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Release of MT's private files for 1981 - (5) Life at No.10

 

The material being released includes a mass of files from MT's diary secretary, Caroline Stephens, as well as personal things she kept in her flat at No.10, giving us a deeper sense of how the building actually worked than has been possible for previous administrations for which little or none of this kind of material survives - not even the Prime Minister's appointment diaries, a crucial source.

life at no.10 (1): the pm's time & family Life

Anyone for Denis? MT's response less than enthusiastic

A persistent theme of these files is the struggle to manage MT’s time. The Iron Lady had a chronic inability to say ‘no’ to minor engagements, often arising from promises or half-promises given to friends or acquaintances at official dinners and the like. She told the Speaker, George Thomas, for example, that she would open a minor Methodist conference at Wesley’s Chapel, only months after she had reopened Wesley’s House following renovation (Stephens: “I beseech you to reconsider this decision”). The diary secretary got her way that time, but usually she lost, however hard she fought, even when she roped in MT’s private office to back her up, which generally they did. Her goal on this occasion had been to make sure that MT got more rest. The sense that MT perhaps tried to do too much had spread well beyond her immediate circle. Harold Macmillan wrote to her on 24 Mar 1981 offering admiration for her “extraordinary resilience and energy”, but paternally warning her not to overdo it. Given his open attacks on her economic policy the previous year, the effect is not wholly sympathetic. [THCR 1/3/6, f131]

Personal correspondence created the same problems. MT received 2-3000 letters a week at No.10 and answered a surprisingly large proportion herself – perhaps one in two hundred? - dictating text and often adding long handwritten postscripts. When a distressed child wrote to her in June 1981 asking for help to stop her parents divorcing, MT not only wrote a lengthy personal reply, she offered to arrange a tour of the House of Commons and meet the girl in person if she could come to London. Who knows the outcome? (The letter is on this site but with the child’s name removed). And it is hard to understand why she bothered with some of the documents she marked as having read (an ‘MT’ written in the top right corner), or why they were submitted to her in the first place. Did she really need to know that Lord Soames had appointed a special adviser on becoming Governor of Rhodesia? Or that the Federation of Conservative Students was holding a Polish week (16-21 Nov 1981), raffling T shirts to help dissidents buy a roneo machine?

There is a good deal of Denis Thatcher in these files, accepting endless engagements in a charmingly comic put-upon style, sometimes a little strained perhaps. Asked if the arrangements for a coming dine & sleep at Windsor would suit him, he replied: "OK. Wouldn't make much odds if they didn't!!" Would he like to hear his wife deliver a speech at St Lawrence Jewry? "There are moments when all I want is to "go home" and I have blanked out 4-8 March to do just that. Come the week I do not 'spose it will happen but I'm going to try so the answer to this one is 'No thank you'. DT" 22 Jan 1981. So - DT go home. And what did he call home? Context suggests he meant not No.10 nor Chequers, but Scotney, the Thatchers’ small rented flat in Kent. The files leave one in no doubt how hard he worked on his wife's behalf and how deeply he felt a duty to support her by his presence.

The Thatchers appeared on stage together at the Whitehall Theatre in 1981, or at least Angela Thorne and John Wells stood in for them in the farce, Anyone for Denis? Inevitably the originals were invited to attend, and could hardly refuse without failing to seem good sports, a fatal thing, so a charity evening was arranged. The papers suggest MT approached this event with gritted teeth. She wrote NO in capital letters to all the options offered her in a memo setting out arrangements, giving one a flavour of what she thought about it (see the image to the left). DT had “planned to go home”, but was overruled. There is an exchange of letters with Angela Thorne in which the actress admitted she found it an ordeal to play the part in front of the original and thanked the Prime Minister for helping her through it. "Meeting you before the show made me feel so much more relaxed, especially as you had indicated that we would be going through it 'together'". She reflected too, plausibly enough, that "(i)t must have been two hours of agony for you with the press watching your every move". When a speechwriter unwisely inserted an Anyone for Denis joke in a draft for her censure debate speech at the end of July 1981, it was struck out.

