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Margaret Thatcher's Life And Legacy In Britain


On a Monday, it is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

Britain and the world are reflecting this morning on the life of Margaret Thatcher. The former British prime minister has died at the age of 87. Britain's current Prime Minister David Cameron remembered her this way.


PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: As our first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher succeeded against all the odds. And the real thing about Margaret Thatcher is that she didn't just lead our country. She saved our country. And I believe she'll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister.

GREENE: That's British Prime Minister David Cameron. Now, for more on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, we're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves in London.

Phil, good morning.


GREENE: Thatcher's spokesman says that she died after suffering a stroke, but we know that she's been ill for some time. What more do we know about her condition?

REEVES: Well, she's been ill for a long time, really started losing her health at the end of the 1990s. And she's been out of public view now for a very long period. We know that she was suffering from dementia, and we know also that she reached a point where she really wasn't functioning effectively at all towards the closing phases of that very sad illness.

GREENE: We talk about her legacy. I mean, here in the United States, she's best-known for her very close partnership with Ronald Reagan during the waning years of the Cold War. And I want to play a little of her voice, if we can listen. This is Thatcher in a famous BBC interview describing her working relationship with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


PRIME MINISTER MARGARET THATCHER: I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together. We both believe in our own political systems. He firmly believes in his. I firmly believe in mine. We're never going to change one another. So that is not in doubt. But we have two great interests in common, that we should both do everything we can to see that war never starts again. And therefore, we go into the disarmament talks determined to make them succeed. And secondly, I think we both believe that they're more likely to succeed if we can build up confidence in one another and trust in one another about each other's approach.

GREENE: I mean, Phil, that endorsement has been seen as really paving the way for Britain and the U.S. to work with the Soviet Union. Is that moment emblematic of Margaret Thatcher and her role in the world stage?

REEVES: It certainly is, yes. I mean, she's credited with really spotting that Mikhail Gorbachev was a reformer, someone who the West - particularly the U.S. and Ronald Reagan - could work with. I think this was helped greatly by her very close personal chemistry with Ronald Reagan. They were obviously close ideologically, also. They shared this deep hostility to Soviet communism. But, of course, they were different in style. And I think that role that she played in laying the ground, really, for the end of the Cold War alongside Ronald Reagan, that's going to be what he legacy is internationally.

And it's interesting, you know, if you go to former Soviet republics, former parts of the Soviet Union that have got their independence now, she's remembered very favorably, often, by people there.

GREENE: Yeah, her name comes up all the time in countries like that. Well, OK, well, that's her legacy internationally, but a much more divisive legacy at home, domestically.

REEVES: Divisive, but not much argument here. There is actually consensus here that she was a huge and towering figure on the political stage: the first woman prime minister, of course, not only in Britain, but of a major Western power, and the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.

She rewrote the rulebook. She broke the powerful and often venal trade unions. She confronted - sometimes violently - the mining industry, for example, the miners. She privatized state-run industries, sold off social housing, liberalized the rules governing the financial sector and more. Did battle, for example, with the left. She was seen as very uncompromising, to the point of ruthlessness, particularly in that battle with the left, particularly at the municipal level. Her attempt also to crush Irish Republican militants, the IRA, during the civil war in Northern Ireland were also seen as very strong, ruthless, and led, in fact, to the bombing her Cabinet and attempted assassination of herself at a hotel in southern England in 1984.

GREENE: All right, Phil. Thanks so much for talking to us.

REEVES: You're welcome.

GREENE: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in London, on the death this morning of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the age of 87. And we'll have much more reaction to Thatcher's death throughout the day here on NPR News, and you can also follow the news online at npr.org, our website. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.