Infuriated by Britain’s image as the “sick old man of Europe,” she set out to dismantle Britain’s cradle-to-grave welfare state, selling off scores of massive state-owned industries, crushing the power of organized labor and cutting government spending with the purpose of liberating the nation from what she called a “culture of dependency.”
On the world stage, she collaborated closely with her friend Ronald Reagan to modernize Europe’s anti-Soviet nuclear shield by deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Britain, a costly and controversial enterprise that some analysts would later say contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Mrs. Thatcher then joined Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, in repelling Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, counseling Bush not to go “wobbly” on her.
She fought her own war as well, dispatching an armada to retake by force a colonial outpost off South America — the Falkland Islands — after it was invaded by Argentina in 1982. At the same time, she negotiated the end of Britain’s lease over another colonial relic, Hong Kong.
During her career, Mrs. Thatcher was frequently at war with consensus, which she disdained as the abandonment of “all beliefs, principles, values and policies.” At a low point in her popularity ratings, facing a clamor for change from her own party members, she gave a defiant response: “You turn if you want to,” she declared. “This lady’s not for turning.”
While unapologetically advancing what she considered the Victorian values that made Britain great, Mrs. Thatcher thoroughly modernized British politics, deploying ad agencies and large sums of money to advance her party’s standing. “The Iron Lady,” as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs. No one denied her political genius. Future prime minister Tony Blair eventually copied her methods to remake the rival Labor Party.
She was, wrote Conservative Party contemporary Chris Patten, “a political bruiser who understood the importance of an element of fear in political leadership. . . . While denouncing the notion that politics was the art of the possible, that is exactly what she practiced, albeit skillfully and bravely redefining the limits of political possibility.”
“Her huge political achievement was to snatch the Conservative Party from the privileged but often well meaning old upper-class gentlemen, and give it to the shopkeepers, the businessmen, the people in advertising and anyone she considered ‘one of us,’ ” writer John Mortimer, a staunch critic, wrote of Mrs. Thatcher. “She greatly improved her party’s electability but robbed it of compassion.”