MT's private files for 1988 - (4) the environment, society

One result of the Thatcher realignment was an opening for new political issues to establish a place on the political agenda.


MT's landmark speech on global warming, September 1988:
There were no TV lights because they did not bother to cover the speech, so she had to read it by candlelight

At times in 1988 one finds MT consciously looking for such new issues – anticipating shifts in the national mood and adapting to them. She was aiming to understand, and influence, what you might call the politics of prosperity, the kinds of things that people would focus on when economic problems ceased to dominate debate.

The most striking instance of this new reach lies in her embrace of environmental policy, and particularly her remarkable speech to the Royal Society at the end of September, warning against the danger of global warming – the first from a leading political figure in any part of the world. It remains a controversial speech: she died in 2013 but hate mail is still occasionally sent her by 'deniers'.

We release the file on the speech, which contains, in the second draft, the suggestion of a world levy on fuel prices, a proposal detested by Lawson who demanded it be deleted (“These bizarre ideas are contrary to Government policy, and political dynamite”). Responding to the Treasury’s blunt letter, the No.10 Private Office asked the speechwriter (Policy Unit adviser George Guise) whether the proposal was one to which MT “clings strongly. Or is it your valiant attempt to put flesh on some of the rather looser ideas that were being batted about last weekend?” That it got into a No.10 draft at all is quite telling. Lawson had his way: the line was cut.

The environment wasn’t simply taken up on whim or as a political tool. Issues of substance underlay its rise in public consciousness, while MT’s scientific background made her more attuned than almost any other contemporary British politician to the significance of the issues in themselves. That background also placed her at odds for once with much thinking on the political right. The fuel levy may not have made it into the speech, but it did contain a firm commitment to “sustainable development” which for many on the right was just as bad, a Trojan horse for socialist thinking.

Climate conspiracy theorists would be even more excited to discover the name 'Monbiot' appearing in her correspondence several times in 1988, but on examination this is a red herring. She was not secretly corresponding with the environmental activist George, but with his father Raymond, a strong Conservative supporter whose frozen food business she visited in late February. He responded to her letter of thanks by sending her a selection of the produce, one of her more unusual gifts that year. She and DT probably ate it too, or fed it to speechwriters. One of the perks of No.10 speechwriting sessions at weekends was that meals were thrown in. "Lasagne again", Ronnie Millar would exclaim.

Note also that despite the lasting bitterness over cuts to science funding in the early 1980s, which cost her the Oxford honorary degree in 1985, MT’s commitment to government funding of fundamental science becomes very clear as one studies this batch of files. In particular she was strongly responsive to the argument that government should concentrate on fundamental science rather than commercialisation or near-market R&D more properly the province of private firms. Having the government ‘pick winners’ was no better policy in science than it was in industry.

The place MT would usually explore such themes was her annual conference speech. We have fewer files on the 1988 speech than for previous years, but one can trace her personal contributions reasonably well even though the final drafting process is obscure. She handwrote a section on the environment, a mark of its importance in the speech, seeking to tie concern for the environment to family and other Conservative values, such as conservation and abhorrence of waste.

And she practiced what she preached, sort of. Earlier in the year she and Nick Ridley launched a “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign, picking up scrunched-up, suspiciously clean looking bits of paper artfully scattered in a section of St James’s Park conveniently close to No.10. One does see occasional references to ‘KBT’ in her papers for the year – eg, a meeting with PPSs where someone suggested “A variation of Neighbourhood Watch. KBT Watch”. “Use sports personalities” was another KBT suggestion. We are not a million miles here from John Major's much mocked "cones hotline", though it is surely the case that for many voters in 1988 litter was more of a worry than carbon dioxide.

MT's speech drafts also returned yet again to the issue of the individual and the community, as well as materialism, arguing that prosperity provided choice and among the things we would choose to do with our leisure was to spend more time on cultural pursuits. The arts were a theme of the speech, and of the year. This was an extension of an endless theme in her rhetoric of course – she had sought for many years to rebut the idea that Conservatism was a creed of selfish individualism. In July she had even put her a name to a clarification of the ‘no such thing as society’ interview she gave to Douglas Keay in 1987, an unheard of thing for her to do. Her general practice if she wanted to revise a position was to say something new on the topic, not return defensively to revise the previous statement, as for example Keith Joseph did to a fault over his disastrous Edgbaston speech in Oct 1974. The file shows the draft came from Ingham. Of course, if the intention was to kill the quote, it didn’t work.


Another matter she dealt with in her October party conference speech was her own future as leader. Or did she? The final text as issued to the press included a line strongly hinting that she would run for another term, but she seemed to miss it out on delivery. The point was made by Robin Oakley in an interview he conducted with her for The Times later in October, and he was well rewarded - clarification again. Here is the transcript (25 Oct):

Robin Oakley, The Times
Prime Minister, you said in your Party Conference speech … there was this little passage when you said: “We are all too young to put our feet up!” You did not actually, as far as I could hear, give us the next line, which was “and I hope you will excuse me if I include myself!” I trust that does not mean you are considering putting your feet up.

Prime Minister
I did say the next line, but the applause came and totally obliterated it, but if you listen carefully … and I stand by that line in the text!

Robin Oakley, The Times
Now, is it your firm intention still to be leading the Conservative Party at the next election?

Prime Minister
I would wish to do that. It does not wholly depend upon me, of course.

Robin Oakley, The Times
And do you ever have any date-line for your own retirement? [end p38]

Prime Minister
No, but obviously, one is not indestructible—quite! Let me say, as I have always said, what matters to me more than anything else is that the things we believe in and the things that we have been able to do are carried on fully and forthrightly into the future. Some time there may come a person who can do it better than I can. I am always on the look-out, but I expect myself to do it for the fourth. … I hope to do it for the fourth term and hope that we would be returned for a fourth term on the basis of what we have done and that we are always on to the next steps.

Selection of documents mentioned on this page

Next page
Previous page