The Iron Lady with a softer side

By Chris Moncrieff

She was polarising and strong but Lady Thatcher's marriage and love for her family also shone through.

Margaret Thatcher at the British Embassy in Washington in 1977. Photo / NZ Herald
Margaret Thatcher at the British Embassy in Washington in 1977. Photo / NZ Herald

Margaret Thatcher was the woman who, virtually single-handed and in the space of one tumultuous decade, transformed a nation.

In the view of her many admirers, she thrust a strike-infested half-pace Britain back among the front-runners in the commanding peaks of the industrial nations of the world.

Her detractors, many of them just as vociferous, saw her as the personification of an uncaring new political philosophy known by both sides as Thatcherism. Tireless, fearless, unshakeable and always in command, she was Britain's first woman prime minister and the first leader to win three General Elections in a row.

Lady Thatcher resigned as prime minister in November 1990 after a year in which her fortunes plummeted. It was a year in which she faced a series of damaging resignations from the Cabinet, her own political judgments were publicly denounced by her colleagues, catastrophic by-election humiliations, internal party strife, and a sense in the country that people had had enough of her after 11 years in power.

But history will almost certainly proclaim her as one of the greatest British peacetime leaders. Her supporters believe she put the drive back into the British people.

And as she transformed the nation - attempting to release the grip of the state on massive industries and public services alike - she strode the earth as one of the most influential, talked-about, listened-to and dominant statesmen of the Western world.

When Argentina invaded the Falklands, she dispatched a task force to the South Atlantic which drove the enemy off the islands in an incomparable military operation 8000 miles from home.

Her triumphant achievement of power in May 1979 signalled the end of the era when trade union leaders trooped in and out of 10 Downing Street, haggling and bargaining with her Labour predecessors.

Lady Thatcher towered above all other political figures in Britain and her dominance of the Cabinet was supreme. She was the equal of statesmen across the world. She elevated Downing Street to something like the status of the White House and the Kremlin, symbols of the then two great superpowers.

Yet the Iron Lady - a title bestowed upon her by her enemies in Moscow, which she relished - was not all stern, steely and strident. She was delightful with children and she could not disguise her glee - "We are a grandmother" - when her grandson Michael was born in Dallas in February 1989.

She regularly admitted that she could not do her job properly without the unfailing and unstinting support of her "marvellous" husband, Denis. He was, she said, the "golden thread" running through her life. His death, in June 2003, some weeks after major heart surgery, was a profound blow.

Sir Denis was constantly at her side, an impeccable consort, protecting her and guiding her in all weathers.

His death came at a time when Margaret Thatcher's own health was the subject of speculation. She had suffered a series of strokes and her doctors had forbidden her to make any more speeches - instructions which she was occasionally known to breach.


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