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Margaret Thatcher dies at 87; Britain's first female prime minister

Regarded by many as the country's most important peacetime leader of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain with a conservative free-market revolution. The 'Iron Lady' was known as much for her formidable persona as her polarizing policies.

April 08, 2013|By Henry Chu and Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- Margaret Thatcher, the grocer's daughter who punched through an old-boy political network to become Britain's first female prime minister, stamping her personality indelibly on the nation and pursuing policies that reverberate decades later, has died. She was 87.

The BBC read out a statement early Monday afternoon from Thatcher's friend and former advisor, Tim Bell, saying: "It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announce that their mother, Baroness Thatcher, died peacefully following a stroke this morning."

Prime Minister David Cameron, the current leader of Thatcher's Conservative Party, said that his country had lost "a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton."

Falklands War: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly said Margaret Thatcher ordered the sinking of an Argentine submarine. The vessel was a cruiser, not a submarine.

The woman many regard as Britain's most important peacetime leader of the 20th century shook her country like an earthquake after moving into 10 Downing St. in 1979. In nearly a dozen years at the top, she transformed the political and economic landscape through a conservative free-market revolution bearing her name, Thatcherism, which sought to reverse Britain's postwar decline and the welfare state that she felt accelerated it.

VIDEO CHAT: Margaret Thatcher, her life and legacy

Her policies ushered in boom times for go-getter Britons but also exacerbated social inequalities. Such is her legacy that every prime minister since has had to deal with aspects of it, toiling in the shadow of a woman worshiped by her fans and vilified by her foes.

She ended her days as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, far removed from her modest birth as Margaret Hilda Roberts of Grantham, a historic market town in northeast England. In between, she accumulated an Oxford education in chemistry, a London law degree, a seat in Parliament and a place in history as the longest continuously serving premier in more than 150 years.

PHOTOS: Margaret Thatcher | 1925 - 2013

The formidable persona she crafted also earned her a string of unflattering nicknames, such as "Attila the Hen" and her best-known moniker, the "Iron Lady." The latter, from a Soviet newspaper, was meant as an insult. But Thatcher characteristically wore it as a badge of honor, a compliment to her conservative mettle, and it was the inevitable title of a biopic starring Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar in 2012 for her portrayal of a once-fearsome political leader debilitated by Alzheimer's disease.

Thatcher's increasing dementia meant infrequent public appearances in recent years, though new prime ministers still stopped by her home to pay their respects and invited her to glittering state occasions. In 2011, she was said to be bitterly disappointed at being too frail to attend an unveiling of a statue of her political soulmate, President Reagan, outside the U.S. Embassy in London.

Like Reagan, Thatcher was a fierce cold warrior. But it was a "hot" conflict that vaulted her into the international spotlight.

In 1982, Argentina invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands. Caught by surprise, Thatcher launched a military force that recaptured the islands, adorning her leadership with victory laurels and making her a world figure.

At home, she relished a fight as well, pushing through controversial policies that emasculated Britain's muscular but sometimes dysfunctional trade unions, dismantled elements of the country's welfare state, auctioned off public services, and encouraged corporate investment and entrepreneurship. Her take-no-prisoners attitude was highlighted by her declaration that Britain's striking coal miners were "more difficult to fight, but just as dangerous to liberty" as the enemy in the Falklands War.

Thatcherism proved a potent brew of capitalism, patriotism and business-driven individualism that helped Britain throw off its reputation as "the sick man of Europe" -- despite producing mixed results.

A manufacturing economy gradually became a service economy, yet unemployment remained stubbornly high. Privatization spurred many Britons to buy their own homes, but placing public services into private hands eventually led to even higher costs and poorer service, such as a once-renowned train system operated by rival providers. And where some saw a newfound sense of national confidence and ebullience, others saw naked greed and a lack of compassion for those left behind.

Thatcher said of her unyielding methods: "After any major operation, you feel worse before you convalesce, but you don't refuse the operation when you know that without it you won't survive."

No one was unmoved by her. Former French President Francois Mitterrand once said she had "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe." In 1999, some Russian admirers formed the "Thatcherite Party of Russia."

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