Margaret Thatcher dies: The 'Iron Lady' who transformed the nation

Lana Clements
Yahoo! News UK

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.

[Related link: Margaret Thatcher in pictures]

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.

Mrs Thatcher, who became Baroness 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 own 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.

[ A great leader who transformed Britain': Twitter reaction to Thatcher's death ]

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 despatched a task force to the South Atlantic which drove the enemy off the islands in an incomparable military operation 8,000 miles from home.

She successfully defied Arthur Scargill's nationwide and year-long miners' strike, which threatened to cripple Britain's entire economic base.

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.

Instead she stripped the unions of many of their powers with the aim of transferring them to managements and individual consumers.

[The Prime Minister who took on the unions - and won]

Within weeks of her arrival in Downing Street, foreign correspondents from all points of the globe - absent for so long from the House of Commons - flocked back to the press gallery. It was a sure sign that the world was sitting up and listening once again to what Britain had to say.

Whether you liked Mrs Thatcher or loathed her - and her Tory predecessor Edward Heath hated her beyond belief - whether you agreed with her or found her policies utterly repugnant, you could not deny her energy and drive.

Even many political foes secretly admired this single-minded woman, who never contemplated defeat and for whom all issues were black and white, not hedged about with grey.

Even - indeed particularly - her most bitter political enemies were forced to praise her crusading clarity of purpose and her determination, in their eyes, to serve "her people".

Veteran left winger Tony Benn frequently held her up as an example of how a great political party should be led, comparing her with what he regarded as Neil Kinnock's fudged leadership of the Labour Party.

Margaret Thatcher towered above all other political figures in Britain and her dominance of the Cabinet was supreme and rarely challenged. 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. Nobody talked down to her.

Yet the Iron Lady - a title bestowed upon her by her enemies in Moscow, which, incidentally 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 and touchingly 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 to her.

Sir Denis, as he became after she left Downing Street, was constantly at her side, an impeccable consort, protecting her and guiding her in all weathers and in all parts of the world.

He was a wonderful source of encouragement and comfort to her when, as sometimes happened, she returned home in tears after a particularly gruelling day. He made no attempt to disguise his contempt for those who opposed his wife, but he never got involved publicly in policy or political discussions.

His death came at a time when Margaret Thatcher's own health - she was ten years younger than him - 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.

Sir Denis's death was a massive blow to Lady Thatcher. But there was more grim trouble ahead.

Her son, Sir Mark - he inherited the baronetcy from his father - was charged in South Africa in connection with a plot to overthrow the Government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. The charge carried a maximum penalty of 15 years, and possible death if Sir Mark was extradited to Equatorial Guinea.

The news broke when Lady Thatcher was on holiday in the United States. She doted on her son and the charge plainly devastated her.

However, after weeks under house arrest in Capetown, where he lived, Mark in January 2005, pleaded guilty to unwittingly helping to finance a foiled coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. He accepted a three million rand fine and a suspended jail sentence.

Judge Abe Motala told him to pay the fine as part of the plea deal, but if he failed to do so by January 17 that year, he faced a five-year prison sentence with a further four years suspended for five years.

Meanwhile his wife Diane and their two children had returned to Dallas, and he planned to rejoin them immediately. However his conviction led to problems about his entry into the United States and instead he returned to London to stay with his mother.

For her it was a massive relief that her son avoided a long prison sentence and also, more traumatically, avoided what could have resulted in a fatal extradition to Equatorial Guinea.

Thatcher always conceded, too, that personal attacks on her, and particularly on members of her family, wounded her deeply. And yet the woman who took on Argentina and who had the people of Moscow reaching out and yearning to touch her, could not bear the sight of creepy-crawlies or snakes.

Mrs Thatcher was obsessively British, batting for Britain wherever she went, wearing exquisite home-produced clothes, upbraiding those who did not, and turning up her nose at the French Perrier Water. "What's wrong with British water?" she demanded.

Her rapport with the Soviet leader Mr Gorbachev was, in a different way, as warm as that with President Reagan. They both enjoyed each other's debating. "I can do business with him," she once famously declared.

And on one occasion in the Kremlin, they talked for nine hours on end - to such an extent that she did not have time to change for a state banquet in the Kremlin that night.

On the streets of Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest, Peking, Nairobi, Lagos, Kuala Lumpur, Bombay, Jakarta, and New York, in fact wherever she went, the crowds poured out to greet her, stretching out to touch her, kissing her hand and her face.

The adulation world-wide was remarkable. In more than one country, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia to name but two, serious journalists asked her at news conferences whether she would take over their ramshackle governments. This was the kind of irresistible - but not bogus - flattery which she revelled in.

Her line towards the Common Market remained firm: loyal support but fiercely against any idea of a United States of Europe. She was accused by Mr Heath of megaphone and foghorn diplomacy, shouting at the Europeans and others when quieter dialogue would - in his opinion - have been more appropriate and more effective.

She would probably have agreed. But politicians the world over were used to being "handbagged" by Mrs Thatcher. They had come to expect no less. Mrs Thatcher never did anything behind cupped hands or in a whisper.

She went to the country again in 1987 on the advice of her party chairman, Mr Norman Tebbit, with whom, it is said, she had had some acrimonious rows, even though they were politically of the same kidney. But fences were mended - temporarily at any rate.

This campaign, however, was on the face of it a disaster. There was bickering within Central Office as Mr Tebbit accused Lord Young of interfering with his proposals. And towards the end, Mrs Thatcher, on so-called "wobbly Thursday", went into a rage as at least one opinion poll showed Labour hot on her heels.

