Great countries have a knack of finding great leaders when they are needed the most. Margaret Thatcher, the history-changing former British prime minister who died Monday at the age of 87, had that distinction.
She was a testament to the power of having a clear philosophy and the courage and will to implement it. She was in all political weathers the Iron Lady, both a terror to the "wets" in her Tory party who gave lip service but not backbone to conservative ideals and a scourge to those who were the enemies of her political vision.
Along the way, she earned abundant honors on both sides of the Atlantic. A humble grocer's daughter, she earned a place in history as the prime minister who put major dents in the British welfare state. Although she was the first woman to occupy that post, she did not make an issue of her gender. She just did the job.
But for all the adulation she attracted, she also sparked negative reactions. As seen from the right, she was the Joan of Arc of free enterprise, privatizing all before her and revitalizing a stale economy. On the left, she was seen as arrogant, dictatorial and the enabler of a coming age of greed.
Interestingly, the canonization of her may be more pronounced in the United States than it has been on her home turf. That's unusual in a foreign leader but in America the right wing thirsts for saints these days and this Ronald Reagan in skirts has been subject of a kindred reverence.
But seeing Mrs. Thatcher as a triumphant vindication of universal political principles is too much. The more reasoned conclusion is that she was the right leader at the right time. With its empire in shambles and its place in the world consequently diminished, Britain in the 1970s was a tired nation out of ideas and initiative and struggling to find a new direction. Unions were too powerful, the overreach of government was too pronounced.
When she became prime minister in 1979, she brought an uncompromising attitude to No. 10 Downing Street. She fought and beat the union bosses in a bitter miners strike that began in 1984 and she proceeded to privatize a host of government enterprises. The go-go eighties saw Britain on the move.
It boosted her public appeal that she responded like an old British lion and roared and boldly pounced to seize the Falklands back from the clutches of the Argentine junta in 1982.
Margaret Thatcher was a corrective tonic for an ailing body politic, but a medicine isn't a steady diet for all seasons. In the end, she was ousted from power by her own Conservative Party, but not before she had written her way into the history books and put Great Britain on a new page.opinion_editorials