An insight into the realities of politics and the difference between what politicians say and what they do. By a journalist who knows more about politicians than most. Ed.
The news of the death of Britain’s Iron Lady, Baroness Thatcher, prompted me to recall my favourite story about her. In 1980, in the first of her three terms as prime minister, she said in a speech to her Conservative Party’s Conference: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Because I was personally engaged with her at the time, I know that she performed her first U turn in her first 48 hours of being prime minister.
I had visited the exiled Shah of Iran and Queen Farah in Morocco. When I met with Farah she was alone and I could see she had been crying. I put a gentle arm around her shoulder and asked her what was wrong. (My relationship with Farah was very special because I had assisted her efforts to educate her husband about what was going wrong in Iran before the revolution). There was a handwritten letter on her desk. She picked it up. “This is not helpful,” she said.
“Who is it from?” I asked.
“Ashraf”, she replied. (Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s twin sister, was safe and secure in America with her billions).
“What does it say?” I asked.
Farah read from the letter. “You bitch. You and your leftwing ideas are to blame for what has happened.”
But that insult was not the cause of Farah’s tears. She went on to tell me that King Hassan had called on them earlier in the day. (I knew that because he was taking his leave of them when I arrived. I thought he was embarrassed and very uncomfortable). He told them he was under great pressure and had to ask them to leave Morocco.
“We have nowhere to go,” Farah said.
I told her that I knew Jack Lynch, the prime minister of Ireland, very well. I proposed that I should call him and she agreed.
I got through to him without delay and went straight to the point. The Shah and Farah needed a temporary place of refuge. Ireland would be ideal, I suggested. Could he consider it? Jack’s response was also straight to the point. “No!”
Farah then told me that her husband had an estate in Surrey. I said I would return to the UK, take a look at it, and if keeping the place safe would not impose too much of a burden on our security services, I would ask Prime Minister Jim Callaghan if he would allow the Shah, Farah and their children to have temporary refuge there.
My exchange with Prime Minister Callaghan at Number 10 Downing Street was very brief. He said: “No way. The party would not allow it.”
Britain was four weeks away from a general election and few if any commentators doubted that the Labour Party would be defeated and Margaret Thatcher would become Britain’s first woman prime minister. I telephoned her and said that I had something important I needed to discuss with her in private. She said she would receive me on Sunday morning at Scotney Castle, her country home. (It was only about 40 minutes drive from where I then lived in Kent).
When I arrived at 10 o’clock, Margaret was outside pruning some roses. She took me inside and we chatted for more than an hour. She did almost all of the talking, telling me how she was going to change Britain and Europe. She left me in no doubt that she had no time for Europe’s male leaders. She loathed them all. While we talked, Denis was pacing in front of the fire place, drink in hand, and muttering insults of his own. One I recall was “David Owen is a c * * t.”
Eventually Britain’s prime minister to be said, “Now what is that you want to discuss with me?”
I told her about the Shah’s urgent need for temporary refuge. She was very open to the idea that it could be in the UK, at his country home in Surrey. But here’s the main point… Just before we said goodbye, she took both of my hands and held them close to her breasts. Then, with real passion in her voice and eyes, she said: “You tell His Majesty that I would be ashamed to be British if we could not give him refuge after all he has done for us.”
Before I drove away we agreed that I would report back to the Shah and Farah and that I would call her, Mrs. Thatcher, at about 8.30 on the morning of her election victory.
The Shah had two questions after I had briefed him.
The first was: “Is she definitely going to win the election?”
I replied, “Yes, probably with a 40-seat majority.” (That turned out to be a correct forecast).
The Shah’s second question was: “Can we believe her?”
I replied that I was in no doubt that she really, really meant what she had said when she said it, but only time would tell.
At 8.30 on the morning of her election victory, I telephoned Margaret. “Hello, Alan,” she said, “I’m cooking Denis’s breakfast.”
I asked her when she expected to have a decision on the Shah’s request for refuge. She replied: “I need to talk with Peter but I’m sure it will be alright. (Peter was Lord Carrington who was going to be her foreign secretary), Give me 48 hours and call me again.”
When I did make the follow-up call, Prime Minister Thatcher was not available to talk to me. She had performed her first U-turn and didn’t want to acknowledge it.
At the time I imagined that the foreign office advice to her had been something like the following: “Lady, you must be out of your mind. If we grant the Shah refuge, we’ll have enormous problems with the ruling mullahs and their fanatical followers.” It is possible, even probable, that she was so advised, but recently de-classified cabinet papers indicated another reason. Britain was already doing business with the mullahs.
The moral of the story? Leaders sometimes want to do what they believe to be right but are not allowed to do so. This, I believe, is the fix President Obama is in on policy for Israel-Palestine.