Margaret Thatcher's files as Prime Minister, 1981

MT's Prime Ministerial files from 1981 were released at the UK National Archives in Kew on 30 December 2011

Below are initial selections from the 200 or so files; more will follow in coming days and the whole body by the end of the year

1981 feb: first to visit president reagan

Toasting the President at the British Embassy dinner, 27 Feb 1981

MT began 1981 in backs-to-the-wall mode, with the British economy entering its sixth quarter of recession and the dire economic situation dominating politics. Unemployment, inflation and the government's own deficit were none of them responding to treatment as hoped, and her trademark economic policy of 'monetarism', into which so much political capital had been sunk, was becoming a dirty word. Unsurprisingly the Prime Minister boasted poll ratings every bit as bright as the economic outlook. For many, even strong sympathisers in Britain and overseas, the "Thatcher Experiment" was well down the road to failure, with the coup de grâce expected when the next election was due in 1984, if not far sooner.

In such circumstances it is easy to identify one's political friends, since the field will not be a crowded one. And at this very low point no one placed themselves by her side as emphatically and effectively as the incoming President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who made her his Administration's first state visitor and treated her with conspicuous generosity at every opportunity.

The British files on that visit, 25-27 Feb 1981, and their dealings during the President's first year are now open and will be made available in full on the site, including records of their conversations and secret correspondence, which were previously closed or available only in fragmentary form, mostly from Freedom of Information releases from the US side, also on this site.

Not that the President wasn't warned of the risks of too close a connection with the 'Iron Lady'. As the visit got under way, a close and trusted aide on the economic side, Martin Anderson, circulated a note to senior White House staff carefully differentiating "Reaganism and Thatcherism", and Administration press briefings made the same point: US economic policy was not going down the British path. Even the NSC staffer responsible for Europe, who strongly favoured making a big thing out of the visit, thought it should be packaged as "upbeat bad news", "two tough sleeves-rolled-up leaders who have taken the measure ... of the situation's exceptional gravity".

Of course the sleeves-rolled-up analogy does no justice to the glitter of these state occasions, still less the visitor's horror of anything smacking of the casual or the underdressed. State occasions under Jimmy Carter had become a byword for the downbeat, aspiring to humility and informality but in execution achieving a kind of uneasy dowdiness. His successor, with the help of the new First Lady, inaugurated what was to many a welcome return of style, even pomp, which actually combined very well with informality and genuine warmth of welcome, not least because it impressed and flattered the subject of attention. MT certainly warmed to it, as the photo to the left shows, taken during the return banquet at the British Embassy. The very fact that the President accepted an invitation from the British side the night after the White House State Dinner was a considerable mark of favour, the NSC debating within itself whether to set a precedent that might make it hard to refuse less welcome invitations.

These were early days for the new Administration and there were some chaotic moments behind the scenery. The new Vice-President found himself excluded from a substantive meeting and "very publicly chews ass with his immediate aides outside the Roosevelt Room" (please forgive the language, which is from a vivid, contemporary White House source). The senior US career diplomat in the UK was left off the guest list for the White House State Dinner. The Chief of Protocol, Mrs Lee Annenberg, spent some heart-stopping moments worrying whether the visitors would find their way to the coffee and pastries. But the fundamentals were strong and the machine took its cue from the fact. The President wanted to offer support to a political friend, in the process making it clear to the US public that he knew his mind and that the Administration offered clarity, direction and decision in place of what had gone before.

On her side, as MT prepared for the meeting she experienced a few doubts. She asked the British Ambassador to the US how he thought it would go? She reminded him - as his diary on this site records - that she had only met Ronald Reagan twice before, and they had seemed to get along. She knew already, however, the way that man is enveloped by machine, the politician taken over by the weighty apparatus around him. In fact probably the single most distinctive personal quality she and Ronald Reagan shared, as opposed to their common political outlook, was a deep-rooted determination to be themselves in the face of those pressures. But at this stage she was not to know that.

The substantive content on this visit probably mattered less than the show, or rather the show was the content this time, to a large degree. There was a face-to-face meeting ahead of all the other scheduled events at which MT and the President spoke alone: no one else was present and so no record was made, a practice which they often followed later. (There is a document in the file setting out topics she wanted to raise in her meeting with the President, but it is an improbably long shopping list, so not much of a guide to what actually was said.) At the plenary meeting which came immediately after, the conversation began with a general discussion of East-West issues, but swiftly focussed on Central America, registering the President's strong concern with a region where Britain had few direct interests, aside from Belize.

Personnel mattered. The British Foreign Secretary was present this time, which was generally not true on MT's later visits to Washington. Perhaps this was because the British at this point were keen to bolster the role of the US Secretary of State, Al Haig, whose earlier experience as NATO commander was thought to make him more attuned to European sensibilities than many others in the Administration. One early feature of the British approach to the Reagan Administration was a belief that it might prove excessively 'Californian', by which was meant Pacific rather than Atlantic-oriented. This sophisticated-sounding analysis was in fact misleading and shallow. Californians felt as strongly as any other Americans about the Cold War, and there was no member of the Administration more Anglophile than Caspar Weinberger, the new Secretary of Defence, a San Franciscan who had tried to joined the RAF in 1940 but been turned down. It was fortunate from the British point of view that he lived to fight another day.

Documents on the visit are present here in two forms: selected key documents, or whole files. Please note that the files are quite large. Files have been filmed under less than perfect conditions; later in the year better quality images will be substituted. The admin file is included to give some sense of the complexity of a visit of this kind. Besides schedules and the like, it includes many thank you letters on both sides.