life at no.10 (2): machine malfunctions

Real life was farcical enough. Following the International Year of the Child in 1979, which had begun with a Great Children’s Party in Hyde Park, the organisers decided to spend remaining funds on a commemorative drinking fountain in the park. Caroline Stephens drafted a “my diary is horrific” refusal, which of course was rejected (“Caroline, I should love to do it”). Doubtless she thought it would involve very little time, but on this point the secretary was wiser than her boss. Two cabinet ministers, three government departments, and an executive agency managed to involve themselves. It took five months, thirteen official minutes and letters to accept the gift and arrange a three minute speech. One of the best of these, a textbook example of the bureaucratic art, is by Michael Heseltine’s Private Secretary, a Whitehall high flier who is now Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, Dame Helen Ghosh. Ministers had 'misgivings', suffered "long agonising", were "not impressed", etc. So much for rolling back the state. On the other hand, one could certainly call it small government, in fact downright petty.

On 20 Nov 1981 the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Michael Palliser, wrote her a grovelling letter apologising for "Diplomatic Service incompetence" which had "landed you in such an embarrassing position in Bonn on Wednesday". The FCO was an institution with which MT had a famously complicated relationship. The letter acknowledges that: "I have never hesitated to tell you when I thought that you were not being wholly fair to the Service: and you have been consistently kind in allowing me to do this. So I feel the more obliged to tell you when I think you have good cause for complaint: and to offer you my very sincere apologies". So what was the story? MT had made a lunchtime speech two days earlier during an Anglo-German summit. Making the point that "Cooperation extends beyond politics and government", she went around the room referring to distinguished British guests playing important roles in German life ("I am glad to see the British Director of the Cologne Opera, and the British conductor of the Bamberger Sinfonia in the audience"). This was a nice touch, or would have been, if they had actually been there. But they weren't. The guest list had been changed, with the result that the half the text in front of her was built around a failed conceit and there was nothing she could do about it. So on she went, noticing people who weren't there. The audience began to laugh. Among the people who were there watching this embarrassing scene were some of the leading figures of West German politics, including the serving Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, and his successor, Helmut Kohl. Tape of the speech has recently been found in the files.

The sending of Christmas cards was a major task for MT’s personal staff over the decades, a vast enterprise begun unseasonably in the summer months which played an improbable role in driving technical innovation at No.10: the first computerised print-out in the Thatcher collection is the 1981 Christmas card list. The photo chosen showed her and Denis in front of the Christmas tree at Chequers, taken the previous year, but seeing it for the first time after her visit to the Whitehall Theatre, MT worried that “after ‘Anyone for Denis’ this will be seen as a caricature”. The list itself included almost all heads of government, but not quite: you had to be pretty bad not to get one, but it was possible not to be on the list. Thus North Korea's Kim Il-sung didn't qualify for a card, but Gaddafi was all right – addressed "To the Leader of the Great First of September Revolution". Gilmour, Soames and Carlisle may have been dropped from the cabinet, but they still got a card, of course.

So did the newly-elected head of the Greater London Council, left-wing Ken Livingstone, who sent his, in amazement, to the Daily Express, with the comment that it looked like (you may guess this) ... a scene from Anyone for Denis? So he and the PM agreed about something at least. MT, who missed nothing, carefully marked this nugget in her morning Press Digest (headlined “Just Crackers”).

