Margaret Thatcher

updated 12/27/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/27/1982 01:00AM

When Argentina hoisted white flags of surrender over the Falkland Islands, Britain reacted with a surge of national pride long absent from the economically troubled kingdom. Bells pealed and the House of Commons rang with huzzahs.

Throughout the 74-day battle to reclaim the South Atlantic colony, the fighting tones of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 57, had rallied the nation in a way rarely seen since Winston Churchill's stirring oratory during World War II. She remained utterly confident that her forces would succeed. "Failure?" she scoffed. "The possibilities do not exist."

Actually, the victory was costlier in lives (255, to Argentina's 750 to 1,000) and ships (seven, worth an estimated $880 million) than Thatcher could have imagined. Because of highly censored reports of the fighting, the British people realized the full extent of the losses only after victory was assured. Thatcher later conceded that some of the setbacks reduced her to tears: "They just come," she admitted. "You can't help it. But you pull yourself together quickly. Your job is to keep up morale in spite of the tragedy."

Thatcher believes England's new spirit will endure. "There was a feeling of colossal pride," she observes, "of relief that we could still do things for which we are renowned. And that feeling will stay with us."

The PM's display of mettle resuscitated her sagging political career. With over three million (14 percent of the work force) unemployed, her government was in jeopardy. But Thatcher's personal approval rating rocketed from a dismal 34 percent before the crisis to an impressive 56 percent at its end in June. Her critics predict a sharp deflation of euphoria as Britons realize that the $4.5 billion cost of recapturing the islands, occupied by only 1,800 subjects, was just the down payment. Thatcher has vowed to defend the vestigial scrap of empire, although Parliament is almost sure to balk at the price tag. Thatcher is already blamed for not initiating serious talks with Argentina on the future of the Falklands before the conflict erupted, and a government inquiry may well fault her for leaving them unprepared to resist invasion. Former PM James Callaghan challenged Thatcher to admit that she had made "a gross error in judgment in failing to take preventative action in time."

But how to find a face-saving solution to the Falklands imbroglio? Britain was severely strained maintaining an 8,000-mile supply line during the fighting. Moreover, most analysts agree that the Royal Navy severely underestimated the technological capability of the Argentines, whose French-made Exocet missiles brought warfare into the high-tech era. (Nations around the world are now rethinking their armament strategies, applying the lessons of the Falklands.)

One characteristic that made Thatcher a fine war leader may hurt her in peace: her inflexibility. She can behave like a bossy schoolteacher to everyone—from Cabinet ministers to constituents.

Despite their fabled 10 Downing Street address, she and her retired businessman husband, Denis, share a no-frills existence. There is no resident help, and Margaret prepares meals on the weekends when she and Denis remain in London. Their daughter, Carol, a 29-year-old radio journalist who recently came home from five years in Australia, said that her parents' life "really boils down to living over the shop." Neither Carol nor her daredevil twin, Mark, is married, though Thatcher would like to see her children settle down. Mark caused her anxiety when he was lost in the Sahara for six days during a motor race in January; he was also missing for eight hours in November after a crash in a Mexican mountain wilderness. So far he has not given in to her demand that he quit racing. "One would love to have some grandchildren," she has remarked, "but you can't live out your children's lives for them."

Nor can she necessarily count on the chauvinistic electorate to return her to office for a second term in the next election, which must be called by May 1984. Winston Churchill emerged from World War II as a national hero. Six months later he was defeated in the general election.

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