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Canadian Conservatives remembered Margaret Thatcher as an icon of their movement, and as Stephen Harper attended her funeral this week, he paid tribute to her as a "historic personage." But in foreign policy, on some of the defining events of her time, the Iron Lady and Canadian Tories didn't always see eye-to-eye.
For Mr. Harper, and even more for some of his cabinet ministers, Ms. Thatcher is a revered conservative groundbreaker. At her funeral, the prime minister called her a "legend." Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird looked back on a "personal political idol" that he admired as he was becoming politically aware, someone who stood up for free markets, stared down unions and brought back Britain from "its knees."
In international affairs though, the Canadian Tory prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney – who sat in the front row at Lady Thatcher's funeral – sometimes battled with the British leader, despite their warm relationship. Canadian Conservatives who admired the unswerving grocer's daughter who held proud memories of the Blitz also sometimes found her obstinately on the other side as history rushed on in the 1980s.
In 1985, it was Mr. Mulroney who took the lead inside the Commonwealth in efforts to impose sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime, and it was Ms. Thatcher whose opposition threatened to split the group. "Margaret was obstinate but not unpleasant," Mr. Mulroney wrote in a note to his files, according to his 2007 memoir.
Ms. Thatcher's stand was viewed by many as sympathy for South Africa's regime, though Mr. Mulroney insisted it was tactical – that she believed sanctions would push right-wing white South Africans to entrench for a bitter, scorched-earth battle, not compromise. In the end she did accept, under pressure from Mr. Mulroney and other Commonwealth leaders, to a round of sanctions – which held the threat of more, and shocked many white South Africans into believing apartheid's isolation would grow.
To be sure, much of Ms. Thatcher's approach to the world – her adamant cold-warrior stand against Communism (even if she famously said she could "do business" with Mikhail Gorbachev) pleased many Canadian Conservatives, then and now. But she was also a leader who saw vivid threats – and she again differed with Canadian Conservatives when the Berlin wall fell.
Ms. Thatcher feared the reunification of Germany. It emerged long after her tenure, in Kremlin notes unearthed in 2009, that just before the fall of the Berlin wall she told Mr. Gorbachev that despite public pronouncements, Britain did not want a united Germany, an official western goal for decades.
That shocked many, but not Mr. Mulroney. She and many west European leaders carried the scars of the Second World War, and feared the shift in European power and a new era of German dominance. "They were totally – totally – opposed to it," Mr. Mulroney said in an interview with The Globe and Mail when the notes were made public.
But Mr. Mulroney was a reunification booster. He sympathized with another friend, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and took the American view that a reunified Germany would lead to a more stable Europe. His foreign affairs minister, Joe Clark, played a role in the process when a 1990 Open Skies meeting in Ottawa split off into critical reunification talks at the German ambassador's residence – keeping furious European foreign ministers stymied while foreign ministers from the two Germanys, the Soviet Union, the U.S., France and Britain discussed a change to Europe's map. In the end, the forces of history overtook Ms. Thatcher's opposition – and Germany emerged as a stable bulwark in Europe.
Mr. Mulroney told The Globe he disagreed with Ms. Thatcher's prognosis of Germany's future role – but he felt it grew from her past. "She was a child of the war," he said. "She had lived through it."
Campbell Clark covers foreign affairs from The Globe's Ottawa bureau.