The Crown S4 E8 real history: why did Margaret Thatcher & the Queen clash over apartheid in South Africa?

Episode 8 of season 4 of The Crown sees Margaret Thatcher and the Queen come to blows over apartheid in South Africa – a disagreement that culminated in an explosive front-page Sunday Times story claiming the Queen privately felt Mrs Thatcher’s approach to be “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in season 4 of ‘The Crown’

In this episode we see Thatcher and the Queen clash over apartheid in South Africa, meanwhile Prince Andrew prepares to marry Sarah Ferguson but is enraged that his big day is being overshadowed by the ongoing saga between his mother and the prime minister (a situation for which his brother, Prince Charles, has no sympathy). 

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But how accurate is The Crown’s portrayal of the apartheid clash? Why did the two women disagree and how did they repair their rift? And what was Prince Charles’s relationship really like with Prince Andrew? Let’s unpick the historical truths of episode 8…

(This article contains spoilers for season 4, episode 8 of The Crown)

Why did Thatcher refuse to back sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa?

 In 1986, amid a groundswell of global opposition to apartheid in South Africa – the discriminatory political and economic system of racial segregation which the white minority imposed on non-whites – Commonwealth leaders stood together ready to impose economic sanctions against the country. First implemented by the governing party, the National Party of South Africa, in 1948, the impact of apartheid on South Africa’s non-white population was horrific. Read more about the history and effects of apartheid here.

But while 48 of the 49 Commonwealth nations had agreed a programme of economic sanctions – which included a ban on air travel and investments in South Africa, as well as a bar on agricultural imports and the promotion of South African tourism – Britain stood alone in its refusal to back the plans. Why?

Margaret Thatcher was bitterly opposed to economic sanctions of any sort, and even to the threat of sanctions, because “she believed that they would not work and would damage Britain’s extensive economic interests,” The Times reported in 1985. Sanctions were, she felt, a crime against free trade. According to Richard Dowden, former director of the Royal African Society, Thatcher felt anything that damaged wealth creation must be bad for South Africa. She was apparently advised by her husband, Denis, who had business interests in South Africa.

But while Thatcher was vilified as an effective supporter of apartheid rule, we now know from previously-closed archives that “Mrs Thatcher was much more critical of South Africa in private than people thought,” says historian Dominic Sandbrook. “She gave the country’s leaders quite a lot of grief behind the scenes, including telling them to release Nelson Mandela. She told the South Africans that Britain didn’t like the system and that it had to change. But because she refused to condemn it publicly, people assumed it must be because she secretly supported them.”

Nelson Mandela shakes hands with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street, 4 July 1990. (Photo by Gerry Penny/AFP via Getty Images)
Nelson Mandela shakes hands with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street, 4 July 1990. (Photo by Gerry Penny/AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed, the apartheid government “valued Thatcher as a worthy political opponent and ‘true friend of South Africa’,” writes Sue Onslow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. “Thatcher’s loathing of apartheid on moral grounds, as well as her conviction it made ‘economic nonsense’, was well understood in Pretoria.” Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa, is quoted as having said Thatcher “correctly believed” that more could be achieved through constructive engagement with his government than international sanctions and isolation of the South African government.

“FW de Klerk later said that Thatcher did have influence and that they did listen to her, precisely because she wasn’t one of the people publicly criticising them all the time,” says Dominic Sandbrook. Sandbrook maintains that while there are “still debates to be had over whether it would have been better for Britain to take a moral stand [against apartheid], I don’t think it’s true that Thatcher didn’t care or that she was secretly a supporter of the apartheid regime – although her husband, Denis, probably was.”

As is shown in episode 8 of season 4 of The Crown, a group of Commonwealth leaders carried out prolonged negotiations with Mrs Thatcher in an attempt to persuade her to modify her position. True to history, Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, a member of the negotiating team, said they were trying to persuade Mrs Thatcher to agree to sanctions. “But the lady’s not for corralling,” retorted a British official. Members of the negotiating group kept going backwards and forwards to present various compromise proposals to the prime minister – all of which she turned down because they contained sanctions, The Times reported.

