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Thatcher a tough act to follow

Apr. 14, 2013 @ 10:17 PM

The “Iron Lady” is dead.

Margaret Thatcher, the longest serving and one of the greatest British Prime Ministers of the 20th century, died peacefully on Monday following a stroke.

She was born Margaret Roberts in Lincolnshire on the east coast of Britain in 1925. The daughter of an ordinary couple who owned two general stores, her beginnings were not great. In her younger days, her home had neither running hot water nor an indoor bathroom.

Margaret was always bright and won a place at grammar school and then at Oxford University, a great achievement in those days for a middle class girl. It was at university that she became interested in politics, joining the Conservative Association and becoming its president at the age of 21.

After graduation she became a research chemist, but her interest in politics was as strong as ever and she was soon adopted by her local party as a candidate in an election she had no chance of winning. Twice she stood and twice she was defeated, but after the second time she married Dennis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman and supporter. The couple had twins, a boy and a girl, in 1953 but motherhood did not stop Margaret — she studied law, passed her Bar exams and, in 1959, was finally elected as a Member of Parliament for Finchley in London.

She was very unusual for the time. There were few female Members of Parliament and most of those that were there were unmarried, older, career politicians. She was young, married, a mother, pretty and a fluent speaker. She was soon promoted, and when her party won the 1970 election and came to power, she was rewarded with a post in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. Nine years later, she had ousted the man who promoted her and was leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in Parliament, on the way earning the nickname “the Iron Lady” from the Soviet Red Army after she gave a scathing speech about the Soviet Union.

She became the first female British Prime Minister in 1979 and inherited a country almost in chaos. Britain was suffering from an inflation rate that was out of control, unemployment was high and output low. She wielded a brutal axe on government spending, curbed trade unions and the country began to recover.

It was not only in Britain that her strength showed. In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, which had been British territory for 150 years. There were international calls for negotiations but Margaret Thatcher dispatched 25,000 troops and within weeks the invaders were ousted. She was also feared at the negotiating table, her performances at the European Union caused the President of France to say “She has the lips of Marilyn Monroe but the eyes of Caligula.”  Caligula was a Roman Emperor renowned for his cruelty.

Despite this description, Margaret Thatcher was a staunch friend to the United States and a close ally to the then President, Ronald Reagan. She supported President Reagan but also worked with Mikhail Gorbachev to bring about the end to the Russian menace that had dominated world politics since WWII.

By 1989, after she had been Prime Minister for 10 years, Britain was stronger and more economically sound than it had been for many years. It was once again regarded as a power on the world stage, but some of her later policies were causing discontent in her own party and eventually she was defeated in a leadership election.

As a reward for her years of service, she was made Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and she moved on to take her seat in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British parliament. She continued to tour abroad, being received by rapturous audiences, but her health began to fail toward the end of the century.

In 2004 her husband, Denis, died and she more or less retired from public life. Now she too has passed away but her legacy remains. She was a great servant to Britain, the only living person to have her statue in the Houses of Parliament, a singular honor. She took her country by the scruff of its collective neck and hauled it from the brink of oblivion to stand strong among the nations of the world. She stood unbowed against her country’s enemies and helped to bring democracy to millions across the globe. Britain has not had a leader like her since and she will be a very hard act to follow.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.