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Release of MT's private files for 1984 - (4) foreign policy

For all the domestic struggles, 1984 was a good year for British foreign policy

1983-84 oct 6-11: changing faces

Deng Xiao Ping shows up

In Jan 1984 MT acquired a new permanent member of staff at No.10 – Sir Percy Cradock, who succeeded Anthony Parsons as her special adviser on foreign policy and intelligence.

Cradock was a former British Ambassador to China, and latterly had been the FCO official running the negotiations over Hong Kong. He stayed in post for the rest of her premiership, a powerful influence over her thinking, far less well-known than his near contemporary at No.10, Charles Powell, MT’s Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs who arrived in June 1984 and gradually acquired a public profile beyond that of most officials. Cradock certainly would have thought he had the better part of the bargain.

Cradock’s opening move was to prepare a minute called “First Thoughts” (27 Jan 1984), an overview of Britain’s position and policy in the world. Ostensibly this was meant for the reading of Powell’s predecessor, John Coles, but obviously in fact MT was the intended audience. He prepared a follow-up memo in July which she liked so much she asked for a spare copy to keep in her flat “to ponder on from time to time” – a vey unusual thing from a woman who worked swiftly through her papers and who rarely had time or inclination for looking back.

Cradock’s influence over MT derived much more from intellect than personality: he was not quite in the mould of other Foreign Office mandarins she came to admire, like Henderson and Parsons, who charmed as well as impressed. His papers for her have a bleak frankness about them, an unblinking appeal to realism (almost realpolitik), as well as a deep sense of history. He was more likely to quote Thucydides than The Times.

When John Coles left No.10, he realised that history was likely to take a close interest in his former boss and within weeks he composed a private memoir of his time there (December 1981-June 1984), a period in which he was almost constantly at her side. Generously he is now allowing us to publish it online. It is an insightful and entirely credible contemporary account from someone who knew her well, was by her side at crucial moments and had no political axes to grind. It is also the only document of its kind yet to surface from former Private Office staff. Hopefully there will be more in years to come.

There are many interesting aspects to the memoir – the perception that she slowed down after the 1983 general election, for example. But one thing particularly explodes from the page:

 I recall my surprise when she said to me, just two or three days after the Conservative victory of June 1983, “I have not long to go”. For someone who had just won a majority of 140 seats this was a remarkable statement. When I queried it she said, “My party won’t want me to lead them into the next election—and I don’t blame them”. A graphic example of her detachment from conventional political wisdom and her sense of future political developments.

1984: hong kong - concluding & signing the joint declaration

Cradock’s presence at the heart of the machine significantly increased the chances of Britain concluding an agreement with China over the return of Hong Kong, because probably the biggest risk to such an outcome was that MT would lose faith in the process and he was now well-placed to stop that happening.

The documents already mentioned lay out Cradock’s preferred policy, presented to her from a Cold War perspective in which China was a counterweight to the Soviets rather than a problem in itself. “Hong Kong apart, China does not threaten our interests” (Jan 27 minute). His minute in July looks forward to the conclusion of “a tolerable agreement” with China, no more than that, one of a number of clear-eyed steps by which he hoped “that at the end of the year we shall have reached a slightly less embattled position in our foreign policy and shall be able to point to one or two areas where solutions are achieved or pending and where we are no longer in a state of confrontation. Europe, Hong Kong, possibly limited talks with Argentina, would be a good tally”.

The files contain telegrams from late July covering the last steps before the agreement was initialled in Beijing by Sir Geoffrey Howe, MT reading faxes at Chequers. Her annotations are far from annihilating. (One of the faxes is so faded that her annotations have been carefully copied across digitally onto a more legible version.)

She commended the agreement in letters to President Reagan and other leaders on 25 September 1984. It was not difficult to find international support for the British policy. There was in fact some hostility to the agreement from Conservative backbenches: see Alison note, 3 Oct, passing a message from a former junior minister at the Foreign Office and Defence, Sir Peter Blaker, who warned that there would be criticism if she went to Beijing to sign the agreement in person, as the press was saying.

(T)here were likely to be too many people in the Conservative Party who felt instinctively that we had really given Hong Kong away to the Chinese ... he believed that the Chinese would find it very difficult to resist the temptation when the Prime Minister was in Peking of generally making the impression that they had humbled the Iron Lady.

Powell annotated this: “Prime Minister. You will want to be aware of this. It is clear that the people of Hong Kong want you to go”.

There was never any question that she would not go. We have papers on the signing of the Joint Declaration, including the text she had in front of her, in which her reference to Deng Xiao Ping was added in hand, suggesting she was the victim of the classic manoeuvre of Communist states on such occasions, withholding final commitment to the very presence of the Great Leader till the last possible moment. Something similar happened to her in Hungary in February 1984.

The drafts show that she more or less followed what the FCO asked her to say, something of a departure from standard form on her part. They show too how uncertain it all was. One speech – for the banquet – had to be sent in advance for translation and Powell suggested “It might be prudent not to do too soon, in case there are second thoughts” – presumably from her side. There was some question too whether the Chinese might make helpful remarks during her visit to Beijing which could be incorporated into her texts for Hong Kong. All told the choreography was a little shaky.  

