Release of MT's private files for 1979 - (1) Transition to Power

It is thirty years since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Her private papers for 1979 are now being released at the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge, a month after the opening of her official files for the year at the National Archives in Kew.

The Margaret Thatcher Foundation and the separate Archive Trust are combining to digitise them all and put the best online. Thousands upon thousands will eventually feature on this site, making Margaret Thatcher's career (we believe) the most accessible of any political or public figure in history to date. Others will surely follow, but not for the first time she will have been well ahead of the pack.

summary: what is being released?

An election to win

Alongside her official papers as PM - stored in an office close to the Cabinet Room modestly titled "Confidential Filing" - MT kept a collection of personal documents at her No.10 flat. They included the aide memoires she wrote from time to time (notably on the Falklands War) as well as letters from friends and close advisers, and personal mementoes, such as her extensive collection of menus from lunches with presidents and grand official dinners. By the time she left office she had filled five or six mahogany filing cabinets.

These papers now form the core of her archive at the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge. And there is much more besides, because in fact No.10 comprises a whole collection of offices much of whose work has been archived in Cambridge. While key policy documents are handled by the Private Office (and become part of the National Archives in Kew), Cambridge now has the filing from her Political Office (which handled party business and was paid for by the party), the Press Office (including copies of off-the-record Lobby Briefings never previously kept), and the Policy Unit (advising mainly on economic policy). Finally, for the first time, the archive of the PM's Diary Secretary and the No.10 secretariat ("the Garden Room") escaped the shredder, giving us MT's appointment diaries and files for visits and engagements, packed with interest.

All told, these sources give us a far fuller picture of life at No.10 than has been available for previous PMs.

The Cambridge files will be released in tandem with those at Kew, staggered by a month. The first tranche covers 1979. Assuming no change in the law, each year for the next 12 will see a further release until 1990 is reached at the end of January 2021.

A selection is being uploaded to coincide with release to the press: progressively more will appear on the site as the year goes on.

There is so much to comment on that it is best handled over multiple pages - you can jump from one to the next at the scroll end.

transition to power: secret talks with no.10

The transfer of power from one party to another was potentially fraught, for obvious and less obvious reasons. So there was careful and very secret preparation for the physical handover between Ken Stowe (Principal Private Secretary at No.10) and Richard Ryder (MT’s Political Secretary). Of course, everything was done on a contingency basis, though the likelihood of a Conservative victory was high.

Ryder’s note for MT of a meeting with Stowe on 2 May is being released, recording Stowe’s remark that there had been ‘unpleasant’ handovers in 1964 and 1970. MT annotated the document approving Stowe’s suggestion that sitting PM Jim Callaghan should be offered temporary use of Chequers, though it was assumed he would not accept (it seems he did not, understandably enough).

There is a second note by Ryder (13 Apr) of a conversation with Heath’s former Political Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who admitted that his suspicion of Wilson’s assistant Marcia Falkender prevented him from talking in advance with Labour about the last such handover, in March 1974. As a result Heath's removal arrangements had been humiliating, his piano wheeled out the door in full view of the cameras, and the shot used endlessly on news programmes and documentaries ever after. (So in fact all three of the previous transfers of power from one party to another had gone badly.) Hurd reminded Ryder to give the Palace his office numbers because they hadn't known the number when Heath won in 1970.

If these pre-election contacts between MT’s office and Whitehall had leaked, they would have seemed damagingly presumptuous. MT insisted on close control over them for precisely this reason. But after receiving a draft Conservative European manifesto on 2 May, i.e., the day before the General Election, she commented: “This really must go to whoever is Foreign Secretary”. This was probably just a slip, but it is likely by that stage she pretty much expected to win.

The Whitehall machine thought so too. Even Sir Ian Bancroft (Head of the Civil Service) was quietly making sure things went smoothly, allowing positive vetting for MT’s staff ahead of time (4 Apr Stephens note).

transition: cabinet-making

MT’s handwritten notes on cabinet choices have survived. They show some of her thinking, and there are interesting might-have-beens:

  1. They confirm that Michael Heseltine was intended to become Secretary of State for Energy rather than Environment, which he had shadowed in Opposition. He objected at the last moment and was allowed to keep his old brief, swapping jobs with David Howell, who was down to see her later in the day. (MT did not forget.)
  2. MT thought of putting a Labour defector in the Cabinet: in earlier notes Reg Prentice was down as Environment Secretary. In the event he became a Minister of State, one rung below Cabinet level (which he never attained). It is not clear why she changed her mind, but the only minister present at No.10 with her at this point was Willie Whitelaw, and he was the guardian of the party's soul.
  3. Peter Walker was thought of for Northern Ireland. (He went to Agriculture and former Oppositon Chief Whip, Humphrey Atkins, took Northern Ireland instead.)
  4. Nick Ridley & Paul Channon were considered for cabinet jobs in 1979. In the end they had to wait till 1983 and 1986 respectively.
  5. MT thought of several possible slots for John Biffen, who ended up as Chief Secretary but was not a success in the job – crucially, given the importance of public spending. John Nott was thought of as a possible Chief Secretary, but went to Trade.
  6. A possible Trade Secretary was Michael Latham – who never held any job in her governments. It is not clear why he was thought of, or passed over.

MT’s thinking about the political balance of the new cabinet comes out in a conversation shortly after (23 May) with Joe Clark, the newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister, a transcript now being released on this site. She obviously enjoyed the call and was almost keen to give advice:

The only thing that I did was to form what I call a ‘well-balanced Government’, that is to say that some of us were known to be fervent believers in the almost pure political belief and I had to balance it out with other people – not for me, but to give a certain confidence that one is determined to take the middle ground. You know that they always charge you with extremism during an election campaign. But apart from that all I did was just to get on but never take a decision before I'm ready to.

transition: advisers

For all the advance planning, in one area things went less well, with adverse consequences in the long and short term. The appointment of key advisers at No.10 turned into a scrimmage and left MT without a personal adviser on some of the most important aspects of the economy, particularly fiscal and monetary policy. (The monetary economist Alan Walters was later recruited to fill this gap, but he began working for her only in Jan 1981.) In truth neither MT, nor the people around her, had really thought deeply about how No.10 should be run, and in particular how far the Prime Minister would need independent advice and who should provide it - so far as she did.

Actually forming a government occupied the first 36 hours of her premiership and left her and Ken Stowe virtually no time for anything else. During that time key people from her office in Opposition began arriving at No.10, introducing themselves to staff, looking to help, scouting out rooms. Adam Ridley, her chief economic adviser in Opposition, was expecting – and was expected by Ryder and Stowe – to hold the same position at No.10, with Michael Portillo in his team. MT had certainly licensed this idea, as one can see from the note of the Ryder-Stowe conversation on 2 May, which she read. But MT also wanted one of her closest advisers from Opposition, John Hoskyns, to head her Policy Unit at No.10 and for several days it was uncertain whether he or Ridley would head it, or both. In the end, around 8/9 May, she decided on Hoskyns alone, and Ridley was told he would work for Howe at the Treasury.

There is a revealing note by Ridley of a meeting on advisers at MT’s home in Flood Street, 1 Apr 1979, a venue usually chosen when matters of particular sensitivity were being discussed. It shows there was a plan to establish a “Council of Economic Advisers” including Arthur Burns (recently retired chairman of the Federal Reserve), Jelle Zijlstra (former Dutch PM and Finance Minister), Terry Burns or Alan Budd, Sam Brittan and Patrick Minford. This remained a possibility for some months, but came to nothing – files released at Kew show the Treasury was hostile, and in the end Howe and MT agreed not to establish the Council, in return for which Howe dropped his own pet, a ‘National Forum’ to discuss economic policy (a sort of souped up NEDC), which MT had no time for at all.

MT met R.A. Butler and his wife for lunch over Xmas 1979 and this former Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote her a thank you note which showed they had discussed this weakness in her team: “I was glad to be able to express my support for your forthright policies & my hope that they will succeed. I ventured to suggest the view that the more expert economic support you could obtain, the better. And you agreed”. (She also seems to have told him that she had backed him for leader in Oct 1963 when Macmillan retired: “I was especially touched by your stating that you had in fact been my supporter in a major moment in my life”.)

