By Ranil Wickremesinghe, United National Party Leader and Vice Chairman International Democrat Union Margaret Thatcher epitomised a new era – the age of ‘Globalisation’. She was one of the first political leaders to initiate a dynamic global interaction of politics, economic markets, society and culture. To be quite honest, my first impression of Ms. Thatcher [...]


An Asian tribute to Mrs. Thatcher


By Ranil Wickremesinghe, United National Party Leader and Vice Chairman International Democrat Union

Margaret Thatcher epitomised a new era – the age of ‘Globalisation’. She was one of the first political leaders to initiate a dynamic global interaction of politics, economic markets, society and culture. To be quite honest, my first impression of Ms. Thatcher was not noteworthy. Way back in December 1977, I witnessed Prime Minister Jim Callaghan get the better of her during Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher began her term in power in 1979 by stating that, as Prime Minister, she was not going to preside over the decline of Britain. The country, which stood up to a war-mongering Hitler, was on the verge of becoming a non-entity in 1979. The UK economy was in shambles. Britain had requested the IMF for a bailout. Then came a series of strikes which left the country with mounds of uncollected garbage, without power, without fuel in petrol sheds and without staff in hospitals. It was a winter of discontent — even the gravediggers went on strike.

Thatcher set out to change Britain. During this period, Deng Xiaoping, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl followed suit by transforming their own countries. They changed the world; a transformation fiercely resisted by the established status quo in their respective countries. In fact, each country had its share of controversies and upheavals ranging from Brixton to Tiananmen Square. Yet from this has emerged a world more prosperous, and more democratic, and more peaceful. However, it is a world with sharp social inequalities marked by the constant struggle for primacy between politics and financial markets.

I first met Margaret Thatcher in Lusaka in 1979. Prime Minister Premadasa who was leading the Sri Lanka delegation to CHOGM 1979, introduced me to her during the lunch hosted by the British High Commissioner. He also reminded Mrs. Thatcher to give the green light to construct the Victoria Dam — part of the Mahaweli Project undertaken by our government. This was in the backdrop of her newly elected government having committed itself to a massive cut in expenditure resulting in British foreign aid being on the frontline. That afternoon, she sent him a post card confirming the grant. Mrs. Thatcher called this the most expensive post card she ever wrote in her life.

President J.R. Jayewardene never forgot this favour. During the Falklands War, Sri Lanka stood steadfast with the UK. “If we are friends we must be there in their hour of need,” he said. There was also a principle to be upheld – the Falkland Islands had never been a part of Argentina. The Argentinian claim was based on their assumed succession to the Spanish Empire. The Falkland islanders had no desire to join Argentina. Our Foreign Ministry was instructed to vote with Anthony Parson the Permanent Representative of the UK at the UN. Mrs. Thatcher did not forget this gesture either. When Sri Lanka faced terrorism, Mrs. Thatcher gave us all the assistance short of overt military aid during the crucial period. On a few occasions, she even overruled her own Foreign Office.

I met Margaret Thatcher again in New Delhi in 1984 when she attended the funeral of Indira Gandhi. One woman represented the old order fading away, the other, the emerging new order — and again, when she visited Sri Lanka during April 1985 to inaugurate the Victoria Dam. Mrs. Thatcher regarded President Jayewardene as a good friend and liked him from the beginning. Her visit was intended to demonstrate her support for him. It was to be a memorable visit for her. From the time she left the President’s Pavilion in Kandy to open the Dam and until her return to the Pavilion she could not get hold of a glass of water. Even when she addressed the Sri Lankan Parliament, which she referred to as “a magnificent building inside and out”, I remember that her voice was cracking. Here too, the Speaker had failed to provide her with a glass of water. Thereafter, she ensured that a bottle of fizzy “Ashbourne water” accompanied her whenever she travelled around the world.

