Margaret Thatcher: 'The lady's not for turning'

Britain's first female prime minister, who died yesterday, polarised not just her own country but much of the world. Colin Randall reports

Margaret Thatcher meets with her friend and political ally Ronald Reagan during a 1985 visit to the White House.
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Margaret Thatcher made history, forced sweeping social and economic change and intrigued, inspired or – according to taste – appalled the world.

When The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd's film about the life of Britain's first female prime minister, appeared in 2011, box-office performance reflected a yawning national divide.

In London and the relatively prosperous south, people flocked to cinemas though many shared the view of some critics that the film dwelt unkindly on the declining health of her later years.

The farther north the film went, the less successful it was. In the old industrial areas, her name is associated with the destruction of jobs and the communities that depended on them.

Even in her home town, Grant-ham, a middle-class staging post between London and Edinburgh, opinion is split. There was bitter debate before a charity running a museum decided last month to erect a statue in her honour.

But amid differences that will rage long after the obituaries have been written and the funeral and memorials are over, there is broad agreement that no British politician since Winston Churchill had a greater impact on public life.

The film's portrayal of a delusional, doddery old woman properly illustrated her frailty as death approached. It is at odds with the reality of Thatcher in her prime: a strong leader who knew precisely what she wanted, believed her instincts were shared by the majority of voters and tolerated no dissent.

Today, Baroness Thatcher, as she became two years after leaving office, is recalled as the prime minister who led her country to war, tamed the powerful trade unions, privatised state enterprises and encouraged a culture of self-help and personal advancement that allies called liberating, foes saw as a green light for greed.

Beyond UK shores, the assessment of Lady Thatcher and the breed of politics named after her is also a matter of sharp disagreement.

Conservative opinion in the United States values the special relationship she forged with Ronald Reagan, president for most of her time in office.

Both loathed Communism and, while they had keen disputes on specific issues (Lady Thatcher opposed the 1983 US invasion of Grenada; Washington had misgivings about British military action after Argentine forces invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands), there was much more to unite them. Even the Falklands conflict was fought with important US logistical support after Argentina rejected the Reagan administration's mediation efforts.

On Middle East matters, there was a less than united front. Recently released papers show how gravely Lady Thatcher viewed the likely impact of the US being seen in the region as approving Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

"Unlimited support for Israel can only lead to growing polarisation and despair in the Arab world," she wrote to the president. "I have to tell you from our Arab contacts that Arab opinion is running violently against the US since the impression has been given, rightly or wrongly, that you condone rather than condemn the recent Israeli action."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the years of Thatcherism also coincided with enthusiastic expansion of British trade with the region. The tangled history of Al Yamamah arms deal is a compelling example.

It was the biggest export transaction in British history, estimated by a British Aerospace executive in 2005 to be worth £83 billion (Dh465bn) in past and future sales to Saudi Arabia of military hardware including aircraft ranging from Tornado fighters and Hawk trainer jets to Eurofighter Typhoons.

Some accounts stress Lady Thatcher's personal influence on statesmen. Others level allegations of deals struck oiled by huge corporate bribes to members of the Saudi royal family and government officials.

When finally, in 2006, British authorities discontinued investigations into dealings between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems, successor to British Aerospace, the government cited "the need to safeguard national and international security".

Tony Blair, then prime minister, said: "Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is vitally important for our country in terms of counter-terrorism, in terms of the broader Middle East, in terms of helping in respect of Israel and Palestine. That strategic interest comes first."

These were not the only contentious excursions into foreign affairs to be embarked upon by Lady Thatcher and her government.

In the European Union, where she fought some of her greatest battles in defence of British interests, her record attracts a mixture of withering disdain and grudging respect.

She opposed sanctions against South Africa, despite professing her disapproval of apartheid, allowed US forces to mount attacks on Muammar Qaddafi's Libya from UK military bases in 1986, supported the Khmer Rouge's right to retain a UN seat after it was driven from power in Cambodia, and personally urged US president George HW Bush to commit military force to repel Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Lady Thatcher narrowly escaped assassination in the Irish Republican Army's bombing of her hotel during a party conference and mourned the violent deaths of close friends as a result of the "Troubles" over British rule in Northern Ireland. However, the earliest gestures towards Anglo-Irish conciliation were also made during her years of government, even if the peace process did not start in earnest until after she left office.

Lady Thatcher's early life was as a grocer's daughter, living in a flat above one of the two shops owned by her father in Grantham. She won a scholarship to a prestigious grammar school, where she became head girl, and went on to study chemistry at Oxford University.

Long before she first stood for parliament, she was involved in politics, presiding over the Conservative students' association while at Oxford and later combining early employment as a research chemist with political activism.

After respectable defeats in unwinnable constituencies and the birth of her twins, Carol and Mark, she entered the House of Commons in 1959. She had also qualified as a barrister, specialising in taxation, the cost of her law studies met by her husband, Denis, a prosperous businessman.

Lady Thatcher's first brush with popular opinion came when she served Edward Heath's 1970s government as education secretary. Spending cuts included the withdrawal of free school milk. "Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher" was the nickname that stuck, as did her own later admission that she had earned such derision without even the consolation of significant political benefit.

After growing challenges to her leadership, she stood down as prime minister in 1990 having served three consecutive terms, a 20th-century first in the UK.

Her voice remained a constant feature of British politics, with much weight attached to her pronouncements on foreign and domestic affairs, until her health began to fail. She had several small strokes in 2002, lost her husband in the following year and was said by their daughter, Carol, in 2005 to be suffering from memory loss that proved to be the first signs of dementia.

Even in death, the nation she led is divided on the balance sheet of her legacy. Few, however, would dispute that for good or ill, she predicted to perfection the words about her that would be most remembered.

"To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the 'U-turn', I have only one thing to say," she told a Conservative party conference only one year into her premiership. "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

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