Grocer's daughter became a divisive leader

Updated: 2012-03-04 07:47

By John F. Burns (The New York Times)

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Grocer's daughter became a divisive leader

GRANTHAM, England - Here in Margaret Thatcher's hometown, a stolid, hard-working sort of place 190 kilometers north of London, there is not a lot of fuss, nor much in the way of sentiment, to be found about the woman who went on to become Britain's longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century.

Grocer's daughter became a divisive leader

Only on afternoons when the cinema offers retirees half-price tickets has there been much of a crowd for "The Iron Lady," the controversial film about Mrs. Thatcher, who is now 86. On both sides of the Atlantic, it has won rave reviews for Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar on February 26 for her performance in the lead role. This has been offset by criticism of the film's focus on Mrs. Thatcher's battle in recent years with dementia.

Beyond that controversy, the film has prompted a new season of passionate debate in Britain about the political legacy of the Thatcher years, measured by a rush of commentary that has shown how little the opposing poles of opinion, the admiration and the vituperation, have relented since 1990. That was the year when a revolt among her own cabinet ministers and Mrs. Thatcher's famous House of Commons shout of "No! No! No!" on any further integration with Europe brought an end to her premiership after 11 years.

In Grantham, for every resident who spoke admiringly of the way "Mrs. T" handled the big issues - the battles with the unions, the retrenchment of the postwar welfare state, the Falklands war, the cold war confrontation with the Soviet Union - there were two or three others who disparaged her as too bossy, and too uncaring toward society's have-nots.

Grocer's daughter became a divisive leader

Even in the red-brick shop on the corner where she grew up as a grocer's daughter, the mood was dyspeptic. Only a modest plaque marks the building as "The birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

Few visitors seek out the site these days, said Sandra Green, a receptionist. It now serves as the Living Health Chiropractic Clinic and Holistic Retreat.

A therapist, Lauren Hall, 24, had her own perspective. "People who come to Grantham are more interested in Isaac Newton," who attended school in the town from 1655 to 1661.

At Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, a gold-lettered entry on the honors board shows that Margaret Roberts was head girl in 1943, the year she won a place to study chemistry at Oxford. But some students knew little about her.

"I don't know particularly what she did," said Emily Cheesman, 17. "But I know a lot of people have bad feelings towards her, because she did her thing, and a lot of people didn't like that. And I think she might have harmed other women's chances of becoming prime minister."

Back in the town center, there were those with firsthand memories of the Thatcher years who disagreed.

"I liked her a lot," said Michael Calladine, 42, a weather-beaten landscape gardener. "She pulled the country out of a slump, and when you look at the idiots who have run the country into the ground since her, well, what can you say?"

The New York Times