Politics & Policy

The Full Thatcher

The Iron Lady's archives open.

Today the world has access to a more complete view of Margaret Thatcher than ever before, with the release of material from her vast archive, housed alongside Churchill’s in Cambridge, England. The most important of her papers up to the point she became prime minister–on May 4, 1979–are now open for study.

Never before has a British prime minister released private papers for study while alive. And hers is the first modern political archive to offer the key files online, at the Thatcher Foundation’s website. No presidential library or national archive has yet done as much.

British prime minister from 1979-90, Thatcher dominated the domestic political scene to such a degree that her successors and their policies are largely measured against her. So-and-so is more or less “Thatcherite,” their policies likewise. Many British conservatives half believe that Tony Blair is her true heir, an impression connived at by Blair and his media men, bizarre and humiliating though it might seem for a Labour leader to snatch at the mantle of a Tory predecessor much hated (and feared) by his own party.

In international terms, Thatcher’s name still helps to define the brand of conservatism best represented in the U.S. by Ronald Reagan while, in Europe, the friends and enemies of political integration remain camped in bitter debate around the fire she started with her Bruges speech of September 1988, condemning the socialist tendencies of the half-built European state headquartered down the road in Brussels.

The archives of powerful leaders fascinate. We look to them for insight into character, method, and purpose. They form the basis for the strong market for political biography, as popular in Britain as it is in the U.S. where there is no better blurb-bite than the phrase “written with exclusive access to X’s private papers.” And they possess a rare emotional force. In the paper remains of a political career, there are powerful evocations of famous moments, of times and places that are part of our collective sense of things.

Four years ago, working on the papers as Thatcher’s editor, I found myself shaking a little as a tiny notecard, three inches by one, fell from an envelope. Resting on my palm was an object any Briton would have recognized and responded to, with some strength of feeling, good or ill. It was an aide-mémoire for the remarks Thatcher made entering 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, an almost unbearably famous passage in British history.

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

She had jotted the word pairings onto the card, not wanting (I suppose) to bring faith in place of truth, or error in place of hope. Characteristically, she didn’t need to refer to the crib as she delivered the words, but on film you can see it cupped in her left hand.

And what can one say of Ronald Reagan’s first letter to Margaret Thatcher, written a few weeks after their first one-to-one meeting, in London in April 1975, recently rediscovered (in a file labelled “US Refusals 1 of 2, 1975″)?

April 30

Dear Mrs. Thatcher,

I’ve chosen a dark day to write a belated thank you for being so generous with your time on the occasion of our recent visit. The news has just arrived of Saigons surrender and some how the shadows seem to have lengthened.

You were very kind and I am grateful. I hope you’ll find it possible to accept your Calif. speaking invitations. If you can Mrs. Reagan & I would like very much to return your hospitality. In the meantime please know you have an enthusiastic supporter our here in the “colonies.”

Again thanks & Best Regards

Ronald Reagan

A connection had been made between them in that April meeting, at a time when both saw shadows lengthening, in many parts of the world. Two months later Thatcher delivered a speech attacking détente and the “Helsinki process,” to the horror of most in her party and in the foreign-policy establishment in Britain. In a bureaucrat’s version of instant rebuttal, the Soviets responded six months later by dubbing Thatcher the “Iron Lady,” helpfully clarifying matters, as it turned out.

A massive archive reveals its meanings over many years, as researchers tunnel into the paper mountain. But one can make one statement right away as to the meaning of this archive: It shows the importance of contingency and chance in politics, as in most of life, and correspondingly the vital part that individuals play. Grand strategy has its place, but usually that place is the trashcan, because much is overtaken by events. What allows politicians to shape their times is not the capacity to plan or to achieve an intellectualized overview, but force of character and what one has to call (risking misunderstanding) intelligent opportunism.

Thatcher learned to take her chances when they came, and often they came unexpectedly.

Thatcher’s papers show that as leader of the opposition, she had a struggle to shift party policy in the direction she sought. Most of her frontbench colleagues were supporters of her predecessor, Edward Heath, busily sulking on the touchline. After three years of leadership, she faced a general election in autumn 1978, with the Labour government tipped to win. Over the summer she sat with colleagues drawing up a manifesto for that election. the only surviving copy of which–in her papers–shows hundreds of annotations in multiple colors: “NO,” “This is pathetic,” and so on. By the time she was done, it looked like a term paper from hell.

Unwisely, however, Labour postponed the election until 1979. That winter, the unions demolished the credibility of their own government and its economic policies in a series of strikes dubbed the “Winter of Discontent.” The papers show Thatcher moving rapidly to take advantage of the moment, undercutting–with some relish–Conservative “moderates” to shift the balance of power within her own party, just as it moved decisively towards her in the country as a whole. She probably had no sense how far her qualities would take her, even as she stood on the steps of Downing Street, but these papers help to explain why she achieved so much.

Christopher Collins is editor of margaretthatcher.org, the website of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

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