I have written before (and elsewhere) about the enormous debt that anyone who writes or reads about Margaret Thatcher owes to the Thatcher Foundation and its director of research, Christopher Collins, who oversees its archives at Churchill College, Cambridge. Dr. Collins is an experienced historian. He was the researcher who checked Lady Thatcher’s memory for the writing of her memoirs. But what makes him an outstanding archivist is that he has a reporter’s eye for a good story as well an important one.
And that applies to good stories about American presidents as well as about Lady T. Archivists and researchers at the presidential libraries will ruefully confess that he sometimes beats them to scoops about their own presidential histories. As a result, historians and the public now know more about the Thatcher premiership and its relations with the U.S. and other governments than about any earlier or later British prime minister.
All this is by way of guiding you, gentle reader, to a new cache of Lady Thatcher’s private papers, just released onto the Foundation site here.
They cover the key year of 1981 — until four months before the Falklands War — when she and her government were at historic lows in the opinion polls, when her monetary squeeze and its accompanying recession had not yet run their course, when most of her cabinet ministers were opposed to this whole economic approach (until she ruthlessly reshuffled the cabinet in September), when 25 Tory MPs were threatening to defect to the new centrist Social Democrat party and deprive the government of its majority, and when even close supporters began to doubt and despair.
These papers tell the inside story of the turning point in post-war British politics when everything turned except the Lady. They are engrossing to anyone interested in politics, not merely British politics, because they are about how to manage parties, men, and what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events” in the middle of simultaneous horrendous crises.
I shall probably be returning to them a few times in the next few days, but here is a small tasting-menu to whet your appetite, courtesy of Chef Collins.
Before Mrs. Thatcher’s state visit to Ronald Reagan’s Washington in early 1981, administration spokesmen on the economy embarked on a campaign to distance the president from her on economic policy. Because of the perception that her economic policy had failed (see the second paragraph above), they argued that Thatcherism was entirely different from Reaganomics and listed its mistakes. Excerpt 1:
The issue arose in MT’s first phone conversation with the new President, where she handled it elegantly, raising the problem herself and treating as coming from the press rather than the Administration itself . . . she commented (21 Jan): “The newspapers are saying mostly that President Reagan must avoid Mrs. Thatcher’s mistakes so I must brief you on the mistakes”.
[But] the President himself made no hint of criticism, even if he didn’t stop his juniors. When MT made free market arguments during her visit to Congressman and Senators on Capitol Hill, his diary notes with pleasure the fact that she was making the argument for him.
The two leaders got on very well, and their two administrations almost as well. But there were hiccups. Excerpt 2:
There were productive contacts too one level down, the British Ambassador detecting a sympathetic response from one of Reagan’s closest White House advisers, Ed Meese, to an approach on Northern Ireland. This helped perhaps to balance a bizarre incident when MT received two identical letters from Secretary of State Alexander Haig, dated 10 and 22 April. One of MT’s Private Secretaries showed them to her with the comment: “These two (identical) letters provide trivial, if rather worrying, evidence of the general muddle which seems to prevail in Washington at the moment”. He noticed too that while the letters were the same, the signatures were not even close.
We learn also that, as well as holding similar political views, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were similar in certain personal respects. Reagan is now known to have corresponded personally with hundreds of people who wrote to him at the White House despite a heavy presidential workload. It now transpires that Mrs. Thatcher did the same. And remember we are talking about a period that included the riots throughout Britain, several major strikes, and the running sore of a Cabinet crisis over the government’s central economic policy. Excerpt 3:
MT received 2-3000 letters a week at No.10 and answered a surprisingly large proportion herself – perhaps one in a hundred? – dictating text and often adding long handwritten postscripts. When a distressed child wrote to her in June 1981 asking for help to stop her parents divorcing, MT not only wrote a lengthy personal reply, she offered to arrange a tour of the House of Commons and meet the girl in person if she could come to London. Who knows the outcome? (The letter is on this site but with the child’s name removed).
Not surprisingly, therefore, the Thatchers and the Reagans seem to have established warm personal relations quite soon after that first state visit. Later in the year, there was a chance to for some further bonding. Excerpt 4:
Nancy Reagan flew to London for the Royal Wedding and aside from all the ceremonial events came to an informal lunch at Chequers. There are letters giving a glimpse of this event. Among the other guests was Walter Annenberg and his wife, close friends of the Reagans. He was a former US Ambassador to Britain, who had generously donated a heated swimming pool to Chequers. One of MT’s first acts on taking possession of the house as PM had been to turn off the heat in the pool, on economy grounds, but for this occasion she had it switched back on, naturally enough, and guests were invited to take a dip. Mr Annenberg . . . was delighted to see his pool being used.
