Margaret Thatcher's remarkable career teaches essential enduring lessons in freedom and the ordeal of change. They did not end with her death Monday at London's Ritz Hotel, a luxury departure lounge where since late last year she awaited for her trip to glory at age 87.
Three and a half decades have blurred memories of the dire state of Britain when Mrs. Thatcher — as she will always be known — swept into office. It was in 1979, three years after the International Monetary Fund intervened with its largest loan to date. Strikes crippled the nation in 1978's Winter of Discontent, shortening work weeks and disrupting transportation and the supply of fuel. Dread became the nation's constant companion.
The deadening hand of socialism infected both major political parties. The state controlled major industries: coal, communications, oil, automobile manufacturing, airlines, steel and utilities. They resisted innovation. It could take as long as a year to get a phone installed by the state-owned company, not a sign of a dynamic economy.
Mrs. Thatcher, who won a surprise victory for leader of the Conservative party in 1975, believed life could get better. Decline and misery were not inevitable where freedom reigned. From the start, she challenged Soviet domination of eastern Europe at a time when Western democracies were content to manage freedom's retreat.
As prime minister, Mrs. Thatcher presided over the successful denationalization of state-owned industries. A strike by coal miners over closing unproductive mines tested the nation's resolve. She was lucky in her enemies. Radical union leaders refused to let their members vote on the strike, showing their contempt for democracy. She broke them and restored a balance to labor relations that endures.
British victory in the Falklands in 1982 was not guaranteed when she sent an armada on its 8,000-mile mission to the south Atlantic to undo the Argentinian invasion. If Mrs. Thatcher had not defeated the military dictator, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, the junta might have spent more years throwing domestic dissidents out of planes in the regime's dirty war. The British victory paved the way for the restoration of democracy in Argentina, though Mrs. Thatcher's contribution was not acknowledged in Buenos Aires last week.
She worked to gain the release of Nelson Mandela. In 1984, she survived an assassination attempt by Irish terrorists who planted a bomb in the hotel during a party conference. A year later, she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement that gave Dublin a role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. She recognized before any other world leader that Mikhail Gorbachev possessed the potential to change the Soviet Union.
Great leaders are never demure. Mrs. Thatcher loved an argument and her taste for hectoring became a rallying point for detractors in her party. The toffee-nosed Conservative swells who wielded considerable influence in party affairs always resented her. Nevertheless, "She made the wind instead of being bent by it," John Major, her successor, said last week.
Until she no longer did. By happenstance, I was a guest in the visitors gallery of the House of Commons during the two days in November 1990 when her Tory colleagues ended her premiership. She won three general elections in a row but she fell four votes short of a super-majority in a vote of her fellow Conservative parliamentarians on the first ballot of a leadership contest.
No one gets everything right. In politics, enemies and the disappointed coalesce. Her instincts on domestic matters, often more cautious than her image suggested, failed her at the wrong time. There is little gratitude in politics. The timid and resentful took her down. What they could never do was diminish her achievement.
Twenty-three years after Mrs. Thatcher left office, the bitter left still howls at her success. She would have rejoiced that her death caused them to reveal they'd finally found something they thought the government should not fund: Lady Thatcher's ceremonial funeral that will be held on Wednesday.
She changed the world by defending and extending the blessings of freedom. We are all the beneficiaries of her extraordinary life.
"Power is like being a lady," she once said, famously. "If you have to tell people you are, you aren't." She never had to tell anyone about either.