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GlobalPost Commentary

Guts and determination made Margaret Thatcher remarkable

Commentary: With her, what you saw was what you got. Thatcher was God's gift to journalists.
Margaret thatcher newspapers 2013 04 09Enlarge
Newspapers with front-page coverage on the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on news stands in London on April 9. (Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON, UK — Margaret Thatcher was an extraordinary politician, the kind of leader lucky countries sometimes produce in their hour of need.

At the height of her power, in the 1980s, she was a dominant actor on the world stage along with America’s Ronald Regan and Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev.

She made Britain punch above its own weight, as they say here. But when she took office as prime minister in 1979, Britain was an economic basket case. Its powerful unions had brought the country to its knees in a “winter of discontent” with power cuts and industry working only part time.

As it happened, I arrived here as a London correspondent for CBS News at the time her Conservative Party defeated the Labour Party by a slim majority. It was a steep learning curve for me because I completely misjudged her at first.

I spent the first few weeks trying to explain to my American audience how remarkable it was that a woman had become the prime minister of a highly traditional, hidebound country.

Of course, what was really remarkable about her was not her gender but her guts and determination. She set out to turn Britain on its head, and that is what she eventually did. Her motto became “the lady is not for turning.”

She was determined to take on the labor unions and push her capitalist beliefs on a country that was mired in stagnation and roaring inflation.

She became at one point the most unpopular British prime minister since World War II. The left hated her and trendy intellectuals despised her, as much for her middle-class background (she was a provincial grocer’s daughter) as for her determination to make Britain a competitive society that valued hard work more than welfare state hand outs.

Her fortunes turned in 1982, when the Argentine dictator Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands, a small British colony in the South Atlantic. Mrs. Thatcher responded by launching an expeditionary force that took back the islands in little over two months. Her success in defeating Galtieri made her the most popular British prime minister since Winston Churchill and helped her win re-election by a large majority.

More Commentary: Falklands/Malvinas war again used for petty political ends

She went on to win most of her battles, including a violent struggle against the miners that pitched mounted police against strikers, killed off the coal mining industry and ensured the victory of her free-market policies.

With Margaret Thatcher, what you saw was what you got. That’s what made her so remarkable in an age when politicians seem ready to say anything and make any promise to win an election.

By and large, she did what she promised, and if she failed, it was not for want of trying. She preferred to go down with guns blazing rather than compromise. That stubbornness eventually was also her undoing, when she tried to impose what the Labour opposition called the “poll tax,” a measure that most of the country thought was unfair.

Eventually, after three elections, the nation and even her party decided it had enough of Margaret Thatcher. She was forced out of office by her own ministers.

More from GlobalPost: Britons sharply divided over Thatcher's legacy

She was made Baroness Thatcher and retired to the plush seats of the House of Lords. Although she gradually faded from view as old age and infirmity took their toll, she remained an iconic figure in the back corridors of power, who until recent years was privately consulted by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

As a politician she could be tough as old boots. She worked hard, slept little, and demanded the same attention to duty from her close advisers.

She loved an argument, a trait that made her an unforgettable debater at Question Time in the House of Parliament, when British ministers face a barrage of questions from the opposition.

She loved tough questions. That also made her a great person to interview. She may have ruffled a lot of feathers in this country, but she was God’s gift to a journalist. How many politicians these days tell you what they are really thinking?

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