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Margaret Thatcher: Life and Legacy

April 12, 2013


On April 8, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke at the age of 87. Few news sources and political figures have failed, four days after her passing, to participate in the discussion of her legacy and life. What is emerging from these statements is the divided and divisive memories of the “Iron Lady’s” role throughout her life as well as predictions of her lingering influence after death. Her time as a political figure touched many facets of British life and its relationship to the international community, and her legacy sheds an interesting light on the situation in the United Kingdom today.

It is difficult to argue against Thatcher’s importance, regardless of what side of the political divide one falls on. She was the longest-serving Prime Minister in the twentieth century, having been elected to three terms as leader of the Conservative Party from 1979-1990. Her name is memorialized through the collection of her political and economic agendas, known today as Thatcherism and used colloquially as well as in academic spheres. She has been continually called one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century; that she has been profoundly influential is not in question. The nature of that influence is decidedly more controversial.

Within the United Kingdom, her death was met with both grief and joy. Current Prime Minister David Cameron spoke at a six-hour tribute to Thatcher in a special session of the House of Commons. He praised her as an extraordinary political figure, stating “She made this country great again.” The session was filled with other politicians lauding the life and legacy of the former Prime Minister. However, there was much rejoicing among others at the news of her death; in Glasgow, parts of Wales, and London itself, celebrations broke out as Thatcher was remembered for her much-hated policies towards labor unions and regional independence outside England.

On a European scale, Thatcher is remembered both for her commitment to a single currency as well as her reservations about European unity in other facets. She was one of the main figures to push through the Single European Act in 1986, a forerunner to the implementation of the euro in 1999. However, she also battled for an EU rebate for the UK, famously saying “I want my money back.” National pride and identity was always to come before European identity, she said, a legacy continued today with serious talk of a UK withdrawal from the EU. However, Thatcher was also committed to bringing Eastern European countries into the EU, despite the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War.

She is also being remembered as a powerful feminist symbol, though not without reservation. As the first and only woman to hold the position of Prime Minister in the UK, she was also the first woman to lead a major European democracy. However, the coincidence of her gender and position of power hardly equate to innate feminism. In her eleven years as PM, she promoted only one woman to her cabinet and was as ruthless with women’s care as she was with many social programs, maintaining or instituting them when she saw them as economically advantageous. In this realm, too, Thatcher’s legacy is complicated.

Margaret Thatcher’s death has served as catalyst for political debate and dissent. In the end, she will certainly be remembered in both the critical and laudatory terms that surrounded her throughout her life.

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