David Cameron made another break with his party’s past yesterday when he declared that Margaret Thatcher had been wrong to describe Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress as terrorists during the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s.
The Tory leader also took a swipe at her famous—or to some infamous—remark that there was “no such thing as society”. He said there was such a thing as society, but it should not be confused with the state.
Mr Cameron’s remarks, in The Observer, are hardly breathtaking, given the almost universal respect now accorded to President Mandela, but they signal a desire to put clear blue water between himself and a woman whose legacy he believes could hinder his path to power.
In what has become a standard photocall for senior British politicians, Mr Cameron met President Mandela in Johannesburg last week. Commenting on his meeting, he wrote: “The mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now.
“The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC, it is because of them—and we Conservatives should say so clearly today.”
Lady Thatcher inspired bitter controversy when as prime minister she refused to support sanctions against the regime in Pretoria, pursuing instead a policy of “constructive engagement”. South Africa was seen then as a vital ally in stemming communist expansion.
But Mr Cameron refuted that policy, describing the retired president as “one of the greatest men alive”. His comments were greeted with irritation by senior figures from the Thatcher years. Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, said: “I wonder whether David Cameron is a Conservative.”
Lord Tebbit said Mr Cameron had failed to understand the circumstances of the time. “Because of his age, Mr Cameron is looking at these events as part of history. Others of us who lived through them and had input into the discussions at the time see things very differently.
“The policy of the Thatcher government was a success. The result was an overwhelmingly peaceful transition of power in which the final initiative for the handover came not from foreigners but from native South Africans—Afrikaner South Africans, at that.”