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How Margaret Thatcher Changed The World


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Margaret Thatcher spoke with utter conviction in her principles and absolute certainty in her actions. If she inspired passionate opposition, she couldn't care less. She reveled in her enemies and made them easily.

While she shared many of the free-market anti-communist beliefs of her friend and contemporary Ronald Reagan, she possessed little of his charm and few of his telegenic skills. It didn't matter. She set out to change a Britain she saw mired in ever more paralytic socialism, and along the way she broke unions, slashed government bureaucracy, trimmed the social safety net and privatized industries that then struggled or sank without public subsidies.

In 1980, after less than a year and a half in office, she addressed her conservative party conference and said she would not flinch.

PRIME MINISTER MARGARET THATCHER: If our people feel that they are part of a great nation, and they're prepared to will the means to keep it great, then a great nation we shall be and shall remain. So Mr. Chairman, what could stop us from achieving this? What then stands in our way? The prospect of another winter of discontent? I suppose it might.

But I prefer to believe that certain lessons have been learned from experience, and we're coming slowly, painfully to an autumn of understanding. And I hope it will be followed by a winter of common sense.


THATCHER: If it isn't, we shall not be diverted from our course. To those waiting with bated breath for that favored media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to.


THATCHER: The lady's not for turning.


THATCHER: And I say that not only to you but to our friends overseas as well, and also to those who are not our friends.


CONAN: Determined Cold Warrior victor over Argentina in the Falklands, stubborn enemy of the Irish Republican Army, a woman who changed her country and changed the world. What story about Margaret Thatcher captures her best? Email us, talk@npr.org. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the culture of the ethical slip which can lead any of us toward the once unthinkable. But first the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. We begin with Steven Erlanger, now Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, in the 1980s London correspondent for the Boston Globe. And Steven, nice to have you back on the program.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And as you think back to Britain as Margaret Thatcher took office and Britain as she left, it is hard to underestimate the degree of change that occurred through that decade.

ERLANGER: Well, I was very struck that David Cameron, who is by no means Mrs. Thatcher, said today that she had saved Britain. That may be going a bit too strong, but she certainly transformed it. She took over from a Labour Party that was barely in control of its own unions, let alone the rest of the country. The country was under IMF controls.

And she turned it into a place that was respected by Moscow, by the United States. And she transformed her own party. She transformed the unions, and she did so with a kind of increasing kind of confidence that became overweening, finally, and drove everyone crazy. But she won't be forgotten.

CONAN: No, she will not be forgotten. You and I were there at the same time. I was of course working for National Public Radio at the time. And the degree to which, for example, the great coal strike of the mid-1980s, where she was so fortunate to have as her opponent Arthur Scargill, the leader of the coal miners' union, and emerged triumphant in a society where many of the coal - many of the pits were no longer productive and needed to be shut down.

Of course that's what economists said. And the miners said, wait a minute, these are our jobs, this is our way of life.

ERLANGER: Well, that's true. I mean she went in trying to break the power of the unions. I mean partly that was a fight against the Labour Party itself, but partly it was a way to liberalize the British economy. And also the government was pouring tons of money into these mines that were clearly not economical.

What I remember about it was the violence. You know, we haven't seen that kind of violence in a Western country except maybe in Greece over austerity recently. There were police on horses beating miners. But we also forget the ideological quality of it. The miners are being fed with free food from the Soviet Union, from Czechoslovak, parts of Eastern Europe.

I mean there were cans of meat from the Soviet Poland. One had the real feeling that there was a kind of class war, that it was a fight for the future of Britain. And she worked many angles on it. I mean they set up their own union, which finally won out with secret money from J. Paul Getty.

So they were playing all kinds of angles. But what she had in mind was communism was bad, the union power needed to be broken, the Tory Party needed to be reshaped, and the relationship with the United States was important. And it's hard to imagine a more pro-American prime minister of Britain than Margaret Thatcher was in those days.

I even remember, you know, when in the first Iraq War when Kuwait was invaded, she phoned up George Bush and said, George, don't go all wobbly on me now, which was probably a useful thing to have said because one had the feeling George Bush was going wobbly at the time.

