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New files from 1980

An introduction to newly released files from 1980, covering subjects such as economic policy, the European Community Budget, relations with trade unions, the Iranian Embassy siege and the potential boycott of the Moscow Olympics. These files provide a fascinating insight into government 30 years ago.

Presented by Mark Dunton, and introduced by Tommy Norton.


Introduction – Tommy Norton:

Under the 30 year rule, thousands of newly released government files from 1980 have been opened by The National Archives at Kew. These files originate from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and give us a picture of Margaret Thatcher’s first full year in power.

Mark Dunton:

In 1980, the style of what became known as ‘Thatcherism’ was forged, under difficult circumstances. Margaret Thatcher’s Government quickly established a new course for the economy after coming to power in May 1979, summed up in the term ‘monetarism’. The essence of this was that tight control of the money supply was the way to beat inflation. The chief planks of this strategy were cuts in public spending and high interest rates. These policies were being implemented against a very difficult, and worsening, economic background. Inflation reached 22 per cent in May 1980 before starting to come down. Industrial output fell and unemployment soared – it reached 2.8 million by the end of 1980. As Mrs Thatcher’s biographer John Campbell has written, ‘the Government was sailing into stormy waters’ at this time. Many voices called for a change of course – but Mrs Thatcher remained resolute. This was the year of the famous ‘the Lady’s not for turning’ speech and the year that saw the acronym ‘TINA’ – ‘There Is No Alternative’ –  became closely associated with the Prime Minister.

The new releases of Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office files for 1980, being made available through The National Archives, include many examples of this resolute approach of Mrs Thatcher. Some of the best examples are comments written in her own hand. These records enable us to understand, with greater clarity than ever before, the strength of Margaret Thatcher’s convictions. For example, the file PREM 19/165 on economic policy includes papers discussing the need for further reductions in public expenditure. There were several difficult Cabinet meetings concerning public spending cuts during 1980, with certain ministers arguing that the cuts had already gone far enough in their departments. In the aforementioned PREM 19 file we see PM Thatcher’s stark statement, written in pencil, in a spontaneous way, across an otherwise blank page: ‘We have got to get economies’. The word ‘got’ is underlined three times. It is a strong indicator of her drive and determination in implementing this strategy.

It is clear from the documents that Mrs Thatcher is passionate about her mission to bring about change on several fronts. This passion reveals itself in forthright and angry handwritten comments. Sometimes her anger is directed at other parts of government, as we see her frustration at the obstacles that she perceives to be in the way of her policies. An example which illustrates this appears in the file PREM 19/223 on European policy. The background to this was as follows. In 1979 and 1980 Mrs Thatcher took a tough stance in negotiating a reduction in Britain’s net contribution to the European Community Budget. When the Foreign and Commonwealth Office produced a statement on North Sea oil and the EC budget she writes: ‘that statement would be disastrous for Britain and I am not prepared to make it. The idea that we should have to sacrifice our main assets to secure some of our own money back is one that may appeal to the Foreign Office but it [does not] to me. Wouldn’t it have been courteous to say the least to have come to me first?’. In another file concerning European policy, PREM 19/227, Mrs Thatcher writes: ‘I feel as if the FCO is going to cancel out all my efforts’.

Another example of Mrs Thatcher’s frustration with other parts of government appears in the file PREM 19/173 concerning economic prospects. When an official at the Department of Trade and Industry writes a gloomy memorandum on the state of many British industries, PM Thatcher writes: ‘how can industries in this state afford to support so many gloom merchants in DOI. Wouldn’t it help industry if we reduced DOI numbers?!’.

There are files which give insights into the Government’s approach to relations with Trade Union leaders. PREM 19/267 includes a memorandum, dated 22 May 1980, from John Hoskyns, Head of the No.10 Policy Unit, addressed to Mrs Thatcher, in which he sounds a ‘warning note’ about the dangers of a conventional ‘good relations’ meeting with Trade Union leaders. He writes: ‘we should therefore stop and think very carefully before drifting into a meeting which could be a big mistake’. However, a meeting between Government Ministers (including the PM) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) General Council, to discuss the economic situation, did take place on 14th October 1980. This is documented in PREM 19/268. In his introductory statement, which was released by the TUC, David Basnett, Chairman of the TUC Economic Committee, told Mrs Thatcher ‘you have made consensus a dirty word’. The arguments were aired on both sides. The TUC were highly critical of the Government’s monetarist strategy, and the high interest rates, and high exchange rates; the Government were insistent about the need to curb inflation. It is clear from the official record of the meeting that there was no ‘meeting of minds’ in this discussion.

