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In Praise of the 'Iron Lady' -- Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher celebrated her 86th birthday in October. It was a private affair. Yet more than 20 years after her departure from office, the “Iron Lady” remains a titan on the world stage. 

In fact, she remains such an icon that Meryl Streep will play her in the forthcoming film, "The Iron Lady" 

Her successors at No. 10 Downing Street haven’t come close to matching her legacy as Britain’s greatest post-War Prime Minister. Her partnership with Ronald Reagan epitomized Winston Churchill’s description of the Anglo-American relationship as The Special Relationship. In Brussels, she hand-bagged her way to securing Britain’s historic rebate from the European Union. And her international statesmanship was such that the entire world still knows her simply as “the Iron Lady.”

When Lady Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, vast economic and social problems confronted Britain. 

The previous government had been forced to go, cap-in-hand, to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. She took over from a Labour government so driven deeply by class warfare that its Chancellor, Denis Healey, is famous to this day for saying he would squeeze the rich with extra taxes ‘until the pips squeaked.’ And the pips did squeak–private enterprise shuttered its doors and voted with its feet. As the “winter of discontent” rolled on, with half the country on strike, militant trade unionists had beaten the Callahan government into total submission.

Yet in just a decade’s time, Britain would boast a balanced budget, lower taxes, a vibrant middle class, two million new (working class) home owners and a thriving business sector. Margaret Thatcher took Britain from being ‘the sick man of Europe’ to a model of free enterprise. And she did it despite the opposition of many in her own party. 

One of politics’ most immortal phrases came from her speech to the Conservative Party faithful in the early 1980s, when she declared: “the lady’s not for turning.”

Lady Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands War brought a renewed sense of patriotism as well. 

In her memoirs written much later, she would say that, looking back on her years in No. 10, it was the Falklands that remained most vivid in her mind. 

When Argentina invaded the sovereign British territory, a wave of counsel advised her to negotiate with the military junta in Buenos Aires. But in typical fashion, she said simply, “We are defending our honor as a nation.” In winning a swift and decisive victory in the South Atlantic, while enduring the tragedy of losing over 255 British servicemen in those few short weeks of war, Britain once again “ceased to be a nation in retreat.”

Margaret Thatcher proved that national decline is a choice, not an inevitability. A nation can chose to be one in retreat, or it can march forward to the beat of its own drum. 

In the same way that President Reagan made Americans once again believe in the shining city on the hill, Lady Thatcher gave Britain back its sense of greatness.

Sally McNamara is Senior Policy Analyst in European Affairs at The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.