Diana Gould, Mrs Thatcher and the sinking of the Belgrado


The life and achievements of Mrs Thatcher are being re-examined in the minutest detail. One piece of unfinished business is the ultimate fate of the Falkland Islands over which she went into battle

News of the death of Margaret Thatcher [8th April 2013] confirmed her iconic status, and the aptness of the title of the recent film about her The Iron Lady. The posthumous comments of those who knew her brought back my own fragmented memories. These include her substantial political achievements from humble origins; her wresting of power to become a formidable global figure noted for her robustness and straight speaking; her contribution addressing economic weaknesses (‘the British disease’) at home, her tireless efforts fighting to retain the status of her country abroad, and her deep suspicions over Europe’s regional direction of change.

A leader for our times?

Even today, I find my executive students mostly admiring of her no-nonsense confrontational leadership style. Admiration seems to grow, the further you go from the UK. Japan, China [with muted reservations in Hong Kong], India, and The United States would provide examples of different cultures recognizing her unique leadership characteristics.

“Where there is discord…”

Her first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street has been replayed many times in the last twenty four hours. It was allowed to speak for itself. Her choice of quotation from St Francis seemed as inappropriate from her as it might have been appropriate from the New Pope: “Where there is discord let there be harmony…” For me, the speech captures a shadow-side of Mrs Thatcher and her mask of command, and an insensitivity to the ironic. At her death she remained a deeply divisive figure in the UK.

Missing in dispatches

In nearly one thousand posts mostly on leadership issues, I have hardly written about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. From time to time I collected notes intending to assemble them into a broader examination. Here is one from an article in The Independent

It was 1983 and the run-up to the general election. In the Nationwide studio at BBC TV Centre, Sue Lawley was hosting a live phone-in with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was confidently looking forward to a second term of office for the Conservatives.

Then Diana Gould, a 58-year-old geography teacher from Cirencester, Gloucestershire, came on the air. Her disembodied voice asked: “Mrs Thatcher, why, when the Belgrano, the Argentinian battleship, was outside the exclusion zone and actually sailing away from the Falklands, why did you give the orders to sink it?”

Thatcher replied: “But it was not sailing away from the Falklands. It was in an area which was a danger to our ships.”

Revealing a geography teacher’s precision, Gould persisted. “It was on a bearing of 280 and it was already west of the Falklands, so I cannot see how you can say it was not sailing away from the Falklands.

“When it was sunk,” said Thatcher, “It was a danger to our ships.”

“No,” said Gould firmly, “You just said at the beginning of your answer that it was not sailing away from the Falklands, and I am asking you to correct that statement.”

Rattled, Thatcher blustered about the exclusion zone, but Gould came back with the “north of West” bearing and would not let it drop until Gould was faded out. She became an overnight heroine: the woman who stood up to Thatcher, virtually accusing her of a war crime.

Thatcher was furious, and relations between government and the BBC were soured through the 1980s.

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