The situation was eventually resolved when, in the autumn of 1986, Mrs Thatcher was forced to impose what The New York Times described as “weakened sanctions” against South Africa by following the lead of the US Congress, which had passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. These limited new economic sanctions were agreed upon by the foreign ministers of the 12 European Community countries, which included Britain. Thatcher refused to endorse the tougher programme of measures originally laid out by other Commonwealth leaders, but “it was plain that she had moved enough to avert a split [in the Commonwealth],” the newspaper reported.

Why was the Queen so upset by Thatcher’s refusal to back sanctions?

The Queen’s role as head of the Commonwealth is her raison d’être, says Dominic Sandbrook, and she was gravely concerned that Thatcher’s refusal to back economic sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa could damage the Commonwealth, or even lead to its breakup. Embarrassed that Britain was “out on a limb”, she wanted Britain to fall in line with other Commonwealth countries and support the programme of sanctions. The Queen was also worried about Britain’s reputation because it was, she felt, “on the wrong side of the moral equation” when it came to apartheid, says Sandbrook.

Queen Elizabeth II at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 1985, held in Nassau, the Bahamas, 16 October 1985. (Photo by John Shelley Collection/Avalon/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 1985, held in Nassau, the Bahamas, 16 October 1985. (Photo by John Shelley Collection/Avalon/Getty Images)

Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, “thought the Commonwealth was a waste of time”, says Sandbrook. “Her attitude was ‘I could be talking to Ronald Reagan, or to Mikhail Gorbachev, but instead I have to make small talk with the president of Zambia, who I have no interest in and who slags off my policies which he knows nothing about.’”

For the Queen, the issue was probably more about the Commonwealth than about apartheid, says Sandbrook. “In the 1960s, when Harold Wilson was prime minister, Britain had been criticised for not being hard enough on South Africa, but the Queen didn’t kick up a big fuss then because it wasn’t an incendiary issue within the Commonwealth. It was only when, because of Thatcher, Britain was isolated in the Commonwealth that the Queen got involved.”

The issue threatened to strain the relationship between the Queen and her prime minister – newly-declassified files in 2017 revealed that the Queen was so enraged with Thatcher over her refusal to back sanctions that she considered scrapping their weekly audience. The monarch is said to have fumed that the prime minister had damaged “her Commonwealth”, a Buckingham Palace source told a diplomat.

What is the Commonwealth and why is it so important to the Queen? 

In episode 8 of season 4 of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II, played by Olivia Colman, says holding the Commonwealth together is her “life’s work”. What exactly is the Commonwealth, and why does it matter so much to the Queen? 

Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 54 independent countries, including both advanced economies and developing countries, almost all of which were formerly under British rule. Its member governments agree to shared goals and they work together to promote prosperity, democracy and peace.

Every two years, leaders of member countries meet to discuss issues affecting the Commonwealth and the wider world at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The Queen regularly attends these meetings.

Sixteen of the 54 countries are ‘Commonwealth Realms’ – that is, countries which have the Queen as its monarch. These include Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica.

In her 1953 Christmas broadcast from Auckland, the Queen pledged her “heart and soul” as the head of the Commonwealth. Indeed, the Commonwealth is the Queen’s raison d’être, says historian Dominic Sandbrook. But “the Queen’s love for the Commonwealth is not mere sentimentality,” writes Robert Hardman in The Spectator. “She has embraced and shaped it to such an extent that it might have vanished without her. When she took over, it had eight members. Today, it has 54 – and rising.”

It has been speciously suggested that the Queen needed the Commonwealth more than the other way around, writes Ashley Jackson in this article for HistoryExtra. The historian Ben Pimlott succinctly captured the symbiotic relationship: “The monarchy, with its imperial memory, keenly sought a Commonwealth role, partly to justify itself, but also because it had taken its supra-national role seriously, and – in a way that was never quite understood by politicians – it continued to relate to distant communities which showed their loyalty in ways that did not necessarily come to the attention of Whitehall.” 

Read more about the Queen and the Commonwealth here.  

