1975-79: devolution - labour struggles while snp mp quietly approaches the tories
Devolution occupied huge quantities of parliamentary time in the late 1970s, as the Labour Government struggled to persuade its backbenchers to support legislation establishing elected assemblies in Scotland and Wales.
Many ministers were themselves less than enthusiastic about devolution, but had little room for manoeuvre because their party had manifesto commitments and its tiny parliamentary majority had disappeared entirely by March 1977, leaving it dependent on minor parties which favoured the legislation.
The Conservatives had supported the principle of devolution since 1968 when Edward Heath had surprised most of his colleagues by suddenly making the commitment in a speech at Perth. But by the time MT became leader, many in the parliamentary party were privately lukewarm, dubious or downright hostile. They feared devolution might damage or lead to the break up the United Kingdom, foresaw a backlash against the policy in England and predicted big tactical advantages in opposing the government's plans, so making life even more difficult for Labour. MT was certainly a sceptic about the Perth commitment, though she feared that a sudden reversal of policy would cause internal divisions, particularly with those still loyal to Heath and in Scotland where the whole party establishment was strongly devolutionist.
The issue came to the crunch at the end of 1976, when the government's Scotland and Wales Bill reached Second Reading in the House of Commons, the point at which the principle behind the legislation is examined. What should the Conservatives do?
One suggestion came, remarkably, from the Scottish National Party. A Conservative Whip, Jack Weatherill (later Commons Speaker) tells how he was secretly approached by the Scottish Nationalist MP, Hamish Watt, urging MT not to vote against the Second Reading , on the ground that: "If she does it will be impossible for the SNP to have any working arrangements with us". According to the note, Watt - who was a former Conservative parliamentary candidate - saw common ground between the two parties, particularly if (as many expected) the Conservatives were to become the next UK Government with the SNP a strong presence in Scotland. Whether he spoke for himself alone or for any of his colleagues was unclear. Certainly there is no evidence in her files of a Conservative response, and when (two years later) there were press reports of Conservative efforts to reach a deal with the SNP to remove Labour on a confidence motion, MT made an immediate on-the-record denial.
In the end the Conservatives decided to vote against the Second Reading, after no less than four lengthy and difficult discussions in Shadow Cabinet, culminating in an evening session on 1 December 1976 with notetakers excluded. The final policy was that the party remained committed to the idea of a directly-elected Scottish Assembly, but was irreconcilably opposed to the government's scheme. The party's Scottish spokesman, Alick Buchanan-Smith, argued that in Scotland this would be seen as tantamount to abandoning the principle of devolution altogether, but his alternative of a 'reasoned amendment' was rejected and he resigned as a result. Malcolm Rifkind (then a junior frontbencher) joined him, although the two men delayed their departure a week after the decision in the hope that they might be able to negotiate a right to abstain on the key vote. MT met a deputation putting the case for a conscience clause, including Malcolm Rifkind and George Younger, both future Scottish Secretaries. She did all she could to minimise the split, writing again and again to Scottish colleagues restating the commitment to an Assembly, even stating publicly that she hoped to see Buchanan-Smith return to the frontbench. (In the event he became a Minister of State in her government, but never held a cabinet post.)
MT wrote her own Second Reading Speech, after a good deal of homework including talks with a professor of constitutional law. (Following Commons convention, she spoke from notes rather than reading a full text. Delivery was always a worry: "Low. Relax. Not too slow", she reminded herself.) Her opposition to the Bill deepened the more she examined it and it is plain she struggled to preserve any real sense of commitment to a directly-elected Assembly.
Fallout from the resignations was limited, partly because the Scotland and Wales Bill had to be withdrawn when the government lost an essential procedural vote in February 1977 limiting debate on it (a "guillotine motion"). (A note in MT's files shows that the previous day the Conservatives were expecting a draw, but in the event the vote went against the government by 29.) The Opposition now began to draw tangible benefit from Labour's divisions, and there was polling evidence that the SNP vote had peaked. The Conservatives responded by proposing an all-party convention to discuss the way ahead, sidestepping discussion of their own proposals.
Labour eventually introduced new devolution legislation, with separate bills for Scotland and Wales. The issue became more and more a headache for the government as some of its backbenchers took advantage of the very close Parliamentary arithmetic to register their dissent, eventually imposing the fatal requirement that referendums to approve the legislation should require 40 per cent of the electorate to support them. When the votes were cast on 1 March 1979 devolution was defeated for a generation, a result which directly contributed to the fall of the Callaghan Government in the confidence motion of 28 March 1979.
This was all to the good from MT's point of view - and was seen by many in the Opposition as full vindication of the line taken in December 1976 - but the Conservatives still had divisions of their own, if largely tactical. Her old ministerial boss, John Boyd-Carpenter, wrote to her in November 1977 urging that the party try to amend the Bills in the Commons or Lords to require that the whole of the UK (or at least Great Britain) should have a vote in the devolution referendums. MT liked the idea, on its merits (thinking too that it might draw support from the crucial Labour dissidents), but her reply shows that she anticipated objections from colleagues. Shadow Scottish Secretary Teddy Taylor was indeed critical and the idea was not pursued. Maintaining party unity was crucial to her approach at this point.