Key documents on Feb 1981 MT visit to US

PREM19/600 USA: (Feb 1981 visit - policy) Part 1 [1981 Jan 2 - Feb 28] 70MB
PREM19/601 USA: (Feb 1981 visit - admin) Part 2 [1981 Feb 25 - Sep 3] 30MB

nuclear diplomacy

A surprise appearance in the 1981 release is a key file on Britain's nuclear deterrent. Generally, understandably enough, policy towards nuclear weapons has been thought to require extended closure beyond the statutory 30 years.

The file concerns the negotiations between Britain and the US regarding our acquisition of the Trident missile, in replacement for the ageing Polaris system originally sold to Britain by the Kennedy Administration. MT had first approached the US on this subject during a visit to Washington in December 1979, raising it personally with President Carter, who signified a willingness to make a deal once the SALT II Treary had been ratified.

This was an important qualification. SALT II was never ratified, as it turned out, so after a while that constraint fell away, but a sensitivity to political cross-winds of this kind made the negotiation fraught from the British point of view. The Carter Administration had qualms about the reaction of European allies as to British acquisition of a powerful new deterrent, particularly the French, who had their own deterrent and were touchy about all matters American, and the West Germans, who had public opinion problems arising from the decision in late 1979 to station Cruise and Pershing in Europe to counter the deployment of Soviet SS20s. A senior British official was tasked with the detailed negotiation - someone whose comings and goings in Washington would attract no press scrutiny, inconspicuous therefore in a way that a minister could never be - and at one point he raises (if only to dismiss) the notion that the Carter Administration was "stringing us along", so slow had the pace become. The British view of US motives in supplying the system is interesting. We believed they thought we would be forced to build our own system if they did not supply Trident, eating into funds available for conventional defence.

In the end the deal was done, supposedly wrapped up by July 1980 when a public exchange of letters took place between President and PM. Unpublished side letters dealt with sensitive topics like the US supply of plutonium and arrangements for offset expenditures to compensate Britain for the funds being spent in the US.

In fact, though, the issue was not closed. The incoming Reagan Administration decided to upgrade the Trident programme, opting in the summer of 1981 to develop a more powerful missile, the D5, in place of the C4 we had contracted to buy, which would accordingly have only a comparatively short service life on the US side, leaving our system obsolete only a few years after its introduction. This provided an early indication of the helpfulness of the new people, and of Caspar Weinberger in particular, in the most sensitive of all policy areas. Trident had been the first item of business MT raised when she met with him at the Pentagon, on 27 Feb 1981, the first of many such meetings across the years; he had been immediately reassuring as to US intentions. Now that helpfulness was put to the test. It made good sense for us to move with the US to the new system, and through Weinberger the most favourable possible arrangement was offered the UK. It had been proposed that MT take up the matter directly with President Reagan in a bilateral at the Ottawa G7 in July 1981, but the occasion seems not to have been right, and in any case the Defense Secretary provided the necessary access.

One quirk of the US bureaucracy is evident in all this paperwork: despite many years experience dealing with British Prime Ministers, and MT personally, at this stage they had not worked out a correct way to address her. President Reagan wrote calling her 'Maggie' (which no one who knew her at all well ever did), while Caspar Weinberger, at the other extreme, favoured the very un-British term "Her Excellency". The Carter Administration stuck generally to "Margaret R. Thatcher" - a safe option, had her middle name not been Hilda.

The file even includes outline details of British nuclear tests, done at American sites at what must surely have been a bargain price (£5m for our place on the 1981 programme). The oddly named "Hurdle Prime" provided us with the data needed to design the basic warhead, detonated at 1510 London time 17 December 1980, while MT and senior colleagues sat in a Cabinet Committee meeting at No.10.

Finally, there is a revealing political discussion of Trident dated 10 Feb 1981. The new Defence Secretary, John Nott, while avowing his own support for the purchase of Trudent, claims that fully two thirds of the Conservative Party and the Cabinet itself were opposed and that "(e)ven the Chiefs of Staff were not unanimous". Whether he thought they favoured a cheaper system, or none at all, is unclear. It would surely be wrong to suggest that two thirds of either the Cabinet or the Party favoured giving up nuclear weapons, and comments elsewhere in the file suggest that the real problem for the politicians was uncertainty as to their ability to manage public opinion with unilateralism rising in popularity. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, responded bluntly to Nott's reflection: "(He) said that he also was in no doubt about the decision. Failure to acquire Trident would have left the French as the only nuclear power in Europe. This would be intolerable."

PREM19/417 Defence (Strategic Nuclear Deterrent) Part 3 [1980 Jun 10 - 1981 Nov 12] 46MB

the riots of summer 1981

Summer 1981 saw rioting in some of Britain's major cities, on a scale as great as any in living memory. The political and social impact was immense.

The main file on the riots provides detailed records of MT's meetings with the police, and also with communities and local figures in the affected areas. And in the huge file on inner cities there is detailed debate as to how to fashion a policy response, focussed on proposals for Liverpool and Merseyside where some of the worst violence had taken place. Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine took the lead and became, for a time, "Minister for Merseyside". Treasury scepticism as to how far the city (or perhaps its inner core) could or should be regenerated features in a memorandum from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, which attracted more press controversy than any other document in the 1981 release.

The riots received world attention. A feature article from the New York Times of 8 July 1981 made its way into the files of Ed Meese, one of President Reagan's closest counsellors. Headlined "The Thatcher Plan's Failure", it suggested that "The riots in Liverpool this week, stemming partly from the worst unemployment Britain has experienced since the Depression of the 1930s, are grim evidence of the failure of what was once regarded as a brilliant innovation in economic policy".

PREM19/484 Home Affairs: (Riots) [1980 Apr 2 - 1981 Oct 29] 85MB
PREM19/578 Regional Policy: (Inner Cities) Part 2 [1981 Aug 11 -Oct 20] 155MB