Margaret Thatcher's files as Prime Minister, 1985-86 (2)

Many of the 1985-86 files run over from 1984, or earlier, giving us the beginnings and endings of stories straddling the break of year

1984-85: Clive Ponting & the General Belgrano

A "bit rough" - MT's questions the decision to suspend Clive Ponting without pay, Aug 1984

In the immediate aftermath of the Falklands War friends of MT warned her that Britain's military triumph would attract domestic critics, who would sooner or later look to tarnish it. A means was supplied by the controversy generated over the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by the British nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror - the single deadliest action of the war, and one of the most decisive too, ending the phase in which the Argentinian navy played an active role. It is possible to imagine other issues playing the part, with greater substance, perhaps the bombing of the troopship Sir Galahad at Fitzroy, where slowness arranging disembarkation left the Welsh Guards exposed to devastating loss when the Argentinian air force raided the bay. Welsh Guardsmen carried the coffin at MT's funeral.

The thesis emerged that the Belgrano was sunk not for military reasons but to prevent the Argentinians accepting a supposedly promising peace initative promoted by the Peruvian government, the whole thing subject to the obligatory government cover-up, neatly explaining the lack of evidence while augmenting the crime. The Belgrano played a part in the 1983 General Election, almost certainly to the disadvantage of the Labour Party which did not benefit electorally from raising the war. The case became particularly associated with the Labour MP for Linlithgow, Tam Dalyell, who bombarded MT with letters and parliamentary questions and earned himself a suspension from the Commons. He had once been one of her favourites on the Opposition benches, on first-name terms, but he lost that distinction during 1984 (although they made up to some degree years later).

On Friday 10 August 1984 police at the Ministry of Defence were asked to investigate the leak of two low-grade documents relating to the General Belgrano to Dalyell. A mid-ranking official, Clive Ponting, swiftly admitted his role and attention immediately turned to the question of whether he should be prosecuted. The MOD advised against. They saw no great damage from the leak, and there seems also to have been a degree of personal sympathy for Ponting who was recorded as having undergone a recent personal crisis ending in his conversion to Buddhism. Mrs Ponting worked in the ministry too.

MT was in Switzerland on holiday at the time and was immediately informed of the case by telex. Later much controversy was generated by the accusation that she had overstepped her powers by directing the government's law officers to prosecute Ponting, a claim made forcefully and persistently by Neil Kinnock as Leader of the Opposition. She strongly and equally persistently denied it. What then do the files show?

The answer is that they suggest MT was not involved in the decision at all. A second telex on 17 August simply told her that the prosecutors had decided to bring charges. In fact there is a hint in the files that she was not entirely happy with the handling of the case back in London, because she responded with the comment that it was a "bit rough" for Ponting to be suspended without pay, asking No.10 to examine the point, which seems swiftly to have caused his pay to be restored. This is not the same as her actually objecting to prosecution, which was not her business any more than demanding it would have been, but given that Ponting had admitted his role, the remark does imply on her part a certain unease with the law officers' decision, perhaps a sense that the whole thing looked bad, if nothing else. After all, at this point, only a low-grade leak was suspected, and she knew the MOD saw no security implications. All changed when the New Statesman published further revelations on 23 August implying a much more serious leak involving intelligence material, news delivered in a third telex from No.10. MT's relatively relaxed position was probably sharply revised when she read this, but the article postdated the decision to prosecute by a week.

The law officers were keen to go ahead even before the more serious leak. The outcome was remarkably poor. The decision to prosecute Ponting under the Official Secrets Act resulted in a lengthy trial by jury, which the government lost on 11 February 1985, amidst massive negative publicity. It was all made significantly worse by a cack-handed phrase in the judge's summary of the case to the jury that "the policies of the State were the policies of the government then in power", universally glossed as party in power, a notion indignantly repudiated by The Times in an editorial pointedly titled "National Interest". Many others made the same point. Judge McGowan's formulation was the kind of thing MT herself in an earlier guise would have forensically shredded - one can imagine her as Leader of the Opposition tracing an alternative view step by step back to Magna Carta.

Reform of the Official Secrets Act 1911 had long been discussed, precisely because it was widely seen as too draconian for use in jury trial; the Ponting case rendered the Act effectively inoperable, forcing the issue in the worst possible way. The problem of reform was to eat up a great deal of time and political capital in years to come as new legislation was debated, issuing in the Official Secrets Act 1989, incidentally dressing the stage perfectly for Spycatcher.

And of course the General Belgrano conspiracy theory reached an even wider audience, lent credibility on the lines that "they-must-be-hiding-something", although none of those who played a leading part in the war, and few who even studied events closely, had the slightest use for it.

Belgrano documents, 1984-85

Whole file on Ponting

PREM19/1626 Security (Ponting case) Part 1 [1984 Aug 10 - 1985 Feb 28]

1984 Dec: signing the Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong

Released with this batch of files are records of MT's visit to Beijing and Hong Kong in December 1984, the conclusion of the long British-Chinese negotiation to settle the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule after the expiry of the British lease over the New Territories in 1997. Some in Britain had questioned whether she should even sign in person, lamenting the terms of the deal, and the file shows that the question was genuinely open at one point - on 12 September 1984 Charles Powell minuted MT's foreign policy adviser, Percy Cradock, who was also chief architect of our Chinese policy, asking his view. The three of them quietly discussed it. No decision is recorded, but it is clear enough what it was.