So she had instructions for everybody and kind of more or less for everyone. But she also, as you remember, had a great deal of charm. I remember interviewing her as a young correspondent for the Boston Globe, and she would pat the couch next to her, and she'd say sit right down, I have so much to tell you.

And she would have poured a Scotch whiskey for both of us, and she would go on. And you would have had to interrupt her to get in a question edgewise. I mean my favorite line about her was from Mitterrand, who said that she had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula.

CONAN: Well, I got the eyes of Caligula when I was so unfortunate as to ask an unpopular question at a news conference. I will never forget that. Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Simon Schama is a British historian and writer, currently a university professor of art history and history at Columbia University. He joins us by phone from his home in New York. Good to have you back on the program.


CONAN: And you've said that one of the defining characteristics of the former prime minister was that voice that she very consciously pitched down later in her career.

SCHAMA: Yeah, well, the voice - you know, she was, as Steven kind of hinted, a shameless flirt, actually something, you know, people forget. And she could manipulate that, saying tough things in a velvety burr. She had that actually in common with Ronald Reagan. I doubt if he was a shameless flirt.

My now late lamented friend Christopher Hitchens wrote memorably, actually, of losing an argument to Margaret Thatcher and kind of nodding to her. And she said: Bow lower. And he bowed. (Unintelligible) was very much a flirt, even - particularly then. And she said, no, bow lower still. And he obeyed her absolutely.

And as he walked away, he swore he could hear her say naughty boy. That was classic Margaret Thatcher. She knew - actually she's often misdescribed as a man in a dress. She was absolutely nothing of the sort. She manipulated her femininity, which is not to be confused with weakness, with staggering skill, actually.

She ought to be compared to the queen, but the queen in question is Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II.

CONAN: As you look back on her legacy, of course she was quite a polarizing figure, and interesting, as Steve Erlanger pointed out, her lessons, her moral lessons to George W. Bush, don't go wobbly on us, that just before she was ushered out of office.

SCHAMA: Right, well, that's a very important time to remember, and it's not actually been much remembered today in many of the recollections coming out of Britain. We're talking about 1989, 1990, and one forgets there were savage riots. Steven mentioned the violence in connection with cattling(ph) the - Arthur Skargill and the miners. But actually in a way more serious because the violence recruited the larger section - or the extreme anger recruited a larger section of the population, was the demonstration against what was in Britain called the poll tax.

She called it community charge. This was a way of replacing local property taxes, which had been based on the value of the property, with the number of occupants of a house. So it was an incredibly regressive tax in a difficult economic time. And the result was absolutely a social conflagration, nearly a quarter of a million enraged people in Trafalgar Square and a good deal of rioting throughout both London and elsewhere in Britain.

And I suspect that actually if you ask people how do you feel about Margaret Thatcher and her legacy, it depends where you're putting the question. If you ask that question in the northeast of England, if you ask it in South Wales, if you ask it in parts of Lancashire, which were devastated really by the death of manufacturing industries, no doubt they were going to die anyway, but she hastened it with her indomitable determination.

If you ask them there, you'll get a very different kind of answer from Southeast England, Metropolitan London, where indeed that part of Britain was liberated to be essentially, you know, a world of managerial capitalism. She created the Britain that there is now and most Americans see when they go and have a good time in London.

CONAN: Today we're remembering Margaret Thatcher, who died earlier today. Which story from her remarkable life do you think best captures her? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Since the announcement of Margaret Thatcher's death earlier this morning, world leaders have remembered her career and her character. President Obama praised her as one of the world's great champions of freedom and liberty, a true friend to the United States.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev credited her for playing a role in changing the atmosphere between Russia and the West and described their relationship as at times complex but always even and on both sides serious and responsible. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair remembers disagreeing with her on certain issues and occasionally strongly but also said in spite of that, you could not disrespect her character or her contribution to Britain's national life.

Which story about Margaret Thatcher do you think best captures her? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests: Simon Schama, a professor of art history and history at Columbia University; Steven Erlanger, now Paris bureau chief for the New York Times. And joining us now, British-born journalist and author Simon Winchester, who lives in this country, joins us by Skype from his home in Massachusetts. And Simon, nice to have you back on the program.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, thank you very much indeed. It's actually the telephone because the Skype connection is rather poor.