The speech she did most to make personal was the one she delivered to EXCO and LEGCO in Hong Kong itself, not coincidentally. MT felt deeply her responsibility to the people of Hong Kong and fully grasped the depth of anxiety felt there. She removed the word ‘firmly’ in the sentence commending the agreement. But other changes strengthen rather than weaken the formulation. A reference to "Individual rights and freedoms especially freedom of choice of occupation" becomes "And above all individual rights and freedoms which are the essence of your way of life". Added she added the phrase "We felt deeply the responsibilities of the trust they placed in us", along with a new ending: "We have over 12 years to prepare together for the changes which lie ahead".

The signing ceremony itself went well, part of an extraordinary week of diplomatic activity that saw her first meeting with Gorbachev - pretty much launching him on the world as a man to do business with - and concluding with a visit to Reagan at Camp David en route home from China. Forgivably enough perhaps there is an almost euphoric air to her letter of thanks to Zhao Ziyang, written on Christmas Eve 1984.

1983-84: president reagan & the us

MT’s close political relationship with Ronald Reagan became so much a feature of the 1980s – almost a political axiom – that every release of papers seems to bring revision in the other direction. This should not be a surprise, finally. The reality is not that they agreed all the time, but that common ground on the fundamentals allowed them to keep their disagreements within limits - and they kept those disagreements to themselves, where they could (which was not always).

The year 1984 opened with the transatlantic quarrel over Grenada still fresh in the memory. In early February there was a further difficulty about US policy in the Lebanon, triggering the withdrawal of the small British contingent from the multinational force in Beirut. A burst of telegrams 7-8 Feb 1984 show MT irritated by what she saw as the sheer incoherence of US policy at this point, by the sudden changes of course and the absence of a rationale for the presence of the MNF, combined with what she saw as dangerous gestures like the shelling of Druze positions by the US battleship New Jersey. London was not alone in seeing problems with the execution of policy in Washington: our Ambassador detected something close to despair from the State Department’s Larry Eagleburger.

But MT warmly endorsed, having done her best to promote, Reagan’s move towards reopening of contacts with the Soviet leadership, particularly his televised speech of 15 January of which he gave her advance warning. And relations steadily recovered as the year progressed, in small things and big. There were graceful gestures from the US, such as the offer to find room for a British payload specialist on the US shuttle, a visit by George and Barbara Bush to Chequers in February (perhaps Barbara Bush slightly overdid things by calling it “the thrill of a lifetime”, but still). There was a grand dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence at Winfield House in April, among the invitees a promising computer whizz named Steve Jobs. The file is unclear whether he actually attended, but one of the other guests, Ed Streator, the No.2 at the US Embassy, recalls that Jobs was there and that all the guests were introduced to MT, so they did meet. Then there was the London G7 in June, where Reagan found in MT a powerful ally in the chair. He wrote her not one but two letters of thanks, and they were photographed together outside the Cabinet Room at No.10 against the backdrop of Churchill’s portrait.

Some unfinished business from Grenada crossed MT’s desk in July – she read a lengthy and not very useful FCO document “Is intervention ever justified?”, which formed the basis of an internal seminar on 1 October, also not very satisfactory. John Coles mentions this in his memoir, discussing MT’s desire to found policy on fundamental principle and struggling in this case:

Her difficulty was that her desire to find the fundamental principle and be guided by it was frustrated. She thought she had found it but later realised that there were more than one and they did not all point in the same direction. In Grenada a Marxist regime had been imposed against the will of the people and that regime had later been hijacked by extremists who had murdered the former leader [Maurice Bishop]. Cuban and Soviet influence were obvious. The threat to freedom not just in Grenada but in the whole Caribbean was manifest. Was not there also a fundamental principle that the people of a country are entitled freely to choose their government? If that freedom is subverted by tyrants, with external support, is there not a point where Western democracies should intervene to protect freedom? By the time I left No. 10 Margaret Thatcher had still been unable to resolve these contradictions. She remained worried about them and had just initiated a new study to try to resolve them.

Later in the year the US Ambassador to Britain, Charlie Price, found himself in the conference hotel with MT when the Brighton Bomb exploded. He was one of the VIPs driven with the Thatchers to Brighton Police Station, and lent DT some shoes. He went to Chequers a month later on a happier mission, accompanying a US envoy who had come to tell MT that the US was not going to bring indictments against British Airways in relation to the Laker case. This mattered more than it might sound, because the US decision cleared the way for privatization of BA. MT wrote the President the warmest of thanks, recognising that he had paid a domestic political price for the gesture. Aviation was generally a source of grief in transatlantic relations, often considerably so. Further negotiations opened up in November, with MT also providing strong support to the US in the climax of its long-fought resistance to the draft UN treaty on the Law of the Sea, as the deadline for signature approached.

The year ended with her trip to Camp David just before Christmas. There are no revelations in the files here on that meeting, very full records already having been released from US and UK government sources. It was one of the highpoints of their collaboration.


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