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Was Margaret Thatcher Britain's greatest post-war prime minister?

The rare public figure as beloved by some as she was reviled by others, Margaret Thatcher, who died today at 87, was the first female prime minister in British history and a world leader who arguably did more than anyone else to usher in today's free-market capitalism. In pushing for deregulation, privatization, and lower tax rates, Thatcher succeeded in dismantling what she saw as a bloated British public sector that was holding the country back. Though Ronald Reagan embarked on a similar project in the United States, Thatcher was first. And given neo-liberalism's ascendance today, on that basis alone she deserves to be called an historic figure.

But does Thatcher deserve to be called the greatest post-war prime minister in British history?

Unlike American historians -- who love nothing more than to debate endlessly about who qualifies as the greatest U.S. president -- the Brits have more of an aversion to this sort of ranking, and the first rigorous survey of British academics that examined the question of prime ministerial greatness was not carried out until 2004, by researchers at the University of Leeds. That study included all 20th-century premiers and crowned Clement Attlee the victor, with Thatcher finishing in fourth place:

1.  Clement Attlee (Labour, 1945-1951)
2.  Winston Churchill (Conservative, 1940-1945, 51-55)
3.  David Lloyd George (Liberal, 1916-1922)
4.  Margaret Thatcher (Conservative, 1979-1990)
5.  Harold Macmillan (Conservative, 1957-1963)

If one limits the field to post-war prime ministers, the discussion becomes even more interesting. David Lloyd George drops off the list, and Winston Churchill should arguably be excluded -- his second term in office predictably did not approach the heights of his wartime leadership. That puts Thatcher in second place behind Attlee, the man responsible for laying the foundation of the British welfare state.

Thatcher, meanwhile pulls ahead of Attlee in surveys of British public opinion. A YouGov poll from November 2011, for instance, found that 27 percent of Britons consider Thatcher the greatest prime minister since 1945, while 20 percent give the nod to Churchill  (Atlee trails in a distant fifth place with only five percent). Looking at the cross-tabs, that result appears to stem from a pro-Labour split between Attlee, Churchill, Tony Blair, and Harold Wilson. But it is nonetheless a surprising outcome for Thatcher, whose approval ratings in office fluctuated a great deal.

In many ways, Thatcher and Attlee couldn't be more different. While Attlee founded the National Health Service -- and with it the British welfare state -- Thatcher fought to undo much of what Attlee had built. Where Attlee saw the comforting hand of the state, Thatcher saw encroaching state power. The 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing eurozone crisis represent the latest, most important test for whether European governments will work to maintain Attlee's legacy and keep the state involved in the economy, or move further toward Thatcherism and embrace the free market. 

The outcome of that argument could play a big role in determining whether it is Thatcher or Attlee who ultimately secures the title of Britain's greatest post-war prime minister.

(h/t to reader Erica Jackson, who pointed us to the Leeds study)

JOHNNY GREEN/AFP/Getty Images

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