Foreign policy played its predictably unpredictable role in 1986, a factor generally though not always to MT's advantage by virtue of her mastery of the brief and powerful influence over policy
Libya: Reagan, Thatcher & Qadhafi
Cap Weinberger sends thanks
Unfortunately much Libyan material for 1986 remains closed, crucially MT’s files as Prime Minister at TNA in Kew covering the April raid on Tripoli. There is rather more available at the Reagan Library in Los Angeles, though generally the pace of US declassification now lags the British.
The fragments we release show her receiving US thanks for support over the Gulf of Sirte incident, part of the escalating confrontation between the US and Libya, the message conveyed by the US Ambassdor to London, Charles Price to MT on 28 Mar; he had earlier broken diplomatic protocol to give her frank encouragement during Westland (25 Jan). Aside from the President himself she received boxloads of thanks from the US political elite after the raid, notably Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and a clutch of US Senators, and we publish also a useful summation from our Ambassador to Washington (16 Apr) who was delighted at the cheques he could now cash around town (his metaphor).
There are several documents annotated by MT (15 Apr UKE Washington) which show how closely she read US public justifications of the raid. She had urged very strongly that the US case be properly grounded in self-defence under the U.N. Charter. She was looking not to find the US talking of retaliation, a point she had made repeatedly in the uncomfortable toing and froing with the Administration on the eve of the raid. The material she read provided some comfort.
Apr 1986: Fallout from the raid on Tripoli
The raid was highly controversial in Britain, made more so by BBC reporting on the part of Kate Adie, an impressive TV journalist who covered the story coolly and critically from Tripoli. Central Office noted that the reaction was the largest they had received since the Falklands (15 Apr Sherbourne minute).
MT controlled the drafting of her own Commons speech in the Libyan debate. In this much at least Westland was behind her, the days when she had had to submit to colleagues doing such things for her. It is striking how much she improved the wording on British relations with the US.
Libya again left MT relatively isolated within the cabinet, a highly unwelcome event so soon after Westland. Indeed the issue proved painfully divisive among Conservatives at all levels within the party. As if to confirm this point, there was an odd incident involving a cabinet colleague. Welsh Secretary Nick Edwards was in hospital during the raid, where unfortunately he had an extended stay owing to post-surgical complications. He wrote her a long and thoughtful letter about the whole business on 27 April, supportive but with significant reservations, a letter which seems to have been in part an attempt to limit the damage caused by the fact that his wife Ann had just written MT attacking her for giving the US permission to fly its F-111s from British bases. Her letter has not yet been found and perhaps does not survive.
There is a nice sequel. Keen perhaps to put the argument to rest, Mrs Edwards noticed in the press a few weeks later that MT had hired a curtain maker for her new home in Dulwich who happened to have done her curtains at the Edwards family London home in Battersea. She wrote a charming letter to the Prime Minister on 15 Jun inviting her to come over and take a look at them. The note opens with the words: “This is not political!” MT dropped round for a drink and a chat on 20 July.
Less happily, the BBC’s coverage of the Tripoli raid enraged the Conservative Party Chairman, Norman Tebbit, who launched a counterattack. MT had not liked the coverage either, but the chairman's assault came to alarm No.10 in substance and style. Once among MT’s closest allies, by 1986 their relations had deteriorated to such a degree that the files on his dealings with her that year are in places uncomfortable to read. Part of the difficulty about the BBC and Libya lay in a strategic judgment: No.10 was keen to fight the next election at least in part on the issue of defence, where Labour and the Alliance were both vulnerable. Anything that kept Libya in the headlines jeopardised that plan (Sherbourne minute, 21 Apr). But the problem went deeper, as shown in a minute by Nigel Wicks who became involved when Tebbit’s approach riled the minister ultimately responsible for the BBC, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd. Writing for MT on 13 Nov, Wicks made a very unhappy comparison:
At the risk of being alarmist, I see a danger of some elements of this episode repeating the Westland troubles. A colleague with an obsession, doing things difficult to reconcile with collective responsibility. And all this at a time when things are going so well for the Government.
A way was speedily found to bring the public confrontation to an end with a final public letter from Tebbit to the BBC Chairman conceding that "further exchanges would be pointless and unprofitable".
Only weeks later, on 10 December, MT found herself surrounded by the BBC hierarchy, when she read a lesson at the memorial service for Stuart Young, Chairman of the BBC Governors and brother of Lord Young, her friend and cabinet colleague. (She chose the lesson from a range offered, Ecclesiasticus 44: "Let us now praise famous men". For once the King James version let her down, offering a wordy, almost unreadable text, so she opted for the New English Bible.) The seating plan put her next to the Director-General, Alistair Milne, who gave an address mentioning the corporation's many tensions with government during his tenure. He was asked to resign by the new Chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, the following month.
On 27 Aug 1986 MT caught a glimpse of a future US President on a visit to the Haymarket Theatre to see Jonathan Miller’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. President Underwood was on stage in the role of Jamie Tyrone, Jack Lemmon playing his father. (This was the production that made Kevin Spacey's name as a stage actor.) One might even say she helped to launch the Underwoods, because her tussles with Norman Tebbit undermined her previously good relationship with his Chief of Staff at Central Office, Michael Dobbs, who left politics for better things, including of course authorship of the original House of Cards.
