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What better way to come back after a slight gap (again) than by two tales of possibly the greatest British Prime Minister of the twentieth century, Margaret Thatcher.

One is a very entertaining account by Nigel Farndale, based on reminiscences, of an event that is not quite as unknown as he seems to make out but not very well known either: a dinner organized by Lord Thomas of Swynnerton (the historian Hugh Thomas) for a large group of litterati and academics to meet the Prime Minister who was not then or later considered to be particularly enamoured of the arts.

It would appear from the accounts that she was fairly knowledgeable about poetry and other literary matters but was not particularly fond of the literary self-regard displayed by several of the guests. Also, she disliked the Arts Council and its various denizens, which was always taken as a sign of philistinism by those who benefited handsomely from its tax-funded largesse.

It would appear, also that the male gathering was smitten by her, which seems to have been true in other male gatherings as well. Anyone who doubts that should listen to some reminiscences by those who fought in the Falklands.

The second tale is of greater political significance. It is a letter, written by the Prime Minister to President de Klerk of South Africa, giving him an outline of the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government she had just attended where South Africa was discussed at length as well as her ideas on how to proceed with regards to that country and its international standing. The letter is well worth reading for its exceedingly clear-sighted analysis and proposals.

Here are a few excerpts:

My rebuttal of the case for sanctions rested on two main premises: that sanctions do not work, indeed are likely to be counter-productive and damaging to those they are intended to help: and that it was inappropriate to take punitive action against South Africa at the very moment when you are taking steps to get rid of apartheid and to make major changes in the system of government in South Africa. I received a good deal of abuse in response, being accused of preferring British jobs to African lives, of being concerned with pennies rather than principles, of lack of concern for human rights and much more in the same vein. I in turn reminded them of some of the less satisfactory features of their own societies and pointed to the inconsistency of trading with the Soviet Union, with its appalling human rights record, and putting trade sanctions on South Africa.

She continued a little further on:

My other main purpose was to secure Commonwealth backing for dialogue between the South African Government and representatives of the black community in the context of a suspension of violence by all sides. The concept of course comes from your earlier letter to me: and I hope you will agree that it is no small achievement to have persuaded the Commonwealth to put its name to a suspension of violence, though there are several governments who will not wish to see substance given to this commitment if they can avoid it.

She then makes several proposals, including ideas for what President de Klerk might do. This is the key comment, in view of what has happened just a couple of days ago:

I continue to believe, as I have said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake.

There is evidence that Mrs Thatcher’s insistence on Nelson Mandela’s release played an important part in de Klerk’s decision to do so. The whole letter is very well worth reading.

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