LONDON — Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has died at the age of 87, following a stroke.
Family spokesman Lord Tim Bell said Britain's only female prime minister died peacefully on Monday morning. Within minutes of the announcement, ordinary citizens began to put flowers and condolence notes outside her home in London.
The British government said Thatcher would receive a ceremonial funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral with military honors - a step short of a state funeral - in accordance with the wishes of her family. It said a private cremation would follow later, but provided no details on the timing of the service.
Thatcher, who was made a baroness by Queen Elizabeth, had a long and controversial career, transforming the British economy and society with her Conservative Party’s anti-union, anti-regulation policies during an 11-year tenure from 1979 to 1990.
She was a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s only woman prime minister, and she held the job longer than anyone else in the 20th Century. When she first came to office, she expressed this hope.
“Where there is discord may we bring harmony, where there is error may we bring truth, where there is doubt may we bring faith and where there is despair may we bring hope,” she said.
But her tenure through three election victories created considerable discord, alienating workers, deregulating health and safety hazards, and splitting her own Cabinet on some issues. She stood firm against militants in Northern Ireland, allowing one of them to starve himself to death in prison.
She supported British membership in the European Union, but insisted on not participating in the open borders agreement and the common euro currency. And she took the country to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
On Monday, Queen Elizabeth expressed sadness at Mrs. Thatcher’s death, and approved plans for a ceremonial funeral with full military honors and a procession across London to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Prime Minister David Cameron, also a Conservative, cut short a visit to Spain and France following the news. He said Monday his country had "lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton."
Cameron said “she did not just lead our country, she saved our country,” and said she will go down in history as “the greatest British peacetime prime minister.”
European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso paid tribute Monday to her "contributions" to the growth of the EU, despite her reservations about its merits.
Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said Thatcher was a "great politician" whose words "carried great weight." The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who held frequent meetings with Thatcher at the end of the Cold War, called her death "sad news."
U.S. President Barack Obama said “the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”
Within minutes of the announcement, ordinary citizens began to put flowers and condolence notes outside her home in London. Throughout the city, people were hearing the news as they went out for lunch.
“It is a terrible loss for the UK, but also I think all around the world really," said one citizen. "I think she was an inspirational woman, and I think there will be lots of people affected by this.”
“She took some difficult decisions, was not afraid to put people’s noses out of joint," said another. "And I think a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum respected her for that.”
“I do not think she did more harm than good. I think she did what could with what she had, like most people do. And it was a hard job to do, I would say, especially being a woman,” another citizen added.
Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters and opponents agree that she had a huge impact on Britain, as a pioneering woman in politics and as a transformational prime minister. As with any politician, her legacy will be mixed, but all appear to agree she earned her nickname, the Iron Lady.
Changed British politics
Thatcher, who is credited with changing the face of British politics during her three terms as Prime Minister, was married to Denis Thatcher and had two children, a son and daughter - twins.
In her autobiography, Thatcher said her foremost achievement, as prime minister, was to shift British policy from what she called soft socialism to a free-enterprise society.
Five years after leaving office, she told a television interviewer she had also restored Britain's high rank in the world because of her unwavering stand for freedom and liberty. She recalled her decision to send British troops to defend the Falkland Islands in 1982 when Argentine forces invaded the British dependency.
"People knew that we would not tolerate an aggressor. We would not appease an aggressor. So we went down to the Falklands," she recalled. "That was the first time an aggressor had been thrown out in the post war period. So we did turn Britain around to become a great nation again although within much smaller borders in a way because we no longer have an empire. But we got back our self-respect and our reputation."
The same could be said for her condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Standing next to then U.S. President George Bush at a meeting in the United States, Thatcher did not hesitate to call for military action if necessary to stop Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Thatcher studied research chemistry and law but soon switched to politics. Margaret Thatcher served as secretary of state for education and science in the 1970s. She quickly rose through Conservative party ranks and became leader of the opposition in Parliament in 1975. She was elected prime minister in 1979.
Thatcher's leadership was controversial at the time. She cut the power of the labor unions, reduced public spending, privatized state-run companies, and moved her centrist Conservative Party farther to the political right.
She never hid her hostility toward the European Union's design for closer economic and political cooperation. Thatcher warned it would rob Britain of its sovereignty.
As the only woman EU leader at the time, Thatcher's trademark became the black handbag she always carried on her arm. Her blunt style and sharp tongue were described as "handbagging."
The term became synonymous with Thatcher tirades against EU leaders trying to forge closer unity.
"You can't just have precisely the kind of leader that you would like. It's a choice between what's on offer," she noted. "Doubtless there were many people for whom I was not the ideal leader, particularly those who wanted to go into Europe much more deeply than I did."
Despite the criticism, the tenacious Margaret Thatcher won landslide victories for second and third terms in office. But her deliberate move to the political right angered many within her own party.
She was ousted as party leader and prime minister in 1990. Thatcher was later made a baroness and appointed to the House of Lords.
In a 1996 speech, Thatcher blamed her party's loss of popularity on a new leadership that she said had betrayed her principles. What works she insisted, is free enterprise, not big government.
She did not hesitate to offer advice to her successor, John Major, as he battled unsuccessfully to keep the Conservative Party in power.
"Never give up power voluntarily," she advised. "If you believe in your message you want to win because you know the message in your hands is likely to be very much more effectively administered than people who now say they agree with it but who never have thought of it in the first place."
Ironically, it was a newly fashioned Labour Party that dumped its socialist rhetoric and adopted the Thatcher strategy to win power in 1997 and put the Conservative Party back in the opposition.
Thatcher refused to sit quietly in the background even in her final years. She was a tireless campaigner for conservative candidates around the country and never hesitated to offer advice and support to the next generation of Conservative Party leaders.