Breakfast with Maggie

Breakfast with Maggie


The life and times of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who died two weeks ago evoke many strong sentiments among her supporters and detractors. I was not one of her fans. As someone with social-democratic leanings, I detested her tough conservative policies. Nicknamed the “Iron Lady”, her leadership style was harsh and uncompromising. Her socio-economic policies known as “Thatcherism” emphasized deregulation of the economy, less government, lower taxes, privatization of state-owned companies, more freedom for business and consumers, and weakening the power and influence of trade unions.

Before she became Prime Minister, Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education and Science. In that capacity, she implemented harsh public expenditure cuts on education, including the abolition of free milk for school children. This provoked strong protests and earned her the moniker: “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”. Her cuts in higher education spending resulted in her being the first Oxford-educated post-war Prime Minister who was denied an honorary doctorate by Oxford University.
Like her contemporary, US President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher opposed many aspects of the modern welfare state and Keynesian economic policies, advocating instead an ideologically unfettered capitalism.

In international affairs, Thatcher aligned herself with Ronald Reagan’s combative distrust of Communism; opposed sanctions against the South African apartheid regime, and dismissed Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as a “terrorist organization”. She showed strong antipathy towards European integration and opposed proposals for the European Union.

As someone who generally stood for policies that were contrary to the cult of Thatcherism, I considered myself rather anti-Thatcherite and Reaganite. But a personal experience and exposure to Thatcher in 1990 gave me a more nuanced view of the kinder and gentler human side of this Iron Lady.

Summit for Children

The occasion was the World Summit for Children at the United Nations on September 30, 1990. As a senior UNICEF official, I was personally involved in organizing that historic Summit. It was the largest gathering of world leaders in history until that time. Never before had the UN hosted as many as 71 Heads of State and Government, and several hundred ministers, dignitaries and celebrities on one single occasion.

I was personally involved in the substantive preparation of the Summit, having had the privilege of being a key drafter of the ‘World Declaration and Plan of Action for the Survival, Protection and Development of Children’ that the assembled leaders eventually endorsed. But our biggest challenge turned out to be the protocol and logistical arrangements which were unprecedented and daunting.

As so many Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Emirs and their spouses had never been to the UN at the same time previously, we had to figure out how to sequence the arrival and departure formalities for them. When Heads of State and Government visit the UN, there are no guards of honor or a 21-gun salute with pomp and ceremony as during their State visits. However, a minimal courtesy required was for all leaders to be personally greeted by the Secretary-General upon their arrival at the UN.

But with 71 such leaders, it would take at least 2.5 hours even if we allowed only minutes each for their motorcade to enter the UN, for dignitaries to disembark, and for the Secretary-General to greet them, before the next motorcade arrived.

Important leaders would naturally not wish to spend 2-3 hours twiddling their thumbs just waiting for the last leader to arrive before the Summit started. As all national leaders consider themselves as very busy VVIPs, Ambassadors of every country wanted their leader to be among the last one to arrive. A further complication in New York is that there are special security/protocol procedures for the US President. All traffic around the UN is completely “frozen” for about an hour before his arrival and departure at the UN, and there are no exceptions made. This meant that for a Summit scheduled to start at 10 am, if the US President arrived at 9:45 am, all other leaders had to be there by 8:45 am, which meant that the first of the 71 leaders had to be at the UN by 6:30 am and wait there till 10 am for the opening of the Summit.
Understandably, we had a huge challenge to persuade any leader to be among the first to arrive. To tackle this problem we had to concoct a very creative solution. If one of the more important world leaders were persuaded to be at the UN that early, other leaders could possibly be persuaded to arrive early enough to have some personal time or “a bilateral meeting” with such a leader. But which important leader could be convinced to come that early?

Next to President George H.W. Bush, who was scheduled to fly into New York to attend the Summit that morning, the most important leader confirmed to attend was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. So we decided rather hesitantly to approach her through the British Ambassador to the UN and our contacts in London to explore if she could “do a very special favor to the children of the world” by being among the first leaders to arrive at the UN at around 6:30 am in the morning on the day of the Summit! To our pleasant surprise, Mrs. Thatcher agreed, as apparently she too wished to have a few bilateral meetings with some world leaders attending the Summit, and her handlers figured out that she would actually save some time by holding those meetings right at the UN instead of at her hotel or at the UK mission to the UN.

Memorable Breakfast

Delighted by this ingenious solution, we arranged for a special early morning buffet breakfast at the North Lounge of the General Assembly building, and framed the invitation as “Breakfast with Maggie” for any Head of State or Government who was willing to arrive early at the UN. Lo and behold, suddenly, there was no shortage of leaders who were eager to arrive at the UN even in the wee hours of the morning for this “special breakfast”. Thus our protocol and logistical problems were solved, with Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar—along with UNICEF’s Jim Grant, myself, and other senior UN officials present to meet and greet the leaders at the crack of dawn!

For me, it was undoubtedly the most memorable breakfast of my life. It was fascinating to watch from the sidelines world leaders rubbing shoulders, and it was especially gratifying to witness the Iron Lady casting her charm with fellow leaders as she spoke with them in a very caring manner on the touchy-feely subject of children and their well-being.

After the grand opening session at the General Assembly Hall, the “real Summit” took place at the ECOSOC Chamber which was specially refurbished for the occasion with a large square table (called the “round-table”) to seat exactly 72 persons—the 71 world leaders plus the UN Secretary-General. All other dignitaries sat in the outer circle and in the galleries.

The proceedings of the Summit were carefully choreographed. To ensure that leaders did not give long country-specific statements, and to avoid repetition of general platitudes about children, the Summit agenda was divided into four specific themes. For the first time in the UN’s history, leaders were given a strict time limit of five minutes each for their remarks.

Many diplomats protested such “unreasonable” time limit for their leaders, but as the Summit was only one day and there were around 80 speakers, there was no choice but to insist on such time limit. We were quite apprehensive that many leaders would not respect such time limit, but to our very pleasant surprise, almost all leaders stuck to the limit, and yet made very profound and pithy statements.

Iron Lady, Human Heart

One significant exception was Margaret Thatcher, who delivered her prepared statement in exactly five minutes, but then asked the Chair to grant her a few additional minutes to make some impromptu remarks on how very deeply moved and touched she had been by a special UNICEF video shown at the opening of the Summit. She exhorted to all leaders to take its message seriously and act accordingly.

Her impromptu remarks were tender and heart-felt, acknowledging the most touching statements by other leaders like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, and other war-torn countries. She even recited a lovely English poem with very motherly feelings. Coming from the “Iron Lady” who had been so gracious as to devote nearly three hours of her precious time entertaining all the early arriving leaders in the wee hours of the morning, the extra time given to her was happily accepted by everybody.

Published in the Republica 20 April 2013