MT's re-election in 1983 was a significant international event. She was confirmed in office as the senior serving head among the major western governments, the economic and political troubles of the past five years having downed one after another of her peers since she came to power in 1979. And from her victory, along with Reagan's over Carter, people drew a wider moral - that Western politics was tilting to the right, a historical trend developing.
MT began the year worrying about the verdict she would face from the Franks Report into the Falklands War. She ended it embroiled in an equally unpredicted crisis in Grenada, another small legacy of Empire in the Americas, a lightning strikes twice event. No wonder she kept a close eye on Belize.
1983 jan: visit to the falklands; franks report
MT's copy of the Franks Report, well-read & flagged for speedy reference under questioning
From 8-12 January 1983 MT paid a surprise visit to the Falklands. Rex Hunt wrote a despatch on the event, which he aptly described as "more of a personal pilgrimage than an official visit". There are papers of various kinds in her files, including a "Free from ammunition and explosive certificate" for a "QTY ONE INERT SPANISH ORIGIN P4B A/PERS MINE", one of her more unusual gifts. She herself described it as “the most moving visit of my life” (MT to Mr Bennett, 12 Jun 1983). She visited all the sites of the war, battlefields and cemeteries particularly, personally met and spoke with a good proportion of the population of the islands and their military garrison. She honoured the navy by visiting HMS Antrim, which had been involved in the liberation of South Georgia and shortly after her visit moved north to take up station in the warm waters of the Caribbean, whence it was despatched to Grenada nine months later. Her letter of thanks to Captain Brian Young recalled the sparkling sunshine in San Carlos Bay. Above all, she received the freedom of the islands, in a ceremony of moving simplicity and immense emotional power. Hunt noted that she had asked for no quiet time or leisure and she had had none. Every waking minute was spent on the task.
A day or two before the visit MT had taken delivery of the Franks Report, warmly thanking Lord Franks the day she left, 7 Jan ("Not only its thoroughness but also the fact that it is unanimous will give it tremendous authority"). It is likely she first read the document during the long flight south.
Although the timing of the trip was not wholly under her control – there were contingency plans for it to happen during the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of continuous British possession of islands, in February – the footage could only have been helpful in the run-up to the publication of the report. But as things turned out the visit had an unhappy and unexpected consequence for her and the government. The press and markets read it as evidence that she might be planning a snap election, and sterling fell heavily. On the way back she received a telegram at Ascension Island from Geoffrey Howe telling her that interest rates had been increased by 1 per cent, earning Richardson his ‘bollocking’ when she returned. Walters recorded her angrily declaring: “I'll never be able to go away again” (17 Jan diary).
We are releasing MT’s personal copy of the report as printed. In a long career she annotated several million pieces of paper, and I have read a fair number of them. This document is the most heavily worked over of any that I can recall. From internal evidence she read it through at least four times, and possibly more; it was probably the copy she had with her at the despatch box during the statement on the report and the subsequent debate. And she will also have read and marked a typescript copy which we don’t have, because the original text of the report was censored on the orders of the Cabinet Secretary, to eliminate some references to intelligence apparatus. Her knowledge of every aspect of the report will have been unmatched, probably even by its authors.
The Report of course provided the government something close to total vindication, particularly its closing line: “Taking account of these considerations, and all the evidence we have received, we conclude that we would not be justified in attaching any criticism or blame to the present Government for the Argentine Junta’s decision to commit its act of unprovoked aggression in the invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982”. (Ironically that sentence is one she didn’t mark.) John Nott probably spoke for all of them when he wrote in his post-resignation letter to MT: “The Report itself puts our case better than we could ever have dared to hope”.
