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Margaret Thatcher is lionized and lambasted

Whether the former British prime minister is remembered as a savior or cursed as a destroyer, no one can deny the indelible imprint she left on her nation.

April 08, 2013|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • People pay their respects to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside her residence in Chester Square in London.
People pay their respects to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside… (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty…)

LONDON — Indifference was not an option.

In death as in life, at home and abroad, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was lionized and lambasted — sometimes both in the same breath — as news of her passing Monday spread across the world.

Whether she was lauded as a savior or loathed as a destroyer, no one could deny the indelible imprint left on Britain by its first female prime minister, whose free-market revolution in the 1980s shook this country to its core.

"We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton," said Prime Minister David Cameron, one of Thatcher's heirs as leader of the Conservative Party. "People will be learning about what she did and her achievements in decades, probably centuries to come."

But to Labor Party grandee and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, those lessons will be cautionary tales, not celebratory ones. For him and other critics, Thatcher set the stage for the financial crisis and the glaring social divide that Britain is now grappling with nearly a quarter of a century after her exit from politics.

"Every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact that she was fundamentally wrong," Livingstone told Sky News.

No doubt Thatcher would have loved to take on that fight if she were still alive and in her pomp. From her seat in 10 Downing St. between 1979 and 1990, she pursued her agenda to restore what was great about Britain, economically and militarily, with a ruthless single-mindedness that both friend and foe admired — and crossed to their peril.

She was a staunch opponent of communism, an imposing cold warrior who basked in her nickname "Iron Lady" and in her role as the strongest ally of the United States. For that reason, many of the most glowing encomiums to Thatcher on Monday came from across the Atlantic.

"The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend," President Obama said in a statement. "She helped restore the confidence and pride that has always been the hallmark of Britain at its best."

Nancy Reagan, the widow of President Reagan, the American most closely identified with Thatcher, also mourned Thatcher's death.

"Ronnie and Margaret were political soul mates, committed to freedom and resolved to end communism. As prime minister, Margaret had the clear vision and strong determination to stand up for her beliefs at a time when so many were afraid to 'rock the boat,' " Nancy Reagan said. "Ronnie and I knew her as a dear and trusted friend, and I will miss her."

Even the man whose country she wanted to see forced into submission, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, described Thatcher as "a big-time politician and a bright personality." He credited her with helping to end the Cold War, noting that "relations were complicated sometimes, not always fair, but serious and responsible on both parts.... We managed to achieve mutual understanding after all."

Downing Street lowered its Union Jack to half-staff, and Cameron's office announced that Queen Elizabeth II had granted consent for Thatcher to be given a ceremonial funeral with military honors in St. Paul's Cathedral, a distinction reserved for great figures of state. Winston Churchill was also given a funeral in the cathedral.

A special session of Parliament will convene Wednesday to allow members to pay tribute. Her supporters say that Thatcher unleashed Britain's spirit of free enterprise, cut out fat from government spending and oversaw a British renaissance.

But in a reflection of the polarized opinions that she continues to inspire here in her homeland, at least one lawmaker openly rejoiced at her death. George Galloway, a member of a small leftist party, drew some loud rebukes with his reference to "tramp[ing] the dirt down" on Thatcher's grave and his condemnation of her suspicion of South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.

"Thatcher described Nelson Mandela as a 'terrorist.' I was there. I saw her lips move. May she burn in the hellfires," Galloway tweeted.

Miners in northern England also shed no tears, still angry over her successful campaign to break the union that represented them and to shut down many mines, which drove up unemployment. And opponents of British rule in Northern Ireland, where Thatcher took an uncompromising stance toward the Irish Republican Army, also blamed her for inflicting misery on them.

Significantly, many of today's most important political figures are members of the cohort known as "Thatcher's children," the boys and girls who grew up in Britain under her aegis, the longest tenure of any prime minister in more than a century. Whether they loved her or hated her, many of them still find her influence formative and are dealing with the continued impact of her policies.

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