/ 9 April 2013

Some rue, others salute Thatcher’s divisive rule

People gather during a 'party' to celebrate the death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in London.
People gather during a 'party' to celebrate the death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in London.

The "Iron Lady" was a polarising figure in Britain and beyond, but foreign leaders on Monday were unanimous in acknowledging her place in 20th-century history, with US President Barack Obama mourning a "true friend of America".

Thatcher died of a stroke on Monday in London aged 87.

Former German chancellor Kohl, considered the father of Germany's 1990 reunification, said he "greatly valued Thatcher for her love of freedom, her incomparable openness, honesty and straightforwardness".

Pope Francis said he recalled "with appreciation the Christian values which underpinned her commitment to public service and to the promotion of freedom among the family of nations".

Flowers from admirers began piling up outside her London home soon after her death was announced, but left-wingers quickly began planning jubilant parties, proving that the late premier was as divisive in death as she was in life.

In Glasgow and in the edgy South London neighbourhood of Brixton, enemies of the late premier held small street parties to celebrate her death, with some holding placards that read: "Rejoice – Thatcher is dead".

Thatcher's fiercest foes
Britain's coalminers were among the fiercest of her foes; and for one senior mining official marking his birthday on Monday, her death was the icing on his cake.

"I'm having a drink to it right now," said David Hopper of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Thatcher's government crushed a year-long miners' strike in 1985 and forced them to accept sweeping pit closures, in one of the bitterest episodes in British industrial history.

Bitter reactions were also heard in Argentina where Thatcher is remembered as Britain's leader who launched the 1982 war over the disputed Falkland Islands.

"God bless the day that that terrible woman has died," said veteran Domenico Gruscomagno (71). "She was an odious person. In order to win elections in Great Britain, she waged war."

While right-wingers have credited Thatcher with having hauled Britain out of the economic doldrums, the left accuses her of dismantling traditional industry and claim her reforms helped unpick the fabric of society.

Gerry Adams, leader of Ireland's Sinn Féin Republican party, said she had played a "shameful role" in the troubles in Northern Ireland.

But on Monday most reaction to her death – at least from leaders abroad – was positive.

Positive tribute
In Brussels, European Commission head José Manuel Barroso paid tribute to Thatcher's "contributions" to the growth of the European Union, despite her deep scepticism over increasing ties with Europe.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak called her "a formidable figure on the world stage", adding that she inspired many with "her strong leadership and sense of conviction."

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard hailed her for helping to shatter the glass ceiling for women in politics.

"Her service as the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom was a history-making achievement," Gillard said in a statement.

South Korea's first woman President Park Geun-hye – an avowed admirer of Thatcher – praised how she "revived the British economy and led Britain to an era of hope in the 1980s".

Among her contemporaries, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who held frequent meetings with Thatcher in the 1980s as the Cold War drew to a close, said she would go down in history for her commitment and resolve.

"Margaret Thatcher was a great politician and a bright individual. She will go down in our memory and in history," said the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Fellow cold war hero Lech Walesa, the Polish dockyard worker whose pro-democracy Solidarity movement helped create the first cracks in the Soviet system in the 1980s, said Thatcher "contributed to the fall of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe".

Reagan 'and Margaret were political soulmates'
Her US colleagues of the time also called the baroness a towering figure who helped changed the course of the last century.

Nancy Reagan, the wife of the late US president Ronald Reagan, said that "Ronnie and Margaret were political soulmates, committed to freedom and resolved to end communism".

Former US president Bill Clinton hailed her as an "iconic stateswoman" who lived a "remarkable life as she broke barriers, defied expectations, and led her country".

Even those with reason to remember the often divisive figure less fondly were quick to pay tribute to her huge personality.

In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress recalled the differences between Thatcher and those fighting against apartheid in the 1980s.

ANC 'terrorist' organisation
Thatcher famously argued that the ANC was a "terrorist" organisation.

"She failed to acknowledge the ANC as the rightful party of governance, but was out of touch with the British people on that issue. It's water under the bridge," said ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza, while conceding she was "a leader of note".

There was praise too from Hollywood, with US actress Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar for playing Thatcher in the 2011 movie The Iron Lady, calling her as a trailblazer for women.

"Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics," Streep said. – Sapa