Thatcher memoirs

Northern Ireland: The Brighton Bomb [memoirs extract]

Document type: Press
Source: Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years , pp379-83
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2040 words
Themes: Terrorism

The Brighton Bomb

[extract from Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp379-83

As usual, by the end of the week of our 1984 Party Conference in Brighton I was becoming frantic about my speech. A good Conference speech cannot just be written in advance: you need to get the feel of the Conference in order to achieve the right tone. I spent as much time as I could working on the text with my speechwriters on Thursday afternoon and evening, rushed away to look in at the Conservative Agents' Ball and returned to my suite at the Grand Hotel just after 11 o'clock.

By about 2.40am the speech - at least from my point of view - was finished. So while the speechwriters themselves, who had been joined for a time by Norman Tebbit, went to bed, my long-suffering staff typed in what I was (fairly) confident would be the final changes to the text and prepared the autocue tape. Meanwhile, I got on with some Government business.

At 2.50am Robin Butler asked me to look at one last official paper - it was about the Liverpool Garden Festival. I gave Robin my view and he began to put away the papers. At 2.54am a loud thud shook the room. There were a few seconds' silence and then there was a second slightly different noise, in fact created by falling masonry. I knew immediately that it was a bomb - perhaps two bombs, a large followed by a smaller device - but at this stage I did not know that the explosion had taken place inside the hotel. Glass from the windows of my sitting room was strewn across the carpet. But I thought that it might be a car bomb outside. (I only realised that the bomb had exploded above us when Penny, John Gummer 's wife, appeared a little later from upstairs, still in her night clothes). The adjoining bathroom was more severely damaged, though the worst I would have suffered had I been in there were minor cuts. Those who had sought to kill me had placed the bomb in the wrong place.

Apart from the broken glass and a ringing fire alarm, set off by the explosion, there was a strange and, as it turned out, deceptive normality. The lights, thankfully, remained on: the importance of this played on my mind for some time and for months afterwards I always kept a torch by my bed when I was staying the night in a strange house. Denis Denis Thatcher put his head round the bedroom door, saw that I was all right and went back inside to dress. For some reason neither of us quite understands he took a spare pair of shoes with him, subsequently worn by Charles Price , the American Ambassador, who had lost his in the confusion of leaving the hotel. While Crawfie gathered together my vanity case, blouses and two suits - one for the next day - Robin Butler came in to take charge of the Government papers. I went across the landing to the secretaries' room to see if my staff were all right. One of the girls had received a nasty electric shock from the photocopier. But otherwise all was well. They were as concerned about my still only partly typed-up speech as they were for themselves. "It's all right" they assured me, "we've got the speech". A copy went straight into my briefcase.

By now more and more people were appearing in the secretaries' room with me - the Gummers, the Howes, David Wolfson , Michael Alison and others, unkempt, anxious but quite calm. At this stage none of us had any clear idea about the extent of the damage, let alone injuries. While we talked, my detectives had been checking out as best they could our immediate security. There is always a fear of a second device, carefully timed to catch and kill those fleeing from the first explosion. It was also necessary for them to find a way out of the hotel which was both unblocked and safe.

At 3.10am, in groups, we began to leave. It turned out that the first route suggested was impassable and we were turned back by a fireman. So we went back and waited in the office. Later we were told that it was safe to leave and we went down by the main staircase. It was now that I first saw from the rubble in the entrance and foyer something of the seriousness of the blast. I hoped that the porter had not been injured. The air was full of thick cement dust: it was in my mouth and covered my clothes as I clambered over discarded belongings and broken furniture towards the back entrance of the hotel. It still never occurred to me that anyone would have died.

Ten minutes later Denis, Crawfie and I arrived in a police car at Brighton Police Station. We were given tea in the Chief Constable's room. Soon friends and colleagues started to arrive to see me. Willie Whitelaw came in. So did the Howes Geoffrey Howe , accompanied by their little dog "Budget". But it was Leon Brittan , as Home Secretary, and John Gummer, as Party Chairman, with whom I had most to discuss. At this stage none of us knew whether the Conference could continue: had the Conference Hall itself been attacked? But I was already determined that if it was physically possible to do so I would deliver my speech. There was discussion about whether I should return to No. 10; but I said, "no: I am staying". It was eventually decided that I would spend the rest of the night at Lewes Police College. I changed out of evening dress into a navy suit and, as I left the Police Station with Denis and Crawfie, I made a brief statement to the press. Then we were driven at great speed to Lewes.

