Margaret Thatcher a 'Dominant Yet Divisive Figure' Who Helped 'Unravel Social Compacts'

The death at 87 of former British Prime Minister and Cold War conservative icon Margaret Thatcher was marked with a respectful obituary on Tuesday's front page by Joseph Gregory: "'Iron Lady' Who Set Britain on a New Course."

A front-page "news analysis" by John Burns and Alan Cowell was more objectionable, "Hard Policies In Hard Times." The online headline picked a fight: "Thatcher Fiscal Policies Are Still a Tough Sell for Europe."

As word of Margaret Thatcher’s death spread on Monday, it seemed fitting that Prime Minister David Cameron was engaged in what had been billed as a European tour to bring the Continent around to her conservative way of thinking, particularly about Britain’s relationship with Europe.

Mrs. Thatcher, many Britons said, transformed their country, opening the way for sweeping privatization and deregulation, legitimizing wealth and unleashing acquisitive, entrepreneurial passions among her compatriots. But Thatcherism, as it came to be known, never found fertile soil on the Continent, not even after the financial crisis and euro zone woes that have plunged much of Europe into an economic gloom at least as dark as that of 1970s Britain.

Yet her doubts about a “European superstate” and the common currency ring true today, nearly a quarter of a century after she resigned. She correctly predicted in her memoirs that Germany’s historical fears about inflation would lead to slow-growth policies that would deepen the problems of the euro zone’s weaker, less efficient economies, which could no longer rely on devaluation to solve their problems.

Mrs. Thatcher’s prescription for Britain in the 1980s -- faith in market forces, willingness to impose short-term austerity in the service of long-term prosperity, and skepticism or even hostility to the fiscal and social costs of the welfare state -- prefigured some of the policies Germany and European regulators are still recommending, wrongly in the view of many economists, for the struggling Southern European countries.


It is an indelible part of the Thatcher legacy that her success in remaking Britain never drew the Continent closer to its cantankerous, offshore cousins. Nonetheless, she remains the revered icon of British conservatism, a yardstick for true believers in the free market and the ability of capitalism to spread prosperity in a way that socialist redistribution never could.


Mrs. Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister, serving for 11 years, beginning in 1979. Many Britons remembered her as a dominant yet divisive figure, whose impact on British life and society was enduring, if deeply contentious at the time, and whose pervasive influence on political thinking about the role of the state in free societies spread far beyond Britain’s shores.

Along with President Ronald Reagan, with whom she helped define modern conservatism, Mrs. Thatcher propagated a faith in the redemptive power of capitalism that became dominant around the world, and hastened the fall of Communism. But she also helped to unleash market forces, and unravel social compacts, in ways that many societies have yet to resolve.

Burns and Cowell concluded with negativity:

But the commemorations were accompanied by more acerbic, even vitriolic, remembrances from those who saw her as a destructive figure who had ruptured the economic and social fabric of postwar Britain and left a country that was more divided, more selfish and, for the have-nots, more resentful than at any time in its recent history.

Across the world, the response to Mrs. Thatcher’s death appeared to oscillate between similar poles. Many foreign leaders and commentators spoke about her as President Obama did, as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty,” and as an example to women that “there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.”

However, there were others, particularly on the political left, who spoke with bitterness of the vogue that spread across the globe in the name of Thatcherism and, they said, consigned millions without recourse to the rewards of free enterprise to lives of unrelieved poverty.