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Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, dead at 87

Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" of British politics, who set her country on a rightward economic course, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cold War's difficult last years, died Monday. She was 87.

Her spokesman, Tim Bell, said the cause was a stroke. She had been in poor health for months and had dementia.

Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a visit to continental Europe to return to Britain after receiving the news, and Queen Elizabeth II authorized a ceremonial funeral with military honors — a notch below a state funeral but in line with the family's wishes — at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The date was not announced.

The woman many regard as Britain's most important peacetime leader of the 20th century shook her country like an earthquake after moving into 10 Downing St. in 1979. In nearly a dozen years at the top, she transformed the political and economic landscape through a conservative free-market revolution bearing her name, Thatcherism, which sought to reverse Britain's postwar decline and the welfare state that she felt accelerated it.

Her policies ushered in boom times for go-getter Britons but also exacerbated social inequalities.

She ended her days as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, far removed from her modest birth as Margaret Hilda Roberts of Grantham, a historic market town in northeast England. In between, she accumulated an Oxford education in chemistry, a London law degree, a seat in Parliament and a place in history as the longest continuously serving premier in more than 150 years.

The formidable persona she crafted also earned her a string of unflattering nicknames, such as "Attila the Hen" and her best-known moniker, the "Iron Lady." The latter, from a Soviet newspaper, was meant as an insult. But Thatcher characteristically wore it as a badge of honor, and it was the inevitable title of a movie starring Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar in 2012 for her portrayal of a once-fearsome political leader debilitated by Alzheimer's disease.

Thatcher's increasing dementia meant infrequent public appearances in recent years. In 2011, she was said to be bitterly disappointed at being too frail to attend an unveiling of a statue of her political soulmate, President Ronald Reagan, outside the U.S. Embassy in London.

Like Reagan, Thatcher was a fierce cold warrior. But it was a "hot" conflict that vaulted her into the international spotlight.

In 1982, Argentina invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands. Caught by surprise, Thatcher launched a military force that recaptured the islands, adorning her leadership with victory laurels and making her a world figure.

At home, she relished a fight as well, pushing through controversial policies that emasculated Britain's muscular but sometimes dysfunctional trade unions, dismantled elements of the country's welfare state, auctioned off public services and encouraged corporate investment and entrepreneurship. Her take-no-prisoners attitude was highlighted by her declaration that Britain's striking coal miners were "more difficult to fight, but just as dangerous to liberty" as the enemy in the Falklands War.

Thatcherism proved a potent mix of capitalism, patriotism and business-driven individualism that helped Britain throw off its reputation as "the sick man of Europe" — despite producing mixed results.

A manufacturing economy gradually became a service economy, yet unemployment remained stubbornly high. Privatization spurred many Britons to buy their own homes, but placing public services into private hands eventually led to even higher costs and poorer service, such as a once-renowned train system operated by rival providers.

Thatcher said of her unyielding methods: "After any major operation, you feel worse before you convalesce, but you don't refuse the operation when you know that without it you won't survive."

Former French President Francois Mitterrand once said she had "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe." In 1999, some Russian admirers formed the "Thatcherite Party of Russia."

Her capacity for hard work and little sleep was legendary. In 1984, three years after she refused to concede to imprisoned Irish Republican Army hunger strikers, 10 of whom died, the IRA bombed a Conservative Party convention in the seaside town of Brighton. The blast, which occurred shortly before 3 a.m., ripped through Thatcher's hotel bathroom, but she was still awake and working on her speech in another room. The attack killed five of her colleagues.

She was born Oct. 13, 1925, to Beatrice and Alfred Roberts. Her father was a shopkeeper and also the local mayor, rigid in his thrift and moral principles, a reader of Kipling and conservative newspapers.

"I owe almost everything to my father," Thatcher said, and that included her politics and ambitions.

She won a place at Somerville College, Oxford University, and studied chemistry under future Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. A short career in science saw her work at a firm that made plastics and another that tested cake fillings, and she was a member of the team that developed soft-serve ice cream.

But politics and Parliament were far more fascinating than test tubes. In 1959, she was elected to the House of Commons, its youngest female member, and swiftly rose in the Conservative ranks. By then, she had married Denis Thatcher, a rich, divorced businessman. They had twins, Carol and Mark, two years later in 1953.

Thatcher was appointed secretary of state for education in 1970, and five years later was elected leader of the Tories, who were then out of power.

She became prime minister in May 1979 when voters booted Labor from power after Britain's "winter of discontent," during which a series of strikes left bodies lying unburied in mortuaries and mountains of garbage lying uncollected in the street.

Almost immediately, Thatcher slashed income taxes but raised them on goods and services, a move criticized as shifting the burden down the income ladder.

She was often brutal and belittling toward her own political allies. During one crisis, minister Michael Heseltine stalked out of a Cabinet meeting after shouting at her: "I hate you, I hate you!"

Her closest political relationship was not with anyone in her own party or even her own country. After her father and her husband, Reagan was the most important man in her life. In 1986, Thatcher controversially let the Reagan administration use British bases to make bombing runs on Libya.

Thatcher, with typical meticulousness, pre-recorded her eulogy of Reagan after she had experienced some small strokes. At his funeral in 2004, she bowed to his coffin.

Her name also became inextricably linked with Mikhail Gorbachev's. After meeting the leader who later set the Soviet Union on a path of political and economic reform, Thatcher famously remarked that he was a man "we can do business" with.

The Falklands War boosted Thatcher's popularity at home and paved the way for a landslide re-election victory. Even her controversial order to sink an Argentine submarine, the General Belgrano, drowning 368 soldiers, earned her cheering headlines from nationalistic tabloids and their millions of working-class readers.

In all, Thatcher led her Conservative Party to three election victories, in 1979, 1983 and 1987. But by the end, her imperious style had sown serious dissent among her Cabinet members and in the parliamentary ranks, and her disastrous experiment with a new kind of local tax, quickly dubbed the "poll tax" because it charged everyone the same amount regardless of income, ignited protests across the country and a riot in London.

In November 1990, Heseltine decided to run against her on an internal Conservative Party ballot. Thatcher was in Paris when she learned that she had only barely outpolled Heseltine. On Nov. 22, 1990, Thatcher announced that she would step down from the Tory leadership and, hence, from the prime minister's office.

The death of her husband, Denis, in 2003, was a major blow. So was the onset of both mental and physical infirmity.

During Queen Elizabeth II's golden jubilee service at St. Paul's Cathedral in 2002, Thatcher's movements were tentative, though her voice rang out with conviction across the pews.

Even as her health weakened, her influence endured. In 2007, a 71/2-foot-tall bronze statue of Thatcher was placed in the House of Commons, opposite that of her fellow Tory leader Winston Churchill. Despite her obvious frailty, Thatcher was on hand for the ceremony.

"I might have preferred iron," she told a delighted crowd, "but bronze will do."

Information from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times was used in this report.

Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, dead at 87 04/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 1:17am]

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