One item of Falklands business seems to have remained in her mind after the report and subsequent debate, which its helpful conclusions made relatively easy. She felt a debt to the Foreign Office ministers who had resigned on 5 April 1982, Carrington in particular. She put her best efforts into securing him the NATO Secretary-Generalship, with success. She told Walters precisely why he had resigned in her view (diary 16 April 1983): “PM said she wanted to keep Carrington but the Times Leader (on Monday) was decisive - she asked Charlie Douglas-Home to tone it down, but when Carrington came to No.10 he was clearly a v. worried man". That she thought finally he had been downed by the press can only have increased her desire to remove the stain. She felt a similar debt to Richard Luce, the Minister of State directly responsible for Latin America, who was brought back into the Government at the same level of seniority in the June 1983 reshuffle. And although Humphrey Atkins wasn’t rehabilitated in the same way, she took the trouble to have lunch with him in his country home, not far from Chequers, on the first anniversary of his resignation (engagement diary, 5 Apr 1983).
There were a couple of private Falklands events with the military during 1983 - a dinner at Fleet Command in Northwood, postponed because of the election and one with the SAS, both notable in their way. She spoke at Northwood of her visits there during the war, a very different kind of speech to the one she gave at her Falklands dinner for the top brass in Downing Street the previous year. Some of the stress of the war comes through, and the comfort she drew from the quiet, effective style of the Royal Navy. The SAS dinner in February took place at the Governor's apartment at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, only a short distance from where her ashes are now buried alongside those of Denis. It tells one something of the Regiment's role in the army - and of her relationship with the SAS - that those arranging the dinner didn't trouble to mention it to the Ministry of Defence, which understandably took umbrage when they found out. No.10 politely told the MOD they would have to live with it.
She sent a message to the newly-elected President of Argentina, Alfonsin, in Dec 1983, expressing pleasure in "the restoration of democracy to Argentina", although acknowledging differences. He responded graciously, saying of the differences "Where there's a will, there's a way". His election gave the US Administration reason to advance its agenda of 'normalising' relations with Argentina, including the ending of the US arms embargo. MT's correspondence with President Reagan shows her reaction of anger and dismay, which left him politely unmoved.
There is material on East-West issues, particularly the evolution of MT’s thinking towards the Soviet Union where she deliberately opened the door to conversations with the Soviet leadership in a series of speeches in autumn 1983. Interestingly, she had to say it several times because the press wasn’t expecting a move like that from the Iron Lady and misread the speeches. To that degree, she was becoming a prisoner of her own reputation - though not for long. And this is pre-Gorbachev.
The most important of these statements came in her speech accepting the Winston Churchill Award in Washington on 29 September 1983, pointedly delivered in front of an audience that included numerous senior members of the Administration - Shultz, Kirkpatrick, Deaver, Eagleburger, Burt and Regan. Senator Tower had the speech read into the Senate Record, for good measure. The key passage read:
We have to deal with the Soviet Union. But we must deal with it not as we would like it to be, but as it is.
We live on the same planet and we have to go on sharing it.
We stand ready therefore, if and when the circumstances are right, to talk to the Soviet leadership.
This change of stance seems to have reflected a number of calculations – particularly that the imminent deployment of Cruise missiles in Europe, due in November 1983 required a shoring up of Western diplomacy above and beyond existing arms control initiatives, a degree of engagement at head of government level in fact. MT took a wider sweep of views on the topic of the Soviet Union than she previously had, not simply going beyond the Foreign Office, but also listening to academic opinion outside the ranks of familiar supporters like Hugh Thomas, somewhat to his discomfort. There is a document summarising her conclusions from these consultations, which included a seminar at Chequers (8 Spt 1983 MT notes).
There was probably something else involved in her easing of stance, not represented at all in these files or in those at Kew because it is still too highly classified for release. MT was influenced by the intelligence she was receiving from the KBG double agent, Oleg Gordievsky, who told his British handlers that the Soviets genuinely feared a Western first strike and had invested large resources in an intelligence gathering programme focused entirely on that possibility, codenamed RYAN. This was an insight she put to Reagan in their meeting in September 1983, and the CIA’s own historians have suggested the President was influenced by the British view.
