Daily archives: April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

By chance I knew Margaret Thatcher rather better than a junior civil servant might have been expected to, not least from giving her some maritime briefings during the First Gulf War. On another occasion Denis and I once got absolutely blind drunk in Lagos – I had been given him to look after for the day, and the itinerary started with the Guinness brewery and went on to the United Distillers bottling plant, before lunch at the golf club. I had to reunite him with his spouse for the State Banquet and quite literally fell out of the car. Happy days.

I can say I was on first name terms with her – she always called me by my first name. Except unfortunately she thought that was Peter. I recall she came out to Poland when I was in the Embassy there and I was embarrassed because she knew me, and thus greeted me more warmly than my Embassy superiors. The problem was lessened by her continuing to call me Peter very loudly, even after I corrected her twice.

In person she was frightfully sharp, she really was. If you gave her a briefing, she had an uncanny ability to seize on the one point where you did not have sufficient information. She also had that indescribable charisma – you really could feel when she entered a room in a way I have never experienced with anybody else, not Mandela or Walesa, for example. You may be surprised to hear that in person I found her quite likeable.

Yet she was a terrible, terrible disaster to this country. The utter devastation of heavy industry, the writing off of countless billions worth of tooling and equipment, the near total loss of the world’s greatest concentrated manufacturing skills base, the horrible political division of society and tearing of the bonds within our community. She was a complete, utter disaster.

Let me give one anecdote to which I can personally attest. In leaving office she became a “consultant” to US tobacco giant Phillip Morris. She immediately used her influence on behalf of Phillip Morris to persuade the FCO to lobby the Polish government to reduce the size of health warnings on Polish cigarette packets. Poland was applying to join the EU, and the Polish health warnings were larger than the EU stipulated size.

I was the official on whose desk the instruction landed to lobby for lower health warnings. I refused to do it. My then Ambassador, Michael Llewellyn Smith (for whom I had and have great respect) came up with the brilliant diplomatic solution of throwing the instruction in the bin, but telling London we had done it.

So as you drown in a sea of praise for Thatcher, remember this. She was prepared to promote lung cancer, for cash.

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Toe in the Water

I am trying to ease back in to blogging again, after a few weeks of being mentally immersed in early nineteenth century Mumbai. I find I care more deeply than makes a great deal of sense about understanding the people in Alexander Burnes’ story. For example, the incredibly irascible and sometimes plain irrational Sir Henry Pottinger: I still have not found out the real cause of his monumental falling out with Burnes in 1834. Also if anyone can help me by shedding light on the reason for his later sudden removal as Hong Kong’s first governor I should be grateful. I can find rather coy Victorian references about him resigning owing to the British merchant community finding him difficult to work with, but I don’t have the time to go hunting in more detail down this particular side-alley. In the very many Pottinger manuscript letters from the mid 1930s I have read, I find some of them so wild and ill-judged, paranoid even, that I begin to wonder if he were not addicted to opium – which was less uncommon than you might think among British officials in India.

See, I started trying to blog something away from Burnes, and I find myself automatically producing one of the thousand questions I have been trying to resolve for my book. To tear myself into the present in an abrupt and rather random way, I am not sure I have ever expressed my appreciation of Peter Tatchell. He does great work, and keeps banging on undaunted. I wish I had his singleness of purpose.

I continue to be quietly confident with the way the Scottish independence referendum will go, whatever the opinion polls may say. Nuclear weapons and Conservative Prime Ministers are each less welcome in Scotland than a dose of the clap, so to have one come up to extol the virtues of the other is a real double whammy. The prospect of losing cannon fodder is one of the reasons the Tories don’t like Scottish independence. But the nuclear argument is a complete bust. North Korea’s weapon development shows precisely that Trident is as much use as a chocolate teapot against any actual developments in the real world. No serious discussion of the North Korean situation has ever mentioned British nuclear weapons as a factor that might influence the behaviour of that – entirely deplorable – regime.

There is not the remotest chance that anyone who actually possesses nuclear weapons and a delivery system would attack the UK with them. The continued existence of Germany, Spain, Italy and Sweden must be a real mystery to Cameron, who purports not tonbelieve we can continue to exist without throwing $140 billion we don’t have to the United States in return for Trident. Of course Cameron is no fool and does not believe that either; it is just that, like most politicians, he understands that delivering huge tranches of taxpayers’ cash to his paymasters, is his job.

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