DAVID Cameron last night described Margaret Thatcher as “the greatest British peacetime Prime Minister” as the world came to terms with the death of a radical leader who shaped the UK for more than 30 years.
“She was the patriot Prime Minister and she fought for Britain’s interests every single step of the way,” Cameron said yesterday, after calling off talks with European leaders to return home to pay tribute.
Downing Street confirmed Thatcher would receive a ceremonial funeral at St Paul’s following a parade from Westminster – the same honour awarded to Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
But Thatcher will not lie in state or be honoured with a RAF fly-past as “she thought that was a waste of money”, according to her spokesman.
Yesterday flags flew at half-mast over parliament, Number 10, and her old Oxford college, while all parties suspended their local election campaigns.
Thatcher led the country between 1979 and 1990, overseeing a period of immense social and economic change as she attempted to transform Britain from a nation with an overbearing state ridden by industrial action to a land of homeowners and private shareholders. The resulting policies led her to a record-breaking three consecutive general election victories and realigned the UK political system for good, forcing the Labour party to fully embrace free-market economics.
But she became a figure of hatred among those who objected to her ideological zeal or found themselves out of a job as nationalised industries were slimmed down ahead of privatisations.
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted he owed a debt to a “towering political figure” who in person “was kind and generous spirited”.
“Very few leaders get to change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world. Her global impact was vast,” he said. “Some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour government, and came to be implemented by governments around the world.”
Current opposition leader Ed Miliband was more circumspect, calling her a “unique figure” but insisting the Labour party “disagreed with much of what she did” and she would always be controversial.
Even though Thatcher always rejected claims that she was a feminist, US President Barack Obama insisted she was “an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered”.
Global reaction focused on her involvement in two major conflicts – one military, the other diplomatic.
Falkland Islanders, who were rescued from Argentine occupation when Thatcher sent an enormous military taskforce to retake the territory in 1982, mourned the death of “our Winston Churchill”.
Meanwhile Mikhail Gorbachev, the former USSR leader who bonded with Thatcher during the Cold War, praised her as “a politician whose word carried great weight” during the negotiations that ended with the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Lech Walesa, the Polish trade union leader who led campaigns against one-party rule, said Thatcher played a key role in the events leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall: “She was a great personality who has done many things for the world that contributed to the fall of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe.”
However she continues to be a target of anger for many who oppose her legacy.
Last night a few hundred protestors staged celebrations of her death in Brixton and Glasgow, while the National Union of Mineworkers said she “decimated a world class industry in the name of the ‘free market’.”
Ex-Mayor of London Ken Livingstone yesterday blamed Thatcher for today’s housing, banking, and welfare crises, saying: “Every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact she was fundamentally wrong.”
One thing is certain: more than two decades after she left office, Margaret Thatcher’s influence on British politics remains as strong as ever.