CONAN: Well, all right, we apologize for that. In any case, your views on Margaret Thatcher come at least in part from personal experience after you were assigned to cover the Falklands War for the Sunday Times.

WINCHESTER: Yes, and they are rather distinctly colored by what happened during that war. I was in India at the time and was called by my foreign editor at the Sunday Times and told - this was in early March 1982 - to come back from India and go to the South Atlantic, where it appeared that there'd be some trouble brewing on the Falkland Islands, which I'd essentially never heard of except as a stamp collector.

And I went down there and happened fortuitously to be there at the moment of the invasion and was hiding under the governor's bed when the Argentine forces stormed ashore. And we were sheltering while they were machine-gunning us and had a fairly robust old time and then watched as the British forces, there were only about 60 British Royal Marines, surrendered.

And I was around taking photographs of - there was one celebrated moment when all our soldiers were lying face-down in the mud being disarmed and searched by the Argentines that had arrived. And I took those photographs. And later in the day, the governor and the soldiers were indeed deported, and I was allowed to stay for a few days.

And the film, this was back in the days when you had 35-mil canisters of film, I gave to the governor's son, who took it with him on the plane to Montevideo in Uruguay, where it was retrieved by the Reuters correspondent, developed and wired to London.

And to this day I think that the appearance of that photograph of the Royal Marines lying face-down in the mud, being essentially humiliated by Argentine invaders, as Britain saw them, really fired up Mrs. Thatcher. And she determined that very moment, fired up by that image, that she was jolly well going to send a Royal Naval task force and dislodge the Argentines, which of course she did.

CONAN: With some considerable loss of life on both sides but principally on the Argentine side.

WINCHESTER: Yes, I mean, there were about 1,000 solders, 255 I think British and the remainder, more than 800, Argentines who died. And there's a celebrated cartoon in the Guardian, which I used to work for, although at the time of the Falklands invasion I was working for the Sunday Times, by a man called John Kent, which showed a large granite bust of Mrs. Thatcher, a memorial to the dead, and it said they died to save her face, and that I must say it my abiding memory. I think that was an unnecessary, pointless, cruel war. As Borges, the Argentine poet, said, the Falklands War was like two bald men fighting over a comb. And I just don't want to see that kind of thing happen again.

And I fear that one of the legacies of Mrs. Thatcher is that she imbued in a huge number of British people the idea that we are still a colonial power and that the 15 colonies that we still own or supervise or whatever you'd like to say about them have to be defended to the death. And I think that is no longer a realistic point of view.

And I think therefore that that particular legacy of Mrs. Thatcher is a wounding one, a rather poor one and one that should be in time overcome. But I fear it won't be, given what happened only last month, when there was an opinion poll, which showed overwhelmingly that the Falkland Islanders themselves want to remain British and that the British want to keep them that way.

So I fear that this kind of thing could happen all over again, largely because of Mrs. Thatcher's robust attitude to what happened.

CONAN: And Steven Erlanger, you and I will both remember - talked about violence and demonstrations, the enormous demonstrations, Mrs. Thatcher's decision to accept cruise missiles and American cruise missiles into Britain after the deployment of Soviet SS-20s in Eastern Europe. That prompted large anti-nuclear, anti-American and indeed anti-Thatcher demonstrations. And she was able to leverage that and other things into, well, a role outsized for Britain in the Cold War, in the end of the Cold War.

ERLANGER: I think that's right, and also, you know, one shouldn't forget lots of people got their start in the Greenham Common, anti-nuclear demonstrations, including Catherine Ashton. But I think what Simon Winchester is saying and what you're suggesting is probably true, that, I mean, Britain still or yet again has a confused notion of its place in the world under - partly because of the Thatcher legacy, which she did restore Britain's place as an influential voice.

