Maggie’s legacy not as great as she thinks
Posted on 5 May 2009 | 8:05am
The right-wing papers have had a showering of hagiography for Margaret Thatcher in recent days, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of her coming to power.
Most of it has focussed on the economic (without any reference to the current mess) and the geopolitical (her and Ronnie tearing down the Berlin Wall).
Last night’s dramatisation of the secret talks which helped lead to the end of apartheid, Endgame, on Channel 4, was a reminder that there was another side to the story, unsurprisingly overlooked in all the accounts.
It was a reminder of the extraordinary journey South Africa has taken in recent years, and a reminder of the courage of some in making it happen. The only fleeting reference to Mrs Thatcher took the form of a joke.
She and her supporters would see that as a further dig from what she calls in her book ‘the media left’ who feted Nelson Mandela, but whose ‘sound and fury’ was less responsible for his release than her dogged refusal to join the near universal condemnation of apartheid South Africa.
After watching the programme, which had so many moments with echoes of negotiations over Northern Ireland, I looked up Mrs Thatcher’s book, The Downing Street Years, to see if there was any acceptance that she might have been wrong in her stance.
Far from it. Pages 512 – 535, part of the chapter headed ‘Putting the world to rights’ might be sub-headed ‘how I fought and won for Mandela’s release, and set South Africa on the road to free enterprise.’
She writes of her persistent fight for Mandela’s freedom – it kind of passed me by, as a journalist covering her at the time. Of her first proper meeting with him in Downing Street post-release, she notes the Left’s irritation that she was seeing him, adding ‘but then he, unlike them, had a shrewd view as to what kind of pressure for his release had been more successful.’
She makes the same point when turning down an invitation by President de Klerk to go to South Africa. ‘There was, I knew, nothing more likely to sour his dealings with other governments who had been proved wrong about South Africa than for me to arrive in his country as a kind of proclamation that I had been right.’
The accounts of the abuse she took from other Commonwealth leaders as she dug in against sanctions were an interesting reminder of her resilience. But can she really believe that her basic position – the ANC are terrorists, South Africa is better than the Soviet Union, sanctions don’t work – led to the country becoming democratic?
Inevitably, dramatised accounts of historic events, particularly when involving secret meetings, cannot ever be totally accurate. But there was almost certainly more truth in last night’s programme than in Maggie’s account of how she set Mandela free.