The story behind The Crown: What was the Queen's relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher really like?

From apartheid to the miners' strike and beyond, Netflix's royal drama portrays a tense relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. How did the two really get on?

By Rhys Lewis Published: 16 November 2020 - 11.17am
Netflix

The new season of Netflix’s royal drama The Crown marks the entrance of one of the most significant and most divisive characters of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The portrayal of the weekly audiences between the country’s two most powerful women and more private moments such as the PM’s visit to Balmoral hints at an awkward relationship on both sides.

While the Queen and Mrs Thatcher were born only five months apart, in many ways they couldn’t be more different: one the grammar school girl who inherited her father’s strenuous work ethic to study at Cambridge and reach the highest echelons of government; the other born into royalty and made Queen at just 25, but no less dedicated to her country and its people than any elected head of state. 

"They're both girls of the war generation who switch the lights off when they leave a room," Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, told Vanity Fair in September.

"But then they had such different ideas about running the country."

Margaret Thatcher and the Queen in 1979 Anwar Hussein/Getty

As with all 14 Prime Ministers to have served under her to date, the Queen has always maintained her discretion when it comes to the content of the weekly audiences with Mrs Thatcher and the nature of their relationship. For her part, Margaret Thatcher also never spoke publicly about their relationship.

Some politicians, civil servants and courtiers of the time, however, have been less discreet and it’s widely accepted that the Queen’s relationship with Mrs Thatcher was a ‘difficult’ one.

One problem was that after three decades of working to maintain a united Britain, the Queen may have felt that Thatcher’s radical policies, which led to high unemployment and inner-city riots in the early years in power, were delivering the opposite.

The Queen and Margaret Thatcher at the National Portrait Gallery in 2000 AFP/Getty

The relationship came to a head in 1986 over the question of imposing economic sanctions on Apartheid-era South Africa. The Queen has long treasured the Commonwealth, of which she is the head, but by the mid-1980s, Thatcher’s Britain was alone in the Commonwealth in refusing to impose sanctions on the country in a bid to force it to end its policy of racial segregation.

It was a stance which threatened the very future of the international body - Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda had threatened to withdraw his country from the Commonwealth if Mrs Thatcher refused to change her stance.

The dramatic meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government portrayed in season 4, episode 8, '48:1', did not occur in the Bahamas but in London in August 1986 - it was a special conference outside the regular two-year cycle specifically arranged to consider the issue of sanctions against South Africa.

By the end of the meeting, the New York Times revealed, Mrs Thatcher had agreed to  "limited sanctions" on South Africa, agreeing not to promote tourism to the country and barring imports of South African coal, iron and steel if the rest of the European Community (later the EU) agreed to do the same the following month. 

She would not, however, place a ban on investment in South African companies or government procurement deals: at the time Britain had more direct investment in South Africa than any other country, earning £3.9bn on trade, investments and services in the country in 1985.

'Uncaring, confrontational and divisive'

Two weeks before this meeting took place, The Sunday Times had reported that "the Queen's close advisers" - later revealed to be royal press secretary Michael Shea - had told journalists that Her Majesty considered Thatcher’s policies “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”, particularly with regards to sanctions on South Africa, the Miners' Strike of 1984/85 and for allowing US bombers to use British airbases for their raids on Libya in April 1986. 

In 2015, Thatcher’s biographer Charles Moore wrote that on hearing about Shea’s breach of confidence, the “horrified” Queen immediately called a “desperately hurt” Prime Minister to apologise and deny that the remarks represented her views - this is in contrast to their fiery clash at an audience portrayed in The Crown.

The Queen's Private Secretary Sir William Heseltine wrote a letter to The Times confirming Shea (played by Nicholas Farrell in The Crown) as the source of the quotes, but asserting that Shea's comments had been misreported. Members of Parliament called for his resignation, but when Shea left royal service the following year - not in the immediate aftermath of the affair as The Crown suggests - he denied that there was any connection between his departure and the controversy.

Margaret Thatcher Getty

A theme of Thatcher’s premiership and something that is mentioned to the Queen by Buckingham Palace intruder Michael Fagan in episode 5 of The Crown is that the Iron Lady’s ultimate aim was to replace the Queen herself.

While there is little evidence of this, Mrs Thatcher was widely ridiculed for assuming the royal ‘we’ when in 1989 she excitedly hurried out of No.10 to announce “We have become a grandmother” on the birth of her first grandchild.

One thing for certain is that Mrs Thatcher treated the Queen with the utmost deference. Her Chief Press Secretary Sir Bernard Ingham has said that the PM would arrive for her audience at least 15 minutes early (and would often be kept waiting), and her extremely low curtsies to the Queen were a running joke in the royal household – season 4 of The Crown shows Anderson’s Thatcher delivering a painfully slow show of respect to the Queen.

Whatever their differences, the Queen’s protocol-breaking presence at Baroness Thatcher’s funeral – marking only her second appearance at a PM’s funeral after her mentor Churchill – suggests that Her Majesty had no little admiration for her longest-serving, and arguably most transformational, Prime Minister.

Season 4 of The Crown is now available to watch on Netflix.

Watch The Crown seasons 1-3 on Netflix.

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