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An afternoon with Mr Commonwealth

india Updated: Nov 23, 2010 10:27 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

Derek Ingram, the veteran British journalist and deputy editor of the Daily Mail in the 1960s has been rummaging through his papers — there are reams of them piled high across the living room of his wonderful house in a London mews.

Derek, 85, is Mr Commonwealth: as a journalist he has covered every Commonwealth summit since 1971; he knows many leaders and ministers by their first name; and, for his integrity and faith in the Commonwealth, he is respected in every one of its 53 member-nations.

He has just found an entry in his diary for 1986, which shows that the British government was in informal talks with the Apartheid regime in South Africa long before is commonly acknowledged.

On June 23 of that year Oliver Tambo, the head of the African National Congress (ANC) was in a meeting at the Royal Commonwealth Society in London chaired by Derek. Either at the meeting or just before it, Tambo received word from Lynda Chalker, a minister in the foreign office, that she wanted to see him.

Tambo met her the next day. “Margaret Thatcher didn’t like it but there was nothing she could do about it,” says Derek. On June 25, Britain issued a formal statement against South Africa’s state of emergency and jailing of anti-Apartheid activists.

Fast-forward to November 7, 2010. The military regime in Myanmar holds an election that is boycotted by the National League of Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. There is talk in London — which is aired on BBC television’s Andrew Marr Show — that New Delhi has described the election as “free and fair.” It is taken as fact.

Derek’s memory is unfailing, the public’s — evidently — less so.

The values of engagement, confrontation and compromise played out at the 1985 Nassau Commonwealth summit, where Rajiv Gandhi challenged Thatcher on South Africa, warning her that her opposition to sanctions could lead to a break up of the Commonwealth. And Thatcher, batting to protect Britain’s extensive economic links with South Africa, agreed to a compromise.

Free and fair? You’ve got to be joking.