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Why the Thatcher government stayed out of 1981 England tour apartheid row

Geoffrey Boycott and Geoff Cook, the two players embroiled in the controversy

The controversy which preceded England‘s 1981-82 tour of India has been well-documented but, in short, it arose after two of the named touring party, Geoffrey Boycott and Geoff Cook, had previously played cricket in South Africa, possibly, but not explicitly, in contravention of the Gleneagles Agreement between Commonwealth countries not to engage in sporting activities with the then apartheid-governed nation. The Indian government’s objections to the pair’s inclusion in the England squad created a bitter stand-off which threatened to see the six-match series cancelled before it had begun, an outcome which in hindsight may not have been entirely undesirable given the grinding nature of India’s 1-0 victory. However, although the dispute was resolved, previously confidential cabinet papers from Margaret Thatcher’s time in office, released under the thirty year rule, show how wary the British government was of becoming involved in the impasse, and not least because of a recently signed one billion pound steel contract in India which, the documents state, was personally lobbied for by the Prime Minister herself.

On other colonially-tinged occasions before and after when cricket and politics have collided, such as the D’Oliveira affair in 1968 and the Harare furore during the 2003 World Cup, the British government has faced a similarly precarious position. In the former case, it is believed the MCC were put under implicit political pressure not to pick D’Oliveira to tour South Africa, and in the latter, the explicit public intervention of the Blair government in calling on England not to play in Mugabe-led Zimbabwe left the then captain, Nasser Hussain, with a deeply unfair Sophie’s choice between his responsibilities as a sportsman and his personal integrity. The below documents reveal how during the 1981 dispute the Foreign Secretary at the time, Lord Carrington, warned his cabinet colleagues not to intervene publicly for fear of upsetting the Indian government and by extension, “Britain’s many interests at stake in India and not least the steel contract on which the Lord Privy Seal had reported to the Cabinet on 24 September”. Speaking at a meeting chaired by Mrs Thatcher on 20 October of that year ahead of the scheduled start of the tour, the official record shows how concerned Carrington was about jeopardising this contract and stressed that “it would be important for members of the Government to avoid public comment on the issue as far as possible.”:

 

Secret: An abridged list of attendees for the cabinet meeting of 20 October 1981

Concern: In the same document Lord Carrington outlines the nature of the dispute and advises caution to colleagues when speaking publicly

The official report of that previous Cabinet meeting of 24 September records in more detail the huge sum tied up in the contract the British government were understandably keen to protect:

Confidential: The Lord Privy Seal informs the Thatcher Cabinet about the £1bn contract on 24 September 1981

That the Thatcher government attempted to negotiate this issue on a realpolitik basis is perhaps unsurprising, but these records – now freely available to the public – do show that the legacy of Davy McKee Ltd is to offer us an insight  into  the quagmire of racial, political and commercial machinations which national boards, ministers and individual players found themselves wading through during this fraught period of cricket’s history before the readmittance of post-apartheid South Africa in 1991. It has always been a dangerous conceit to suggest sport and politics shouldn’t mix. These Cabinet papers show once more how it is also a wholly unrealistic one.

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