There is now an unwillingness, I think, to accept that Britain's power mostly lies within the European Union and not outside it, that the British are asking themselves again where do they belong. The special relationship, which she valued so highly is very little valued in America now. I mean, it's valued in name, perhaps, but there's not much there there, as Gertrude Stein would say.

And I think, you know, this is part of the legacy David Cameron as a Tory leader has to deal with, not to appear weak in the face of the memory of Margaret Thatcher, and that's a very difficult job for him.

CONAN: And Simon Schama, yes put some spine into a wobbly George Bush perhaps at the beginning of the Persian Gulf war and the occupation of Kuwait, but also is credited with immensely valuable support for the Polish strikers of Gdansk and for Lech Walesa and other anti-communists who essentially brought about the end of the Soviet Union.

SCHAMA: Yeah, that's right. I mean, you know, she was a politician of principle, whether you like the principle or not. And there's nothing much particularly to dislike about her, you know, her intense hatred of Soviet totalitarian tyranny, really. Let's call it by its real name. And I'm saying this as someone really from the kind of wet center left, you know.

So she played a very valuable part, I think, in calming Ronald Reagan down, actually, about what was likely to happen in the Soviet Union. She was actually quite prescient and quite penetrating in her analysis of what might or might not be done by Mikhail Gorbachev in the early years of perestroika. And it's very difficult to kind of fault her for that.

I do want to say, actually, to both kind of Steven and my friend Simon, that again speaking as someone who mostly was bitterly alienated by Margaret Thatcher, was not a supporter of her, I think it's sort of absurd to say, really, that she was primarily responsible for perpetuating delusions of endless colonial arrogance on the part of Britain.

You know, what she did, I, again, I'm not sure how I feel about the Falklands War, but there is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher, at a time of appalling accumulating demoralization, a sort of sense that Britain was almost ungovernable by the end of the 1970s, did put a certain amount of self-respect back into British political and popular life.

And I, you know, sort of don't think actually those of us who lived through all that, as Simon and I did, I don't think that's to be belittled particularly at this moment or at least be, you know, underestimated, that particular aspect of her transformative role in public life. I think the sort of the part where her stubbornness actually might or might not be called not only counterproductive but brutal was in her approach to Northern Ireland.

She was very dominated, and I'm sure Simon's right to say that actually her absolute belligerence, intransigence over the Falklands might well have been influenced by that photograph of his. She was someone who responded to a very concentrated, dramatic moment of what occurred. And the Irish moment for her was the assassination of her friend, Airey Neave, shortly before she came to power.

And she was absolutely adamant that the Irish Republican Army and its prisoners kept in captivity in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland should be treated, not as honorable prisoners of war, but as criminals. And she was, indeed, almost horrifyingly prepared to let prisoners die to actually uphold that principle.

She also put a kind of gag order on members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Republican Army, broadcasting their messages over the public media. But it turns out that Tony Blair, in so many respects, the heir of so many of her policies and principles, ironically - I'm not sure whether David Cameron was right, whether she saved the country - but she certainly saved the Labour Party from extinction, I'd say.

Tony Blair absolutely put everything that she did in Northern London to reverse. He assumed that it was a condition of being able to carry out a peace policy in Northern Ireland, to bring the Republican movement into the process. So she was a mixture of many contradictory things. But that, she actually gave the vast majority of British people a reason to kind of stand a little taller again, I think, is absolutely not in dispute.

CONAN: I'll give Simon Winchester a chance to respond, then we'll get to some calls. But go ahead. Simon?

WINCHESTER: Yes. I was thinking - I tend to agree with the other Simon's point of view here. I'm just was minded of the symbolism of various events. I mean, you talk about the - or Simon talks about the assassination of Airey Neave. I was thinking of the way that she presided over the beginning of the end of British Hong Kong, to go to another colonial episode, when she recognized after her meeting with Deng Xiaoping that there was, in fact, no practical reason to hold on to Hong Kong after the lease expired on the New Territories on June the 30th, 1997.

But after the talks at the Great Hall of the People, something most peculiar happened which the Chinese media, in particular, found portentous in the extreme. And that is she tripped on her high heels, as she was coming down the steps from the Great Hall of the People towards Tiananmen Square, and stumbled.