Mrs. Reagan seems to have seen how much Chequers meant to MT: “What a wonderful retreat for you”, she wrote to her afterwards.
Mrs. T badly needed a retreat at this point in office. In addition to the other crises, she had to decide if Rupert Murdoch — until this time the proprietor mainly of tabloids in Britain — would be allowed to take over the Times (and its sister paper, the Sunday Times.) Strong opposition to Murdoch came from establishment quarters and from the paper’s editor, Harold Evans. It has long been rumored that Thatcher and Murdoch did a deal: He got the Times in return for her getting the support of his newspapers.
Well, in one of the more serious scoops from these documents, there is the revelation of a hitherto-secret Thatcher-Murdoch meeting. But it’s a scoop with a surprising twist. Excerpt 5:
There is a long note in MT’s personal files by Bernard Ingham [her press influential press secretary], marked “Commercial – In Confidence”, of a secret meeting between her and Rupert Murdoch, held at Chequers on 4 Jan 1981, at his request, where he told her about his bid to buy Times Newspapers Limited – The Times, Sunday Times and associated smaller titles . . .
The record shows that Murdoch did most of the talking, opening with a long discussion of US politics. Indeed MT’s next meeting with him was at the White House, where he was a guest at the state banquet thrown for her by President Reagan at the end of Feb 1981.
Of course, the fate of The Times is the core of the conversation. Murdoch lists his rivals in the fight to buy it (though the record omits mention of one of the most significant, Lord Rothermere) then outlines his plans to make the operation profitable by introducing new technology and lower manning levels, while stressing “the inevitability of progressing gradually”.
But what is most striking perhaps in the document is what is not there. [My italics.] There is no blueprint for Wapping, a plan to defang the print unions. There is no bargaining for support, Murdoch perhaps offering the backing of his papers in return for a waiver of the requirement in the Fair Trading Act 1973 that all major newspaper takeovers be submitted to the MMC. Many people have suspected that some such deal must have been struck, but the impression from this document is quite different.
Murdoch came to Chequers in a position of considerable strength and not to bargain at all. He alone had the means and the determination to sustain The Times, which was losing more than £1m a month. His rivals would have bought the whole group to acquire the Sunday Times and closed its daily namesake. For that reason the existing owners, the Thomson family, who very much wanted to see The Times survive, did everything they could to help Murdoch buy it. And he had political cover across the spectrum, because at this stage the unions favoured him too, as offering the best hope for jobs. No one wanted a national newspaper to close, let alone one as prestigious and long-lived as The Times, a title quintessentially British.
Murdoch duly bought the papers, moved them to Wapping, and printed them on new efficient machinery with non-union labor and without the restrictive practices that crippled all previous national newspapers. He gave the British newspaper industry a quarter-century of prosperity. And even though there was no deal between him and Thatcher, he gave his backing to the Thatcher government’s battles to defeat inflation, curb union power, and generally revive the British economy.
The truth is that no deal was necessary. If Murdoch was in a strong position, so was the prime minister. She knew Murdoch, liked him, and would have been confident of his support generally but especially on issues where they had almost identical interests. Any outright deal would have been risky, slightly cheap, and demeaning to her position as Prime Minister. (Other people stitch up such deals.)
Murdoch, of course, has never been forgiven by the Left for his crucial role in breaking union power. He is suffering for it now since Labour wants revenge and the post-Thatcher Tories want no trouble.
Finally, in the light of David Cameron’s fulsome support of President Obama in his own recent official visit, it is interesting that Mrs. Thatcher took a much more cautious and diplomatic attitude to the niceties of commenting on other people’s politics. Even so, her diplomacy was not without difficulties. Excerpt 6:
President Reagan’s arrival in office was an event for which MT must have had high hopes, though during the presidential election and after she had been very cautious even in private not to say anything that could be construed as supporting him over President Carter, with whom she had worked hard to get on good terms, and with considerable success.
Her farewell letter from him on January 13, 1981, is boilerplate stuff, with the additional rub that the White House got her name wrong, as they had throughout his presidency (“Margaret R. Thatcher”). In fact this was not his final letter: He sent another when the hostages were released, thanking her for support and help, which went beyond mere courtesy, because the Bank of England had played an important facilitating role in the final negotiations. But her farewell letter on January 20 strikes an odd note, talking of the release as bringing his presidency “to such a splendid conclusion.” She clearly struggled with this letter: A second version without the phrase, which she had got as far as signing, is in her files. Perhaps she didn’t really know what to say.
And that was a rare event.