LONDON: Love her or loathe her, one thing’s beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.
The Iron Lady, who ruled for 11 remarkable years, imposed her will on a fractious, rundown nation — breaking the unions, triumphing in a far-off war, and selling off state industries at a record pace. She left behind a leaner government and more prosperous nation by the time a political mutiny ousted her from No. 10 Downing Street.
Thatcher’s spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister died of a stroke Monday morning at the Ritz hotel in London. She had been in poor health for months and had dementia.
As flags were flown at half-staff at Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Downing Street for the 87-year-old, praise for Thatcher and her leadership poured in from around the world.
“Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly was one of the most remarkable political figures of the modern world,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin said Thatcher “made a significant contribution to the development of the Soviet-British and Russian-British ties, which we will always remember with gratitude.”
President Barack Obama said many Americans “will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President [Ronald] Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history. We can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”
Her death brought tributes from Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short a visit to Continental Europe to return to Britain, and Queen Elizabeth II, who authorized a ceremonial funeral — a step short of a state funeral — to be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London with military honors.
For admirers, Thatcher was a savior who rescued Britain from ruin and laid the groundwork for an extraordinary economic renaissance. For critics, she was a heartless tyrant who ushered in an era of greed that kicked the weak out onto the streets and let the rich become filthy rich.
“Let us not kid ourselves. She was a very divisive figure,” said Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary for her entire term. “She was a real toughie. She was a patriot with a great love for this country, and she raised the standing of Britain abroad.”
Thatcher was the first — and still only — female prime minister in Britain’s history. But she often found feminists tiresome.
Her boxy, black handbag became such a recognizable part of her image that her way of dressing down ministers and opponents became known as “handbagging.”
A grocer’s daughter, she rose to the top of Britain’s snobbish hierarchy the hard way, and envisioned a classless society that rewarded hard work and determination.
She was a trailblazer who at first believed trailblazing impossible: Thatcher told the Liverpool Daily Post in 1974 that she did not think a woman would serve as party leader or prime minister during her lifetime. But once in power, she never showed an ounce of doubt.
“I am not a consensus politician,” she had often declared. “I am a conviction politician.”
Like her close friend and political ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher seemed motivated by an unshakable belief that free markets would build a better country than reliance on a strong, central government. Another thing she shared with the American president: a tendency to reduce problems to their basics, choose a path, and follow it to the end, no matter what the opposition.
She formed a deep attachment to the man she called “Ronnie.” Still, she would not back down when she disagreed with him on important matters, even though the United States was the richer and vastly stronger partner in the so-called “special relationship.”
Thatcher was at her brashest when Britain was challenged. When the Argentine military junta invaded the Falkland Islands (which Argentina calls the Malvinas) in April 1982, she ignored the misgivings of her Cabinet and the lack of support from Washington and sent a British military task force 8,000 miles away to dislodge the invaders.
At the time, her political stock was at rock bottom. But after the task force reclaimed the rocky archipelago, she suddenly became a popular and viable leader. She won an overwhelming victory in 1983, tripling her majority in the House of Commons.
“When you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out with an iron will to overcome them,” she said in her memoir, Downing Street Years.
She trusted her gut instinct, famously concluding early on that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev represented a clear break in the Soviet tradition of autocratic rulers. She pronounced that the West could “do business” with him, a position that influenced Reagan’s vital dealings with Gorbachev in the twilight of the Soviet era.
Thatcher set about upending decades of liberal doctrine, successfully challenging Britain’s welfare state and socialist traditions, in the process becoming the reviled bete noire of the country’s left-wing intelligentsia.
She is perhaps best remembered for her hard-line position during the pivotal strike in 1984 and 1985 when she faced down coal miners in an ultimately successful bid to break the power of Britain’s unions. It was a reshaping of the British economic and political landscape that endures to this day.
The New York Times and McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this report.