And this was seen - and I think also seen, to a degree, by some of the British press - as symbolic in its own right, that here was a great former imperial power dealing with the Chinese and coming to an agreement - or, at that stage in the negotiation, seeming not to want to come to an agreement - but then tripping over and falling down in front of these very Chinese.

She picked herself up and dusted herself off very neatly, of course. But nonetheless, it was both symbolically and actually, the beginning of the end of British colonial Hong Kong, another milestone in her rule, it has to be said.

CONAN: Simon Winchester, his forthcoming book "The Men Who United the States," due out in October. Also with us, Simon Schama at Columbia University, university professor of art history and history; and Steven Erlanger, now the Paris bureau chief of The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Peter's(ph) on the line with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

PETER: Oh, hi. Thanks for having me on. In the mid-'80s, I was a pretty young press officer at the British Embassy in Washington. And when Mrs. Thatcher would visit as prime minister, we'd set up the three TV networks and CNN in the ambassador's residence. And Mrs. Thatcher would walk from one site - one set to another. And this would all - and the four interviews would all be done within, say, 20 minutes.

She went from one set to another and then decided she wanted a glass of water, and she asked for one. And the entourage, which was mostly men in suits, all looked at each other as though to say, where do we get a glass of water from? And at that point, Mrs. Thatcher got up out of the chair and went off to the kitchen in the embassy and poured herself a glass of water - being followed by the entourage, of course - and then came back to the set, set the water down, drank it and then got on with the interviews.

And I just thought it was a great example of her not, kind of, dithering and waiting for people to do things. She just decided - she wanted a glass of water, so she's going to go and do it herself. She may be the prime minister, but she will pour the glass and help herself to it.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Peter, for the story.

PETER: I also wanted to add one point, though. I heard one of the gentlemen mention Greenham Common. My father was always a, kind of, a middle-to-last person who probably voted Labour most times throughout his life. And he told me one day, though, that he had driven past the protesters at Greenham Common. And I expected him to say how he supported what they were doing and dang(ph) to Mrs. Thatcher, but he actually said, if only they knew how wrong they were and, on this occasion, how right she is.

CONAN: Hmm. Peter, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

PETER: You're welcome.

WINCHESTER: May I just drop in here, Neal, for a second?

CONAN: Simon Winchester, go ahead.

WINCHESTER: Well, just to say that while that wonderful story does indeed suggest she was, to a degree, a woman of the people in knowing where the embassy kitchen was - I daresay few of the diplomats actually did - she nonetheless tended to be somewhat infected by a grandeur, which is normally reserved for the royal family, and noticeably the use of the word - of the first person plural rather than singular. When, like Queen Victoria's we're not amused, Mrs. Thatcher announced, we are a grandmother, when she was, I don't think that kind of thing somewhat rankled.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Robert(ph) on the line, Robert with us from Heber City in Utah.

ROBERT: Yes, Neal. Thank you. I had an interesting opportunity with my family to meet Margaret Thatcher, of all places, in Park City, Utah, after she was prime minister. And my wife is a New Zealander who were once British subjects and we were standing in the line with our young children. And as Margaret Thatcher can through the line, my wife said to her, my children think that you're the queen of England, and she replied quickly, don't disillusion them, dear


ROBERT: I'll never forget that. It was a great comeback and a wonderful experience.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Robert. Well, we - all of us will be back after a short break, Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, Simon Schama who's university professor art history and history at Columbia University, right here, Simon Winchester. We'll also be joined by Amanda Foreman, a historian and author. We're talking, of course, about the late Margaret Thatcher who died, today, of stroke, prime minister of Britain for almost the entirely of the 1980s and transformed her country along the way, transformed the world but polarized much of her country and much of the world along the way. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: And today, of course, we're remembering Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain. This email from David in Oklahoma City: As expat Brit and someone who did not like her policies, I recall an unusual show of emotion when she was finally leaving 10 Downing Street. She was photographed shedding a tear in the back of the car, driving her away, an unexpected show of emotion from the Iron Lady disowned in Portland.