life at no.10 (3): people, gifts, predictions & forewarnings

MT's relationship with Michael Heseltine had its ups and downs over the years, but the evidence is that things were going well between them for much of 1981. Heseltine supported the 1981 budget (Treasury files show). He did not make wet speeches or ally himself with Gilmour, Prior and Pym. MT wrote to his wife on 4 Feb 1981 thanking her for a “very charming letter” (regarding a charity thing). The future Defence Secretary sent her as a gift for the Cabinet Room library a beautifully bound copy of a book of Napoleonic-era patriotic Sea Songs by Charles Dibdin, a distant forbear, who got a government grant for writing them. In a letter after the Toxteth riots to Archbishop Warlock on 17 July, MT adds in hand: "I am asking Michael Heseltine and Tim Raison to come to Merseyside to see what action we can take. Michael is a man of action, Tim a person of great gentleness and understanding". Later in the year she robustly defended him from the accusation of buying his office furniture from Harrods at public expense. He inherited it from his ministerial predecessor, Peter Shore. She wrote him warmly to thank his department for its help during the Lancaster House Conference that had finally resolved the Rhodesia issue.

In March 1981 she received a heartening and rather accurate prediction that she would win the next election in June or July 1983 with a strong majority and that Britain was setting out on a 20 year programme of renewal and reform. Unfortunately the source was the astrological team at Old Moore’s Almanack. [THCR 2/6/2/136 f22] There were some eerie intimations of the near future in her 1981 correspondence: on 8 July she wrote happily to Sir James Hanson discussing the loan of Nelson and Wellington portraits for No.10, little guessing that the following April at the beginning of the Falklands War she would be showing them grimly to US Secretary of State Al Haig to remind him that Britain had a strong military tradition. She cheerfully accepted a speak-dine-and-sleep engagement for Stephen Hastings MP at Milton Hall, not knowing that she would spend an anxious evening there waiting for news of the RAF’s attempt to bomb the runway at Port Stanley flying from Ascension Island (the Vulcan required 13 mid-air refuellings).

In a sign of the times, a survivor from the Titanic experienced a burst of fellow feeling and wrote wishing her luck ("I hope that you too will be a survivor") (31 Oct 1981). Mixing his own metaphor a little he enclosed a Cummings cartoon of the ship flying the flag 'Leyland', crewed by strikers. Here MT was the iceberg and it didn't look as if there would be any survivors at all. She wrote him a personal letter of thanks.

Writing to friends she gave a glimpse of herself on a sunny day at Balmoral, enjoying a barbecue at the Queen’s log cabin, “Glen Beg”: see MT to the Laings, 17 Spt 1981. One has the impression that good times could be snatched here and there even in the midst of the storm. Gail Jopling and Jane Gow wrote very warmly to thank her for a happy weekend visit to Chequers 12/13 September, where they accompanied their husbands during the final planning of the crucial 14 September reshuffle and stole off on a invigorating Chilterns walk together, DT setting them on the right path. Anxieties still came through of course, and were not hidden either: "I do hope today isn't as grim as you expect", wrote the Chief Whip's wife kindly on the day itself.

Most unusually MT wrote a brief memoir note of the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph 8 Nov 1981, moved partly by thoughts of the recent death of her Oxford friend, Edward Boyle, aged only 58. This was Michael Foot's first appearance as Leader of the Opposition at Remembrance Day and he was pilloried in parts of the press for his appearance at the Cenotaph in a coat unfairly described as a "donkey jacket". MT disliked personal criticism of this sort, all too aware from her own experience how it felt to be on the receiving end, and her note makes no reference to Foot's dress. But she did record: "It was Michael Foot's first attendance and he was a little uncertain what to do". [THCR 1/7/5 f82].

She was deeply touched to receive the gift of a blue cashmere rug from a Mr Fowler (no relation to Norman one assumes) and wrote a revealing handwritten reply (21 May): "I cannot thank you enough for the beautiful blue cashmere rug which you sent. To me, it is a very special gift. Not only is it exquisite in itself, and it is, but it came as a wonderful surprise and at a difficult time just when I needed a little thoughtfulness and kindliness. And you provided it. / This task, to which I have set my hand is the most absorbing and fascinating in the world. But sometimes it is lonely as one struggles to take the right decision. As such times, it is marvellous to know one has good friends, constantly urging us on and wishing us well".

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