By Estelle Shirbon and Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron led tributes to Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday, remembering a divisive and combative leader who transformed the country and set a political course still followed today.
In a special session of parliament, Cameron said his fellow Conservative "defined and overcame the great challenges of her age" after a remarkable journey from the family grocer's shop to the highest office in the land.
But in death as in life, Britain's first female prime minister sharply divided opinion and was accused by opponents of destroying working class communities with "brutal contempt".
It was the first time parliament had been recalled from holiday for the death of a public figure since Queen Elizabeth's mother died in 2002, underlining the importance of a leader who won three elections and reshaped British politics.
"She drew the lines on a political map that we here are still navigating today," said Cameron, wearing a dark suit and tie. "She made the political weather, she made history and let this be her epitaph ... she made our country great again."
Thatcher, who died at 87 on Monday from a stroke, overturned post-war political consensus, winning battles over union reform, nuclear arms and state ownership of industries, Cameron added.
"She certainly did not shy from the fight and that led to arguments, to conflict, yes even to division," Cameron said. "But what is remarkable, looking back now, is how many of those arguments are no longer arguments at all."
In an emotional session scheduled to last for up to seven hours, members of parliament who are still fiercely divided over Thatcher debated her legacy and traded anecdotes and jokes.
Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband said she was a "unique and towering figure". However, some in his party went on the attack, condemning her as a heartless free marketeer who unleashed an age of greed that undermined British society.
"Too many industries, too many working class communities in the north were laid waste in those years," said former minister Michael Meacher. "And many of those are still desolated today."
"She was someone who took the fight to her opponents, who deployed a scorched earth policy to destroy them, which polarized the country."
Another Labour lawmaker, David Winnick, said Thatcher's economic policies, such as privatization, spending cuts and a move away from heavy industry, caused "immense pain and suffering to ordinary people".
The rows of empty benches on Labour's side of the House of Commons were testimony to antipathy to Thatcher.
A few hours into the debate, barely a dozen Labour members were taking part. Even the Conservative seats were only a little more than half full as it went on into the evening.
Tulips and lilies were placed at the foot of a Thatcher statue outside the parliamentary chamber she dominated for years and which was the scene of a devastating resignation speech by her deputy Geoffrey Howe that precipitated her downfall in 1990.
Plans for next Wednesday's funeral have become a security headache.
Parties in several cities to celebrate her death ended in arrests and media reported police may pre-emptively arrest known trouble-makers before they travel to her funeral.
Codenamed "Operation True Blue", the ceremonial funeral with military honors will begin with a procession through London to a service at St Paul's Cathedral.
In a break with protocol, marking Thatcher's stature, Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip will attend. The last time the monarch attended a prime minister's funeral was when Winston Churchill died in 1965.
Thatcher's son Mark said she would have been "enormously proud and grateful" that the monarch was going to her funeral.
"My mother would be greatly honored as well as humbled by her presence," he said. "By any measure, my mother was blessed with a long life and a very full one."
Many opposed to Thatcher's free-market ideology say she was too divisive a figure to be sent off in a style usually reserved for royals like Princess Diana or the Queen Mother.
"Let's privatize her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It's what she'd have wanted," said filmmaker Ken Loach, whose films denounce the impact of Thatcher's policies on the working class.
"THE WITCH IS DEAD"
The Official Charts Company said the song "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead", from "The Wizard of Oz", had climbed to number 10 in the singles chart after a campaign by Thatcher haters.
Such reactions were condemned by Conservatives as well as by some Labour figures such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In Brixton, a south London area hit during the Thatcher era by riots in 1981, protesters scaled a cinema and replaced movie titles with the words "Margaret Thatchers dead LOL" (sic). They also hung a banner that read "The bitch is dead".
Disturbances took place in Liverpool and Glasgow, two cities ravaged by Thatcher's dismantling of state industries.
Hundreds of police and soldiers will guard the funeral. Security forces will have to watch for protesters and the threat from dissident groups from northern Ireland.
Thatcher escaped assassination in 1984 when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) blew up a hotel where she was staying. The IRA laid down arms as part of a peace deal, but Thatcher remains a hate figure to many on the other side of the Irish Sea.
(Reporting By Jason Webb)