Neal, I'm sure you'll remember Margaret Thatcher was one of the most hated people in English-Irish politics for her famous out, out, out speech when she rejected the Chequers agreement she had made with Garret FitzGerald within the Taoiseach equivalent to the prime minister of Ireland. Many Irish people, loyalists and nationalists died as a result and it took another 20 years to get to the Good Friday peace agreement.

And this from Jennifer: I was living in Ireland during the first Iraq war and was very impressed with Mrs. Thatcher's resolve. This quote has struck with me - stuck with me since 1990. There, Saddam Hussein, a dictator, a man hiding behind the skirts of women and children, what sort of man is that? Thank you to Maggie for showing us what a strong woman looks like.

Back in 2011, Meryl Streep brought Margaret Thatcher to the big screen in the biopic "Iron Lady." At the time, author and historian, Amanda Forman, wrote a cover story for Newsweek with the headline "The New Thatcher Era." In that article, she made the argument that Margaret Thatcher was and remains an icon of feminism. Amanda Forman joins us now from her office in New York City. Her latest book is " A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War." Good to have you with us today.

AMANDA FOREMAN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you make the argument despite the fact that Margaret Thatcher said she detested feminists.

FOREMAN: That's right. She was always very angry at the feminist movement because when she became education minister in 1970, she suffered one of the most virulent national hate campaigns ever endured by an elected woman politician. And not a single person in the women's movement came to her aid or remarked against the incredible women hating, women bullying nature of the campaign.

CONAN: Not only did not come to her aid, quite the contrary.

FOREMAN: That's right. And this is really because she didn't share many of the left wing views of the feminist movement that - to put in perspective, she was hated with the same fervor that Stalinists hated Trotskyites. And then were talking shades of gray here. I mean they were both on the same side. They both believe in equality of women. They both believed in the right of women to make their way in the world. They both believe that women should have positions of power. But because they didn't believe in the small prints, Thatcher was anathema to the women's movement.

CONAN: And during her career, coming up, before she was prime minister, she came to the realization that embracing women's issues was not going to get her anywhere in a conservative party and abandon that.

FOREMAN: That's correct. The historical record is very clear on this. You can see in papers that she wrote, in cabinet discussion and meetings, that she brought up particular issues, in particular, the one issue that remains a standing block to day for all women is that women are taxed out of their pre-taxed - they have to pay for child care out of their post-tax earnings.

CONAN: Not pre-tax earnings, right?

FOREMAN: That's right. Not pre-tax earnings, but post-tax earnings. And that's why so many women drop out of the workforce, now, and they dropped out of the workforce then. And there is one other thing that she fought so hard when she was a junior administer in the treasury to have changed and how - and her colleagues literally sat on her until she gave up.

CONAN: And so why not give her her due, and call her the anti-feminist as she might have preferred.

FOREMAN: Well, she wasn't an anti-feminist. I mean, that's the - if you accent the general tenets of feminism, that women are created equal, they should have equal opportunity and equal rights, then she wasn't an anti-feminist. She just didn't happen to subscribe to the exact same politics of the self-styled leaders of the feminist movement in Britain.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation, and let's go to - this is Zan(ph). Zan with us from - where are you calling from? I'm sorry. I can't read it.

ZAN: Am I actually on the radio?

CONAN: You are actually on the radio.

ZAN: Okanogan, Washington.

CONAN: Well, no wonder I couldn't read it. Go ahead.

ZAN: Well, I - just two days ago I got a movie from the library, "The Iron Lady," and I was intrigued so I watched it. And Meryl Streep is amazing as usual. But I was also wondering - and I didn't even know Margaret Thatcher was still alive. But how close was that movie to her real life? I'm also curious, did she ever see the movie or, like, was consulted about it or...

CONAN: Amanda Foreman, can you help us out here?

FOREMAN: Yeah. So in answer to the last part of the question, she never saw the movie, and she was never consulted because the last few years of her life she had suffered from a form of dementia. She suffered extreme short-term memory loss. And she had nothing to do with the film. How much truth is there in the film? There's nothing untrue in the film. It just doesn't go far enough. So it depicts some of the snobbery and some of the sexism that she faced but only a tenth of what it was really like for her to make it through when she did.

