Margaret Thatcher's Anti-panda Views Exposed in Secret Government Papers

Margaret Thatcher was one of Britain's most ideologically certain and outspoken prime ministers, who was rarely afraid of taking a hard line on any issue.

So it's perhaps no surprise that, according to newly released government papers, her stance on pandas was typically uncompromising.

According to a blog on the National Archives website, in 1981 Lord Zuckerman, President of the then-financially troubled London Zoo, contacted Thatcher through her Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong with an unusual suggestion for her next trip to the U.S.

Panda Tokyo
Margaret Thatcher,
Female giant panda cub Xiang Xiang walks beside her mother Shin Shin (L); Former Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher listens to Conservative party leader William Hague speak.

Zuckerman warned that the zoo was in serious trouble; attendances were dropping, while expenditure was rising, and it was difficult to come by financing, while the Greater London Council (GLC) was unable to help.

Aware of the power of "panda diplomacy," a practice involving lending the rare and much-loved animals long used by China to curry favor among foreign states, Zuckerman wondered if Thatcher might want to try a little of her own.

The Smithsonian Institute, in Washington DC, wanted a loan of one of the zoo's male pandas to participate in a mating programme.

Zuckerman suggested that, during an upcoming visit to President Reagan in the U.S., Thatcher could incorporate the animal at the heart of her trip. He thought she "might like to take the panda in the back of her Concorde."

This might, he thought, boost the zoo's international profile with potential investors and donors, as well as producing a nice headline or two for Thatcher.

Unfortunately for the zoo, he got short shrift from the prime minister.

"I am not taking a panda with me. Pandas and politicians are not happy omens!" Thatcher wrote. The next year, Zuckerman tried again, only to be similarly rebuffed. "The history of pandas as gifts is unlucky," she insisted.