1990 Nov resignation: "worse than a death in the family"
Charles Powell's note of Henry Kissinger's call
The last file in the whole sequence of MT's official papers as Prime Minister covers her resignation. It is not the inside story of that event, which can best be reconstructed from personal papers in Cambridge not yet open for study. Rather this file constitutes a reckoning with the administrative aftermath of the resignation, a kind of debris which fell in and around Downing Street after the explosion itself, and continued to fall for years on end in fact. The final item in the file dates from November 1991, a long complaint by the former Chief Whip of his portrayal in a recently published instant history provocatively titled A Conservative Coup, evidence of very painful feelings a full year on.
Some events never seem quite to end, or at least never to reach a normal point of closure. MT's resignation surely falls into that odd category, the sudden fall of a leader so powerful and enduring that she had made a profound impact on the national psyche, for good or ill, and arguably both. If asked the consequences of her fall the safest reply is probably still to say: "It is too early to tell".
MT had been Prime Minister for eleven and a half years, and it had been fourteen years since anyone had resigned the office rather than been dismissed by the electorate, so it is no surprise that the file opens with a request from the top official at No.10 for a note from the Cabinet Office explaining the constitutional position, designed particularly to rebut the notion that a General Election would be required. The result is surprisingly vehement in style, almost thin-skinned. Any voters foolish enough to think they elect the Government or the PM, or anyone really, besides the House of Commons, are put firmly in their place, and those calling for a fresh election get a proper telling off: "It would be a nonsense to identify a Government and its right to govern solely with the person who led it at the time of the previous General Election". The outgoing incumbent would have agreed as a matter of legal form, but perhaps withheld ultimate assent to the proposition, all the same. Her mandate had always been a peculiarly personal thing. A document four days later shows the Soviet Ambassador digging in the same briar patch when he teased Charles Powell that Gorbachev had found it hard to figure out what was going on. "Indeed, there was a certain irony. Five years ago they had party coups in the Soviet Union and elections in Britain. Now it seemed to be the other way round". Perhaps we should have sent Moscow the Cabinet Office note.
The core of the file is made up of correspondence between MT and foreign leaders. She took the initiative here, immediately writing to inform her closer overseas counterparts that she had decided to resign and thanking them in various styles. Time will have been too short to give much personal flavour to these communications, so most leaders got a form letter which acknowledged "the great co-operation and friendship which you have shown me" and sending "my warmest best wishes for the future". Even figures as important as Kohl and Mitterrand received form letters signed plainly without even a word or two of additional personal content, and in the case of those two men it is hard not to think there was a touch of resentment in her formality. In her eyes they had played a part in her fall.
The letters sent to Gulf rulers varied from the form, reflecting the situation there following Saddam's seizure of Kuwait four months earlier. The massive ground offensive designed to oust him was only two months away, making the removal of one of the West's stalwart and experienced leaders (if not the most) particularly alarming for those closely interested parties with whom MT had spent a decade establishing strong ties. She offered assurance her successor would "continue Britain's role in defending Saudi Arabia and its neighbours against Iraq's aggression, and our strong support for full implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions". At this stage, of course, the identity of MT's successor was unknown, and in strict terms the assurance was not hers to give.
A handful of leaders received truly personalised letters. Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin was one, singled out undoubtedly owing to Hong Kong, a special responsibility never far from MT's mind throughout her premiership. The tone is cool, cooler than it would have been before the crushing of the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square the previous June. Far warmer is the letter to Gorbachev, who got an extra paragraph recalling their final meeting in Paris and sending very best wishes for his "great reforms", with the promise that she would "watch his success with the greatest possible interest", an exaggeration of her expectations, but surely forgivable in context. Raisa Gorbachev is also warmly mentioned in the letter, and good wishes sent from Denis. Spouses were omitted from all the other correspondence in the file.
Rather oddly the letter she sent to George Bush is closed, though it is unlikely to have contained any seriously secret content. Perhaps it is still working its way through the cumbersome federal bureaucracy to receive US approval for release. Bush's reply is not on file at all, though a copy has been released at his Presidential Library and we publish it here. It is undated, but clearly was written after John Major was elected her successor on 27 November. Why had he not written sooner? Almost all those she wrote to after resigning replied to her pretty much by return of post. The answer is that she had spoken with the President on the phone the evening she resigned - he alone among leaders that day.
Among the in-correspondence, Gorbachev was among the warmest, addressing her for the first time as 'Margaret' as Charles Powell carefully noted. Kohl offered boilerplate, including his "very special thanks" - tongue in cheek? - for her "personal efforts in overcoming the division in Europe and thus of Germany as well". There is even a spelling mistake in the courtesy translation, an uncharacteristically poor piece of staffwork by the German Embassy. By contrast Mitterrand managed a letter of some insight, which Powell translated for her, referring to her tremendous conviction and uncommon will, acknowledging their many differences but noting that they had often reached similar conclusions.
It is an intriguing thing to see an entire cohort of world leaders addressing on paper the same topic at the same time, a diplomatic version of synchronised swimming, amateurish but entertaining. Most wrote kindly, some with insight, a few with undiluted egotism, such as President Kaunda who applauded her for listening to reason over Zimbabwe in 1979 (i.e., listening to him, as he saw it). MT had real fondness for Kenneth Kaunda and wrote him personal thanks for that letter.
There were some moving letters from officials around the place too, such as the corps of translators at the European Council, improbably enough. MT had thanked them for their work often enough in person and was happy to do so one last time, warning that meetings might be less interesting now she was going, a fair bet. The respective heads of the Security Service and GCHQ wrote personal thanks and received the like in return.
But it is the messages from leading figures in the US Administration past and present that stand out. Nothing comparable appears in the file from any other foreign government, aside from a couple of letters from Ambassadors in London, testimony to the breadth and strength of ties with Washington. The National Security Adviser, General Scowcroft, sent the warmest possible messages to Charles Powell personally and through him to MT, admitting to being "absolutely devastated" by her fall. Scowcroft's deputy, Bob Gates, was the only US official to have held office for the whole Thatcher term: he wrote Charles Powell a deeply personal expression of sadness and admiration, drawing a direct reply from MT that it had been "the greatest imaginable privilege to have worked closely with the United States under three presidents". Then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, told her she was a hero for the entire US armed forces. Finally, there was the emotional call to No.10 from Henry Kissinger, shown above, describing her as one of the great figures of modern times, her fall incomprehensible outside Britain or even Westminster, "worse than a death in the family".
The file ends, however, in much more British style, testing the outer limits of the bathetic. When MT resigned the Cabinet decided to give her a parting gift. There was a whip-round, then a tactful discussion of where to make the presentation. Doing it at No.10 would be wrong - painful for her, and them, and besides the press might get wind of it. So officials hit on the idea of borrowing the Lord Chancellor's residence in the Palace of Westminster, safely away from the cameras. But what do you give the woman who had everything she wanted - until you took it away from her a fortnight before? Silver candlesticks, it seems. The new Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, did the honours. He surely found something witty and generous to say, but how grisly the occasion must have been.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by the penultimate item in the file, which concerns MT's decision to leave the Commons, announced on 28 June 1991. Some warm words were drafted for the use of the PM, while Charles Powell's successor as No.10 Private Secretary for foreign affairs, Stephen Wall, tells John Major that she will be giving interviews, ending ominously: "We know of no firm intention to talk about Slovenia".