Margaret Thatcher: For the rest of the world, she defined a nation

Margaret Thatcher speaks outside the White House in Washington, DC, as then US president Ronald Reagan looks on. Photo: PDA

It was a Soviet Captain writing in a Red Army newspaper who gave the woman who defined her age the nickname that defined her; The Iron Lady.

And he wrote it four years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Communists had her card marked, as she had theirs.

Few nicknames so perfectly capture the character, because there was always something of the Lady about her and more than a touch of iron will. "The Lady's not for turning" might well sum up her foreign policy, as it did her domestic politics.

Conviction and conflict was at the core of much of what she did.

The conflict with the Soviet Union and War in the Falklands dominated her life in office from first to last.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was followed soon enough by her own fall.

It's easy to look back on the Falklands and think it was a war only one side would win. But she launched the Task Force in 1982 against much advice and risked everything on what was, in the words of one of her commanders, "a damned close run thing". After it she won a landslide election victory.

In forging an alliance against communism, she drew Britain and America as close as they have ever been; her friendship with Reagan was political, military and economic.

Reagan was, she said, "the second most important man in my life". But it didn't stop her berating him when he ordered the invasion of Grenada.

To his successor, she offered the telephone advice "don't go wobbly on me now George", as Bush senior hesitated to confront Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Even the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev paid tribute to her today. He was, she once said, a man that "I like..I can do business with him."

She recommended Gorbachev to Reagan as a man who might radically change the Soviet system.

She was right. Under him, it died.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev speaks outside 10 Downing Street ahead of talks with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Credit: PA

Many of her foreign dealings were as deeply divisive in Britain as her domestic changes. Stationing American cruise missiles at Greenham Common gave birth to a peace movement and a decade of protest.

Allowing US bombers to launch raids against Libya in 1986 led to massive protests and, indirectly, the deaths of British hostages abroad.

Outside this country, it is in America where her death will be mourned the most. Only Winston Churchill comes close in American hearts. At least they know who she was, something even serving British prime ministers struggle with in the States.

And then there's Europe. She opened up fault lines that have yet to heal. She never trusted the Germans and once said after a fractious European summit that "only a Frenchman could have done that - unbelievable!".

She swung her handbag at many of them and won Britain's European rebate after a campaign that boiled down to a typically Thatcheresque slogan: "We want our money back."

It's hardly an exaggeration to say that outside these islands she was the face of Britain for 11 years and, like her country, she boxed far above her weight.

The face has gone; the legacy, at home and abroad, is strong.

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