May-Aug 1986: South Africa
Policy toward South Africa played a big part during the year, pretty much scheduled in advance, a follow-up to the 1985 Nassau meeting which had being planned in London for Aug 1986.
MT’s private correspondence with President P.W. Botha is in 3/1/52 to 58, especially 3/1/54. The were bitter exchanges following the South African raids into Botswana on 19 May, when MT spoke of her “vexation indeed anger” and Botha responded with talk of her “veiled threats”. Her letter of 4 Jul gives her private view on the release of Nelson Mandela:
It remains my view that a commitment to the early release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC, in exchange for a suspension of violence, would do more than any other step to create the climate of confidence in which a dialogue would become possible.
There is little in the files on the vexed issue of a rift over South Africa between MT and the Queen, which broke in the Sunday Times on 20 July. Charles Powell sent her a note the following day:
1. The press, while giving prominence to the Palace story, is generally very supportive of your position. I attach an example. Our policy of dignified silence is paying off.
2. Ian Gow rang last night to express his support.
3. Tristan Garel-Jones rang to say [name redacted] – who has good Palace contacts – had been told that the views expressed in the Sunday Times bore no resemblance to those of the person concerned.
On 7 September during the annual Prime Ministerial visit to Balmoral, MT and the Queen went to Sunday service at Crathie Parish Church. MT diligently filed away the Order of Service. The readings were poignant, almost as if heads were being banged together: Romans 13, vv1-7 (“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God”) and Matthew 22, vv15-22 (“Render therefore unto Caesar …”).
Discussing her speech to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in September, which the Queen and press would be present to hear, MT opted for a revision that “virtually eliminates South Africa” from the text, writing: “I think we have to be very careful commenting on S. Africa in the presence of The Queen” (Powell minute, 10 Spt).
Jul-Aug 1986: the argument with Sir Geoffrey Howe
It was well advertised at the time that MT had critical tensions with her Foreign Secretary over policy towards South Africa in summer 1986. Howe’s memoirs reproduce the text of a long letter he wrote to her on 1 Aug, of which we release the original, with transcript also. Much of the letter focussed on the role of Bernard Ingham in presenting government policy, ominously reviving a particularly painful aspect of Westland. It is striking that MT made no annotations whatever on this copy of the document. Perhaps she worked from a second copy we do not possess.
Recently found among papers MT had kept at her home in Chester Square is a draft reply. Her authorised biographer, Charles Moore, did not see this, noting that the sequel to the letter was that Howe sought to raise the issue with her in the margins of a meeting and was given fairly short shrift ("Bernard isn't like that. But we can't talk about it now"). In fact an answer was drafted, perhaps partly designed to turn away wrath; it closes with praise of Howe's "dedicated and stout-hearted efforts in South Africa". We release that undated document. Whatever the thinking, MT decided against sending it. Noting the fact at the top of the first page, MT carefully recorded that some of its criticisms had been "effectively communicated", by what means is unclear.
Charles Powell probably prepared the draft letter. There is a minute by him to her on 31 July that attempted to ease her relations with Howe at this point, perhaps because he sensed that resignation was not impossible.
Another incident that summer suggests Powell felt she needed a little protection from herself on South Africa. She gave an interview to Graham Turner of the Telegraph which the paper at the last minute turned into a statement on South Africa, to the irritation of Bernard Ingham who felt bounced. Turner had secured a long slot for the interview, at Chequers, with the result that she spoke at greater length and in a less guarded way than she usually would. The transcript runs to no fewer than 99 pages: Powell sought to remove around a quarter of the total, with Ingham sceptical that it made sense to try (Powell, 22 July).
On 26 Aug the British High Commissioner in Harare sent a long letter to the FCO titled “Zimbabwe’s real policy on sanctions”, in which senior officials and ministers in the Mugabe regime spoke of sanctions as ‘suicide’, ‘madness’, “just words … just politics”. “We shall continue trading through private sector channels”. One Politburo member commented: “I am surprised that the British, who taught us hypocrisy, should find our attitude surprising”. Powell passed it to her with the comment: “A fascinating letter & well worth reading”. MT kept a copy in her personal papers.
Nov 1986: a visit to Camp David
Events at the end of the year revealed the remarkable extent of MT's international clout by this stage of her premiership, and also something of its limitations. During 1986 she had been kept at some considerable distance from US thinking on the next steps in arms control talks with the Soviets. This unusual situation owed something, perhaps a lot, to the beginnings of the Iran-Contra affair, which brought down Bud McFarlane, Reagan's third National Security Adviser. During the tenure of his successor, Admiral John Poindexter, Britain (and doubtless other allies) were frozen out of White House thinking to a disconcerting degree, with the result that during summer 1986 MT was learning about US policy from telegrams sent by the British Ambassador in Moscow, who had been briefed by his US counterpart in the city - a roundabout, if not perverse, way of talking to one's closest ally.