There is one tiny thing in the papers we are releasing that is relevant to that story. When MT addressed the Young Conservatives on 12 February 1983, Central Office drew up a list of attendees at the buffet lunch afterwards (“Lunch at Highcliff Hotel, Bournmouth”). Among the diplomatic observers present was “Mr O.Gordievski from the Soviet Embassy”. Quite possibly MT wouldn't have known his name at this point or recognised his face. But they were in the room together and may have met. At the time he was writing a profile of her which went into the files in Moscow and was used to help brief Gorbachev before his December 1984 visit to Britain; presumably he was there to gather information for it. (See Gordievsky Next Stop Execution [London, 1995] 368.)
1983 oct: grenada
The main files on this topic are in the UK National Archives at Kew. We have the original faxes MT received at Chequers as it became apparent the Americans were going to intervene, which show among other things that she read the material in a more sceptical style than Geoffrey Howe, seeing the potential for US intervention rather than the reassurance they were simultaneously offering (see especially 831022 2150 UKE Washington to FCO).
The most interesting document relevant to Grenada actually predates the intervention. On 23 Spt 1983 Tony Parsons wrote Coles a note on “Anglo-American relations”, obviously in fact intended for her, which he described as "partly heretical", "aeroplane reading for the Prime Minister". It urged a judicious distancing of British policy from the US in areas other than the central Cold War. She marked it up, and none of the marking is negative. Parsons pitched it right. Whether she bought the argument or not is another issue, but he looks to have got the issue raised without damage.
Extract from Parsons minute for Coles, "Anglo-American Relations" [1/10/59 f39]
On the central issue of NATO, East/West relations etc, I have no quarrel with our present policy. … We may object to American tactics from time to time, but we are united on principles. In this central area of our foreign and defence policies, we are therefore right to be the most loyal and the least difficult of the allies of the United States.
What worries me is the tendency which has built up for us to yoke ourselves to American policy in the Third World. Here, I believe that we should take a more independent line based on our own assessment of our national interest and on our own perception of events in areas most of which are more familiar to us than the Americans. The problem is that, for complex historical reasons, there is no national consensus in the United States over Third World questions comparable to the consensus regarding Western Europe. Hence, ethnic minorities and other pressure groups in America can and do exercise a disproportionate influence on American policies. This leads to distortions and bungling". [Parsons then cites the Greek lobby in relation to Cyprus, the Zionist/Israeli lobby in relation to the Middle East, Africa - black vs racist right lobbies; central America "short-term greed of American business interests. This factor has, at least in part, led to the ghastly morass in which the present Administration is struggling”.]
If we tie ourselves too closely to the Americans in such crisis areas, we find ourselves drawn into situations which do not necessarily suit British national interests (nor indeed the true interests of the United States) and which have been to a great extent created not by detached consideration of foreign policy desiderata, but by domestic American pressures. Furthermore we diminish our own standing in areas of the Third World where we are in the process of developing satisfactory post-imperial relationships. ...”
Did Parsons’ argument influence her reaction to Grenada? In a secondary sense, perhaps. She was ready to accept that US policy had gone wrong, that a bad decision had been made for a bad reason (essentially to efface the political damage and hurt caused by the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, which the US records actually do not bear out). But in a more fundamental sense MT almost certainly didn’t accept the Parsons argument. In public she quickly moved to bury the rift with the US over Grenada, however strongly she felt and spoke in private. One of her first contacts with the new US Ambassador to the UK, Charles Price, was his letter of thanks for her remarks at UPITN on 12 December 1983, when she used words that echoed her comments to Haig during one of his shuttles to London during the Falklands. It is hard to believe the Falkands was far from her mind during the Grenada episode:
A number of newspapers this morning described my attitude to Anglo-American relations in terms that vary from wholly untroubled to spitting mad.
I wonder if I might be allowed to say a word? And this will be the truth.
So far as I am concerned Anglo-American relations are in good heart.
Even as the press were describing my attitude I was having a customary warm and friendly discussion last evening with Secretary Regan.
It is with friends you can talk frankly; never with rancour; always with friendship; always with understanding.
Alan Walters 1983 diary [please note - 200MB file, may take some time to download]