communities never recovered from the dispute that hastened the decline of the coal industry.

In Northern Ireland, Mrs Thatcher faced down IRA hunger strikers, though her hard-line approach infuriated even moderate nationalist opinion and critics claimed it drove many young Catholics towards the path of violence.

Although she attempted to ease sectarian tensions, offering Dublin a role, peace efforts collapsed beneath the weight of Unionist opposition.

In October 1984, an IRA bomb exploded in the Conservative conference hotel in Brighton. Five people died and many others, including cabinet minister Norman Tebbit, were seriously injured.

Characteristically, the prime minister insisted on delivering a typically robust response in her keynote conference speech a few hours later.

"This attack has failed. All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail."

Her foreign policy was aimed at building up the profile of the UK abroad, something she believed had been allowed to decline under previous Labour administrations.

She found a soulmate in the US president, Ronald Reagan, who shared many of her economic views, and she struck up an unlikely alliance with Mikhail Gorbachev, the reforming Soviet president. "We can do business together," she famously said.

Labour, now led by Neil Kinnock, had still not recovered from years of in-fighting and Mrs Thatcher won an unprecedented third term at the 1987 general election.

One of her first actions was to introduce the poll tax or community charge, a flat-rate tax for local services which was based on individuals rather than the value of the property in which they lived.

It sparked some of the worst street violence in living memory. Tory MPs, alarmed that the tax could cost them their seats, saw no way of getting rid of it so long as Margaret Thatcher was in charge.

She easily survived a leadership challenge from an unknown back-bencher in 1989 but the challenge was just a symptom of increasing dissatisfaction among Conservative MPs over her policies.

It was the issue of Europe which, eventually, brought about her downfall.

Returning from a fractious Euro summit in Rome, she let rip against her European counterparts, refusing to countenance any increase in the power of the European Community and outraging many colleagues.

"The President of the Commission, Monsieur Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No."

Sir Geoffrey Howe, resentful since being ousted as foreign secretary, seized his moment to quit the cabinet, deliver a devastating resignation speech and invite challengers for the leadership.

The following day, Michael Heseltine threw his hat into the ring. Falling two votes short of preventing the contest going to a second round, Margaret Thatcher declared she would fight on.

Told by close colleagues, the famous "men in grey suits," that she would lose, she used her next cabinet meeting to announce her resignation. Later, she mused bitterly: "It was treachery with a smile on its face."

John Major was elected her successor and Margaret Thatcher returned to the back benches, finally standing down as an MP in 1992 when the Conservatives, against all predictions, were again returned to power.

She was elevated to the peerage as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire, receiving the Order of the Garter in 1995.

She wrote two volumes of her memoirs while remaining active in politics, campaigning against the Maastricht Treaty and condemning the Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

She publicly endorsed William Hague for the Conservative leadership in 1997 but pointedly failed to speak in favour of his successor, Iain Duncan Smith.

She was forced to curtail her activities in 2001 when her health began to deteriorate. After a series of minor strokes, her doctors advised her against making public speaking appearances and she appeared increasingly frail.

She was also suffering from dementia which was affecting her short-term memory, something her daughter, Carol, would reveal in 2008.

When her husband Denis - whom she had described as her "rock" - died in 2003 aged 88, she paid him an emotional tribute.

"Being prime minister is a lonely job. In a sense, it ought to be - you cannot lead from a crowd. But with Denis there I was never alone. What a man. What a husband. What a friend."

A year later she travelled to the US to bid farewell to her political partner Ronald Reagan, whose funeral took place in Washington in June 2004.

She continued to appear in public, perhaps most notably when she unveiled a bronze statue of herself in the House of Commons, the first time a living former prime minister had been commemorated in this way.

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Floral tributes start to appear outside her London home.

More tributes, and some criticisms.

An American friend writes:

I woke this morning to the news of Margaret Thatcher's passing - interestingly, she's been on my mind for the last week. I've, for no good reason except that they're so good, been regaling D-- with some of her best lines; yesterday on a fairly short walk I concluded that she and Winston Churchill were the finest British leaders of the 20th century. The world would be such an extraordinarily different and much more awful place without them.

So I celebrate her life, I mourn her passing, and I hope that somewhere there is another young Maggie taking shape and stiffening her spine, getting ready to improve the world that badly needs her help.

We can hope. Especially we hope that helping means liberating individuals from the dead hand of the state while providing a safety net for the truly disabled.

Update: Peter Oborne writes:

Most prime ministers allow themselves to be shaped by the times in which they live. Just a very few – and she was emphatically one of these – refuse to conform.

They have the daring to shape the world. Pitt intuitively discerned the emerging empire, Gladstone brought a profound moral sense to British government, Disraeli created the modern Conservative Party, Lloyd George saved the nation in the First World War.

Churchill – the greatest of them all – rallied the British nation, and then the entire world, against Hitler.

The magnificence of Thatcher was her adamantine refusal to accept the conventional wisdom of her age. When she became premier in 1979, almost everybody who mattered accepted it as fact that Britain was finished. Almost everyone believed that the unions – the new feudal barons – were in control, and there was nothing to be done about it.

As a result, it was taken for granted that British industry could not compete, and that Britain no longer had a serious role to play on the world stage.

And then along came this extraordinary woman. She burned with passion, certainty and belief. She could not comprehend the meaning of defeat. She felt passionately proud to be British. It was this pride which enabled her to change not just Britain, but eventually the world.

Margaret Thatcher described her faith in Christianity and democracy in a speech she delivered in 1988.

This faith, and her courage, intelligence, and hard work, made her great. Farewell!

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