Release of MT's private files for 1984 - (2) the Brighton Bomb

Although 1984 was a time of deep political conflict in Britain, the Brighton Bomb still induced profound shock, transcending what had gone before.

MT had planned a dark and dramatic opening to her conference speech, warning of the dangerous spirit of the times - and assigning blame. In a way the bomb illustrated the point as nothing else possibly could, but it also made the speech impossible to deliver as it stood, forcing a drastic re-write in the most difficult circumstances the morning after.

1984 oct 6-11: the speech that never was

Argument at the core of the original speech

MT arrived in Brighton on Monday 8 October with a full text of her speech – although far from finished, a long speechwriting session at Chequers on Sunday 7 October enabled her speechwriters that evening to complete a 59 page draft. It was retyped the following morning and formed the basis for speech work that week.

MT had drafted much of the section on the miners – we have handwritten notes, once torn in four but sellotaped back together (dated by conjecture Saturday 6 Oct). Ronnie Millar took those notes and prepared a more polished text (guessed date 7 Oct), parts of which found their way into the speech as delivered.  The thinking seems to have been that the gravity of the coal crisis required, in Shephen Sherbourne’s words (note 28 Sept), “a different kind of conference speech; making it more of a single issue speech than normal”. Close attention was paid to Labour’s conference the previous week, events at which prompted even the Guardian to question the party’s “commitment to democracy and the law” (“The two parties of Blackpool” 5 Oct; see also John Redwood's notes, 1 Oct). A photocopy of that editorial was in MT's speech file and the Guardian's phrase found echo in her speech, as shown in the image on the left.

We have some notes by MT on three sheets of narrow notepaper, which look to have been written for her off-the-cuff remarks to Conservative Agents late in the evening of Thursday 11 October. They begin: "Scargill - a good OIL salesman". If the IRA had placed its bomb better, or built a bigger one, that short speech might have been MT's last.

The text of the conference speech itself was finished in the early hours of Friday morning, 12 October 1984. In fact MT’s secretaries were still retyping and photocopying when the bomb exploded at 2.54am - one of them took a big jolt from the photocopier when power surged through the circuits. The team took something like a final text out of the hotel with them when they were evacuated and were making photocopies on an ancient machine as dawn broke at Lewes Police College. The team then drove back into Brighton at speed on the Friday morning and the speech was rewritten at the Brighton Conference Centre in a backroom commandeered as an office.

We do not have the full text of the speech taken out of the hotel, but enough survives to show that the opening MT planned to deliver would have been dramatic, an intensification and escalation of the message encapsulated by “the enemy within”, launched into without the standard grace notes or nods of thanks and acknowledgement with which she began most of her speeches.

Mr President, many times throughout our history, the Conservative Party has spoken for Britain. At this conference, we have done so again. And never has the need been greater.

We meet today as free people in a free country. But everyone of us here senses the shadow that has fallen across this freedom since last we met. The shadow I speak of is the violence and intimidation which has scarred and wracked the coal industry, and particularly the working miners and their families.

I shall have more to say about it presently.

The shadow grows darker as influential men and women in our society question, even repudiate, the ideas of Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

The 8 October text gives one a sense of how she would likely have gone on, to place the Labour Party at the very heart of the problem. The paragraphs would have been revised before the final speech in some measure, if only to marry the metaphor of shadow with the succeeding sentence, which no longer fits, but the substance is unlikely to have altered:

From this dark cloud falls an acid rain that eats into liberty.

It can be seen above all in the natural home that these views and voices now find in the Labour Party. It explains why that party is so muted in its condemnation of picket violence; so muted in its praise for the hard-pressed police; so muted in its support for the tens of thousands of working miners; so muted in its advocacy of an NUM ballot; but so willing to trumpet the cause of the present NUM leadership in its extreme and uncompromising objectives. Yet the Labour Party in its present form, infiltrated by extremists, riven with factions, still stands upon the stage as the (principal) alternative to the Conservative Party in governing Britain. That, Mr. Chairman, is the measure of the shadow which has fallen across freedom since last we met.

The bomb had a curious impact on the speech, almost an ironic one, because an act of great violence brought about a deliberate softening of tone. The attack on Labour was largely written out as the speechwriters felt their way into the changed situation from their improvised conference hall office. Whatever else the Opposition was guilty of, clearly it had no part in this. There had to be a new note of political unity.

1984 spt-oct: planning the conference

The files contain all the usual detailed arrangements for the Conference, small and innocent things rendered somehow sinister by what was to come.

MT accepted all of Sherbourne’s recommendations as to which debates to attend except one - the session addressed by Sir Geoffrey Howe.

