Margaret Thatcher will be long remembered as a very strong leader of her nation, with an international reputation as Britain’s “Iron Lady.” At the same time, she could demonstrate a remarkable level of personal charm.
During my three and a half years as Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, the issue of apartheid in South Africa became the principal issue of disagreement. Then prime minister Brian Mulroney became a passionate opponent of the apartheid regime. For him, it became a principal international priority.
While Ms. Thatcher and U.S. President Reagan did not approve of the South African regime, they felt that a democratic society in South Africa would not happen without a very bloody civil war. They were also concerned with what they believed to be a strong communist influence within Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. For Ms. Thatcher, there were additional concerns related to U.K. investment in South Africa and the fact that a million white South Africans had British passports.
Mr. Mulroney supported strong sanctions against South Africa while Ms. Thatcher often stated that sanctions would only create unemployment both in South Africa and in the U.K.
Mr. Mulroney became the leading advocate within the Commonwealth, which clearly annoyed Ms. Thatcher, and, for a time, the issue of apartheid created some doubt about the future of the Commonwealth. At the same time, Ms. Thatcher was able to separate her strong policy positions from any element of personal rudeness when dealing with other leaders.
Given the “glass ceiling” in British society, her accomplishments related to becoming leader of the U.K. Conservative Party and long-time Prime Minister were nothing short of remarkable.
Mrs. Thatcher could also demonstrate real compassion from time to time toward the less-fortunate in society. I recall her concern about Canada’s aboriginal peoples; the animal rights lobby is particularly strong in Britain and the aboriginal harvesting of fur became a political issue. The result was that the British cabinet passed an order in council that could have led to the banning of fur exports from Canada to Britain.
This became a major concern in many Canadian aboriginal communities and I explained to Mrs. Thatcher that it was not only an economic issue, but one of pride and self respect for the aboriginals in the maintenance of their traditional activities, which were decreasing with every passing decade. Ms. Thatcher was clearly sympathetic and personally rescinded the order in Council, much to the annoyance of her cabinet colleagues.
In my experience, Margaret Thatcher could switch with ease from her “iron lady” mode to a person of immense charm. Clearly an advantage of any successful politician. To coin an old phrase “we shall not see her likes again.” I personally treasure the memories even if they were not always positive.
Roy McMurtry was Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from 1985 to 1988.