1975-79 media & speech preparation files - preparing to be grilled by brian walden
It is easy to underestimate the importance of speechmaking to politicians, particularly one of Margaret Thatcher's generation. She put massive amounts of time and energy into the process of preparing and delivering speeches, though most of what she said - even as Prime Minister - never reached the public, whole speeches being reduced to a few soundbites or quotations by the media, the original texts rarely attracting republication. Reading her speeches in full can be a startling experience. One is struck by the many grace notes, the relative complexity of form and argument, the use of humour (of which she is usually credited with little or none).
Why the effort? When she began her career, television had no impact on politics; indeed she made no more than a handful of TV appearances before becoming a Cabinet Minister in 1970. Radio, of course, mattered a good deal - and she had done a lot of radio in the 1950s and 60s - but throughout her formative years the speech was still the primary and preferred method of making a case. In a number of ways, it always remained so for her, not least because she liked things that way. She preferred developing an argument over measured paragraphs than in a few stabbing sentences. She enjoyed the business of putting it all together. Also she had no fondness for the alternatives (particularly the television interview).
Accordingly the massive speech files take one close to the heart of her working life. Here are materials she lovingly put aside in bulging folders titled "Ideas for speeches" - articles clipped and torn from the press, jotted quotations from U.S. presidents and favourite poets, letters from friends - as well as early drafts (solicited and otherwise), and above all, the heavily worked over speaking texts themselves, typed and retyped, scrawled over and sometimes even cut into pieces and sellotaped back together in a better order. Speechwriting sessions with MT often lasted many hours and the final slog might end only in the early morning when exhaustion - or Denis Thatcher's intervention - brought it mercifully to a close. Despite relying heavily on speechwriters, by such methods of working MT ensured that every word she delivered was finally her own.
Although she was always uncomfortable on television, set-piece interviews were of course unavoidable and she made good use of the one great advantage they conferred: the ability to speak at length and unedited to a mass audience. Preparation for major television appearances could be scarely less exhausting than for a big speech, with in-depth briefings and careful discussion of likely lines of questioning and the right responses.
Among the files now being released are some which show how in September 1977 she prepared for an interview with Brian Walden (his first as the new presenter of LWT's Sunday lunchtime Weekend World). Till only a few months before Walden had been a rebellious Labour MP, in fact - according to the Hailsham diary - less than a year earlier in October 1976 he had approached MT offering to bring as many as 12 Labour MPs into the lobby on a motion to remove his own party's government. No deal had been done on that occasion and Labour had lived to fight another day, but plainly Walden was a sympathetic figure. MT was helping him on his way by agreeing to be his first guest.
And she did not disappoint in what she had to say on the programme either, floating the idea that in the event of a confrontation with the trade unions a future Conservative Government might call a referendum. Monday's press led on the story. Colleagues were surprised to hear this suggestion, which had not been discussed in Shadow Cabinet. Here perhaps was a second, almost paradoxical, advantage of the interview format for MT: in front of the camera, in sight of millions, she discovered a certain freedom to make new policy.
The files contain dozens of speeches and articles by Walden over more than a decade, closely analysed by the Conservative Research Department (CRD) to pick up hints of his approach, with much emphasis on his Gaitskellite roots. There is a fragment from Alfred Sherman, suggesting lines and phrases. There is a lengthy letter from Jock Bruce-Gardyne, who had chatted to a researcher on the programme and found a few clues. Dozens of press articles were carefully read and annotated, notably Paul Johnson's seminal essay bidding "Farewell to the Labour Party", published the week before in The New Statesman - which she mentioned on air - and a clutch of stories sent along by the CRD, many of them relating to open Conservative divisions over policy towards the unions arising from the strike at Grunwick. (There was a markedly defensive aspect to the preparation work, for this reason.) Altogether, a huge amount of effort went into the operation, masterminded by a 20-something Bruce Anderson with occasional help from an equally youthful Michael Portillo. The party machine worked well, and MT registered the fact.
An undated document written for her following one of the briefing sessions gives the essence of her game plan:
The interview itself was broadcast live.
1975-79 correspondence files - more to come
In 2003 we released MT's correspondence with Geoffrey Howe, Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson. Hundreds more correspondence files are now being opened, including all those with Shadow Cabinet colleagues and prominent individuals like Friedrich von Hayek and Ronald Reagan.
In Opposition MT spent much of her working day in close contact with her colleagues and so most business was done face to face. As a result her correspondence with other frontbenchers was sporadic and often has a kind of accidental quality, letters being written because someone was late or absent, or because they had a document to forward.
Some of the new material will be added to the site, copyright permitting.
One early taster comes from Lord Carrington, who wrote MT a characteristically generous letter of congratulation when she was elected leader, with a candid admission: "if I had had a vote it would have been for Ted!"