It’s easier to defend Margaret Thatcher’s actions in South Africa than Theresa May’s

Disclosures under the 30-year rule show that the Thatcher government’s secret role in the conflict was very different to its public one. But a young Theresa May didn’t know that.

NS

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Theresa May is under fire, this time after a stilted interview with Channel 4 News’ Michael Crick about what she did to help bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa. (The answer appears to be “nothing”.)

In some quarters, Crick is himself facing criticism for even raising the issue. May was seven years old when Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, and by the time of his release from incarceration, was a lowly councilor in Wimbledon. What could she have done?

I don’t think that quite works. For one thing, much of the Church of England – of which May, whose father was an Anglican priest, is still a practising congregant – was involved in organising boycotts and fundraising activities for the anti-apartheid movement. It is both plausible and reasonable that the Prime Minister might, in her teenage years and her twenties, have played some small role, as did millions of British people inside and outside the church. She was politically active during much of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s. She was a member of a political party whose public stance towards the apartheid regime appeared to be warming, not cooling: in 1984, Margaret Thatcher became the first British Prime Minister to meet with her South African opposite number since 1961, and in 1987 she described the African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organisation” while continuing to resist pressure from around the Commonwealth to introduce sanctions on the rogue nation.

The Thatcher government’s private view and actions were actually rather more complex, and this is one area where Thatcher’s record has become more favourably assessed with time. We now know that the British government, as well as turning down repeated requests from Botha’s government for fresh sales of arms in order to help it in its various conflicts with its neighbours, expelled South African intelligence officers from the United Kingdom for attempting to disrupt the activities of the ANC in London, and that Thatcher used her meeting with Botha to heavily press for the dismantling of the apartheid regime.  We also now know that Downing Street overruled Foreign Office recommendations that Joe Slovo, known by British intelligence to be a key player in the ANC’s armed wing, lose his indefinite leave to remain and travel privileges.

So the record of the Thatcher government in this area already looks less appalling than we thought it was a few years ago, and it may be that further disclosures under the 30-year rule in coming years – which will cover the final end of the apartheid regime – will further transform how we see Thatcher’s approach to the conflict.

But that intriguing historical sub-plot, while important to what the final academic assessment of the Thatcher premiership is, doesn’t really help May. As a Conservative activist in 1980s, she wasn’t privy to intelligence briefings about what Slovo was up to, or to the exact content of the conversation between Botha and Thatcher. She was a twentysomething who opted to support the public position of the Thatcher government. You can plead in mitigation the private actions of that government.

So it is not at all unreasonable to ask Theresa May what her personal actions were at the time, particularly when she is quite literally visiting Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. And the uncomfortable truth for May is that it is harder to defend May’s inaction in the 1980s than it is the decisions made by Margaret Thatcher during that period.  

Ironically, it is another Conservative Prime Minister who may have more reason to feel somewhat aggrieved at some of the analyses being thrown about their role in the conflict.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.