Newly declassified British Government archives from 1973-75

On 29 December 2005 the National Archives in London released key British Government papers from thirty years earlier. reviews the files

Knocking Britain? The British Government and Margaret Thatcher's North American visit, September 1975

Margaret Thatcher spent the last two weeks of September 1975 visiting the United States and Canada in her first significant overseas trip as Leader of the Opposition. She received a great deal of press attention in the US, partly because she was the first woman leader of a major political party in the western world, but also Britain was facing huge problems at that time and Americans sought to draw lessons. The year 1975 was one of the toughest in post-war British history, with inflation reaching 26.9 per cent and massive trade and government deficits forcing the government to seek international loans. "Britain is a tragedy", commented Henry Kissinger privately in a Oval Office meeting in January 1975.

Four bulky files on the visit have just been declassified by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. By convention British diplomats helped to organize foreign trips for leading political figures on all sides in Britain, but their degree of involvement in this trip was unusual. Senior officials judged Margaret Thatcher's private office too inexperienced to organize a major tour (perhaps with justice), and they worked hard to fill the gaps. But there was more to it than that. Whitehall clearly had a sense that in Margaret Thatcher it might well be dealing with a future Prime Minister and when "raised Ministerial eyebrows" were detected, ordinary channels were bypassed to make sure things ran smoothly.

The trip was important to Margaret Thatcher for several reasons. The US obviously mattered in its own right. But a successful visit to the leading power of the Western world would also help establish her domestic political standing. She had had no experience of handling foreign affairs before becoming party leader in February 1975 and not only was her shadow foreign secretary, Reggie Maudling, greatly her senior in that respect, he was far from sharing her hawkish instincts towards the Soviet Union. One of the documents shows her delicately seeking advice from Britain's Ambassador to Washington, Sir Peter Ramsbotham, as to reasons why she might best leave Maudling at home. The Ambassador tactfully obliged. Apart from staff and spouse, on this visit she travelled alone.

As things turned out, except in one regard, the trip proved a very successful one, as officials in London and Washington acknowledged. She met with the President for half an hour (her first visit to the Oval Office) and spent half a day on Capitol Hill meeting influential members of both houses of Congress, before being presented to the Senate. She did two major tv interviews. Press attention for the tour, both in the US and Britain, was abundant and generally highly positive. MT's determination to make her mark was rewarded. And she impressed at a personal as well as political level, overcoming her improbable fear that the timetable was so tight she would have no time to look her best and would be written of as "a scruffy female politician".

Unluckily for the Foreign Office, the only area where things went wrong lay squarely in its own responsibility. Having initially told the British Ambassador to Washington to be helpful, ministerial irritation at the whole affair caused an outbreak of bureaucratic anxiety and the instructions were modified: "arrangements for her visit should be correct but no more".

Ambassador Ramsbotham found himself in a painful position. Earlier that year he had provoked then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, by briefing him a little too eagerly about American concerns as to Britain's rate of inflation. (See Bernard Donoughue Downing Street Diary, p373, entry for 7 May 1975.) Now London was sending mixed messages on the Thatcher visit. It is not surprising perhaps that when MT delivered the most controversial of her speeches, to the Institute of Socio-Economic Studies in New York, he felt called upon to act. He considered complaining directly to her that she was "seriously knocking Britain", but the encounter never took place. Instead someone briefed the press unattributably, along the lines that she was "behaving wildly". When subsequent speeches were judged more moderate, there was a further briefing from the Embassy to the effect that their wise heads had succeeded in toning things down.

Back in London a friendly journalist wrote the story up, provoking an exchange of letters between MT and the Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan. Callaghan noted that his letter carefully avoided the question of unhelpful briefing by the Embassy.

In May 1977 Callaghan, by then Prime Minister, created controversy by appointing his son-in-law, Peter Jay, as Ramsbotham's replacement. The following month MT showed that she bore the Ramsbothams no ill-will in response to a letter from the ex-Ambassador's wife, who had been upset by a story in the satirical magazine Private Eye.

Files from the Ford Library on MT's 1975 visit

1972-73: Chief Whip's reshuffle notes for Edward Heath

The Cabinet Office has recently begun releasing a new series of documents on government appointments (PREM 5), which include sensitive reports by the Chief Whip to the Prime Minister assessing colleagues and suggesting reshuffle moves.

In the early years of the Heath Government Margaret Thatcher had a rough time as Education Secretary. During this period the whips at no point suggested that she be moved (or removed). She appears in the notes only after 1972, and always in a favourable context.

The most significant suggestion for her future dates from October 1972. As the Government prepared to introduce a new statutory prices and incomes policy (one of the most significant of the " U turns " of 1972), the creation of a new Minister of Fair Trading was planned, with responsibility (among other things) for new powers to control prices. The post was expected to have a large impact on public perception of the government, particularly among women voters.

The file (PREM 5/ 530) shows that MT was very seriously considered for the job. The Permanent Secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry (in whose department the job would have been located) was asked by the Head of the Civil Service to comment on how things would work with MT in the post, a request which strongly implies that the Prime Minister was giving the idea close consideration. And assuming that was the case, one can only conclude that Heath supposed MT a solid supporter of the new statutory policy.

The report—marked "Confidential and Strictly Personal "—gives a rare insight into official views of MT at this time. She was understood to be "critical of Nat[ionalised] Ind[ustrie]s, especially gas". Her Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education and Science contributed his assessment: "Pile says highly subjective in her reaction to people ". Relations with other ministers were a source of concern.

In the event, the job was given to Sir Geoffrey Howe. But MT was in the frame for a further significant move during 1973 (PREM 5/541). The Chief Whip, Francis Pym, sent the Prime Minister a positive assessment of her in June 1973: " Present Performance: held in high esteem by the Party and by her junior ministers. (H)as kept us out of trouble on this front [education]. Future Treatment: would like to move, but not to DHSS because she does not want the "other obvious woman's department". In September Pym put her forward as a possible Secretary of State for the Environment, with responsibility for the politically vital issue of housing.

In the event, the reshuffle never took place because the advice was overtaken. The Government itself fell within months. MT was then made Shadow Environment spokesman when responsibilities were handed out in Opposition and as a result played a key part in the political controversies of housing and interest rates in spring and summer 1974.