There seems to have been a painful discussion of the conference slogan, the kind of secondary matter that tended to occupy more Prime Ministerial attention than it conceivably merited. Michael Alison offered to leave the meeting if it would help.

We have the room layout on the Prime Minister’s floor, with the Thatchers in the “Napoleon Suite” (named for Napoleon III, not Bonaparte) and a request to the hotel to ensure “a large supply of malvern water”. The Howes were a few steps along the corridor in "Eugénie", the suite named for Napoleon III’s wife, who is buried with the rest of her family at the imperial mausoleum in Farnborough, a forgotten emblem of entente.

DT planned what he imagined would be his get-away at conference end: "I have to get myself to GATWICK Airport by 6.00pm FRIDAY to catch aeroplane. I may be able to "bum" a lift from some one!" There was to be no lift to Gatwick Airport, no plane needed catching.

There was always a little bit of politics as usual during conference week. MT spent half an hour the day before the bomb, Thursday 11 October, with the chairman of her Welsh Secretary’s constituency association, slugging it out over the recent EC settlement of milk quotas about which the farming lobby was incensed (Gaisman minute, 27 Spt).

Some of the dead and wounded are mentioned in passing. There is a draft layout for the platform party behind the Prime Minister the day of her speech: the Tebbits and the Wakehams are there, and Gordon Shattock. Perhaps most poignant is the exchange of letters setting up lunch in the Prime Minister’s suite with John and Roberta Wakeham on 9 October. He suffered serious crush injuries to his legs and she died in the bomb. MT probably never met her again.

1984 oct 12 onwards: aftermath

In some ways the bomb generated a lot of paper, in others scarcely any at all. No documents survive in the Thatcher MSS from the night itself beyond the speech fragments already mentioned. There are a few pages from an alternative new beginning to the speech showing that there was time for second thoughts even during the hurried rewrite the following morning. The alternative opening failed to develop the idea that the attack was aimed at democracy itself, leaving that idea implicit and focussing instead on government, party and individuals. The speech as delivered puts it better.

Every bit as important as the speech was the manner in which MT handled herself in those hours – the remarks she made to John Cole at Brighton Police Station in the middle of the night, firmly stating that the conference would go on; her arrival at the conference hall in the morning, on time and in perfect order, and finally the delivery itself - calm, low and gently paced. Many of the huge number of letters she received over the following days commented on the cool way she handled this most violent of personal assaults.

One thing that had to slip was an appointment due on the Friday morning with Mr Thorne of Ruffles Hair Salon. One of her secretaries courteously called to cancel – unnecessary one might have thought – and asked that the bill for appointments earlier in the week be sent to No.10. Not content with that, MT herself wrote to the hairdresser on the Monday apologising for not having had the chance to thank him in person. “I was very pleased with the way you did my hair, and the fact that it lasted so well through Friday was the real test”.

Her engagement diaries are the only source in her papers for the events of the next two and a half days. After the speech she visited the wounded in hospital for almost two hours, then was driven at very high speed to Chequers, arriving at 7.45pm. Her dressmaker, Daphne Scrimgeour, had been due to visit Chequers on the Saturday (according to her handwritten engagement diary), but it seems the appointment was cancelled (according to the typed version, which is supposed to have been adjusted whenever appointments overran or fell altogether).

She did, on the other hand, see her doctor, who dined with his wife and son at Chequers that evening. On the Sunday, the handwritten diary is completely blank: the words “Lunch at Chequers” appear to have been rubbed out (it was always kept in pencil precisely for that reason). Perhaps a lunch with friends was abandoned. According to the typed diary, she went to church at 11, Carol came to lunch at 1.30, leaving at 3, and the Thatchers returned to No.10 at 6.30pm.

1984 oct 14-17: answering letters

Sadly, and surprisingly, most of her in-letters relating to the bomb have disappeared. Those from heads of government were not placed in the usual sequence of “personal messages” – perhaps because there were so many in such a short time, just about every world leader wrote –and somehow they have been lost, probably now destroyed. We have a list at least of leaders who wrote (15 Oct), the whole operation being masterminded back at No.10 by one of the Private Secretaries who had not been on duty at Brighton – Charles Powell. Among letters from friends, other politicians and the general public, there are some particular letters she singled out to keep. And we have her out-letters too, or many of them. The number of the latter is so abundant and the touch so personal, we can see that she must have spent many hours of her time the following week handling that correspondence. See the whole files, 3/2/149-150.

She seems to have signed some routine letters on 12 April, the day of the bomb itself – a letter to the Prime Minister of Belize for example. We know that she took calls from The Queen (who was in Wyoming) and President Reagan, though there is no record of them in these papers.