Sensitivity to Hong Kong opinion seems to have been the decisive consideration all through. Not signing in person would have weakened MT's ability to put the case for the agreement in Hong Kong, where considerations of face were very closely watched. It mattered that she went to Beijing, how she was received there - and whom she took with her. MT certainly understood this, always paying close attention to the choreography of her overseas visits, particularly when she was going to Communist countries where she knew full well that everything would be set up to imply endorsement of the regime and its worldview.

Thus the FCO wanted a trade delegation to go too, but was sternly warned off by Cradock and Youde (the British Governor of Hong Kong): all too many people in Hong Kong would think they had been sold out for the sake of British contracts. MT swiftly killed the idea, although she raised no objection when the FCO countered that trade should be "promoted strongly in private talks". The Chinese encouraged this: a British minister visiting Beijing a fortnight before her arrival was told that "with such excellent political relations, economic relations should be further developed". Powell summed it all up pithily as ever: "Signature of the agreement is the substance. The talks [with Chinese leaders] are the icing on the cake. But some useful points might be made on trade - though the public presentation will need to be watched carefully".

The public side in fact went well. Beijing put on a fair show, as the UK Ambassador noted in his despatch home on the visit, even allowing for the flattery conventional to this particular literary form. But the records of MT's private meetings with Deng and Zhao are unhappy things. Days before she had been meeting Gorbachev for the first time and found herself able to communicate in a new and franker style with a leading Soviet figure, a real opening to the East. It is hard to see much trace of that here. Chinese Communism now looked a far more alien creature than the Soviet variety. For all the talk of breakthroughs in Sino-British relations, no new relationship really dawned and in these meetings she seems to have been speaking out of character, under pressure. MT privately thought Deng 'cruel', but here she buttered him up:

The stroke of genius in the negotiations had been the [Deng's] concept of "one country, two systems". Deceptively simple, it had been the key that had unlocked the future.

The Chinese leader pocketed the tribute in a style he must have known she would not have liked:

Chairman Deng said that if the concept was of far-reaching significance the credit should go to Marxist historical dialectics or "seeking truth from the facts".

But this much was more or less scripted, almost a matter of etiquette. Worse was an exchange with the Chinese Premier, Zhao Ziyang. Conversation was freer with him than with Deng, if not as free as with Gorbachev; MT certainly found Zhao a more sympathetic figure than his boss and at this point we believed him a possible successor to Deng too, so trouble was taken.

Zhao voiced Chinese concerns that there might be "disturbances during the transition period" to the Chinese takeover in 1997, a topic they had often raised during the negotiations. We knew this thought also troubled Deng, who had crudely threatened MT at their previous meeting in September 1982 that China would simply seize Hong Kong by force in such an eventuality, connecting it to the suspicion that British banks like HSBC might somehow profit from troubles of that kind. MT scribbled notes of Zhao's remarks as they were translated, marking in the margin with an arrow, which means she intended to bring the point up in her reply. The Foreign Office briefing had anticipated the topic and suggested that reassurance was called for. MT had planned to respond on the following lines, lightly redrafting the wording supplied her:

Stability and prosperity must be maintained during remaining years of British administration in Hong Kong. Can assure you that preserving these features of Hong Kong life will be our principal aim. Financial management will be prudent and cautious as ever. ... Overriding objective is to ensure that Hong Kong can pass through the transition to new status as smoothly as possible without weakening of confidence or flight of capital.

But the actual note of the conversation has her laying aside these safe words and offering a far different response:

Premier Zhao had been wise to mention this point because undoubtedly there would be troubles (she would be very surprised if there were no troubles) during the next twelve and a half years. It would be absolutely vital that we stay totally calm and decisive and that we remain in consultation through the Joint Liaison Group. She had always found that calmness and knowing what to do was critical in any period of trouble, as was staying in close touch. If we were prepared for the fact that there might be trouble then we would be able to handle it well.

There is something very uncomfortable about this apparently improvised formulation. She readily grants the premise that there will be trouble, all but commits to some kind of joint response, the Chinese and British authorities preparing for it, staying "calm and decisive" and operating "in close touch". Trouble duly came of course - but in a form surely not anticipated by either side, exported from the mainland to Hong Kong by the events in Tiananmen Square. Zhao Ziyang himself fell from power as a result of Tiananmen. No calm and decisive joint action was adopted then, for obvious reasons. But how could it ever have been? What kind of situation did MT have in mind when she spoke in such incautious terms? It is probably no accident that the telegrams sent to London and Hong Kong summarising the conversation with Zhao tone down this particular exchange.

Hong Kong documents, 1984

Whole files on Hong Kong visit (apologies for poor copy quality due to conditions at time of filming - the files will be redone in time)

PREM19/1502 Hong Kong (signing of Joint Declaration; plus material on US visit en route home to UK) [1984 Spt 12 - 1985 Mar 25]
PREM19/1503 Hong Kong (briefing for visit) [1984 Dec]

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