Thatcher’s refusal to fly with a panda is loaded with political and superstitious subtext

She refused to pander to the situation.
She refused to pander to the situation.
Image: National Archives
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The National Archives in Kew, London, just released a huge range of documents from the office of Margaret Thatcher, who was the UK’s prime minister between 1979 and 1990.

Among the 11 million official documents the National Archives holds, which mainly come from government departments and are often opened as public records after three decades, there was one seemingly amusing story—Thatcher’s refusal to share a plane with a panda.

Back in 1981, Washington’s Smithsonian Institution asked to borrow Chia Chia the panda to mate with US-based Ching Ching. Lord Zuckerman, the president of the London Zoological Society, then asked Thatcher’s office if Chia Chia could share the prime minister’s Concorde flight.

Cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong wrote to Thatcher’s office on Lord Zuckerman’s behalf and said the panda drop-off would be ”a signal demonstration of the special relationship.”  Thatcher’s private secretary, Clive Whitmore, replied on Thatcher’s behalf: “She has commented that she is not taking a panda with her—’Pandas and politicians are not happy omens!'” She also said in the letter that “The history of pandas … is unlucky.”

The file also showed Thatcher’s initial response with her amendments in blue marker pen. She wrote “I am not taking a panda with me,” underlining the word “not” twice.

While it sounds like a funny episode, Thatcher was onto something with the fact that “pandas and politicians are not happy omens!” She would have been thinking about former US president Richard Nixon. According to the National Archive files, she had been trying to get an audience with Nixon for some time.

Nixon also adopted the art of “panda diplomacy” (paywall)—the diplomatic weapon of choice between China and other countries. He brought back two pandas from China to the US in 1972. However, he resigned in 1974 following the Watergate Scandal and his legacy has been disgraced.

Panda diplomacy first kicked off  under Mao Zedong, who would give pandas as goodwill gifts to allies in Russia. However, that partially led to them being put on the endangered species list in 1984.