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Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, dead at 87

Tuesday - 4/9/2013, 5:26am  ET

This is a 1969 file photo showing Margaret Thatcher. Ex-spokesman Tim Bell says that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has died. She was 87. Bell said the woman known to friends and foes as "the Iron Lady" passed away Monday morning, Aprilo 8, 2013. (AP Photo/File)
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GREGORY KATZ
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) -- Love her or loathe her, one thing's beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.

The Iron Lady, who ruled for 11 remarkable years, imposed her will on a fractious, rundown nation -- breaking the unions, triumphing in a far-off war, and selling off state industries at a record pace. She left behind a leaner government and more prosperous nation by the time a political mutiny ousted her from No. 10 Downing Street.

Thatcher's spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister died from a stroke Monday morning at the Ritz hotel in London.

As flags were flown at half-staff at Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Downing Street for the 87-year-old, praise for Thatcher and her leadership poured in from around the world.

"Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly was one of the most remarkable political figures of the modern world," said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin said Thatcher "made a significant contribution to the development of the Soviet-British and Russian-British ties, which we will always remember with gratitude."

President Barack Obama said many Americans "will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President (Ronald) Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history. We can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will."

Queen Elizabeth II authorized a ceremonial funeral -- a step short of a state funeral -- to be held for Thatcher at St. Paul's Cathedral in London next week with military honors.

Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a trip to Madrid and Paris to return to Britain following news of Thatcher's death, and said Parliament would be recalled from recess on Wednesday so lawmakers could pay tribute.

For admirers, Thatcher was a savior who rescued Britain from ruin and laid the groundwork for an extraordinary economic renaissance. For critics, she was a heartless tyrant who ushered in an era of greed that kicked the weak out onto the streets and let the rich become filthy rich.

"Let us not kid ourselves. She was a very divisive figure," said Bernard Ingham, Thatcher's press secretary for her entire term. "She was a real toughie. She was a patriot with a great love for this country, and she raised the standing of Britain abroad."

Thatcher was the first -- and still only -- female prime minister in Britain's history. But she often found feminists tiresome.

Her boxy, black handbag became such a recognizable part of her image that her way of dressing down ministers and opponents became known as "handbagging."

A grocer's daughter, she rose to the top of Britain's snobbish hierarchy the hard way, and envisioned a classless society that rewarded hard work and determination.

She was a trailblazer who at first believed trailblazing impossible: Thatcher told the Liverpool Daily Post in 1974 that she did not think a woman would serve as party leader or prime minister during her lifetime.

But once in power, she never showed an ounce of doubt.

Thatcher could be intimidating to those working for her. British diplomats sighed with relief on her first official visit to Washington, D.C., as prime minister to find that she was relaxed enough to enjoy a glass of whiskey and a half-glass of wine during an embassy lunch, according to official documents.

Like her close friend and political ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher seemed motivated by an unshakable belief that free markets would build a better country than reliance on a strong, central government. Another thing she shared with the American president: a tendency to reduce problems to their basics, choose a path, and follow it to the end, no matter what the opposition.

She formed a deep attachment to the man she called "Ronnie" -- some spoke of it as a schoolgirl crush. Still, she would not back down when she disagreed with him on important matters, even though the United States was the richer and vastly stronger partner in the so-called "special relationship."

Thatcher was at her brashest when Britain was challenged. When Argentina's military junta seized the remote Falklands Islands from Britain in 1982, she did not hesitate, even though her senior military advisers said it might not be feasible to reclaim the islands.

She simply would not allow Britain to be pushed around, particularly by military dictators, said Ingham, who recalls the Falklands War as the tensest period of Thatcher's three terms in power. When diplomacy failed, she dispatched a military task force that accomplished her goal, despite the naysayers.

"That required enormous leadership," Ingham said. "This was a formidable undertaking, this was a risk with a capital R-I-S-K, and she demonstrated her leadership by saying she would give the military their marching orders and let them get on with it."

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