Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday at the age of 87, came into prominence at a time of industrial unrest in Britain. The then labour prime minister James Callaghan’s inability to end a strike by coal miners marked a turning point in the mood against labour politics and economics. But more than that, Britain had missed the post-war boom in a spectacular way: the German wirtschaftswunder had bypassed the country, as did the Japanese miracle. That was not all and the oil shock of 1973 was another dampener. Thatcher realized that overcoming these structural problems required drastic, politically unpalatable medicine. She went on to administer it successfully. So much so that not only Britain but almost the entire world realized the benefits of free markets and free trade.
If this was the “silent”—but lasting—aspect of her prime ministership, her defence of Falkland Islands was the high mark of her career. In 1982, Argentina, which disputed British sovereignty over these islands, invaded them. In an unprecedented feat, Britain waged a successful campaign and reclaimed the Falklands. This came against great military odds: the nearest British base was 6,000km away while Argentina was just a couple of hundred kilometres away. By 1982, Britain had long ceased to be the military power that it was in the early 20th century. That did not deter Thatcher or her admirals.
Her economic and foreign policies should not be viewed in isolation. In fact, both—economic liberalism in the shadow of gunships—were the standard fare of British politics for long, at least since the days of Lord Palmerston. Both are considered politically incorrect today. But think harder: had she not exhibited resolve, the Soviet Union would have been around for longer and the prosperity of the 1990s and the removal of vast swathes of poverty across the world, a mere dream. But the conditions under which she restored Britain to glory were far more difficult than faced by any occupant of 10 Downing Street since 1945. In this, as in other matters political, she remained defiant to the end and paid the political price for her stand. In late 1990, she was ousted after a withering resignation speech by her former foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, sparked a backbencher revolt in the House of Commons.
The second half of the 20th century saw the emergence of some outstanding women leaders across the world. All were resolute, all tried to solve similar problems; only the scale differed. What makes Thatcher stand out was her courage and resolution against difficult odds.
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