But while The Crown depicts the Queen directly asking Thatcher in person to join the rest of the Commonwealth in imposing sanctions against South Africa, and later arguing with the prime minister over her failure to support her, in reality this would probably never have happened, says Dominic Sandbrook. “The tension between them would have been indirect, there would have been hints, but I don’t believe they would ever have had a row about it,” he said. “The Queen would not have thought that was constitutional; it would have been such a departure for her from what she had been doing for the past 30 years. I find it hard to believe the Queen would have ‘let herself go’ to that extent – remember, we’re talking here about two of the most buttoned-up people who ever lived!”

But the standoff between Thatcher and the Queen did culminate in an extraordinary Sunday Times scoop. On 20 July 1986, the newspaper ran an explosive front-page story claiming that the Queen privately felt Mrs Thatcher’s approach to be “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”.

Sunday Times front page, 20 July 1986
Sunday Times front page, 20 July 1986. (Credit: The Sunday Times/News Licensing)

The source was the palace press secretary, Michael Shea. At the time, the paper said it relied on “several briefings by the Queen’s advisers, who were fully aware [the article] would be published”.

According to a 2015 authorised biography of Thatcher by the journalist Charles Moore, the accusations of being “uncaring” left Thatcher feeling “desperately hurt”. And while “there’s no reason to doubt the article reflected what the Queen really thought,” says Dominic Sandbrook, the monarch was mortified. She telephoned Thatcher to apologise, at the suggestion of Sir William Heseltine, who was then the Queen’s private secretary. According to Sir William, the Queen told Thatcher she “could not imagine how the story came to be circulated, and anyway it bears no relation to the truth as I understand it…” He added that the Queen and the prime minister “had a very amicable conversation”.

The relationship between Thatcher and the Queen survived. “But her prime minister did not forget it,” says Dominic Sandbrook. Ultimately, however, for Thatcher the row “probably wasn’t that big a deal. It would have been a bit awkward between them for a while, but there were probably 50 or 100 other people Thatcher had working relationships with that mattered more to her than the Queen.”


Read the real history behind more episodes with our S4 episode guide to The Crown:


Was press secretary Michael Shea made to take the fall? 

In The Crown, press secretary Michael Shea is cornered into resigning after being made to take the blame for the Sunday Times story. The Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris (played by Charles Edwards), is seen telling the monarch they need “a culprit… to deflect blame from you and to put these flames out ASAP”. (Interestingly, in reality Sir William Heseltine was the Queen’s private secretary by this time. Charteris was the Queen’s private secretary more than a decade before these events, from 1972 to 1977).

But was Michael Shea really made to take the fall?

Following the publication of the Sunday Times story in 1986, Buckingham Palace rushed out a statement in response: “As with all previous prime ministers, the Queen enjoys a relationship of the closest confidentiality with Mrs Thatcher, and reports purporting to be the Queen’s opinion of government policies are entirely without foundation.” A string of further denials followed, “but the Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil, was not for turning,” says the Independent. “A hunt for a Palace ‘mole’ ensued.”

It quickly emerged that Shea was the source of the story – he had had several conversations with one of the paper’s reporters. During the ensuing furore, one Conservative MP said Shea’s “sense of honour (should) tell him what he ought to do now; he is a busted flush and he must go.”

Buckingham Palace press secretary Michael Shea, pictured in 1978. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Buckingham Palace press secretary Michael Shea, pictured in 1978. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

According to Shea’s 2009 obituary in the Independent: “The Palace publicly stood by Shea, but his days were numbered. After a decent interval he moved on, taking with him an honour but not the knighthood which might have been expected to come his way.”

Shea announced his resignation from the palace in March 1987, eight months after the scandal. Asked by a television reporter if he had been fired, Shea said: “That’s ridiculous. I have held the post twice as long as any other press secretary, and I have had an offer that I cannot refuse,” the Associated Press reported at the time.

Shea returned to his native Scotland and enjoyed a second career as the author of political thrillers and other books. He later privately admitted that he had talked to the Sunday Times in 1986 but claimed he had been “misinterpreted”. He always maintained he was not guilty of any indiscretion. 

Did economic sanctions help to end apartheid?

