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Former British Prime Minister Thatcher eschewed panda diplomacy

The plot was hatched by the head of the cash-strapped London Zoological Society, who thought it would be good publicity. But Thatcher twice rejected the overture out-of-hand.

US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took a dim view of Panda diplomacy, according to newly released archival documents.

The scheme unfolded in 1981 when Thatcher was due to fly to Washington for a state visit. At the same time, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington had appealed to the London Zoo to borrow a male panda, so that he might mate with the Smithsonian's female bear.

The president London's Zoological Society, Solly Zuckerman, came up with the bright idea that panda diplomacy would benefit both the political leaders and the pandas and asked Thatcher to allow a male panda to fly on her plane when she visited newly elected US President Ronald Reagan.

"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," cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong wrote.

"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," he added, according to papers released by the National Archives in Kew, London.

Pandas from a zoo in Saint-Aignan in France

Former British Prime Minister found the idea of flying to the US with a panda unbearable

Thatcher wouldn’t buy in

But Thatcher, long known as the Iron Lady, would have none of it.

"Lord Z knows more about pandas than I do — I am sure he can arrange these things," she said in a handwritten note.

Her private secretary, Clive Whitmore, relayed the message to Zuckerman, quoting the prime minister directly. "I'm not taking a panda with me," Thatcher wrote. "Pandas and politicians are not happy omens!"

The London Zoo, in fact, was struggling financially. While Zuckerman hoped that panda diplomacy would "benefit Anglo-American relations," he also hoped the free publicity would boost the fortunes of his cash-strapped zoo.

A year later the zoo tried again, this time suggesting Thatcher to bring a female panda back to Britain from her trip to China. But, again, Thatcher declined the offer.

"The history of pandas as gifts is unlucky, she wrote."

Thatcher was prime minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990.

bik/jil (AFP, AP, dpa)