On his trips to London, Nelson Mandela praised the population for its help in the struggle.

Standing in Trafalgar Square in 1996, he said: “I would like to put each and every one of you in my pockets and return with you to South Africa.”

He was speaking in the shadow of South Africa House where some maintained a vigil and gathered for marches and protests over the years.

But as you listen to all-party tributes pouring out last night, you may wonder: did the British state really come to his help all those years in captivity and what was Mandela’s view of the UK’s role in ending apartheid?

Lord (Charles) Powell says, in a report on tonight’s Channel 4 News, that when Mandela eventually met Margaret Thatcher at No. 10 in July 1990 he sensed that Mr Mandela hugely appreciated her role in stopping economic sanctions and applying private pressure on the apartheid regime.

I put that to former Labour minister and long-time anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain and he laughed out loud.

Peter Hain thinks that Lord Powell and Lady Thatcher were deluded by Mr Mandela’s politeness. Mandela, he said, “was always the polite gentleman” and maybe they were “taken in by this sense of decorum.”

Peter Hain said that Mandela’s private thoughts were “totally contemptuous… he felt totally betrayed” by the UK’s resistance to sanctions and confided these thoughts to Mr Hain in private.

Old divisions 

The old divisions were on display when Thatcher died in April this year.

One South African news broadcast called her a “friend of apartheid” who “found herself on the wrong side of history”.

In contrast, the last white leader of South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk, travelled to London for the service at St Paul’s  and held a press conference just beforehand insisting that it was Thatcher’s contribution, staying a candid friend to South Africa’s leadership but, he insisted, privately supporting reform and the release of Mandela, that had more impact than other countries who supported sanctions.

Political folklore has focused on the Federation of Conservative Students’ conferences as the ultimate in pro-apartheid politicking in the 1980′s, with their famed “Hang Mandela” T-shirts.

One former member, the current speaker, John Bercow, has repented of past opinions and this summer was at the forefront of an unprecedented contingency plan to recall parliament in the summer recess if Mandela died while MPs were on holiday.

Many of his former colleagues in the FCS didn’t want to speak. But I did contact an authentic voice of Tory backbench pro-South Africa opinion from the 1980′s: one of Thatcher’s ardent fans, MP from 1983 to 1997, Terry Dicks.

‘Black terrorist’

He’s currently a Conservative councillor on Runnymede council. Mr Dicks was unapologetic about calling Mandela a “black terrorist” who was “kicking (Thatcher) in the face” when the South African leader failed to meet her on his first trip to London after being freed back in 1990.

Talking to Terry Dicks gives you a flavour of how some Tories saw the apartheid regime and Mandela back then.

He said: “(Mandela) was just a terrorist, no different to the Irish terrorists, perhaps no different to the ones we’re fighting now … a terrorist is a terrorist … and if they (the apartheid regime) had wanted to they could have executed him, seriously, and then you wouldn’t have had all this fuss of ‘I lived 27 years in prison.’”

Mandela was “no different from … people like al-Qaeda, no different from bin Laden,” Mr Dicks said when I spoke to him just a few months ago. He said he felt he was speaking for “quite a few” Tory MPs back in the 1980s and that some would share such thoughts on trips to South Africa funded by the South African government but would be more circumspect than him in speaking their mind in public.

‘Apartheid regime

Geoffrey Howe told me he was “aware” of pro-apartheid voices like Terry Dicks in the Conservative party in the 1980s, “if only because they were not far from Margaret Thatcher in their attitude”.

Lord Howe said they never got to run government policy though because people like him were acting as a restraining influence.

Roger Fieldhouse’s “Anti-Apartheid: a History of the Movement in Britain” documents many years of British governments of both colours sitting on their hands and not going anything like as far as the Anti-Apartheid movement wanted in isolating South Africa. He writes of how the Conservative government of 1959-64 discouraged boycotts. A small group of ministers grouped around R.A.Butler dissented.

But, as foreign secretary, Alex Douglas-Home went so far as to tip off the apartheid regime that they should get some armaments orders in before the 1964 election and a possible change of government.

As it was, the South African government needn’t have worried too much about that.

It’s captured in a note of chat between Harold Wilson and the South African foreign minister from 1967 (Fiedlhouse, p161) which says that the Labour government heartily disliked apartheid but “we were also realistic and we had no desire to see international action taken… that might precipitate a major upheaval in Southern Africa…”

Guiding the government’s hand were civil service briefs on the trade levels between the two countries and the cold war.

And that, as Peter Hain laments to this day, included arms exports. Denis Healey (amongst those reminiscing on TV last night – Lord Healey met Mandela on his first visit to Britain in 1962) and George Brown signed off on defence exports holding back only on tank spares which were considered too politically sensitive. On non-economic areas like sports boycotts, Peter Hain (then a Liberal) found the government more receptive. Labour rediscovered its anti-apartheid passions very quickly after going into opposition in 1970.

The Tories between 1970-74, under Edward Heath, backed change through contact and dialogue, one of the continuities in policy between him and Thatcher after 1979. Back in power after 1974, Labour reverted to its old position of opposing economic sanctions although it once again backed sporting sanctions.

Gleneagles Agreement

When Jim Callaghan took over as PM, after the Soweto uprising and Steve Biko’s killing, support for sanctions built up and the then foreign secretary, Dr David Owen, pushed for arms sanctions, though the anti-apartheid movement thought they didn’t go far enough.

In June 1977, Jim Callaghan got the “Gleneagles agreement” through the Commonwealth meeting, discouraging sporting contacts with South Africa.

Geoffrey Howe writes in his memoirs that Thatcher’s approach to South Africa after her election in 1979 “derived mainly, I suspect, via Twickenham and Gleneagles (the golf course, not the agreement)”. Under Thatcher, economic sanctions were largely resisted. Some equipment useful to the police and army continued to get through.

The Thatcher government didn’t throw itself behind the sports boycotts.

Some Tory MPs continued to take hospitality off the South African government on fact-finding missions, and the young David Cameron was amongst them.

Seventeen years on, as leader of the opposition, David Cameron wrote about how “the mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now” (7 August 2006).

Last night, he spoke of Mandela as a “hero of our time” and “a hero of all time”.

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