In The Crown, season 4, The Prime Minster refuses to sign a document towards sanctions in South Africa. The Queen was rather insistent that this was really important for the commonwealth.

  • what are these ‘sanctions’?
  • why didn’t she want to sign it?

She was rather forced into signing only after the declaration was rewritten several times.

I am afraid this has rather gone over my head.

  • The last paragraph of the linked article explains her motivations
    – Paulie_D
    Dec 1, 2020 at 18:24
  • 3
    Just so people can pitch the answer at the right level - do you understand the concept of economic sanctions?
    – iandotkelly
    Dec 1, 2020 at 18:28
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    BTW, the way the plot reduced the argument to "one word" is completely fictitious, to try remove the difficulty of explaining the entire detail of the actual full political disagreement at the time.
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 1, 2020 at 19:27

2 Answers 2


What are sanctions?

Economic Sanctions is a method of pressure against the government of another country:

Economic sanctions are commercial and financial penalties applied by one or more countries against a targeted self-governing state, group, or individual. Economic sanctions are not necessarily imposed because of economic circumstances—they may also be imposed for a variety of political, military, and social issues. Economic sanctions can be used for achieving domestic and international purposes

So in short, it is an agreement between a group of countries saying that they won't do business with the target country unless it will do (or stop doing) something, for example, stop persecuting minorities, adhere to international law etc. In effect, the targeted country cannot earn money from exporting its own goods and cannot import goods that it doesn't produce, which cripples its economy.

In the case of South Africa, the reason behind the sanction was the policy of Apartheid - a system of institutionalized racial segregation within that country and repeated breaches against human rights.

What were the sanctions against South Africa

South Africa was sanctioned many times with limited success - you can find the comprehensive list here. The ones mentioned in The Crown are most likely those ones:

August 4, 1986: Seven members of the Commonwealth group of nations meet in London. Six of the seven agree to restrict their imports of South African agricultural goods, uranium, coal, and iron and steel. The United Kingdom was the nation that did not agree to these sanctions

Why Thatcher didn't agree to those sanctions?

There were two main reasons for that:

Maggie was really trying to Make Britain Great Again 1 This means she was refusing to do anything that would hurt the economy of the United Kingdom: if you refuse to buy and sell goods to the sanctioned country, you will be losing money too. And since the economy of the UK was already fragile, she didn't want to do anything that would risk it(especially when you notice that the proposed ban was affecting such critical goods as uranium or platinum) in the name of such notions as Human Rights 2. It is also worth to point, that her son was personally doing business within South Africa, so the effects of her sanctions could hit quite close to home.

The second reason is a bit more complicated and sensitive: In 1980s Great Britain was involved in undeclared war in Northern Ireland: broadly speaking, the Protestants wanted to remain as a part of the UK, while the Catholics wanted to unite Ireland. To pressure the government, IRA has performed a bombing campaign against economical and political targets (including Thatcher herself). The same was doing the ANC - the organization fighting for the rights of the black majority within South Africa. Thatcher was condemning both IRA and ANC3 , going as far as calling Nelson Mandela "a terrorist", which means that she somehow had to agree with the methods used by the Apartheid government.


The sanctions were severely restricting trade with South Africa. Margaret Thatcher didn't want to agree to them, because they would hurt the UK and she had a degree of sympathy towards the South African government

1 - This is not a parody of Trump's "MAGA" - Margaret Thatcher has used those exact words as early as 1950.

2 - However you want to remember Thatcher, she has done some questionable things, especially towards the poorer part of the population. Friendly visits with Augusto Pinochet (who was at that time under arrest accused of breaking human rights) suggest that this wasn't as high on her list as economy

3 - The fact that ANC was sympathizing with Soviet Union didn't help either. Remember, that this is still Cold War period!

  • This starts out as a good answer but devolves into partisan editorializing ("Make Britain Great Again," "such silly notions"). It also fails to identify the importance of anticommunism and South Africa's control of strategic resources like platinum, which were at least as important as economics and probably more important than antiterrorism.
    – ruffdove
    Dec 2, 2020 at 17:26
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    @ruffdove "Make Britain Great again" were Tatcher's original words -that she said as early as 1950 - margaretthatcher.org/document/100858 and her general policy was "economy first and foremost". I forgot about the anti-comunism role, but I do believe it was a secondary concern for UK (contrary to USA)
    – Yasskier
    Dec 2, 2020 at 19:10
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    Interesting. I thought you were making a jab at the more contemporary use of the phrase. Nothing new under the sun I suppose. The platinum was also a major issue as it was a critical component in many advanced defense technologies, and so tied to the Cold War issues.
    – ruffdove
    Dec 3, 2020 at 0:52
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    Your revised and apolitical answer is a huge improvement.
    – ruffdove
    Dec 3, 2020 at 3:05

Sanctions against South Africa by the international community were called for by the ANC, led by Nelson Mandela & Walter Sisulu, and the global solidarity movement, led by many others, to put pressure on the then government to drop the apartheid regime. Almost all the commonwealth supported the move and the film pictures the Queen as head of the commonwealth supporting this move as being 'really important for the commonwealth.'

At the time, the policy of Britain, then led by Margaret Thatcher as conservative prime minister and the US, by the republican President Ronald Reagan was for 'constructive engagement'. How constructive this was can be measured by the fact that Reagan was caught on tape mocking Africans at UN as 'monkeys'.

The point of this latter factual note is simply to underline why the scriptwriters showed the Queen saying what she did

  • 3
    I don't see how anything Reagan (or, in fact, any American) did 14 years prior to be even vaguely relevant to the question or answer. It smacks of some kind of political agenda, a straw man argument.
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 1, 2020 at 19:24
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    Everything up until that last sentence is fine. You might want to explain that Thatcher's 'constructive engagement' was driven by the economic advantages of continuing a trading relationship with SA.
    – iandotkelly
    Dec 1, 2020 at 20:29
  • @iandotkelly: Can you explain why that last sentence was not fine? Its referenced to BBC.co.uk, so I do think I have my facts straight. Dec 2, 2020 at 17:40
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    The question is about Thatcher, not Reagan. So a comment from Reagan, no matter how repulsive, from 14 years prior to the events in The Crown seems unimportant.
    – iandotkelly
    Dec 2, 2020 at 17:53
  • @LANOTKELLY: Given that the 'constructive engagement' policy was advocated by both Reagan & Thatcher with the rest of the world against, I think it is quite spot on. Dec 2, 2020 at 17:55

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