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Remembering the ‘Iron Lady’

Baroness Thatcher the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at an event at London's Westminster Cathedral in November 2003. 
Baroness Thatcher the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at an event at London's Westminster Cathedral in November 2003.  Matthew Fearn / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

She looks frail these days, an adjective that in her heyday she would have spat back like a bullet. Now her doctors tell her she mustn’t make speeches at all. Brave doctors.

It’s 25 years since the Iron Lady first stepped into Downing Street and began an era to which she gave her name: Thatcherism.

It was a time of political and social upheaval that changed British society: for better, or for worse. There are few undecideds. She wasn’t that kind of Prime Minister.

Margaret Thatcher was either the best leader we’ve had since Winston Churchill, or the most reviled since the tribal hordes wandered wild through Europe. (Her opponents dubbed her Attila the Hen).

You could sense from the beginning that we were due for a revolution, a move from politics of the state to politics of the market. 

We were going to become a property and stock-owning democracy, a stand-on-your-own-two-feet society where hard work brought its own rewards, where the country was freed from the dead hand of state-owned industries and the unions.

Many did make money. Many bought their own homes. The unions were smashed in confrontations with the police that looked like medieval battles.

And many workers lost their jobs, as unemployment rose to record highs. State industries were sold off like the family silver. The "never-to-be-capable" poor were left to cope as best they could. 

For better or for worse, no one was left untouched.

"To handbag"
Margaret Thatcher’s way of dealing with opposition brought a new verb into the vernacular: "to handbag," a reference to the leather purse, which she metaphorically used to beat down those who dared disagree with her.

She regularly "hand bagged" her opponents in the House of Commons  — some occasionally, and painfully, members of her own side.

One-by-one she disposed of the "wets" in her Cabinet, those politically soft-centered, old-school Tories (Conservatives) who found themselves out of conscience with her government’s reforms and therefore out of step with "The Boss."

Mrs. T was a conviction politician.  Consensus was for wimps.

More seriously, she confronted the Argentineans in 1982 when they dared to seize the Falkland Islands, proud British possessions that many of us didn’t know we owned and cared even less about until then. In the process, the two warring sides suffered 1,000 casualties.

She confronted the great trade union "barons," whose muscle had arguably brought the previous Labor government to its knees.

Looking in on Number 10
Baroness Thatcher, as she became, also had a direct impact on my own life 25 years ago  — although she didn’t know it.

It happened when she allowed an aide to write an extraordinarily inept and insensitive letter on her behalf. It was dismissive of the millions of people living in low-rent housing projects — and this on the eve of an election, where they all got to vote.

The letter fell into my lap — an aspiring general reporter on a newspaper opposed tooth and claw to Thatcher’s political beliefs. It made the front page, she apologized, and my career as a political correspondent was born. 

So there we both were. She in Number 10 Downing Street, and me on the other side of the street, with my reporter’s notebook in hand, watching her. What a time we had.

Like her or loathe her, she was remarkable to watch.  Formidable, resolute, a woman ruling in what had always been a man’s world.  She could out-tough any mere guy.  The males in her party were mostly in awe of her — some, it seemed, in love.

President Reagan and she got on like a house on fire. Their admiration was mutual.

“The lady’s not for turning,” she once famously said when urged to change her economic policies in the face of massive unemployment. Her aides talked of TINA: There Is No Alternative.

There was — at least to her — as she found out all too painfully 11 years later.

Human side
Behind the iron mask there were glimpses of a more human side, which could catch you by surprise.

When her first grandchild was born she emerged outside Downing Street and declared — some thought sounding rather too much like the Queen — “We are a grandmother.”

She was protective of her two children. When her errant son Mark got lost in the desert on the Paris to Dakar rally Thatcher reportedly cried, one of only two occasions she is known to have shed tears in office.

He turned up several days later, safe and sound.  “It’s all right now,” the Iron Lady said, adding that as well as being her son’s first such rally, she hoped it would be his last. It was.

She was devoted to her late husband Denis, whose great achievement, as he himself said, was “to be always present, but never there.” Although he was a successful businessman in his own right and millionaire to boot, he happily played second fiddle to his wife’s virtuoso violin.

Mrs. Thatcher said she couldn’t have succeeded without him. When he died of cancer last year she was stricken with grief.  She still is.

I met her up-close-and-personal a few times. Once, at a reception in Downing Street, she stood at the top of the stairs shaking the hands of her guests in welcome.

It was charming — but it was business. It reminded me of the Highland Fling — a famous Scottish dance where you "fling" (throw) your partner down the line. Thatcher took me firmly by the hand and after what seemed like a decent interval (two, maybe three seconds) moved me effortlessly, but firmly, on.  It felt like I was on wheels.

She flitted around the stateroom as if in search of a good argument. I remember Denis in a gentlemanly dispute with a reporter from the Communist Morning Star. They had nothing in common — apart from an apparent liking for gin and tonic and the certain knowledge that the other was wrong in every tenet of his political beliefs.

When one of the old-time correspondents got taken ill, it was Mrs. Thatcher who stood there fussing and organizing a cab home.  She called him the next day to see how he was doing.

Turning happens to all
But lest you think this reporter’s for turning: it was, of course, this same lady whose policies led to the closure of Britain’s coal mines and the destruction of close-knit communities that went back generations. And the same woman whose taxation policies led to riots in the streets. 

In the end, her supreme self-confidence got the better of her. In 1990 she misjudged not the country, but her party. She felt she was still a surefire election winner. They believed she’d become an election loser.

In the brutal world of politics she chose to inhabit, her own party colleagues did for her.  She was ousted, out on her high heels.

That was the second time she cried in office. Famously, as the limo drove her for the last time from Downing Street, the photographers caught a tear running down her cheek.

By this time I was news director at a 24-hour channel and we were covering her departure live.

So, there we were again.  She leaving Number 10, my team on the other side of the road, camera in hand, watching her.

Democracy had done its job one more time. Mrs. Thatcher was out of office. Her era was over; her legacy continues. For better or for worse.