A great many letters were written to her that day, but presumably arrived at Chequers on Saturday - her birthday, as luck would have it, so there will have been many cards too, some predating the bomb, others uneasily combining best wishes and commiserations. Her earliest reply to this incoming avalanche of paper seems to have been the letter she wrote to Peter Thorneycroft, one of only two things in the files dated Sunday 14 October. It is likely too that she took a call from David Hart, primarily about the coal strike, judging from a document in his archive; probably others rang too. The Thorneycroft letter includes her earliest formulation of an idea that became famous when she first spoke on television about the bomb on Monday 15 October:

This morning at church as the sun came through the stained glass windows, I thought – “this is the day I was not meant to see”. And then I remembered my friends who cannot see it. I have never known such a blend of gratitude and sorrow.

She wept at church, a fact well-reported in the press.

The in-letters included many from political opponents. All the other party leaders at Westminster wrote on the Friday. Neil Kinnock told her "I am horrified and outraged at this terrible atrocity" and commended her for carrying on. David Steel was perhaps a little less forthcoming, expressing “shock and warm sympathy”. David Owen spoke of his “shock, sadness and grief”, mentioning also Norman Tebbit. Molyneaux and Paisley wrote, connecting the attack to Northern Ireland.

There were many other touching messages, from Labour opponents especially – such as Moss Evans from the TGWU, Roy Mason, a former Northern Ireland Secretary who had lived with the threat of IRA attack for years, Renée Short, Gregor Mackenzie, and Ted Leadbitter. Judging from MT’s reply, Michael Foot also wrote very warmly to her, and separately to Norman Tebbit too. Her reply was written entirely in hand, one of very few at such a busy time. “It is as well we cannot foretell the future – we could not endure the knowledge./ Every good wish to you and Jill [Craigie]”. MT seems to have given high priority to replying to letters from political opponents she was particularly moved by, answering them as soon as those to world and party leaders were taken care of. She valued the sense of unity across the divide.

All the principal British religious leaders wrote, as well as the Papal Nuncio, who for some reason got a reply from Charles Powell rather than MT in person. There were letters from many bishops too, including Ely who described himself humorously as “one of your praying and supporting bishops”. (The Bishop of Durham seems not to have written.) Her reply to the Archbishop of York is particularly interesting, frankly showing how deeply the dark mood had bitten. She wrote: "The last months have indeed been a strain, and there is more to come. I shall be very thankful if we can secure total condemnation of violence and if support can be withdrawn for all who use it as a means to secure their particular objectives".

There were some letters from immediate staff and their families, but rather fewer than one might at first expect. Perhaps so many of her circle were actually present in Brighton and either lived through it with her, or saw her so shortly afterwards, that there was no occasion to write. John Coles had completed his three year stint as her Foreign Affairs Private Secretary in June. He wrote to compliment her: “We shall remember - not the bomb or the ruined building – but your courage, calm and nobility in the aftermath”. Many friends sent flowers to Chequers and No.10, perhaps the best gesture of all.

Several letters from men who had served in the war warned of the after effects of experiencing violent attack – Lord Dacre told her that “depression of spirit must necessarily follow when imagination and reflexion work in the rubble of so dreadful an experience”. She agreed. "Yes, it was a terrible experience, the full realisation of which only began to sink in two days afterwards. But I have been sustained more than I can say by the great outpouring of concern for the victims of this terrible deed and determination that those responsible shall never be allowed to prevail". On Monday 15 October Bill Deedes warned Michael Alison:

Your boss is going to suffer - is already suffering - delayed shock over Friday. Not her escape: but death & injury to those close to her. Delayed shock is serious and - I learned in the war - worst for the bravest. I know you will look after it.

There is no sign that she gave herself much time for recovery in the sense of physical rest. In fact work was her principal mode of coping with stress, so resting would have been counterproductive. The engagement diary for Monday 15 October saw her back at No.10 on what looks to have been an ordinary schedule, a day of meetings on the coal strike and Europe, ending in a “working dinner” with Jacques Delors.  

That said, it is quite plausible that she suffered some form of delayed shock. Her first appointment on Tuesday 16 October was an interview with Douglas Keay for Women's Own. Ingham usually sat in on these things, but was away at the dentist. When later in the day he saw the transcript, he wrote: "This is remarkable - sounds like an interview in the immediate - i.e., hours - aftermath of the bomb. / God knows what Keay will make of it". Keay in fact detected precisely what Dacre and Deedes had warned against, writing that: "She seemed in the aftermath of shock, repeating herself and sometimes speaking as if there was no one else in the room".


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