What you have to remember is that when she entered politics and when she started to climb that greasy pole, there wasn't a single woman judge. There wasn't a single woman ambassador. There wasn't a single woman in any leadership position in the civil service. There were no women newsreaders. There were no women bankers, no women brain surgeons. There were no women airline pilots, no women air traffic controllers, nothing. And you couldn't get a mortgage if you were - you couldn't buy a car on your own.

You couldn't buy a house. You couldn't have your own bank account if you were married. Margaret Thatcher, because of who she was and what she did as a woman leader, singlehandedly changed perceptions about what women could do and what they could achieve.

CONAN: Let me - thanks very much for the call.

SCHAMA: Neal, can I just comment for a second - a real movie - Thatcher movie buff.

It's probably a more select group, but there are two - there were two absolutely wonderful television films, I think both made for the BBC. One was about the young Margaret Thatcher called "The Road to Finchley" - if you can find that on Netflix - absolutely brilliant. And the other one was called "Margaret" and was just actually about the week of her downfall in which she's played by Lindsay Duncan who in my view was just astonishingly persuasive and convincing as Margaret Thatcher at the kind of height her dangerously hubristic moment. It's a really wonderful film if anybody out there wants to see. Actually better films about Margaret Thatcher than "The Iron Lady," I have to say.

CONAN: Simon Schama, thank you for that. Steven Erlanger, I wanted to turn to you. And of course we think back to the 1980s and Thatcher in Britain, Francois Mitterrand in France and Helmut Kohl in Germany were the - well, what was then West Germany, were the great leaders of Europe. Of those three, which is remembered - whose influence is best remembered today?

ERLANGER: Well, you know, it was a remarkable time for leadership, let's be honest, because you had Gorbachev in Russia too. So you had Kohl, which re-unified Germany, and you had Gorbachev who by failing at everything he tried to do, liberated the Soviet Union from the past. You had Mitterrand, who, you know, was the first socialist in (technical difficulty) showed the way to a different kind of France. You had people who actually had views about the world. It's a great contrast, I think, to what we have now.

I mean, you can argue about what David Cameron is or what Barack Obama is or what Francois Hollande is or even Angela Merkel, but you don't have the sense that any of them have very strong views about where they want to take their own countries, let alone the rest of the world. And maybe it's because the Soviet Union is gone. But it feels like a less dynamic set of leaders. And all of them were transformative, and I think, you know, the world would have been different without each one of them.

CONAN: Simon Winchester, among the changes that Margaret Thatcher wrought was a less-even society. There are much - many more entrepreneurial efforts that followed her efforts, those great nationalized projects. Many of them were dismantled during her leadership during the 1980s. And you had a Britain where there were many more - it's interesting to say, there was a bigger gap between the wealthy and the poor.

WINCHESTER: Oh, enormously. One only has to watch a film like "Billy Elliot" to see what was going on in the background there in the North country with the police battling the miners who were on this protracted strike to realize that this was the beginning of a major social change, which I think you were talking about at the very beginning of this program before I joined, between North and South.

I spent my first newspaper years up in the Northeast of England, which was shipbuilding and coal mines - all closed down now. And the economy, for a very long time, devastated to some considerable degree thanks to the policies of Mrs. Thatcher. I was wondering, though, listening to Amanda Foreman talking earlier, whether, if you have time, it's worth considering the broader aspect of women leaders around the world.

I mean you look at Golda Meir, you look at Indira Gandhi, you look at Mrs. Bandaranaike in Ceylon, you look now at Mrs. Park in Korea, Mrs. Kirchner in Argentina, and Mrs. Thatcher - all formidably resolute leaders whose time - we'll see what happens in Korea - has been marked by conflict.

And one wonders whether there is - and I know I'm on somewhat dangerous territory and thin ice here - whether there is a need to be somewhat more resolute than necessarily the circumstances suggest, and whether Mrs. Thatcher might have struck out more imperiously than she needed to. I think she did in the case of the Falkland Islands. And I'm wondering whether Mrs. Gandhi and Mrs. Bandaranaike also did the same sort of thing, which has implications for our views about Mrs. Clinton running in four years time.