Apartheid came to an end in the early 1990s in a series of steps that led to the formation of a democratic government, led by Nelson Mandela, in 1994.

The economic sanctions imposed on South Africa in 1986 had served to isolate the country in the international community and to highlight its oppression of its people. Sanctions also “helped cripple the machinery that undergirded apartheid”, writes Joseph F Jordan, associate professor in the Department of African, African American, & Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina, in the New York Times.

But in the years since sanctions were imposed, some economists have questioned how much impact they really had. “It would go too far, and give far too little credit to Nelson Mandela and his allies, to argue that international pressure was the main reason that apartheid fell,” says Joshua Keating writing for Slate magazine.

Today it is generally accepted that the economic sanctions imposed in 1986 probably did contribute to political change in South Africa. Historian Dominic Sandbrook says, “there will never be a definitive answer” but that “sanctions probably did contribute to a sense among younger white South Africans that they had to change, and made life hard for them.”


On this podcast, author Peter Hain discusses Nelson Mandela’s remarkable achievements in the face of tremendous adversity:


Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson

Elsewhere in episode 8 we see Prince Andrew preparing to marry Sarah Ferguson. He informs the Queen that he has chosen his younger brother, Prince Edward, rather than Charles, to be his best man, calling him an “insecure, jealous fool” who cares only about his bloodline and “to hell with the rest of us”. He tells the Queen that Charles has always been jealous of him because of his “closeness” to their mother and the fact “I’ve fought in a real war, won real medals, of the fact I’m happier in love, more popular”. Andrew also tells the Queen he thinks he would be better at being the heir to the throne.

Then, later in the episode, Andrew is seen bemoaning to his siblings that the Queen’s clash with Margaret Thatcher over sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa is overshadowing his big day. Prince Charles lambasts him: “You can hardly blame the newspapers for wanting to write about something other than the wedding of a fringe member of the family who’ll never be king!”

How historically accurate is this? What was Prince Charles’s relationship like with Andrew in their younger years? Royal biographer Penny Junor believes Andrew’s conversation with the Queen about Charles in The Crown is “complete fabrication”.

“Charles is 11 years older than Andrew and was away for most of Andrew’s childhood – at boarding school, then university, then the armed forces – so the two scarcely knew one another. Whereas Edward was just four years younger than Andrew, they had grown up together and overlapped at the same schools. I think it would have been very strange for Andrew to have chosen Charles over Edward as his best man.

Prince Charles (centre) playing a game of Bagatelle with his two younger brothers, Prince Andrew (left) and Prince Edward at Sandringham, April 1969. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Prince Charles (centre) playing a game of Bagatelle with his two younger brothers, Prince Andrew (left) and Prince Edward at Sandringham, April 1969. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“I always understood that when they were growing up, Charles was very fond of his younger brothers. He famously wrote [children’s book] The Old Man of Lochnagar to entertain them. But I don’t think he and Andrew have ever been close, certainly not as adults.”

Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey on 23 July 1986. The couple got engaged after only a year of dating. Andrew really did choose Edward to be his best man, but he also asked Charles to give a reading during the ceremony. The four-year-old Prince William was a page boy and wore a sailor’s outfit in honour of Prince Andrew’s career in the navy. An estimated 500 million people around the world tuned in to watch television coverage of the wedding.

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and Prince Andrew, Duke of York standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on their wedding day, 23 July 1986. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and Prince Andrew, Duke of York standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on their wedding day, 23 July 1986. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Prince Andrew and his wife welcomed their first child together, Princess Beatrice, on 8 August 1988, followed by her sister, Princess Eugenie, on 23 March 1990. The couple officially separated in 1992 and divorced in May 1996, but reportedly remain close friends.

Discover more real history behind The Crown here

NEXT EPISODE: The Crown S4 E9 real history: Prince Charles’s ski avalanche accident and his failing marriage to Diana

Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra 

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With thanks to historian Dominic Sandbrook, an expert on Margaret Thatcher and author of Who Dares Wins (Allen Lane, 2019), which explores the pivotal early years of Thatcher’s premiership in Britain: 1979–82, and to Penny Junor, royal biographer and author of 10 books on members of the royal family