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London - Admirers of Margaret Thatcher on Tuesday mourned the “Iron Lady” who as Britain's longest serving prime minister in over a century pitched free-market capitalism as the only medicine for her country's crippled economy and the crumbling Soviet bloc.
World leaders past and present, from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to US President Barack Obama, led tributes to the grocer's daughter who sought to arrest Britain's decline and helped Ronald Reagan broker an end to the Cold War.
“The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,” said Obama.
While world leaders praised the most powerful British prime minister since her hero Winston Churchill, the scars of bitter struggles during her rule left Britain divided over her legacy.
Opponents celebrated in London, the English city of Bristol and the Scottish city of Glasgow, cheering her death and toasting to the death of “the witch” with Champagne and cider.
“We’ve waited a long time for her death,” said Carl Chamberlain, 45, unemployed, sporting a grey ponytail and sipping on a can of cider in Brixton, London, the scene of riots in 1981.
Loathed and loved, Thatcher crushed trade unions, privatised swathes of British industry, clashed with European allies and fought a war to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentina.
Tuesday's newspapers told the story: “The Woman Who Saved Britain”, declared the Daily Mail while the Daily Mirror led on “The Woman Who Divided A Nation” in an article which questioned the grand, ceremonial funeral planned for next week.
Thatcher's body was removed overnight in a transit van with police escort from the Ritz Hotel where she had died on Monday morning following a stroke.
Thatcher's final journey on April 17 will take her from a chapel inside the Palace of Westminster - where she deployed fearsome and forensic debating skills - to a St Paul's Cathedral where she will arrive on a gun carriage drawn by horses from Queen Elizabeth's artillery.
The Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, will attend the funeral, which is likely to be the grandest funeral for a British politician since Churchill's state funeral in 1965. Though accorded full military honours, Thatcher did not want a state funeral. She will be cremated.
Parliament will return from recess for a special session in her honour on Wednesday.
The unyielding, outspoken Thatcher led her Conservative party to three election victories, governing from 1979 to 1990, the longest continuous term in office for a British premier in over 150 years.
She struck up a close relationship with Reagan taking a hostile view of the Soviet Union, backed the first President George Bush during the 1991 Gulf War, and was the first major Western leader to discover that Gorbachev was a man she could “do business with”.
“Very few leaders get to change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world. Margaret was such a leader. Her global impact was vast,” said Tony Blair, whose term as Labour prime minister from 1997-2007 he acknowledged owed a debt to the former leader of his Conservative opponents.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a visit abroad and flags flew at half mast. “The real thing about Margaret Thatcher is that she didn't just lead our country, she saved our country,” Cameron said.
Mourners laid roses, tulips and lilies on the doorstep of her house in Belgravia, one of London's most exclusive areas. One note said: “The greatest British leader” while another said to “The Iron Lady”, a soubriquet bestowed by a Soviet army newspaper in the 1970s and which Thatcher loved.
But, in a mark of lingering anger at a woman who explained her belief in private endeavour by declaring “there is no such thing as society”, someone also left a bottle of milk. To many Britons she remained “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for scrapping free milk for schoolchildren when she was education minister in 1971.
Having retreated into seclusion after being deposed by her party, the death of her businessman husband Denis in 2003 and creeping dementia had kept her out of the public eye for years. She had been in poor health for months. - Reuters