The Reykjavik Summit (11-12 Oct 1986) was the fruit of this curious system. Billed as a preparatory meeting for a full-scale summit later in the year, actually Reykjavik saw a breakneck effort to reach an agreement on the total elimination of nuclear weapons. MT, and the small number of British policy-makers in the know, were stunned and appalled by what they learned. Had Reykjavik come to treaty, subject to ratification by the US Senate, it would surely have failed, though in the event disagreement over SDI strangled the thing at birth, very fortunately from MT's point of view. She quickly arranged a follow-up phone call to the President in which he talked proudly of his plans and met her concerns over the imbalance of conventional weapons by recommending she read a Tom Clancy thriller depicting the Soviets losing a war against NATO in which the two sides choose not to use nuclear weapons. So bad was the fallout within the US Administration from the summit that the NSC doctored its record of the call, substituting for the President's actual words a far more cautious formula. Eventually it was agreed within the Administration that the President had proposed the elimination of strategic nuclear missiles over ten years, and a 50 per cent elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Even this faked version of Reykjavik was bad enough from MT's point of view. She followed up her call with a visit to Camp David, the Presidential weekend retreat in Maryland where a slightly less formal style of discussion supposedly prevailed. Warned to expect chilly weather she took an attractive warm coat with a fur collar, and was photographed walking in the woods with the President (in a leather bomber jacket with the presidential seal) talking with animation. There was much to talk about.
As ever MT prepared her ground thoroughly. We release papers from this phase, in advance of the actual record of the meeting at Camp David. There are handwritten notes by her, and typed briefing cards drawing on them which she will have deployed in actual conversation. Their meaning is stark, almost brutal. She aimed to set the President straight, to remind him of perhaps forgotten basic truths, one above all: "CAN’T trust RUSSIANS". She related the point to recent practical experience, thinking it supplied a helpful prompt: "CAN'T trust RUSSIANS when taking a few tanks & columns out of Afghanistan – surely you would not trust them over ballistic missiles?" She explained the problem with reliance on air-breathing weapons such as submarine launched cruise missiles, whose limited range meant they could only be stationed in the Norwegian or Red Seas, unlike ballistic missiles which could be placed in the deep ocean, vastly less vulnerable to detection. You might call her remarks "Cold War 101". That Ronald Reagan was intended to be on the receiving end of such talk from her is extraordinary. Their political bond in the mid-70s arose from shared scepticism of détente, and here she is reminding him to be sceptical. "Trust but verify" was supposed to be his slogan - famously there was even a sign to that effect on the Presidential desk. Now it was hers.
As she had on an earlier Camp David visit, in Dec 1984, MT arrived intending to make a statement at the conclusion of the talks. She had rather sprung this on US officials in Dec 1984. This time there was more genuine discussion, but an almost equally satisfactory outcome from MT's point of view. She received many letters afterwards congratulating her on having restored some kind of doctrinal consistency to the Western position. The statement opened as follows:
The President and I discussed the way forward on arms control after Reykjavik. We agreed that priority should be given to an INF agreement with restraints on shorter-range systems; a 50 percent cut over five years in United States and Soviet strategic offensive weapons; and a ban on chemical weapons. In all three cases, effective verification would be an essential element.
We also agreed on the need to press ahead with the SDI research programme, which is permitted by the ABM Treaty. We confirmed that NATO's strategy of forward defence and flexible response would continue to require effective nuclear deterrents based upon a mix of systems. At the same time, reductions in nuclear weapons would increase the importance of eliminating conventional disparities.
The wording here carefully concealed continuing divisions over the President's commitment to eliminate strategic ballistic missiles in ten years, as Cradock noted: "The ten years for the abolition of ballistic missiles is still with us, I suppose, but mercifully less obvious!" MT herself felt strongly enough on the point to address it publicly six days later in an interview with a French newspaper, pushing beyond the carefully crafted wording of the Camp David statement:
I think it was the second part of the 50 percent; which gave us some cause for concern because we do not, although President Reagan was adamant that there must be a nuclear deterrent in NATO and that it is a cornerstone of NATO strategy and that deterrent must consist of a mix of nuclear weapons—it would seem, nevertheless, they were thinking of the mix as being of Cruise missiles and bombers and we do not think that that mix would be enough and I notice, I think that there have been indications since that they would think there would also have to be some strategic ballistic missiles because the others would not have the range that the others do; they do not penetrate as well, they would not be as effective so I think that we have put up a number of effective points which have made it clear that we should need strategic ballistic missiles as well.
MT's visit came also at a moment when the Iran-Contra affair was entering its most destructive phase. Her formula when asked was to assert her belief in the integrity of the President and leave it at that. A letter arrived at No.10 a few days later from the British Embassy, telling that Ambassador Acland had seen the First Lady on the Sunday afternoon following Camp David and received her deep gratitude for the remark (Heim letter to Powell, 17 Nov 1986). In fact MT had a fair knowledge of what had really happened - that despite protestations the US had sold arms to Iran and diverted the proceeds to the Contras. Asked privately about Iran-Contra in later years she took the line that the President had not been in complete control of his staff. Superficially this reads as a mitigation, but given her own ferocious grasp of people and policy, sadly it cannot have been wholly so.