“Thoughts of the Handbag!” Britain's Margaret Thatcher Asks to Visit Communist Poland.
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
For diplomats posted abroad, a visit by their head of government or head of state is about as exciting – and worrying - as it can get. So when in 1988 a request came in from Downing Street asking if Margaret Thatcher, Britain's 'Iron Lady' Prime Minister, would be welcome in Warsaw, Nigel Thorpe, acting head of mission, felt, as he put it “a mixture of excitement and trepidation!" before adding: "Thoughts of the handbag!” - a reference to the PM's supposed habit of haranguing opponents until she wore them down to get her own way.
Photo: The Shopkeeper's Daughter Meets the Shipyard Electrician - Margaret Thatcher and Lech Wałęsa in Gdansk. Background left is Bernard Ingham, PM Press Secretary, background right is Nigel Thorpe. I'm not sure who to credit for the pic.
Part II of Nigel Thorpe's Diplomatic Memoirs in Poland.
Was Solidarity on the Wane?
About this time [c 1987] speculation grew among some western diplomats that Solidarity [the outlawed Polish opposition union movment] had run out of steam, and in a word, was finished. This was not our view in the British Embassy, but it was held by some well respected diplomats and we had to take it seriously. In fact we looked hard at what we knew and could see and talked to our contacts. Our conclusion was that this speculation was misplaced. Solidarity, indeed the wide opposition, was far from finished. Although none of could see the end of the system, nor could we see opposition to it fading away. We were to have an opportunity to see this emphatically displayed, just a year later. The Visit by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher It was in the autumn of 1988, that the Embassy had a message from No 10 Downing Street: Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister and the Iron Lady to the Soviets, would like to visit Poland. There was a condition though. In addition to the normal contents of such a visit (talks with the government, formal meals and so on) she wanted to go to Gdansk and meet Wałęsa. I was in charge of the Embassy at the time, as we were awaiting the arrival of a new Ambassador, so it fell to me to take this message to the Polish Foreign Ministry. They were pleased, but non-plussed. A few days late I was asked to call and they told me that General Jaruzelski would be delighted to host Mrs Thatcher but it was out of the question that she should meet Wałęsa. I duly reported this response to London and was told that in those circumstances she would not come. I told this to the Poles as well. Silence for a few weeks. I thought it was all dead.
Then, as if by chance, I ran into Colonel Wiesłàw Górnicki, once the distinguished journalists who had given me such good advice but now a discredited adviser to Jauzelski in a military uniform that did not fit, at a diplomatic reception. He breezed up to me and greeted me like a long-lost brother. In truth I had not seen him for many years. He said how much the authorities were looking forward to greeting Mrs Thatcher in Warsaw. And, he added, of course she could pursue a private programme in Gdansk although it would be necessary to perform one or two official engagements while she was there. Amazed, I reported this to London. We were on the way to one of the most exciting events of my career. There was of course a lot of preparation. We had to plan a difficult visit by a British Prime Minister to a country with which we did not have the closest relationship. We had to ensure that she had the chance to meet a range of opinion in addition to her official contacts with the Polish regime, which would principally be with Jaruzelski and Prime Minister Rakowski. It all needed meticulous planning, the more so since we all knew that Mrs Thatcher did not have the greatest affection or respect for the Foreign Office. [No wonder Mrs T counted “Yes, Minister” as her favourite TV programme - Ed] Our opposition contacts were very helpful and we did much of the groundwork for the visit to Gdansk in Warsaw. The Polish authorities pushed the boat out, and were incredibly cooperative and efficient. When the Embassy team went to Gdansk to prepare the final details for the meeting with Wałęsa, the Protocol team flew us home to Warsaw in their Polish Air Force plane. It was on this visit that I talked to Wałęsa about who would be present at the lunch he wanted to host. for the Prime Minister. He said I could choose. I did not exercise sole authority over this but was able to ensure that the people I most respected, including Zofia Kuratowska, would be there. But perhaps she would have been anyway. And then the big day came. Mrs Thatcher arrived in Warsaw in an RAF VC10 on the evening of Wednesday 2 November 1988. She was to spend two days in Poland, and we started with a briefing dinner for her in the Ambassador’s Residence. We did not know that she had already had an excellent briefing from Tim Garton-Ash and Roger Scruton in no 10! She was good to talk to and of course asked intelligent questions.