CONAN: Amanda Foreman, what do you think?

FOREMAN: I think that historically when women become leaders it encourages that country's enemies to either softly or not so softly attack or antagonize that country. There's always a general perception that a woman leader is a weak leader, and that's where the conflict comes from. It's less from a woman having to prove herself, but her opponents assuming that she's weaker and therefore piling in.

CONAN: We're speaking with Amanda Foreman, the historian; Simon Winchester, a writer himself, his forthcoming book "The Men Who United the States"; Simon Schama is with us, university of professor of art history and history at Columbia University; and Steven Erlanger, now Paris bureau chief of the New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. And let's go to - this is Jonathan. Jonathan with us from Kansas City.

JONATHAN: Yes. Thank you kindly for taking my call. I'm an Argentine currently living the U.S., though I have family living in England and have spent significant time there as well. And I want to comment regarding the discussion on the imperialistic legacy left behind as a result of the attack on the Falkland Islands.

As an Argentine, I admit inherent bias, but it seems obvious from an objective standpoint as well that the war was completely unnecessary. And I concede(ph) that this was not her only legacy left behind, but I do believe that in British politics today there is still a sense of imperialism towards the colonies or what have you that are still are under the British rule.

And there's a similar sense of politics which seem to invade U.S. policies toward foreign nations now that - I just find intriguing the way that that has permeated across the different sort of imperialistic nations - if you want to call them that.

CONAN: Steven Erlanger, we heard earlier from Simon Winchester and Simon Schama on this. Let me ask you. This is a legacy that does not look like is leaving Britain's control anytime soon.

ERLANGER: Oh, I think it is leaving. I think it's leaving every European's legacy. I mean we've been in a period of decolonization for a long time, and I think the big issue for the European countries - Britain, France, others - is how they deal with the immigrants who they now have in their own countries from the process of decolonization, many of them Muslim. I mean how do they deal with them and can they make them part of this - these societies?

So I think it's a different feeling. I mean what you had with Thatcher was a kind of aggression, much as you had with Reagan in the name of a couple simple ideas, which resonated, actually, you know, which were about individual liberty, which were about the evil of Communism and the value of the liberal economic democracies. And I don't think...

SCHAMA: Well (unintelligible)...

ERLANGER: ...we have that kind of self-confidence. Let me finish for a second, and then you can go ahead. And I just don't think we have that same kind of self-confidence today. Sorry. Your turn.

CONAN: Simon?

SCHAMA: Well, I'm so sorry to interrupt, but, you know, it's extraordinary to talk about. I mean Mrs. Thatcher was temperamentally very aggressive, yes. But, you know, we're talking about colonialism in the South Atlantic. (Unintelligible) Argentine colonialism with the Malvinas or British colonialism with the Falklands. And Mrs. Thatcher, rightly or wrongly, was responding to a military fate accompli.

I think probably I also was against that war, but that's what she was doing. She actually wasn't the aggressor. The United Kingdom wasn't the aggressor in that particular...

ERLANGER: No one's suggesting that.

SCHAMA: (Unintelligible)

ERLANGER: I mean this is simply a discussion of what the legacy is of that colonial war, and I agree, it's like Grenada.

SCHAMA: Like, for example...

ERLANGER: For the United States - it was a pathetic war.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SCHAMA: Well, it depends how you feel about, you know, the campaign in Afghanistan. I mean, again, you know, there were things to be said against it and for it. But Britain did not go into Afghanistan to simply the re-run the doomed and dire and futile legacy of the Afghan wars of the 19th century. It went in because the Taliban was there and the Taliban had been the principal protector of those who attacked New York City on 9/11, and Washington as well. It's more complicated than simply Mrs. Thatcher (unintelligible)...

ERLANGER: (Unintelligible) Simon.

CONAN: And we're going to have leave it there. Gentlemen and lady, thank you all very much. Amanda Foreman was with us. You just heard Steven Erlanger and Simon Schama. Also Simon Winchester was with us, and we thank them for their time today. More on the life and death of Margaret Thatcher later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.