It summed up the extreme responses she would illicit and the divisiveness of her character.
Like everything about the woman, even that famous quote is a matter of dispute, with Mitterrand’s aide Jacques Attali dismissing claims the president had compared her eyes to Caligula’s, not Stalin’s.
Whatever the truth, it is impossible to remain neutral about the woman the Soviet Union branded The Iron Lady — she is either heroine or villain, idolised or hated.
Entering Downing Street on a sunny May morning in 1979 she quoted St Francis of Assisi, promising: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony, where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
But her intention was not to guide a battered British society gently by the hand, but rather to grip it by the throat and refuse to relinquish her vice-like grip for 11-and-a-half bitter years.
Two years into her first term, harmony was nowhere to be found, but mass unemployment, inner city riots, and a new underclass were now the norm as the social fabric of British society was willfully ripped apart in an extreme neo-liberal economic experiment called monetarism, the legacy of which is wreaking havoc today.
By 1982, she was the most unpopular prime minister in polling history, and Thatcher seemed doomed.
But she was saved by enemies — the Argentinian junta abroad, and the Labour Party ripping itself apart at home.
Much of her mythology is unreliable. Yes, the Falklands War factor swept her back to power, but it was the breakup of Labour into a leftist rump and the SDP that ensured her dominance as 60% of the British electorate voted against her in 1983 and 1987, yet the twisted Westminster system awarded her “landslide” majorities.
While she was the first woman to lead a Western democracy, she did not appoint another woman to her Cabinet in her entire time in power.
Mass unemployment was deliberately used as a tool of an ideologically driven economic policy in order to cow those still in work and crush the power of trade unions.
As the manufacturing industry was allowed to die, the City of London and the deregulated financial services sector boomed — but their sudden freedom sowed the seeds of destruction which would cripple Western capitalism in 2008.
Also booming were poverty and marginalisation. When Thatcher entered office in 1979, the post-war, welfare-state, cross-party consensus had cut child poverty to one in seven — when she was toppled in 1990 that rocketed to one in three.
The only thing Thatcher knew about Ireland was that the Northern part of it was “as British as Finchley” — her London constituency. Horrified by the INLA’s murder of her Northern Ireland spokesman and political mentor, Airey Neave, Thatcher viewed the Provisional IRA as another “enemy within” against whom to define herself.
Thatcher saw Charles Haughey as a fellow maverick outsider with whom she could do business, and Garret FitzGerald as one of the old-school Tory patrician gentlemen she knew — and knew how to manipulate.
But it was FitzGerald who persuaded her to embrace the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which, though it satisfied no one, marked the real beginning of the peace process.
The post-hunger strike Provisional IRA had come within seconds of assassinating Thatcher in the bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel a year earlier, and the two fed off their mutual hatred of each other to mobilise their core supporters throughout her decade in power.
Thatcher had so transformed and dominated politics for more than a decade she branded New Labour her greatest legacy. And both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown felt they had to invite her back to Number 10 to prove their legitimacy — despite traditional Labour voters deriding the gimmick. Yet, when the Brown government finally collapsed in 2010, British voters were clearly still too horrified at the prospect of a return to full-throttle Thatcherism to allow another majority Tory government.
While public services — especially the NHS and education — were ravaged by cuts during her rule, the police were strengthened, given extra pay and the latest riot equipment to keep it loyal as it was deployed as a paramilitary force to help break the miners’ strike of 1984 and then to crush the print workers at Wapping two years later.
The Battle of Wapping was seen as a personal favour by Thatcher to her greatest cheerleader, Rupert Murdoch, who led the fawning coverage of her that characterised nearly all British titles during her rule.
Media perceived to deviate from the adoration was menaced. The BBC — derided as the “Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation” by Tory ministers — was under constant bombardment, while Thames TV lost its license to broadcast in the wake of airing the Death on the Rock documentary, which exposed the shoot-to-kill policy of the SAS against a Provisional IRA bomb gang in Gibraltar in 1988.
Along with US president Ronald Reagan, Thatcher insisted on a policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid regime in South Africa, which effectively gave the white minority regime the cover to massacre black people at will as Nelson Mandela — whom Thatcher branded a “terrorist” — continued to languish in jail. Young Tories adorned with “Hang Mandela” T-shirts were prominent among the hysterical mob that annually descended on the Tory conference.
Only interested in those who, in her phrase, were “one of us”, race relations deteriorated as she aped the rhetoric of the far right and spoke of Britain being “swamped by immigrants”. Other minorities suffered too, with explicitly homophobic laws passed in 1988. However, the Thatcher government does deserve credit — unlike the Reagan administration — for launching a health information blitz when the Aids panic hit in the mid-1980s. This campaign produced one of the more intriguing anecdotes of her time in power when it was reported then health secretary Norman Fowler had to tell her what “oral sex” meant after she said she was unfamiliar with the term.
Context is key to her story. She could never have achieved such dominance without Britain going through a kind of nervous breakdown in the 1970s.
The ex-workshop of the world was reduced to begging the IMF for a loan to stave off bankruptcy, power cuts were routine as the 1974 miners’ strike crippled the country and brought down the Tory government of Ted Heath. As a minority Labour government took charge, the Provisional IRA was randomly machine-gunning civilians in Knightsbridge.
The shambolic government of Jim Callaghan collapsed as 1979’s Winter of Discontent saw rubbish piled high and the dead left unburied as even gravediggers downed shovels.
Ironically, some 11 years later, Thatcher’s children — the Tory MPs she had swept to power — felt no qualms when her unpopularity in the wake of the Poll Tax threatened their seats.
Thatcher called it “treachery with a smile on its face”, but it was the inevitable result of the culture of selfishness and greed she unleashed on Britain.