Published April 09. 2013 4:00AM
Before there was a President Reagan and a "Reagan Revolution," there was Margaret Thatcher, whose leadership of the British Conservative Party reversed that nation's long expansion of the welfare state and nationalization of industries. Adore or despise her, there is no denying that Mrs. Thatcher was a transformational figure. She died Monday at age 87.
She is a major historical figure on a number of levels.
When chosen prime minister of Britain in May 1979, Mrs. Thatcher became not only the first woman to hold that position, but the first woman to lead any major Western power in modern times. Yet this conservative seemed the most unlikely of women to earn that distinction, and Mrs. Thatcher did not see it as momentous.
"The battle for women's rights has largely been won. I hate those strident tones we hear from some women's libbers," she said.
Yet her approach to leadership dispelled any illusions that a woman could not be a tough leader. In 1976 Mrs. Thatcher, by then the leader of the Conservative Party (British odds makers had made her a 50-1 underdog to obtain the position), gained the attention of the Soviet Union when she gave a hawkish, anti-communist speech. The Soviet news agency labeled her the "Iron Lady." She loved it and the moniker stuck.
In refusing to compromise or back down, she repeatedly proved her iron-willed nature, most dramatically when sending the Royal Navy to stop Argentina's attempt to recapture the long-disputed Falkland Islands off the coast of that South American nation. The subsequent fighting, and recapture of the island, left 250 British servicemen and more than 1,000 Argentines dead. An attempt at talks, before combat, may have avoided the bloodshed, but her tough approach only boosted the prime minister's popularity at home.
Mrs. Thatcher held the position of prime minister for almost 12 years, longer than any elected British leader in the 20th century. Like President Reagan on the other side of the Atlantic, she captured the political support of the working class by seizing on popular opinion that welfare had become too expansive, government too large and costly, unions too powerful.
In her 1995 autobiography, "The Path to Power," Mrs. Thatcher said that in both the United States and Great Britain policies intended to reduce poverty had failed, replacing incentives to work hard with deleterious motivations.
"In making it less worthwhile to work, and less troublesome and more financially advantageous to have children outside of marriage, while reducing the penalties for crime and weakening the sanctions against school misbehavior and truanting, government has changed the rules of the game," she wrote.
Critics, however, saw her as out of touch with the plight of the poor and said some of her policies were cruel. In 1970, just recently appointed secretary for education, she called for strict restrictions on a free milk program, saying it was the job of government to educate not feed. The tough British tabloids dismissed her as "Thatcher the Milk Snatcher," but the policy gained her national attention and many citizens sided with her.
Margaret Hilda Roberts grew up in Lincolnshire, a suburb 100 miles north of London. Exposure to her father's grocery store, which the family lived above, gave birth to her faith in free markets, she wrote in her autobiography.
"I experienced that business, as can be seen in any marketplace anywhere, was a lively, human, social and sociable reality," she stated. "There is no better course for understanding free-market economics than life in a corner shop."
Her governing principles - there is no individual liberty without economic freedom; policies should encourage hard work and personal responsibility; government regulation should not be needlessly intrusive - became known as Thatcherism.
In President Reagan, Mrs. Thatcher had a kindred soul. Both countries saw low inflation, job creation and rising standards of living during much of their tenures. Their alliance revived conservatism in a profound way that still influences the politics of both countries today by having shifted the political center to the right.
Mrs. Thatcher was arguably the more sincere fiscal conservative. President Reagan cut taxes, but not spending, and large deficits resulted. Mrs. Thatcher focused on cutting government and in 1985 her budget finished in the black.
"The full accounting of how my political work affected the lives of others is something we will only know on Judgment Day. It is an awesome and unsettling thought," wrote the Iron Lady in a not-so-iron moment.