Ex prime minister Margaret Thatcher spurned the photo opportunity of sharing a transatlantic, Concorde flight to Washington with a giant panda, newly released files from the National Archives have revealed, according to an article from The Guardian..
The former leader’s aversion may have reflected a reluctance to imitate her predecessor, Ted Heath, who brought back pandas from China, dislike of manipulative political stunts or, possibly, a deeper antipathy towards the slow-moving creatures.
A confidential file on London Zoo, which records repeated debt crises at the Regent’s Park attraction, contains a letter from the cabinet secretary, Robert Armstrong, to her private secretary, Clive Whitmore, proposing an Anglo-American initiative that would generate mutually beneficial publicity.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington had asked London Zoo for the loan of its male panda, Chia Chia, brought back by Heath from China in 1974, so that it could be mated with its female panda.
Lord Zuckerman, president of London Zoo, enthused that it would be a “demonstration of the special relationship” and that he was happy to time an announcement of the loan to suit Thatcher, the letter reported. “He even suggested that the prime minister might like to take the panda in the back of her Concorde when she goes to Washington next month.”
Appalled at the prospect, she scribbled in her customary, blue felt pen on the note: “I am not [double underlined] taking a panda with me. Pandas and politicians are not happy omens! Lord Z knows more about pandas than I do. I am sure he can arrange these things”.
Although Whitmore transcribed her comments in a subsequent Number 10 note as “not happy omens”, the original writing looks more like ‘ … not love omens’. Whitmore may have been sanitizing her remarks.
The following year, Thatcher expressed a weary acceptance that more money would have to be given to London Zoo to save it from closure. “The zoo is a British institution,” the prime minister commented on another letter. “I fear there will have to be a further interim grant.”
In September 1982, Armstrong was prompted again by Lord Zuckerman about his hopes for a fresh round of panda diplomacy. “As it turns out the female of [the] pair [brought back by Heath from China] is highly unlikely ever to breed,” the cabinet secretary recorded.
“London Zoo would clearly like to have a fertile female and, in due course, a baby Panda. I think that Lord Zuckerman hopes that, if the prime minister were to be offered a female giant panda for the British people she might feel able to accept it.”
On the letter, an official wrote: “Prime minister. A bit passé, but no doubt you would not look a gift horse, or even a panda in the mouth?” Thatcher replied: “Yes, I would. The history of pandas … is unlucky.”
Her hostility towards the animals was in stark contrast to her readiness to meet the disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon, despite civil servants warning her off. The newly released files record several attempts by the Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken to obtain an audience for Nixon, who resigned in 1974 following the Watergate scandal.
The Foreign Office advised against her seeing him in 1980. Two years later, Aitken wrote to her office again requesting that Nixon, who was passing through London, be allowed to call in. “Yes”, she noted on the letter. A telegram dispatched by Nixon shortly after their conversation suggests their encounter had been mutually engaging.
“Congratulations on your rail strike victory,” he sent from New York. “Your gutsy leadership both domestically and internationally continues to inspire free peoples everywhere.” She wrote back: “I very much enjoyed our talk the other day”.
Nixon pioneered the art of panda diplomacy, bringing back two from China to the US in 1972. But, presumably, that topic did not surface, concludes the article.