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Margaret Thatcher: Britain's 'Iron Lady'



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LONDON, Oct 12 (AFP) - As Britain's longest-serving 20th century prime minister and the only woman to hold the job, Margaret Thatcher presided over a decade of radical conservative change in Britain.

On her 80th birthday on Thursday, Thatcher will throw a lavish party for 650 guests, a brief return to the limelight for the woman made Baroness Thatcher in 1992, two years after she stepped down.

From the day in May 1979 that she arrived at Downing Street with her trademark handbag, Thatcher used no-nonsense rhetoric and a steely power over her male acolytes to take stagnant Britain on a path of economic reform.

She was also one of the few prime ministers to have an ideology named after her: Thatcherism was about the individual, freedom and an end to class division, about less state control and more private enterprise, about smashing anything that believed in collective power, from trade unions to the Soviet bloc.

"There is no such thing as society," the former Conservative Party leader once famously declared, and some individuals indeed prospered.

Mass privatisations of state companies like British Telecom gave the common man and woman the chance to join the ownership class. Business regarded her reforming zeal with almost religious reverence.

Under Thatcher, Britain's legions of public housing tenants got the chance to buy their own homes.

But others felt the sharp end of Thatcherism. Unemployment soared, the jobless grimly referring to themselves as one of "Maggie's three million".

Coal miners striking against pit closures were finally crushed in 1985 after a bitter struggle.

Still today, many blame a perceived lack of community spirit in Britain on Thatcher's legacy.

Arguably Thatcher's toughest test occurred early in her tenure, when in 1982 Argentina seized the Falkland Islands, a distant British possession in the south Atlantic.

British forces were dispatched, the islands recaptured, and Thatcher's reputation soared. Her right-wing Conservative Party, which had been flagging in the polls, defeated the Labour opposition in the 1983 election, a feat she repeated again in 1987.

Internationally, Thatcher quickly won more adulation and respect than she would ever enjoy at home, forming a close alliance with US president Ronald Reagan in the Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union.

It was Europe, however, that proved her undoing. Despite helping European partners forge the single market in 1987, Thatcher always waxed sceptical about Europe, eventually igniting the coup within the Conservative Party that ended up with finance minister John Major replacing her in 1990.

Earlier that year, her popularity fell over local government financing reforms, a demonstration against the new "poll tax" becoming a riot.

Even after Major's accession, Thatcher towered over the Tory right, inspiring Eurosceptics and ensuring that the party remained bitterly divided.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born a shopkeeper's daughter in October 1925 in the town of Grantham, eastern England. She attended the local grammar school and won a place at Sommerville College, Oxford, where she obtained a second class degree in chemistry.

She married Denis Thatcher in 1951, and bore twin children, journalist Carol and businessman Mark -- linked last year to a murky coup plot in Equatorial Guinea -- in 1953.

She was elected to parliament's lower House of Commons in 1959 and ousted former prime minister Edward Heath as opposition Conservative leader in 1975.

Despite her reputation as a willful leader who fought tirelessly for her political convictions, Thatcher took great exception to being portrayed by opponents as being hard and uncaring.

After moving to the upper House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher, she wrote her memoirs and carried out lecture tours around the world.

However, Thatcher's doctor banned her from public speaking in 2002 following a series of small strokes which, aides say, have left her sometimes confused and with a failing memory.

Thatcher lives in the plush Belgravia district of central London and despite her difficulties with memory, avidly follows current affairs.

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COPYRIGHT 2005 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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