The relationship between Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers were legendary. I knew some of them. One was Mark Carlisle, her first Minister of Education. He belonged to the “Wets”, the Ministers who opposed her radical economic policies. He was dropped in the first re-shuffle. Carlisle’s successor, Keith Joseph was Thatcher’s mentor and was believed to be the sharpest brain in her Cabinet. According to their accounts, Mrs. Thatcher was always determined to have the last word in Cabinet. The Prime Minister knew best. In fact, a TV satire during the times showed Mrs. Thatcher dining with her Ministers. When the waiter solicits her order she replies, “A stake”. Then the waiter inquires, “What about the vegetables?” She retorts, “They will have the same.”

My last meeting with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister was at the Kuala Lumpur CHOGM in 1989. Her policy on constructive engagement with apartheid South Africa was strongly criticised by the African leaders. However, in the end, even President Kenneth Kaunda paid her a compliment. He said, “Madam Prime Minister, we disagree with your policy but you are forthright in your views. Once you take a decision you stand by your word. We all appreciate this. We know where you stand; therefore we can do business with you — unlike your predecessors who let us down”.

Duplicity was not a part of her armoury. This was the view held by many of us. Margaret Thatcher restored the credibility of British diplomacy in Asia and Africa. In their tribute to Mrs. Thatcher, both President Jacob Zuma and the former President of South Africa, FW de Klerk acknowledged her contribution to the end of apartheid.

In 1990, we watched with dismay as Margaret Thatcher was dropped as the Party leader. By this time, Premadasa who had been on her campaign trail in the 1970 elections, while on a trip to the UK, had become the President of Sri Lanka. In our view, this was not the time to change the leader of the party; but her Cabinet lost their guts and refused to stand by her. Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson got their revenge.

Subsequently I met her at some of the Conservative Party functions, which she dutifully attended. As the leader of the party, she had been instrumental in founding the International Democrat Union. Both our parties are members of the IDU. As a firm believer in democracy, she was committed to its consolidation globally.

No doubt, Margaret Thatcher was a divisive leader. But all those who were responsible for revolutionary changes within the global political order were divisive leaders. This is a hallmark of radical change. Ultimately it boils down to her political style. Did she show sufficient compassion to her fellow citizens? Or did her warrior style mask her concern? After all, she had to battle trade union leaders, who had destroyed their own Labour government; she had to confront General Galtieri the Argentinian dictator whose human rights violations came to light only after he was driven from power; she also had to constantly contend with the British establishment who considered her to be an outsider.

It is still too early for history to pass judgment on Margaret Thatcher. But even her detractors recognise her as a great leader. To us, in Sri Lanka, she was a good friend at a time we needed friends. That is how I remember Margaret Thatcher.

Banana bath for Maggie and husband Denis in Lanka

= Speaking in the House of Lords in Britain on Wednesday on the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Lord Naseby recalled the late leader’s ability and understanding of people and countries, by citing an interesting episode surrounding her visit to Sri Lanka. The relevant excerpt from the speech:

The second example I give of Margaret and her ability and understanding of people and countries was after we took over in 1979 and I was on the Back Benches as a PPS in Northern Ireland. Even then, I had an interest in Sri Lanka. Judith Hart had commissioned something called the Victoria Dam in Sri Lanka. I knew about the dam — it would cost about 100 million — and I asked to see the Prime Minister to suggest to her that the project should go ahead. I had an audience with her, and with the then Overseas Development Secretary of State, and Margaret said, “Michael, there are two points I make to you: first, that if we as a country have an agreement with another country” — as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said earlier today – “we stick to it. So the agreement is that the project will go ahead. Not only will it go ahead but, secondly, I wish to be there at the opening”.

Some years later I was pleased to be there with Margaret and Denis, and we had a garden party before the formal opening at the dam. The big thing in Sri Lanka in those days was the President’s elephant named Raja. Denis was asked whether he wished to give bananas to the elephant, and of course accepted. Unfortunately for Denis, he was not too good on the anatomy of an elephant.

Denis decided that elephants took bananas through their trunks. Just as Margaret was about to tell him, “No, don’t put it in his trunk”; it was too late, Denis put half a dozen bananas in the trunk of the elephant, which then did a typical elephant snort and the rest of us were covered by bananas. Margaret said, “I thought I told you early on, ‘Put it in his mouth, not in his trunk’. Did you not hear me?”

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