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Release of MT's private files for 1979 - (4) Foreign policy

 

Foreign policy fell more completely under the sway of the official side of No.10 - the Private Office - than other areas of policy. Documents on intelligence were particularly closely controlled, passing only through the hands of the Principal Private Secretary en route to the PM. But still there is valuable material in the 1979 files at Churchill, tracing MT's relations with foreign leaders and her attitude towards the European Community.

 

foreign policy: the pm's "Personal messages"

State dinner during MT's first official visit to Washington as PM, 17 Dec 1979

The most important foreign policy material in MT’s private files is found in the huge series of “Personal Messages” – a copy of every letter and telephone conversation she exchanged with foreign heads of government, not including face-to-face meetings. (Occasionally Confidential Filing missed a letter or conversation, but it is pretty complete.) This was given to her when she left office.

The series is a major resource, because while most of the messages are also to be found in the official files in Kew, they are scattered and very difficult to track there. Begun as an inducement to PMs not to seek to remove such material from the files when they left office (as Churchill had done for his memoirs of the second world war), the series is believed to have been discontinued by MT's successor. The White House equivalent - the "Head of State File" - was the subject of open warfare in the mid-80s between NSC officials (who found it vital) and administrative staff who were determined to scrap it. The latter won, only to find their NSC adversaries laboriously recreate it in the White House Situation Room, territory they controlled.

MT had met President Carter twice in Opposition, both times in 1977 – in May at the Residence of the US Ambassador to London, Winfield House (which seems to have gone well) and once in Washington, in September (which went badly, Carter finding her a "dogmatic lady"– afterwards he is said to have told staff never again to schedule a meeting with an Opposition leader). Interestingly the British official machine seemed poorly informed about these meetings.

By the time MT became PM, however, Carter thought a lot better of her, as shown by files in the Carter Library. And everything is comparative: by 1979 his relations with French President Giscard were shaky and with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, simply awful. Carter was a difficult man to get along with; many found him personally awkward. MT made the effort and was probably as close to him as any major leader when the Iranian hostage and Afghan invasion crises overwhelmed the Administration in Nov-Dec 1979.

foreign policy: president carter & the united states

Jimmy Carter rang MT the day she became PM to offer congratulations, documents in the Carter Library showing his motive for the call. He was warned to do a little more than protocol required to remove the impression widely held that he was closer to MT's defeated rival, Jim Callaghan, than to her.

Asking if she had got any rest, he received a characteristic reply: “No, the adrenalin is running so fast at the moment that I don't need rest”. He promised her an early meeting at the coming Tokyo G7 the following month. In the event there were two - one full scale bilateral, the other a lift in the presidential limousine to the summit venue after a four power breakfast meeting with the French and Germans. Important business was done during that journey, MT raising the question of US help to replace Britain's Polaris nuclear deterrent. Carter immediately gave a helpful answer, setting in track the acquisition of its successor, Trident. No record of that meeting has yet surfaced, perhaps because the key file on this topic runs into 1980 so hasn't yet been released. Carter’s aid on this vital point underpinned their relationship during the remainder of his presidency, 1979-81.

Carter seems to have preferred correspondence to dealing face-to-face or phoning. There are 30 odd letters between him and MT from May to December, far more than she exchanged with any other leader (apart from Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda, writing endlessly about Rhodesia). White House staffwork was imperfect. In one letter (1 Nov) she is addressed as “Margaret. R. Thatcher”.

There was press comment at the time of the release of the official British files at the close of 2009 about Carter’s 28 Aug letter to MT after the IRA murder of Lord Mountbatten. , The letter talked of his “tragic death” but did not condemn the manner or the authors of it. Whether this was an intended snub is unclear: many of the letters and telegrams she received about Mountbatten were similar in style – “tragic death” (Luxemboug PM), “sudden death” (Philippines President). Her reply to Carter on 3 Spt calls it “brutal and senseless murder” and notes the State Department statement on 28 December condemning the use of political violence.

