LONDON (Reuters) - Loved or loathed in death as in life, Margaret Thatcher left no one indifferent, finding some of her most ardent admirers among her political opponents.
“Very few leaders get to change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world. Margaret was such a leader,” said Tony Blair, the centre-left Labour leader who brought his own party back to power not least by heeding the lessons of “Thatcherism”.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whom she famously declared she could “do business with”, said their mutual understanding “contributed to a change in the atmosphere between our country and the West and to the end of the Cold War”.
Thatcher’s warm relations with Gorbachev’s direct adversary, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, and their shared espousal of the free market and individual liberty, along with her readiness to provide a base for U.S. nuclear missiles, gave Britain greater influence in Washington than it has normally enjoyed.
“The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,” said U.S. President Barack Obama.
“Here in America, many of us will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history - we can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”
At home, Conservatives mourned the leader who set a free-market agenda in Britain and Europe and famously announced “there is no such thing as society” as she put individual enterprise and self-reliance before the state and the social safety net.
David Cameron, the prime minister who led the Conservatives back to power but without the absolute majority Thatcher enjoyed throughout her premiership, said: ”We’ve lost a great prime minister, a great leader, a great Briton.
“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.”
Thatcher is remembered in Britain for resisting the idea that the European Union should move ever closer to political union, but, at a time when Britain is once again agonising over its role in Europe, EU leaders much keener on closer integration had warm words for her.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said she would be remembered “both for her contributions and her reserves to our common project”:
“She signed the Single European Act and she helped bring about the single market. She was a leading player also in bringing into the European family the central and eastern European countries which were formerly behind the Iron Curtain.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow conservative who grew up in communist East Germany and went on like Thatcher to become the first woman to head her country’s government, said:
”The freedom of the individual was at the core of her convictions; in that sense Margaret Thatcher recognised the strength of the movements for freedom of eastern Europe early on and stood up for them.
“Margaret Thatcher was not a women’s politician - but by asserting herself as a woman in the highest democratic office at a time when this was not yet a given, she was an example to many.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thatcher was “a pragmatic, tough and consistent person” and that these qualities had enabled her to help pull Britain out of economic crisis, for which people should be grateful despite the criticism she faced.
Putin, who once called the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, said Russia “will always be thankful” for the contribution Thatcher made to British-Soviet and British-Russian ties.
It was left to Vaclav Klaus, former Czech prime minister and president and a self-proclaimed “Thatcherite”, to set her vision against Europe’s current crisis. He said the European Union’s ailing economic and social model was “exactly what she, as the first woman in the post of British prime minister, fought against since the end of the 1970s”.
“Her voice is also missing in today’s discussion on European integration,” Klaus added. “Many of us will never forget her famous speech in Bruges, where she clearly said that the suppression of nation states and concentration of power in Brussels will destroy Europe.”
But there were plenty of voices in Britain ready to express the resentment that still lingers against a woman who broke the power of the trade unions, ran down or privatised many state-run utilities and institutions and eroded the post-war welfare state.
“She did make war on a lot of people in Britain and I don’t think it helped our society,” said Tony Benn, a left-wing Labour minister in the 1970s.
Some opponents said on social media that they would hold a party to celebrate her death, while a website set up to ask if Thatcher was dead yet received 180,000 “likes”.
“She wanted to crush the trade unions, the working class movement; she didn’t finish us off but that was what her aim was,” said Judith Orr, editor of the left-wing Socialist Worker newspaper. “I‘m glad to see the back of her.”
Leftist former London mayor Ken Livingstone blamed Thatcher for making many Britons jobless and dependent on welfare: “She decided when she wrote off our manufacturing industry that she could live with two or three million unemployed,” he said.
The present leader of the GMB trade union, Paul Kenny, said she would be remembered for “destructive and divisive policies”:
“Her legacy involves the destruction of communities, the elevation of personal greed over social values and legitimising the exploitation of the weak by the strong,” he said.
In the British province of Northern Ireland, Thatcher is still detested by Irish nationalists for her uncompromising policies towards them, not least her hard line during a hunger strike in 1981 in which 10 prisoners died.
For their part, Irish Republican Army militants came close to killing her in a bomb attack in 1984.
Gerry Adams, who spoke for republicans during much of the IRA’s three-decade guerrilla war against British rule, said Thatcher’s “espousal of old, draconian, militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering”:
”She embraced censorship, collusion and the killing of citizens by covert operations ... and refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for parties of their choice.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress reminded the world that Thatcher had opposed the use of economic sanctions to try to end white-minority rule:
“The ANC was on the receiving end of her policy in terms of refusing to recognise the ANC as the representatives of South Africans and her failure to isolate apartheid after it had been described as a crime against humanity,” the party recalled.
Yet to the population of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, where Thatcher sent British troops to drive out an Argentinian invasion force in 1982, Thatcher is a hero and a liberator - “our Winston Churchill”, as one local man put it.
“She was very happy to have restored freedom to the people of the Falkland Islands,” said Mike Summers, chairman of the islands’ eight-member legislative assembly.
“And the Falklands were always in her heart.”
Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Editing by Alastair Macdonald