London: Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to share her Concorde with a giant panda on her first trip to visit US President Ronald Reagan, saying the cuddly mammals brought bad luck to politicians.
The tale emerges in a new batch of government documents published on Friday at the National Archives in London. They also reveal an act of kindness from the “Iron Lady” to a dying spy and the long shadow she cast over her successor.
One of the most surprising anecdotes to emerge is Thatcher’s mistrust of panda politics. In 1981, her office was approached by the president of London Zoo as Thatcher was getting ready to visit Ronald Reagan, who had just been sworn in as US president and who went on to become her political soulmate.
Solly Zuckerman explained that Washington’s Smithsonian Institution wanted to borrow London Zoo’s male panda, Chia-Chia, to mate with their female, Ling Ling. He would be happy to time the announcement of the loan “in any way that the prime minister thought would be most likely to benefit Anglo-American relations”, one of Thatcher’s aides wrote.
Perhaps, it was suggested, the premier might like to take the panda in the back of her supersonic jet airliner. But although she heard the suggestion “with some interest and amusement”, Thatcher was unimpressed with the idea of facilitating the mating ritual, according to her private secretary.
“I am NOT taking a panda with ME,’’ the prime minister scrawled at the top of the letter. “Politicians and pandas are not happy omens.”
This was most likely a reference to the idea that China’s gifts of pandas — intended as a diplomatic aid — had cursed the leaders who received them. France’s Georges Pompidou, Japan’s Kakuei Tanaka and America’s Richard Nixon had all been given bears in the 1970s, and had all lost their jobs.
Britain’s own pair of pandas had been given to the last Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath, shortly before an unexpected election defeat.
As for Chia-Chia the panda, he made it to Washington despite Thatcher’s refusal, but he failed to mate with Ling Ling. On returning, he was greeted with a sign: “Well tried!”
Some files show Thatcher’s softer side. One concerns an official history of wartime intelligence deception operations. In 1980, the prime minister refused permission to publish it, despite requests from former spies “that their contribution to winning the war should be chronicled”.
Four years later, the author of the history contacted Thatcher’s office to report a “sad letter” from Ewen Montagu, a Naval Intelligence officer who helped mastermind Operation Mincemeat, which saw the Allies deceive Germany about the invasion of Sicily by floating a corpse off Spain carrying fake plans for invading Greece. Montagu, then 83, had cancer, and wrote that he was “intensely keen” to hear “the official verdict” on his wartime work.
“The doctors have now given me only a very few months more to live,” Montagu pleaded. “Would it be possible for me to see a copy of the typescript in confidence. I have never broken security.”
The question was referred to the premier, who annotated it with a single word: “Yes.” Three weeks later Montagu wrote back, having read the history. “I cannot thank you enough,” he said. He died six months later.
The trove of files also say quite a bit about what it was like to step into her shoes. After more than a decade in power, she was thrown out as prime minister in 1990 and replaced with John Major, who wrote solicitous notes to staff and met his predecessor to keep her abreast of developments.
There were limits to this, though, and as the 1992 election approached, the Conservatives worried about Thatcher’s role in the campaign. She was keen to make the case for her record, but Major feared her presence would prevent a clean break with her legacy, the only thing he believed might lead to victory.
“I understand that Margaret’s entourage are letting it be known that if she were not invited to the final rally she would be ‘hurt’,” Tory Party Chairman Chris Patten observed, urging Major not to make any commitment to let her attend the event.
She should not, he added, be invited to any of the party’s press conferences.