Over Iran at end of year there are signs of divergent approaches. Carter rang on 19 Nov at a moment when it seemed possible the US hostages would face show trials in Iran, asking for us to further reduce our Embassy staff. MT was meeting Giscard at the time and both spoke with Carter from No.10. She was reluctant to act unless other European nations acted too. She was reluctant also to go as far as the Administration wanted in regard to seizure of Iranian assets in London – no pushover.

There is little in the Cambridge files about her tightly scheduled first official visit to Washington on 17 December 1979, with which she and the FCO seem to have been well pleased. She immediately made a statement strongly supportive of the Administration over Iran, backing a possible reference to the UN under Chapter VII of the Charter. The diary of Britain's ambassador to Washington, Nicho Henderson (on this site), attributes some of the credit for this stance to the British Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, who grasped immediately the degree of US anger and hurt over the hostages, and the necessity of making a plain declaration of support at the earliest possible moment. The visit received an excellent press.

We have also a transcript of the phone call Carter made to her on 28 December 1979 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. One can read the US record here as well as the British. The British record is verbatim, the US apparently written from notes. Comparing the two one can see that the US version redacts MT’s reply to Carter’s criticism of British amendments to a Security Council resolution on Iran – she says of these amendments “they might have to be unnecessary in view of what you said”.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in the conversation is the decision of the two leaders to paper over their differences about ‘extraterritoriality’ – the effective claim (as she saw it) of the US Congress to be able to legislate for the whole world rather than the US alone, attempting to bind Britain and British firms. Ths intensely irritated MT and was the source of a serious quarrel between her and President Reagan later on (over Poland). She notes in the call that the US had made resolution more difficult by bringing cases to court. Carter on his part privately characterised the European response to the Soviet invasion as "very weak".

MT's 29 December letter to Brezhnev attacking the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is also in the files, with a copy in Bernard Ingham’s papers – it seems to have been read more or less in full to Lobby journalists. She scorns Soviet claims to have been acting at the invitation of the Afghan government, noting that the new leader had been living in Eastern Europe for a year and entered the country with their troops.

Carter-Thatcher 1979 documents [including some key items from the Carter Library in Atlanta & the British National Archives at Kew (TNA)]

The Nov-Dec 1979 crisis [everything on the site from the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran (4 Nov) to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (24/25 Dec) - effectively the beginning of the end for the Carter Administration]

foreign policy: the european community - beginning of the budget argument

MT launched her campaign to secure a British budget rebate with a famous intervention at the Dublin European Council, 29-30 November 1979. The handwritten copy of the speech she delivered to her fellow leaders was squirreled away in her personal files. There are many drafts of it in the files at Kew: she worked hard on this one. In many ways, looking back, this is when she burned her boats with Europe, only months after taking office.

Unfortunately no record of the Council proceedings survives in the official British files, which usually contain detailed notes of what was said between the leaders, with the result that the fullest first hand account of the meeting is in Roy Jenkins’s diary (European Diary, pp.528-32). MT gave her speech in the afternoon of 29 Nov then “kept us all around the dinner table for four interminable hours”. “At times she was not bad and always maintained her temper though not her judgment, even under considerable provocation, particularly from [Danish PM] Jørgensen who, partly because he can't speak English well, was at times behaving like a little street urchin calling out insults. Schmidt got frightfully bored and pretended (but only pretended) to go to sleep”. Jenkins thought “she certainly does not have a good understanding of the case against her”.

Of course she did understand the case against her. She just didn't accept it. In particular she rejected the idea – even Jenkins calls it Community ‘theology’ – that revenue accruing to the Community represented its “own resources” and that no balance need obtain between payments and receipts. The core aim of the speech was to overthrow this way of thinking and to bring about a decisive resolution of the budget problem. The solution had to last as long as the problem, ad hoc fixes would not do.