The problem with advisers is all the more striking in that MT made great efforts to draw on the opinions of people outside the official machine and her own staff. In fact there are files of correspondence with these irregulars. But what these efforts finally show perhaps is that her deepest instinct was that she could really only trust herself. She wrote a letter to management consultant Alcon Copisarow, 11 Aug 1977, which contains a striking formulation connecting these two ideas:

It is most important that we get the structure and the strategy right and I have already come to the conclusion that I shall have to take most of the major decisions myself. It is therefore vital that I also arrange to keep in touch with a number of key figures in the ‘outside’ world.

transition: gordon reece & the "image-makers"

In the BBC’s 2009 film Margaret, one of the party's key media advisers - Gordon Reece - is portrayed as a masterful influence in MT’s career, if not quite a puppeteer. Notes and letters from him at Conservative Central Office (CCO) lead one to doubt this.

In fact he struggled to get her attention once she was at No.10. Strikingly he couldn't persuade her to do a major television interview in Britain till January 1980, a full eight months after coming to power. It might have happened sooner had ITV not been on strike for much of the last part of the year, but he began trying in a note written as early as 9 May. And when he wrote to Ryder the same day suggesting they allow merchandising of her image, she exploded in wrath: “NO permission to be given at all on any goods of any kind”. A note by Reece (and McAlpine) in Nov 79 on Public Relations Strategy running up to the next election was returned virtually unread by MT. It is likely her mind was entirely on other things. (They remained on good terms personally.)

transition: congratulations

Anyone in the public gaze receives a huge postbag at big moments. Many thousands of letters were sent to MT on her election. Surviving in her archive are the ones which required or received personal responses from her, mainly from friends, public figures, and celebrities of various kinds.

Among them - Robert Armstrong (a senior serving official, soon to be Cabinet Secretary) & Patrick Dean (retired FCO head), Edward Boyle (Oxford contemporary and Conservative minister, reminding MT of old times), Barbara Cartland (a gushing telegram), the BBC’s Michael Cole (he was on the 79 campaign tourbus and hoped for the first interview with the new PM - he was given a kind reply, but no interview), Petula Clark (telegram), Lulu, Bill Deedes (after a visit to No.10, characteristically drew a golfing analogy), Daily Mail editor David English (promising to be helpful and receving warm thanks), Milton Friedman (a telegram shrewdly pointing to opportunity for British leadership – a good move with MT), Lew Grade, Helmut Kohl (lengthy & in German), the Mayor of Grantham (proper civic pride), Keith Hampson (“the real battle is just beginning” – a formula repeated in her replies), Ralph Harris, Arthur Seldon & JohnWood from IEA (advising her “suaviter in modo, fortiter in re,” i.e., “gentle in manner, resolute in execution”), Friedrich von Hayek (“the best present on my 80th birthday anyone could have given me” – poetic license, he was born 8 May 1899), the British Davis Cup Team (demanding she serve cannonballs to the unions), California Republican Howard Jarvis (advocate of tax cutting Proposition 13, who met MT in London; also two on similar lines from Senators Robert Griffin and Jacob Javits - she was genuinely a hit with ideological Republicans), Larry Lamb, editor of the Sun (he sent a Paddington Bear card “They say that new brooms sweep clean, the trouble is knowing what to do with the old soot” – she thanked him for lifting spirits and spurring to higher things), Nigel Lawson (much to say),  Fred Lawton and Lord Justice Brightman (MT's old pupil masters), Dorothy Brabourne (dead within six months alongside Mountbatten), and Ronnie Millar, her chief speechwriter (who told her he had "never doubted her destiny" and presciently predicted "at least three Parliaments' worth" of work to do).

Judging from her file of replies she must also have had letters from Nixon, Kissinger, Ian Smith, Pik and P.W. Botha.

Peter Hardiman Scott wrote on 4 May 79: he was a former BBC chief political correspondent who reminded MT that she had told him when Education Secretary that her highest ambition was to be the first female Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Tax exile Peter Sellers sent a telegram from the Inn on the Park where he had watched the results half the night: “Dear Mrs. Thatcher, As an ex Goon from East Finchley I send you many congratulations on your marvellous victory. Sincerely, Peter Sellers”. And the other great British comedian of the day, Eric Morecambe – a resident of Harpenden rather than Gstaad – was also a Thatcher supporter in 79. It was often assumed he was a Labour man, perhaps because he was a northerner, or because Harold Wilson had guest-starred on the Morecambe & Wise show after leaving office. But during the Euro Elections in June 1979 he sent MT a warm endorsement, ending with a jibe at the complacent: “People are always talking about what’s wrong with the country – there’s nothing wrong with the country. I go there every summer”.

Transition documents


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