Parliament reminded of past opinions on Nelson Mandela amid eulogies

The infamous 'Hang Mandela' poster, produced by young Conservatives in the 1980s. Photo:

Nelson Mandela was not always seen or treated as the universally revered figure he is now remembered as, nowhere more so than in British politics.

It's rare that a foreign political figure is given the honour of having tributes paid on their death from both houses of parliament. There were fulsome comments by politicians from all parties.

Read: Parliament pays tribute to Nelson Mandela's legacy

Many who had met Nelson Mandela and other members of the African National Congress which he led recalled funny, touching and insightful anecdotes which reflected the unseen qualities of this most remarkable of modern figures.

But the day was also marked by comments that shed a bright light on the what had been the tense and often conflicting views of Nelson Mandela amongst British politicians.

Mr Thatcher famously once viewed Mr Mandela as the leader of a violent terrorist organsiation and firmly resisted in calls for Britian to impose strict economic sanctions on the minority white government of Apartheid South Africa.

The now infamous printing of a poster in the 1980s by the Federation of Conservative Students, calling for Mr Mandela and other members of the ANC to be hanged was also a significant point of comment during the tributes in parliament.

It was made even more poignant by the fact that the Speaker of the House, John Bercow was the head of the Federation when the poster was produced. He has previously denied being involvement with the offending poster.

Today, he wore a tie bearing the South African flag. But Peter Hain, who grew up in South Africa but had to flee with his family because his parents were anti-apartheid activists and friends of Nelson Mandela, reminded him of his past. Looking at Mr Bercow he said:

I give credit to you, Mr Speaker, for volunteering most graciously that you were on the wrong side of the anti-apartheid struggle as a young Conservative.

Peter Hain, reminding members of parliament of when they were on the wrong side of apartheid. Credit: ITV News

Mr Hain said he did not want to introduce a tone of division on a day when the British parliament was attempting to come together in praise of Mr Mandela but that history was easily twisted and it was important to set the record straight. Then, turning to the Prime Minister, Mr Hain said he applauded him:

For apologising for his party's record on what I have to describe as craven indulgence of apartheid's rulers.

Many Tories agreed. Henry Bellingham, until recently Minister of State for Africa spoke of his time visiting South Africa as part of an All Parliamentary Group soon after President Mandela and the ANC had taken office. He said that the Conservative members of the delegation felt uneasy as they prepared to meet the ANC.

We felt a degree of unease, and certainly we could hardly have been seen by the ANC as being great historic allies of them and we weren't exactly on the right side of their struggle against Apartheid.

Lord Heseltine described the "Hang Mandela" posters produced by young Conservative activists as despicable, but said that at the time "Nelson Mandela's earlier career was that of what we'd call a terrorist".

Lord Heseltine said that during the 80s, Mandela's career was that of a terrorist. Credit: ITV News

Because Mr Mandela had remained a prisoner for over a quarter of century without anyone seeing him or hearing from him, Mr Heseltine said the only view some Conservatives had of him at the time was through his earlier commitment to the armed struggle.

"But on the other hand," Lord Heseltine said, "there were those who believed that reconciliation was an objective to be persuede."

It is a measure of just how times have changed, that many who once opposed and attacked Mr Mandela were today honouring him in Parliament.

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