LONDON -- On Sunday, Jan. 3, Margaret Thatcher will become the longest serving prime minister of Britain this century, an 'Iron Lady' who has profoundly changed the British way of life and the image of the nation abroad.
And with President Reagan's term ending, Thatcher, 62, can be expected to play an increasingly central role in East-West diplomacy, where she has established a good rapport with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
She is the longest serving of any current Western leader, including Reagan. That alone may help her find a place in the history books rivaling the most famous of Britain's prime ministers, Winston Churchill.
Seen by some as domineering and abrasive, she is not without critics. She is called 'heartless,' 'uncaring' and worse. Yet voters have handed the grocer's daughter three consecutive terms as prime minister, unprecedented in modern British history.
Thatcher surprised pollsters who had predicted a close race last June with an overwhelming victory. During the campaign she assured voters she was ready to 'go on and on,' perhaps running for a fourth term in 1992.
Thatcher will have served eight years and 244 days on Jan. 3, putting her ahead of Lord Asquith, who served eight years and 243 days - from 1908 until 1916 -- as longest consecutively serving British prime minister in the 20th century.
The longest serving prime minister in British history was Lord Salisbury, who served 13 years at the turn of the century. Lord Liverpool served as 'first minister' from 1812-27.
But Thatcher's stamp upon British and world politics goes beyond longevity.
Since taking office on May 4, 1979, Thatcher has imposed her own brand of conservative fiscal and social policies that has changed Britain. Her policies are known simply as 'Thatcherism.'
She sold nationalized industries and services to the public, curbed the power of powerful labor unions that had crippled Britain with strikes, cut taxes, tamed inflation and sparked a new sense of prosperity.
Under her leadership the nation, widely seen as foundering in a wave of strikes and government indecision in the 1970s, saw its prestige rise anew.
Her first eight years as prime minister have, she said, 'made Britain great again.'
That is debatable. But Thatcher's domestic policies probably have changed the nation more profoundly than any prime minister since Clement Attlee, who created Britain's welfare state in 1945.
Ordinary Britons jumped into the stock market for the first time and bought shares of British Telecom, British Airways, British Gas and other nationalized industries. Some 6 million Britons have become new shareholders since 1979.
More people also became homeowners. Besides a robust economy that brought lower mortgage rates, some 1 million municipally owned 'council houses' have been sold to former tenants.
Britain's economy, once one of the weakest in Europe, has grown faster than any other European nation for the past several years, easily outdistancing France and West Germany.
But Thatcher has not been completely successful. Unemployment tripled under her leadership, the crime rate rose by a third, and some see a polarization between the hard-hit industrial north and the prosperous south.
High unemployment in the north, where old industries have died, and the lack of training for new technologies threatens to create a permanent underclass, trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and despair.
On the night of her June re-election, Thatcher said she now would direct her government to pressing social issues: housing, education and job training.
Internationally, Thatcher's strong-willed and relentless leadership reinforced the Kremlin's description of her as 'The Iron Lady' and gave Britain a disproportionate level of influence in world politics.
She led Britain to victory in the 1982 Falklands War and fought for the siting of American missiles in Europe, a deployment that paved the way for the U.S.-Soviet treaty eliminating medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles.
Thatcher, who has acknowledged a specially closerelationship with Reagan, risked political wrath at home and abroad for allowing U.S. jets to take off from British bases to launch a bombing attack on Libya in 1986.
Thatcher supports Reagan on nearly every international issue and, as such, has virtually appointed herself European spokeswoman for arms control.
She met Gorbachev at the Kremlin and, most recently, held two hours of talks with him in England while he was on his way to the Washington summit in December.