It gave her and her colleagues a chilling fright. The Tories were almost certainly helped by Labour's over-slick and, if anything, too professional campaign, and by the Opposition's inability to produce an acceptable defence policy.

Mrs Thatcher made several blunders herself during the campaign but perhaps her strongest card was to proclaim that the possession of nuclear weapons had brought about 40 years of peace. And that the ostentatious strength of the West had led the Soviet Union to meet them on disarmament proposals.

The Prime Minister wanted not just to win that election, but to win by a large majority so that she could still retain foreign confidence in her. As it was she swept home by a 101 majority this time, a much relieved woman.

Once again, she could at least partially thank Labour for her victory since their campaign was even worse than the Tories'.

Immediately after that election victory, she set about an inner-city clean-up policy designed to sweep Labour out of office in key city councils. But things were starting to go wrong again. Inflation began to creep up, and her policies towards the National Health Service were being greeted nationwide with suspicion and dislike.

Mrs Thatcher's final 12 months in Downing Street were uncomfortable, full of rumblings, dangerous discontent among some of her Cabinet ministers, whispering on the backbenches, calamitous by-election defeats, and a feeling nationwide that the "indestructible" lady had been there too long, and was fraying at the edges.

She remained totally dominant, but there were moments when her boldness began to look more like rashness. It started in July 1989 when she unceremoniously ejected Sir Geoffrey Howe from the Foreign Office, invested him with the spurious title of Deputy Prime Minister, and made him Leader of the Commons.

John Major, who was then no more than a face in the crowd, was put into the Foreign Office.

Her removal of Sir Geoffrey was in fact an appalling misjudgment that she was to live to regret. She could never believe that the mild-mannered, avuncular shambling figure was to be the one whose savagery, 16 months later, catapulted her from power.

Then, three months later Nigel Lawson - described by Mrs Thatcher only days earlier as "unassailable" - resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lawson believed that the regular presence in Downing Street of her adviser, and "family friend", Sir Alan Walters, a bitter opponent of European union, and an unrepentant monetarist, undermined his position as Chancellor. He could no longer continue.

It was a shattering blow to her Government. But she responded immediately, by putting Mr Major in the Treasury where, a few months earlier he had been Chief Secretary.

This provoked a slow but perceptible and uncontrollable movement of earth which gradually gathered the momentum of an avalanche and which finally tossed her out of office a year later.

Sir Anthony Meyer, an old and obscure but embittered Tory backbencher from North Wales, dared to challenge her for the leadership. She won by 314 votes to 33, but it was an omen. The result meant that some 60 Tory MPs had either voted against her or refused to vote for her. It was very bad news indeed.

And as the months slid nervously by, two more veteran Cabinet ministers deserted the ranks, Sir Norman Fowler (Employment) and Peter Walker (Wales). Although both ostensibly left for personal reasons, it began to appear that her government was crumbling fast.

Then came the disastrous by-election defeat in Tory-rock-solid Mid-Staffordshire in March, 1990, caused by the suicide of the sitting MP John Heddle. Labour, astonishingly, swept the Tories out. It looked like the start of something bad. And it was.

There was even worse to follow. The subsequent defeat in the Eastbourne by-election was particularly poignant for Mrs Thatcher since the vacancy was caused by the IRA assassination of her dear friend Ian Gow, a tireless pro-Unionist crusader for peace in Northern Ireland.

This was followed by the Bradford North by-election where the Tories, in this once-Conservative seat, were driven into third place. The opinion polls were bad. There was debris everywhere.

It was, however, the European Summit in Rome in early November which set up a train of events which propelled Mrs Thatcher out of Downing Street.

She returned to Britain fulminating about the way the summit was conducted, accusing the hosts of incompetence. This was more than Sir Geoffrey could stomach.

A few days later, he knocked on Mrs Thatcher's study door at Downing Street, and presented her with his resignation. She was shocked. But the consequences were even more catastrophic.

Michael Heseltine, who had stormed from the Cabinet five years earlier over the Westland affair, wrote an open letter to his Henley constituency party overtly attacking the Prime Minister's handling of European affairs.

Then he slipped off to the Middle East amid a raging storm, still protesting that he would not, nevertheless, challenge Mrs Thatcher in office.

Sir Geoffrey returned centre-stage. He made a resignation statement in the Commons so untypically ferocious and damning that Mrs Thatcher, bleak-faced, could scarcely believe what she heard. She visibly wilted as Sir Geoffrey plunged in the dagger and twisted it without mercy. The words were so shocking that MPs audibly gasped at their savagery.

If she had not realised it already, Thatcher must then have known that her time was nearly up.

The awful power of that statement almost physically compelled Mr Heseltine, the following day, to challenge her for the leadership. She went to a summit in Paris and, to her dismay, just failed to get enough votes to score an outright win on the first ballot.

With "defeat" written all over her face, she said she would fight on "to win". But minister after minister warned her that by fighting on she stood the prospect of humiliation in the second ballot at the hands of the man she despised more than anyone else in the Commons.

So, the following morning, she stunned the world by announcing her resignation. Her exit was as grand as were all her entrances. She followed this up by delivering a shattering speech in the Commons in the face of a vote of no confidence.

At one point in it, she stopped momentarily and declared, almost with surprise in her voice: "I'm enjoying this." It was as though the shackles had been magically removed from her after 11 years.