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 Margaret Thatcher factfile infographic
Graphic shows career profile of Margaret Thatcher.
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Margaret Thatcher factfile

October 13, 2005 - Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher celebrates her 80th birthday. The "Iron Lady" won three successsive election victories and was the longest-serving British premier of the 20th century. A pioneer of privatisation, her policies revived Britain's economic fortunes and curbed the power of militant trade unions, but also led to the high unemployment and increased wealth inequality of the 1980s.

She has long inhabited the political sidelines, has suffered a series of minor strokes and she is about to turn 80. Yet to utter the words “Thatcher” and “weak” in the same breath remains unthinkable. Britain’s former prime minister is one of those rare figures who is not only preceded but totally eclipsed by reputation in their lifetime.

Few leaders have divided opinion like Margaret Thatcher. To many on the right, she remains a saviour whose microeconomic reforms returned the “sick man of Europe” to rude good health. Others believe that those same policies inflicted hardship on many ordinary people, and some still savour the memory of the tearful resignation in 1990 that ended her 11-year reign. By that time, however, Britain was scarcely recognisable.

Born on October 13, 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, Margaret Hilda Roberts was a bright, industrious grocer’s daughter who studied for degrees in chemistry and law at Oxford. She worked for a brief period testing cakes and ice creams as a chemist before marriage to businessman Denis Thatcher enabled her to study for the Bar, qualifying as a barrister in 1953. Her twins Mark and Carol were born the same year.

Her passion was politics and, after becoming Conservative MP for Finchley in 1959, she began progressing quickly through party ranks: she held several positions in Edward Health’s shadow cabinet, and was secretary for education and science under a Tory government elected in 1970. After ousting Heath as party leader in 1975, she won the general election in 1979 to become Britain’s first woman prime minister.

Almost immediately she applied painful remedies to economic paralysis, cutting social spending and raising interest rates. During her first term economic output declined by 15 percent and unemployment rose to three million. Her personal popularity suffered until an outbreak of patriotism over the 1982 Falklands War helped her to a second, huge poll win in 1983. Britain was in for even more radical Tory rule.

During her second term Thatcher stepped up her programme of selling off state assets. By the time she departed in 1990, 40 state industries had been privatised, including British Telecom, Rolls Royce, British Gas and the British Airports Authority. She also chipped away at the powers of the trade unions, and the fizzling out of the bitter, year-long miners’ strike in 1985 again signalled the end of a bygone political age.

Admired and loathed in equal measure for her steely character -- she embraced the “Iron Lady“ nickname given her by the Soviets -- Thatcher could count on sworn enemies and fervent allies throughout her career. Her intransigence towards the IRA led to an increase in violence in Northern Ireland, and in 1984 she survived an IRA bomb attack on her life at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton. Typically of “Maggie”, however, she won respect for insisting that the conference went on.

She was close to Ronald Reagan, who shared her anti-communist views, and their approach to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union is considered to have contributed to its eventual downfall. Another friend was former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whom she visited in 1998 while he was under house arrest facing charges of torture and conspiracy to murder, prompting public condemnation.

But Prime Minister Thatcher was nothing if not sure of herself and, although she was undone in 1990 by a leadership challenge from within her own party, some have argued that her fierce self-belief was a contributing factor in her political demise: her refusal to budge from a position of deep Euro-scepticism alienated fellow Conservatives, and she misjudged the extent of public anger over the poll tax.

Today, Mrs Thatcher continues to promote her political philosophy through her Thatcher Foundation. In 1990 she was awarded the Order of Merit and in 1992 a life peerage, entering the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. Earlier this year she joined the majority of former Prime Ministers as a member of the Order of the Garter, the United Kingdom's highest order of chivalry. Her legacy may still be debated, but her stamp on Britain and its political life is unquestionable.

Sources
PUBLISHED: 28/9/2005; STORY: Joanna Griffin; PICTURES: Associated Press
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