Nobody spoke during the journey. Our thoughts were back at the Grand Hotel. Whether by chance or arrangement, there was no-one staying at the College. I was given a small sitting room with a television and a twin-bedded room with its own bathroom. Denis and the detectives shared rooms further down the corridor. Crawfie and I shared too. We sat on our beds and speculated about what had happened. By now I was convinced that there must have been casualties. But we could get no news.

I could only think of one thing to do. Crawfie and I knelt by the side of our beds and prayed for some time in silence.

I had brought no night clothes with me and so I lay down fully clothed and slept fitfully for perhaps an hour and a half. I awoke to the sound of the breakfast television news at 6.30. The news was bad, much worse than I had feared. I saw pictures of Norman Tebbit being pulled out of the rubble. Then came the news that Roberta Wakeham and Anthony Berry MP were dead. I knew that I could not afford to let my emotions get control of me. I had to be mentally and physically fit for the day ahead. I tried not to watch the harrowing pictures. But it did not seem to do much good. I had to know each detail of what had happened - and every detail seemed worse than the last.

I bathed quickly, changed and had a light breakfast with plenty of black coffee. It was soon clear that the Conference could go ahead. I said to the police officer in charge that I must get back to Brighton to open the Conference on time.

It was a perfect autumn day and as we drove back into Brighton the sky was clear and the sea completely calm. I now had my first sight of the front of the Grand Hotel, a whole vertical section of which had collapsed.

Then we went on to the Conference Centre itself, where at 9.20 the Conference opened; and at 9.30 precisely I and the officers of the National Union [Footnote: The National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations - the voluntary wing of the Party.] walked on to the platform. (Many of them had had to leave clothes in the hotel, but Alistair McAlpine had persuaded the local Marks and Spencers to open early and by now they were smartly dressed.) The body of the hall was only about half full, because the rigorous security checks held up the crowds trying to get in. But the ovation was colossal. All of us were relieved to be alive, saddened by the tragedy and determined to show the terrorists that they could not break our spirit.

By chance, but how appropriately, the first debate was on Northern Ireland. I stayed to listen to this but then left to work on my speech which had to be completely revised. Michael Alison (my Parliamentary Private Secretary) and I retired to an office in the Centre where we removed most of the partisan sections of the speech: this was not a time for Labour-bashing but for unity in defence of democracy. Whole new pages had to be written, though there were tough sections on law and order which could be used as they stood. Ronnie Millar then polished the text as he and I went through it. All the while, and in spite of attempts by my staff to minimise the interruptions, I was receiving messages and fleeting visits from colleagues and friends. I knew that John Wakeham had not yet been freed from the rubble and several people were still missing. A steady stream of flowers arrived which later were sent on to the hospital where the injured had been taken.

As in earlier days, I delivered the speech from a text rather than autocue and ad libbed a good deal as well. But I knew that far more important than what I said was the fact that I, as Prime Minister, was still able to say it. I did not dwell long in the speech on what had happened. But I tried to sum up the feelings of all of us.

The bomb attack ... was an attempt not only to disrupt and terminate our Conference. It was an attempt to cripple Her Majesty's democratically elected Government. That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared. And the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

I did not linger after my speech but went immediately to the Royal Sussex County Hospital to visit the injured. Four people had already died. Muriel McLean was on a drip feed: she would die later. John Wakeham was still unconscious and remained so for several days. He had to be operated on daily for some time to save his legs which had been terribly crushed. By chance we all knew the consultant in charge: Tony Trafford , who had been a Conservative MP. I spent hours on the telephone trying to get the best advice possible from experts in dealing with crush injuries. In the end it turned out that there was a doctor in the hospital from El Salvador who had the expertise required. Between them they managed to save John's legs. Norman Tebbit regained consciousness while I was at the hospital and we managed a few words. His face was bloated as a result of being trapped for so long under the rubble: I scarcely recognised him. I also talked to Margaret Tebbit who was in the intensive care unit. She told me she had no feeling below the neck. As a former nurse, she knew well enough what that meant.

I left the hospital overcome by such bravery and suffering. I was driven back to Chequers that afternoon faster than I have ever been driven before, with a full motorcycle escort. As I spent that night in what had become my home I could not stop thinking about those unable to return to theirs.