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Margaret Thatcher, 'Iron Lady' who led conservative resurgence in Britain, dies at 87

Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of the 20th century and the only woman ever to have held the post, passed away after suffering a stroke. She was 87. NBC's Martin Fletcher looks back at the life and times of the "Iron Lady."

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” who led a conservative resurgence in her home country and forged a legendary partnership with President Ronald Reagan, died Monday following a stroke. She was 87.

Thatcher led Britain from 1979 to 1990, the first and only woman to hold the job and longest-serving prime minister of the postwar era. 

“Margaret Thatcher didn’t just lead our country — she saved our country,” Prime Minister David Cameron said. “Margaret Thatcher took a country that was on its knees and made Britain stand tall again.”

Queen Elizabeth II planned to send a private message of sympathy to the family, said a statement from Buckingham Palace, where the Union Jack was lowered to half-staff. Cameron called Parliament back for a special session Wednesday to pay tribute.

John Minihan / Getty Images

A pioneer for her sex, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the United Kingdom for almost 12 years. Take a look back at her life and career.

President Barack Obama hailed Thatcher as an exemplar of British strength and resolve and a role model for young women. Invoking Thatcher’s friendship with Reagan, Obama said that she reminded 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.”

‘True force of nature’: World reacts to Thatcher's death

A grocer’s daughter with a sharp tongue and a no-nonsense style, Thatcher was elected to Parliament at age 34 and climbed the Conservative Party ladder. She became its leader at age 50 and swept into 10 Downing St. four years later.

The year she took office as prime minister, Thatcher took note of her place in history: “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”

Ten years earlier, she had predicted that no woman in her time would hold the job of prime minister. She held it for 11 years, longer than Winston Churchill or any other British leader of her century.

Thatcher transformed the British economy and took on its welfare state and powerful unions. Her government cut, closed or privatized state-owned industries, notably struggling steel plants and coal mines, and radically cut taxes and public spending — strong medicine, she conceded, but precisely what was needed to restart a stagnant nation.

“The problem with socialism,” she once said, “is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

In 1980, when fellow conservatives were fretting that her tough, anti-inflation economic policy was driving up unemployment, she addressed the prospect of whether she would make a political U-turn: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

Under her leadership, Britain fought and won a war with Argentina for the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean — determined to preserve one of the last outposts of the British empire.

Thatcher’s military worries became focused on a speck of land halfway around the world in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falklands, a British archipelago. After American mediation attempts failed, Thatcher decided to retake the islands, a feat accomplished in a few weeks. The war was a huge boost to Thatcher’s popularity.

An estimated 650 Argentinians and 255 Britons were killed in the war. Argentina still asserts a claim to the islands, but the people there overwhelmingly voted last month to remain under British control. One islander told Reuters on Monday that Thatcher was “our Winston Churchill.”

Thatcher survived an assassination attempt when an Irish Republican Army bomb exploded at a Conservative Party conference in the British city of Brighton in 1984, killing five people and injuring a cabinet minister, among others. Thatcher gave the keynote speech hours later and said: “This attack has failed. All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

She took on the British coal industry, nationalized and seen as politically untouchable. The coal union had brought down the government of another conservative, Edward Heath, with a strike a decade earlier, and coal workers walked off the job again in 1984 after the Thatcher government announced job cuts.

During the strike, she told the House of Commons: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”

Thatcher, anticipating the confrontation, had stockpiled coal to keep the country’s energy supply humming. The strike collapsed in March 1985.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, of the Labour Party, told Sky News on Monday that Thatcher’s economic regime was to blame for many of the problems that Britain still faces.

“She created today’s housing crisis. She created the banking crisis. And she created the benefits crisis,” he said. “In actual fact, every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact that she was fundamentally wrong.”

Thatcher had a well-known friendship with Reagan during his two terms as president in the 1980s. They shared an allegiance to free-market principles and opposition to the Soviet Union.

Thatcher recalled in her memoir, “The Downing Street Years,” that she met Reagan in 1975, when she led the political opposition in Britain and Reagan was the ascendant governor of California. She said that she was won over by his “warmth, charm and complete lack of affectation — qualities which never altered in the years of leadership which lay ahead.”

When Reagan died, in 2004, Thatcher delivered a recorded eulogy and said: “We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man. And I have lost a dear friend.”

Nancy Reagan on Monday said the world had lost “a true champion of freedom and democracy.” She said that Thatcher and her late husband had a strong personal friendship.

“From the very beginning, the first time they met,” Nancy Reagan said in a telephone interview on the MSNBC program “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” “She was at the first state dinner we had at the White House, and the last state dinner was for her.”

Thatcher was forced out of office by her own party in 1990, unhappy with some of her policies. Her reduction of British social spending also earned her the scorn of some pop culture figures and helped spawn the British punk movement. Billy Bragg and Sinead O’Connor lashed out in song, and Morrissey recorded a track called “Margaret on the Guillotine.”

Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the former prime minister in “The Iron Lady,” said that Thatcher had endured hatred and ridicule unprecedented for “a public figure who was not a mass murderer.” While praising her conviction, however, Streep suggested that Thatcher had contributed to a widening income gap.

“Her hard-nosed fiscal measures took a toll on the poor, and her hands-off approach to financial regulation led to great wealth for others,” Streep said in a statement. She said that she would leave history to settle the matter of Thatcher’s greatness.

Thatcher played polarizing role in pop culture

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said Monday that Thatcher’s views had been vindicated — on unions, on communism and on the movement toward European political integration, of which she was extremely skeptical and urged Britain to stay out.

“The country is deeply in her debt,” Johnson said. “Her memory will live long after the world has forgotten the grey suits of today’s politics.”

Her successor as prime minister, John Major, said that Thatcher’s economic reforms and the British victory in the Falklands War “elevated her above normal politics, and may not have been achieved under any other leader.”

Former President George W. Bush said that Thatcher guided Britain with confidence and clarity.

“Prime Minister Thatcher is a great example of strength and character, and a great ally who strengthened the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States,” he said in a statement.

Thatcher’s daughter said in 2008 that she had been suffering from dementia for eight years, and had to be reminded that her husband was dead.

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born Oct. 13, 1925. At the hand of her grocer father, she later said, she learned both thrift and capitalist principles.

“Before I read a line from the great liberal economists,” she wrote, “I knew from my father’s accounts that the free market was like a vast sensitive nervous system, responding to events and signals all over the world to meet the ever-changing needs of peoples in different countries, from different classes, of different religions, with a kind of benign indifference to their status.”

Cameron’s office said that Thatcher would receive a ceremonial funeral with military honors at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

British Prime Minister David Cameron expresses his sorrow at the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, who passed away at 87 after suffering a stroke. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.






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