Inside The Queen’s ‘rage’ over Margaret Thatcher’s handling of apartheid

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The fourth season of Netflix royal drama The Crown is dominated by the icy relationship between The Queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The pair's audiences grow increasingly tense over the course of the show's fourth season.

These differences between them reach fever pitch in episode eight, entitled 48:1, when Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) disagrees with The Queen (Olivia Colman) and Commonwealth leaders' desire to oppose sanctions on the South African government for their apartheid regime.

Eventually in the drama, The Queen agrees to let her views against Thatcher to leak to the press, provoking a potential constitutional crisis that results in her having to understand her limits as a constitutional monarch.

As a result, her press secretary Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell) is scapegoated for her comments and has to leave his position.

So, just how much of the fictionalised drama in this episode is based on historical events?

Gillian Anderson portrays Margaret Thatcher in the fourth season of Netflix's The Crown
(Image: Des Willie/Netflix)

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A move towards applying sanctions on the South African government due to apartheid had been agreed by 47 leaders ahead of and at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Vancouver, Canada in 1987.

However, the Prime Minister refused and drew the ire of other leaders present, apparently including The Queen herself.

According to a close aide of Thatcher's speaking to The Guardian, the then-PM is said to have resisted sanctions due to her principles of economic liberalism and free trade, while also being encouraged to resist the sanctions by her husband Denis Thatcher, who had business interests in South Africa.

This stance led to Irish diplomat Richard Ryan writing to Downing Street commenting that he had been informed by a Buckingham Palace source of The Queen's anger at Thatcher's handling of apartheid in South Africa.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attend a ball to celebrate the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting hosted by President Kenneth Kaunda on August 01, 1979 in Lusaka, Zambia
(Image: Getty Images)

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In the memo, Ryan commented: "There is a wide view too that the Queen is in a rage with Mrs Thatcher over her handling of the sanctions question (not because of the substance of the argument but because of its style: the Queen, it is said, sees the insensitivity as further damaging “her” Commonwealth at a sensitive time)".

The diplomat is said to have even hinted through the use of the nickname 'Brenda' – used by satirical magazine Private Eye to stand-in for the monarch – that the situation escalated to the cancellation of a Tuesday audience between The Queen and Thatcher.

"A source in the Palace said that 'Brenda' was seriously considering cancelling last night’s Tuesday audience with the prime minister," wrote Ryan, according to the paper.

The Queen and Margaret Thatcher are thought to have disagreed on the handling of South Africa's apartheid regime
(Image: Popperfoto via Getty Images)

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The move would have been considered almost unprecedented as the audiences were considered a vital part of functioning between the crown and state.

One of Thatcher's chief ministers, the foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, has also been revealed in Downing Street papers to have warned Thatcher to rethink her handling of apartheid.

According to The Guardian, the memo reads: "As the prime minister knows, in Sir Geoffrey’s view the problem is that because of our vigorous and persistent public opposition to comprehensive economic sanctions many Commonwealth leaders now see us as the main defender of the South African government and of apartheid."

Margaret Thatcher along with the Queen in this iconic photograph
(Image: GETTY)

Another note is also said to have urged her to describe apartheid as "totally repugnant and morally objectionable".

This continued handling of apartheid by the PM had come as comments from palace press secretary Michael Shea were reported in the Sunday Times in July 1986, claiming that the Queen was unhappy with Thatcher's approach.

The paper at the time noted it reported this after "several briefings by the Queen’s advisers, who were fully aware it would be published".

It was reported that "the Queen considers the prime minister’s approach often to be uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive".

Gillian Anderson's Margaret Thatcher has a tense meeting with The Queen in The Crown
(Image: Netflix)

The Queen is not keen on Thatcher in The Crown
(Image: Netflix)

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After its publication, Buckingham Palace issued a statement: "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."

Shea was named as the source but said that his comments were taken out of context and said that his subsequent departure from the Palace was unconnected to the scandal.

Meanwhile, contemporary Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney later said that The Queen was a "behind the scenes force" in ending apartheid in South Africa.

The Crown season 4 is available now on Netflix.

What have you thought of the relationship between these two women in The Crown season 4? Let us know in the comments below.

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