‘Panda diplomacy’ may have been a favourite ploy of Chinese leaders, but newly-released government files reveal that prime minister Margaret Thatcher was no fan of the idea.
Despite the creatures’ almost universal appeal, papers released by the National Archives in Kew show that she believed they did not make ‘happy omens’ for travelling politicians.
Her surprising aversion emerged in January 1981 when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington asked London Zoo for the loan of its male panda to be mated with a female panda which the Chinese had given to the United States.
The request was seized upon by the president of the London Zoological Society, Lord Zuckerman, as an opportunity to generate some much-needed publicity for the cash-strapped zoo.
He immediately contacted Downing Street suggesting the prime minister herself might like to preside over the handover.
The cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong wrote: ‘Lord Zuckerman sees this as a signal demonstration of the special relationship and would be very happy to time the announcement of the loan or the delivery of the panda in any way that the prime minister thought would be most likely to benefit Anglo-American relations.
‘He even suggested that the Prime Minister might like to take the panda in the back of her Concorde, when she goes to Washington next month.’
Mrs Thatcher, however, was having none of it. Her private secretary, Clive Whitmore replied: ‘She has commented that she is not taking a panda with her – “Pandas and politicians are not happy omens!”‘
She added in a handwritten aside: ‘Lord Z knows more about pandas than I do – I am sure he can arrange these things.’
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