Margaret Thatcher, who died of a stroke Monday at age 87, transformed Britain more thoroughly than any other prime minister of the past half-century. She was a pathbreaker from the moment she took office in 1979 as Britain’s first, and so far only, female prime minister. And she was the rare conservative leader to come not from the upper echelons of Britain’s class-obsessed society, but a modest apartment above her father’s grocery shop.
But much more than that distinguished the 11 years of Mrs. Thatcher’s government, which followed years of tepid leadership, economic stagnation and high inflation. She tamed the power of Britain’s once powerful labor movement by shutting down inefficient coal mines, privatizing state-owned industries and modernizing archaic work rules. She encouraged an entrepreneurial culture that had grown timid and somnolent. With her powerful, plain-spoken approach to issues large (like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) and relatively small (the brief war over the Falkland Islands) she reawakened Britain’s taste for military engagement.
In the process, she revived policy debates among political parties grown too comfortable with safe consensus mumbling. As she pushed the conservatives to the right, she pushed the Labour Party to the center. Without Mrs. Thatcher, there probably would have been no Tony Blair.
She had many critics, and her record was not all triumphal. Eventually, Mrs. Thatcher’s relentless negativism on the European Union and bullying style of leadership pushed her own party to drive her from office in 1990. Over the intervening years, much of the glow has faded from Mrs. Thatcher’s economic achievements.
The capitalist revival she sparked did not slow the over-financialization and deindustrialization of the economy, with clear and negative consequences in the 2008 financial crash. Her weakening of the unions also led to a regressively skewed distribution of wealth and, her critics said, a widening gap between rich and poor.
Arguably, Mrs. Thatcher’s popular military successes made it easier for Tony Blair to carelessly and recklessly follow George W. Bush into Iraq. But Mrs. Thatcher knew how to stand up to Ronald Reagan when she needed to, for example, over the ill-considered United States invasion of Grenada. She was one of the first Western leaders to recognize the reformist intentions of Mikhail Gorbachev, showed remarkable foresight on the dangers of climate change, and in general managed Britain’s global role more deftly than her successors.
Mrs. Thatcher was, without a doubt, a divisive political figure in her day. The passage of time has drained much of the old anger and left behind her record of accomplishments