She didn't exactly tell other leaders: “We want our money back”. From her speech it is clear that she expected Britain to remain a net contributor to the EC budget, despite then being very much in the bottom half of the league as to income and wealth. But of course her sense that we were not getting a fair return for our cash shone through. And she was immensely resented for it. “Voilà parle la vraie fille de l’épicier” a Belgian politician commented to Jenkins in Dublin ("There speaks a real grocer's daughter" - a phrase if anything even more scornful in French than English, where a grocer's view is synonymous with provincialism or parochialism). The phrase about wanting our money back came from reporting of what she said at the press conference afterwards: “I am only talking about our money, no one else’s”. Her performance at the press conference was bravura: John Simpson recalls in his memoir Strange Places, Questionable People that the British press corps paid her an unprecedented compliment by applauding at the end.

At this stage the Conservatives were very much the “Party of Europe” in British politics and part of their election pitch had been that a new start was needed after years of Labour hostility. The files show her trying hard. Her first official visit overseas was to France in late May and she wrote a fulsome letter of thanks to Giscard: “I, for my part, am convinced that we stand now at the beginning of a period of closer partnership and deeper friendship both unilaterally and as members of the Community”. (This was written despite his performance at lunch, where he had himself served first, placing presidential rank over the usual courtesies accorded a guest.) There are umpteen thank you letters following her visit to the French nuclear facility at Tricastin, which she had specially requested to see and which greatly impressed her. She had genuine admiration for the French in some respects.

But from the very first, her wary and critical view of the European Community breaks through again and again. Sent a table of Eurocrat salary levels she noted grimly in the margin: “They are paid much too much – from our taxpayer’s money. It looks like a real gravy-train”. She took a very close interest in who was selected as Conservative candidates for the European elections in June, reading profiles of every candidate and noting (with suspicion) the presence of a number of BBC journalists on her own party’s slate.

Most revealing there is a draft Party Election Broadcast for the European elections by Ronnie Millar which she deeply disliked and refused to deliver – “This is not a script for me – I just couldn't say some of those things and others offer no good reason for voting Conservative”. In fact the draft represents little more than an expression of the standard party line over the past two decades. Where Millar suggested that the British had “never entirely understood” Europe and that Labour had been “lukewarm about the European idea”, she wrote in the margin: “Maybe they did understand it! That’s what it sounds like!”

Europe documents

foreign policy: the rhodesia settlement

Rhodesia probably took more time than any other topic during her first year. There was a mass of correspondence back and forth from between MT and Commonwealth leaders, particularly Kaunda (as noted) and Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. There was a major summit at Lusaka in August, which also created security worries for herself and The Queen, as well as many bilaterals in London during the Lancaster House Conference that followed Lusaka. The question had already absorbed vast amounts of ministerial time over more than a decade and the common political wisdom saw little prospect of an early settlement; at times MT wondered whether the investment was worth it.

But conclusion of the Lancaster House Agreement at the end of the year brought gratifying letters from all sides and talk of a diplomatic triumph, a word used by Australian PM Malcolm Fraser and Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew among others. President Carter was suitably appreciative when she visited Washington on 17 December. MT always gave generous credit for this to Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington, who probably ended the year her favourite minister.

There is one particularly important document in the Cambridge files: the Commonwealth summit at Lusaka held a retreat on Sunday 5 Aug when leaders met together without officials. MT jotted down points from the conversation in a small notebook. Again and again they came back to the idea that what is needed to settle the issue is a British initiative, British involvement on the ground, British troops. To some degree this was what sold her the idea of a settlement on the lines of Lancaster House, to which she was temperamentally far from inclined (preferring if she could to build on the “internal settlement” engineered by Ian Smith).

She was thrilled at the smart and efficient presence of a detachment of Royal Military Police at Lusaka, who took charge of British security and communications, “an asset much prized by us and much envied by other delegations”. Defence Secretary Pym was sent a Prime Ministerial Minute of thanks and praise.

Rhodesia documents

 

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