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UK PM leads tribute to ‘extraordinary’ Thatcher

AFP

A portrait of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is pictured in the "Margaret Thatcher Room" at the Conservative Party headquarters in Finchley in north London, on April 9, 2013. Britain's lawmakers will gather for a special session of parliament on Wednesday to debate the legacy of Thatcher, whose death on Monday exposed bitterly divided views on the "Iron Lady's" 11 years in power - Copyright : AFP Leon Neal

LONDON (AFP)

British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed Margaret Thatcher as an “extraordinary” woman who had revived the country’s fortunes, at a special parliamentary tribute to the divisive former leader Wednesday.

The Iron Lady’s harshest critics stayed away in a sign of her bitterly disputed legacy. But still both houses were mostly packed, full of lawmakers recalled from their holidays after Thatcher died on Monday aged 87.

“Let this be her epitaph: that she made this country great again,” said Cameron, a fellow Conservative.

He said Thatcher was renowned internationally for helping defeat communism during the 1980s and ending the Cold War.

“There are millions of people who know that they owe their freedom, in part, to Margaret Thatcher,” Cameron said.

Supporters say Thatcher’s free-market reforms made Britain stronger and hail her leadership during the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina.

Critics, though, complain her economic policies and battles with the trade unions destroyed the livelihood of millions of Britons.

Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband sought to bridge that divide by acknowledging her impact on Britain.

“Whatever your view of her, Margaret Thatcher was a unique and towering figure,” he told the House of Commons.

Thatcher’s son Mark said their family had been “overwhelmed” by messages of support from around the globe, following her death at London’s Ritz Hotel after a stroke.

He said his mother would also have been “greatly honoured” by Queen Elizabeth II’s decision to attend her funeral next Wednesday, a rare honour from the monarch only previously accorded to wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, who died in 1965.

The service will be held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where British armed forces personnel from units associated with the Falklands conflict will bear her coffin. A total of 700 military personnel will be involved.

Cameron said her casket would be draped with the British flag as it is transported on a gun carriage to the cathedral, declaring: “This will be a fitting salute to a great prime minister.”

In emotional debates in both chambers of parliament, Thatcher’s former colleagues exchanged anecdotes about her strength of conviction but also her personal kindness.

Senior Tories Norman Tebbit and John Wakeham spoke movingly of her sympathy following to the IRA bombing at the Conservative party conference in 1984, from which Thatcher narrowly escaped but which killed Wakeham’s wife and paralysed Tebbit’s spouse.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown described her as “infuriating” but “without a doubt the commanding politician and the greatest prime minister of our age”.

However, the debates were boycotted by several of her biggest critics.

Labour MP and Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson riled Tory ranks by launching an attack on Thatcher’s “heinous” record.

“By far the most dramatic and heinous demonstration of Thatcherism was not only in London but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless,” she said.

“The first prime minister of female gender, ok. But a woman? Not on my terms.”

In an interview published Thursday, Germany’s ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl blamed Thatcher’s hostility towards a closer Europe for ongoing tensions between Britain and the European Union.

“Unlike with other leaders in Europe and the world, and despite the best efforts of both sides, Margaret and I simply never managed to build a trusting and warm relationship.

“[She] wanted Europe, but a different Europe from that wanted by most of her European colleagues and me. From our point of view, this antagonism characterises British policy on Europe to this day,” he added.

Despite their professional differences, Kohl paid tribute to “an admirable woman” and a “great prime minister.”

“I also never once found her to be dishonest,” he added. “For all that and for her love of freedom I always appreciated her. I will always honour the memory of Margaret Thatcher.”

He explained that ill health would prevent him from attending next Wednesday’s London funeral.

Thatcher famously secured a landmark budget rebate from the European Union in 1984, which rankles French and German counterparts to this day, especially with current British premier David Cameron leading so far successful efforts to cut back European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso’s one-trillion-euro 2014-20 plan.

Security for Thatcher’s funeral is likely to be extremely tight with fears of disruption by Irish republican dissidents and far-left groups. Police are also reportedly bracing for a possible “lone wolf” attack.

Concerns about potential violence rose after trouble erupted at several street parties celebrating her death on Monday night in London, Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow.

Many world figures are expected at the funeral, among them Britain’s former Labour prime minister Tony Blair and his wife.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, however, would not be among the guests because of frail health, his spokesman said.

Thatcher’s ashes will be laid next to those of her husband Denis, who died in 2003, at the Royal Chelsea Hospital.

Elsewhere, the Falkland Islands on Wednesday announced plans to hold a public day of mourning to coincide with the Thatcher’s funeral.

The islands’ government said a memorial service will be held at the Christ Church Cathedral in the capital Stanley next Wednesday, shortly after the funeral to celebrate the leader who waged war with Argentina in 1982 to retake the archipelago.

Signature : by Danny Kemp, James Pheby

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