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Opinion

April 10, 2013

Column: Margaret Thatcher rallied a faltering Britain

Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at the age of 87, was the most influential British prime minister in U.S. politics since Winston Churchill.

Churchill was close to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thatcher to President Ronald Reagan, whom she affectionately called “Ronnie.” If anything, she was a more effective and forceful advocate of free enterprise than Reagan.

The first woman to become British prime minister, Thatcher led the Conservative Party to three successive voting victories and governed from May 1979 to November 1990.

Thatcher was the daughter of a shopkeeper — a grocer, a fact that the class-conscious British press invariably mentions high up in her obituaries. In fact, she literally did live over the store.

She inherited the habits of hard work, tenacity and thrift — and an interest in politics. After graduation from the University of Oxford, no small feat for a shop girl, she entered Conservative Party politics. After nine years of trying, she won a seat in Parliament. She was willing to do the thankless, tedious tasks that other politicians avoided, and by 1970 was rewarded with a Cabinet post.

The ruling Labour Party was exhausted, her Tories had an unimpressive line of male candidates and England, in any case, seemed almost ungovernable. Thatcher at first had the advantage of being regularly underestimated by both friend and foe. But, in 1979, she led the Tories to victory and became prime minister, with the condescending consensus that her tenure would be a short one.

Thatcher inherited a nation that was on its way to Third World status because of an ossified and truculent trade-union movement, which dominated the opposition Labour Party. The country was subject to constant, crippling wildcat strikes — by hospital workers, railway workers, truck drivers, gravediggers, manufacturing workers — at state-owned enterprises that Labour had nationalized after World War II. Their products were notorious for unreliability and regular unavailability.

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