The next day was taken up largely by a meeting with President General Jaruzelski,who spoke for a very long time without stopping, more a lecture than a dialogue, something that I think Mrs Thatcher had never encountered before. There was also a lunch with Prime Minister Rakowski, who told her, as I recall, that she was most extraordinary. I am not sure she was impressed. There was also a meeting with a group of opposition activists including farmers. It was here that she discovered the way that Polish private farmers were denied the tools and materials to farm effectively. The big day was the final one, 4 November. We flew to Gdansk in the VC10. Mrs Thatcher then went by ship to Westerplatte to lay a wreath at the scene of the first shots of the Second World War. She returned by Polish naval destroyer to Gdansk harbour where a huge crowd had gathered to greet her. She dressed for the occasion, in a vivid green suit. She stood out perfectly and loved the response from the huge crowd which turned out to see her. From there she went to the Helveliusz hotel, to meet Wałęsa in a private room. They shook hands for the press and then went to lay wreaths at the big Solidarity memorial to the workers who had died in 1970 outside the shipyard gates. From there the Prime Minister went with Wałęsa to the house of Father Jankowski, Wałęsa’s priest, for lunch with other members of the Solidarity leadership. This was a momentous occasion. The tables were arranged in a big circle. On the Solidarity side I only recall Geremek speaking, apart from Wałęsa. The main dialogue was in any case between Wałęsa and the Prime Minister. He had one thing on his mind. He had been asked to take part in the proposed Round Table talks as a member of the lay Catholics’ delegation. He was unsure whether to take part. Mrs Thatcher advised him to do so. She describes this in her memoirs, though without, I think, realising how important this advice was. To me it was a decisive moment in the history of Poland. [* NB - See Addendum.]
The advice was given to a background of sound, which I realised had been orchestrated by Jankowski. He had assembled a large crowd outside his house, singing patriotic hymns and songs throughout lunch. After the lunch he took Mrs Thatcher into his church, St Brygida’s next door, where the congregation waited for her, again singing. It was all very moving. We returned to Warsaw by the VC10, so that the Prime Minister could give an interview for Polish television. I had wanted her to say something in public about her meeting with Wałęsa. But she was very careful not to say anything about it or the heady day in Gdansk. She had no need to, of course, because everyone in Poland knew of it all, from the BBC, Radio Free Europe and other western stations beaming the story into the country. The crowning moment to the visit was still to come, too, for when Mrs Thatcher arrived at the airport to board her aircraft home, General Jaurzelski quite unexpectedly also arrived. His car came to the steps of the plane and he leapt out bearing a huge bouquet. It was quite a moment, a measure of the impact the Prime Minister had had. The Round Table duly took place with Wałęsa’s participation. Ten months later Jaruzelski appointed Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who had been present at that meeting with Wałęsa back in October 1985 and at the lunch with Mrs Thatcher, as Prime Minister, the first non-communist leader in Central Europe since 1948, and the first step which really signalled that the Communist era was drawing to its close. The Repatriation of the Remains of General Sikorski Sadly, I missed the final episode of the collapse of all the Communist governments in Central Europe and then of the Soviet Union itself, as I was posted to Africa to take on quite a different role. But I had the great pleasure of returning to the Foreign Office in London in 1992 as Head of the newly created Central European Department, and the chance to contribute to the building of the liberal, free market democracies that we hoped would succeed the former Communist systems. In this role I had the enormous pleasure of greeting my old friend, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, on his official visit to London as the Polish Minister of Defence. I could not have imagined this back in 1988 when I greeted him on his emergence from prison. And perhaps the most symbolic event that really marked the changes that were taking place was when the Polish President, Wałęsa, requested the return to Poland of the remains of the great Polish wartime leader, General Sikorski. These had been interred at the Polish cemetery at Newark, after his death in an air crash at Gibraltar in 1943. We arranged their disinterment and then their procession, with full military honours, to the airfield where a Polish aircraft waited to take them back to Poland. It was a terrible day, with rain and low cloud, and we doubted whether the air escort we had planned could be mounted because of the weather conditions. Happily, after the aircraft was loaded and had taken off, two RAF Tornado fighters appeared and escorted the plane, wingtip to wingtip, out of British airspace. It was both a moving and symbolic moment, to mark the end of a dark era in Polish history. I felt immensely lucky to have been able to observe it from the inside.
The above, and part 1, have been abstracted from a longer article entitled “Behind the Iron Curtain in Poland – A Personal Memoir”, originally published by Diplomacy & Statecraft in June, 2020. https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fdps20 * Addendum
For better historical context, I felt readers would appreciate a little expansion as to what Nigel Thorpe meant here, so I asked him. He replied: "I think Wałęsa feared that by participating he would be discredited as the Communists manipulated the talks and their outcome to their advantage. In the end of course, Solidarity and the other non-Communist participants were successful. They were helped by intelligent, thoughtful Communists like General Kiszczak, the Interior Minister, who understood the need for change. Poland’s great indebtedness (which the government could not solve on its own) was also a factor." "The result was sweeping reform of the political system that led to the freest elections in Poland for 40 years. Although Solidarity’s participation in these was limited, their success was overwhelming and led to the appointment by Jaruzelski of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Pan Tadeusz of my 1985 dinner with Wałęsa, as Prime Minister. This was two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a major step in the end of communism in Central Europe."