Thatcher: The game-changer

2013-04-14 14:00

Margaret Thatcher carved out a new space for women in global politics.

This is a truly sad time for Great Britain. As my Prime Minister, David Cameron, said earlier this week, we have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton.

She was also our first female prime minister, who succeeded against all the odds.

In the summer of 1970, a week after she had joined the British Cabinet for the first time, she was asked if she fancied a crack at becoming the first female PM.

“No,” Thatcher replied emphatically.

“There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime – the male population is too prejudiced.”

She proved herself wrong, and single-handedly carved out a new space for women in politics.

After her third successive electoral victory, I was working for one of her ministers, who then had two small children, both girls.

He told me that one of them once asked him: “Daddy, can men be prime minister too?”

In 1984, I was posted to Mexico City on my first diplomatic appointment. At that time, the UK was widely regarded as the “sick man of Europe”.

By 1987, when I got back to London, Britain under Mrs Thatcher had leapt off its sick bed and had become more dynamic, more entrepreneurial – and more hopeful.

Lady Thatcher changed British politics and public life.

Her belief in freedom, opportunity and human rights shone through.

She famously called herself a conviction – not a consensus – politician.

Margaret Thatcher is, of course, a controversial figure for many South Africans.

As Lord Robin Renwick’s book about his time as high commissioner to South Africa, previewed in a British newspaper last weekend, shows, she believed passionately – rightly or wrongly – in private engagement rather than public ostracism as the best way to bring about fundamental change in South Africa.

She opposed sanctions against the apartheid government.

Many people in Britain disagreed with her at the time.

But that did not mean she had any sympathy at all for the system of apartheid.

In private, with what Lord Renwick calls “her customary lack of ambiguity”, she made crystal clear the need for change and for the release of Nelson Mandela.

It is ironic that the UK and South Africa still find themselves on different – but opposite – sides when it comes to sanctions.

In a speech to the House of Commons in July 1979, Lady Thatcher said: “The policy of apartheid, with its emphasis on separating peoples rather than bringing them together, and all the harshness required to impose it on the South African population is wholly unacceptable.

“Within South Africa, as in the outside world, there is a growing recognition that change must come. It is in everyone’s interest that change should come without violence.

We must work by fostering contact, not by ostracism.

We must be ready to acknowledge and welcome progress when it is made, even when it may appear slow and inadequate.

We must not drive the South Africans into turning their backs on the world.

“We need to recognise the

immensity and complexity of the problems they face. We must encourage progress in working out solutions to those problems.”

Earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague gave a moving tribute to her and her legacy. He said: “I think her legacy is that she did give hope to people in this country (Britain). That if people could be freed to use their ingenuity, this country could overcome any difficulty, and she gave hope to people abroad that believing in freedom was worthwhile.”

» ?Brewer is the British high commissioner to South Africa

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