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Margaret Thatcher's files as Prime Minister, 1985-86 (partly)

 

MT's Prime Ministerial files from 1985 and 1986 were released at the UK National Archives in Kew on 30 December 2014.

Unfortunately many 1986 files are missing. Within each year files are organised by subject - AEROSPACE, BROADCASTING, CANADA, etc - and for 1986 we only get up to MEXICO. Worse, many files from A-M are "temporarily retained". It looks as if officials simply ran out of time, struggling as they are to cope with the transition from a 30 to a 20 year rule.

Here are uploads of selected secret files from No.10, along with commentary focussing on the Westland affair, probably the most anticipated single element in the release

 

1985: Westland, Acts I-II

Not an easy one for you - Michael Heseltine's personal letter to MT, 23 Dec 1985

The relevant bits of Aerospace 1986 are temporarily retained, so one thing we do not get in full is the story of Westland affair, which was at its peak (if that is the word) between December 1985 and January 1986. If Westland was a five act play, we now have the first two Acts, which is enough at least to tell us that we are watching Hamlet rather than A Midsummer Night's Dream. There will be blood, bucketloads, but we are going to have to wait for it.

Perhaps though a Shakespearian analogy is the wrong one. On the evidence of the new files, one might better understand Westland as Yes Minister meets The Sopranos - ludicrous, but also deadly. Ministers slogged it out over procedure in best bureaucratic style, quarrelling over timetables, minutes, drafts, leaks, even whether a cabinet committee meeting had been cancelled or never called in the first place, a thing to which vast, all but incomprehensible, significance was attached at the time. On this last point, margaretthatcher.org scooped the press by examining the handwritten pencil original of the PM's engagement diary at the Cabinet Office using an LED light, which clearly shows where things were rubbed out. There were cancelled meetings that day, but none involved a cabinet committee or had any apparent connection to Westland at all.

If the procedural issues failure to explain the crisis, what about the substance? There was supposedly a great issue of principle involved in Westland - a 'European solution' pitched against an American one - but the two sides can be found at various points surprisingly agnostic as to outcomes and besides, it was never clear that one solution truly excluded the other. Ultimately, in fact, Westland survived as a company by adopting both. Looking back the issue of principle seems somewhat contrived.

Official paperwork gives us much more of the how than the why. What really drove the quarrel was politics and personality, and those powerful forces are only glimpsed here and there, in the margins of official minutes and meeting notes. Things come to life when one finds documents like this handwritten note from the Chief Whip, John Wakeham, to the Principal Private Secretary at No.10:

You might like to tell the P.M. that Michael Heseltine asked me late last [sic] to try and persuade her to hold a meeting on Friday. I said that I could not do that.
I said he must either do it himself or if as he said it was a "Constitutional Necessity" under Cabinet Govt. I suggested he spoke to Clive Whitmore [Permanent Secretary of Heseltine's Ministry of Defence] who could if necessary speak to Robert Armstrong.

Here is strong feeling, a vivid private report of an uncomfortable conversation, the kind of information that would usually have been relayed face to face or by phone and not found its way onto paper. High emotion had gathered around these abstract concepts of collective responsibility.

Then there are Charles Powell's minutes to MT, the closest source we have in these files as to MT's perspective on it all (her own annotations are unusually sparse). Revealing itself day by day in his drily humorous prose is the emergence of something not far off a government within a government. On 8 December 1985, for example, Powell opened his report with: "The struggle has continued over the weekend", wearily listing a whole series of unilateral moves by the Ministry of Defence and concluding "In the face of all this figure skating, DTI look positively flat-footed". On 13 October he reports on the "Ministry of Defence's game-plan today" in a style which makes it sound very much a foreign body. And by 18th December, the day The Times published an article by Anthony Bevins with the headline "Brittan accused by critics of 'misleading Commons'", Powell opens:

Enquiries of my friend in the MOD confirm: 1. that Mr Heseltine did lunch with Bevins 2. that the MOD line is that Mr Brittan did mislead the House ...

On the 19th Powell is sending her a transcript of remarks made by Brittan on the BBC's Nine O'Clock News:

Prime Minister. You asked to see this. It's pretty inoffensive, though a technical breach of the ceasefire.

The 'ceasefire' had been agreed that morning at cabinet. Military metaphors were irresistible during the Westland crisis, particularly in the press, but it is revealing to find one used at the heart of government.

The press mattered a great deal in the Westland affair, because the dispute became progressively more and more a matter of public knowledge, each side trading blows almost daily on the newspaper front pages from mid-December onwards. In fact only when one reads the papers does the the depth of the crisis become clear. The government looked awful, the Prime Minister all but helpless. One is reminded how powerful and effective a politician Michael Heseltine was, his side of the story again and again commanding the headlines. As late as 23 December The Times told us "Heseltine scents victory over Westland rescue", while Brittan "faces cabinet isolation on the issue". On the 27th the Sun was reporting MT's supposed irritation with Brittan and two days later, in the Sunday press, the Defence Secretary was pictured working in his beloved arboretum alongside lengthy accounts of his most recent move. The other side struggled to keep up in this press war - with horrible results, as will turn out in Acts III-V.

Although the story is incomplete in these files, so we should not draw final conclusions, it is surely true that by the time they close, at the end of December, a point of no return had been reached, and passed. The feeling from the files is not that either side planned a fight to the death, but that things got out of control, as they always had the potential to do in the Thatcher-Heseltine relationship. Perhaps peace of some kind might have been achieved if ministers had united around the proposition that the Westland board should decide for itself, but when the board rejected the European solution on Friday 13 December the battle merely entered the next phase, more public than ever. Did Michael Heseltine hope somehow still to fix the quarrel with MT, even this late? The emotional letter inset above on 23 December might suggest as much, just possibly. But by that time it is hard to see how any agreement between them could have been achieved except on terms that left one or other badly damaged, seen as knuckling under and losing face. For all their differences of character and approach, they shared a determination never to do that.

Westland documents, 1985

Whole files on Westland

You can also read in full the files from which the selected documents are taken. These are already uploaded, exactly as they appear in the reading room at Kew. They are big files and depending on your connection will take a while to download:

PREM19/1415 Aerospace (Westland Helicopters) Part 1 [1985 Apr 30 - Dec 10]
PREM19/1416 Aerospace (Westland Helicopters) Part 2 [1985 Dec 10 - Dec 27]

 

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