However, Mrs Thatcher could not have things ‘all her own way’ at this time. As historian Kenneth Morgan puts it, in 1979-80 Mrs Thatcher: ‘was far from being mistress in her own house yet … The domination of old Heath Conservatives in her first Cabinet was overwhelming’. This acted as a brake on the radicalism associated with Thatcher. An example of this appears in PREM 19/265, a file concerning industrial relations legislation. The Government took its first steps towards trade union reform in 1979-80. Jim Prior, the Secretary of State for Employment, was cautious and moderate in his approach. His Employment Act of 1980 arranged for public money for union ballots on strikes and leadership changes. Some limited action was taken about the closed shop issue and secondary picketing was banned. But this was just the beginning of trade union reform. The Government continued to push ahead with further reforms, new codes concerning the closed shop and picketing. Adviser John Hoskyns wanted a tougher line on these. In PREM 19/265 Tim Lankester, Private Secretary for Economic Affairs, writes a memorandum to John Hoskyns on 27 October 1980 which reads as follows:

‘The Prime Minister read your note of 24 October on the draft closed shop and picketing codes … I asked the Prime Minister if she wanted me to pass these comments through to Jim Prior’s Office: but she replied that she did not want to “take Jim on” on too many fronts this week. I have spoken with The Treasury and told them that the Prime Minister will not be commenting, but that they should by all means make use of your comments.’

So, here we see the divergent approaches of Mrs Thatcher and her circle of advisers, pressing for a tough line on trade union reform; and the more cautious approach of Jim Prior.  Prior’s successor at the Department of Employment, Norman Tebbit, made further significant trade union reforms from 1982 onwards.

The Iranian Embassy siege was the single most dramatic event of 1980 to occur in Britain. On 30 April six gunmen forced their way into the Iranian Embassy in London, and took 26 people hostage (5 were released over the days which followed). The gunmen threatened to blow up the embassy and all its occupants if their demands were not met. The terrorists were Iranian Arabs from Arabistan, opposed to the regime in Iran. Among other demands, they wanted the Iranian Government to release 91 prisoners. The siege came to an end when the Special Air Service (SAS) carried out a daring raid on the Iranian Embassy which was covered live on television. 19 hostages were rescued (two were killed by the terrorists). Five of the six terrorists were killed; one was captured.

Several Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) files concerning the siege have been released. The dramatic nature of events is captured by telegrams such as that issued by Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington on 30 April when the siege has just got underway, sent as a ‘Flash’ message to the British Embassy in Baghdad and to Washington, conveying the facts as they appeared at the time: ‘three armed men have occupied the Iranian Embassy here and are holding captive twenty Iranians and a British Constable’. This telegram appears in FCO 8/3660. One aspect which emerges from this file and others is the Iraqi connection with the terrorists. This becomes apparent in FCO 8/3661. In June 1980 the Iranian Government sent a request to the FCO, stating that ‘since the terrorists who assaulted this Embassy in April had claimed that they were Iranian Nationals’, the Iranian Government wanted to have sight of their personal details and particulars of their passports. The British Government investigated, and it transpired that, in their visa applications, the six terrorists presented themselves as Iraqis. Exchanges between the FCO and the Home Office show the Government’s concern about how to handle this sensitive matter. HDAC Miers of the FCO’s Middle East Department is aware that ‘relations between Iran and Iraq are at present extremely strained’ (and of course, we know the Iran /Iraq War broke out in September 1980). FCO and Home Office officials agree that the fewer people that know about this matter, the better, though it is acknowledged by G H Phillips of the Home Office that ‘the fact that the terrorists had Iraqi passports won’t come as much surprise to the Iranians’.

1980 was a very eventful year in terms of international affairs. During this year Mrs Thatcher and her ministers were arguing for a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, negotiating a reduction in Britain’s net contribution to the European Community Budget (as previously mentioned), responding to the US hostage crisis in Iran, following up issues connected with the Iranian Embassy siege in London, dealing with the consequences of the Iran/Iraq war, discussing the Palestinian question and bringing Rhodesia (which became Zimbabwe) to legal independence. All these subjects are represented in the PREM and FCO files which have just been released.  Margaret Thatcher admitted to her biographer Patricia Murray in 1980 that she had been ‘surprised at the amount of time we actually have to spend on foreign affairs. The amount of summitry we have now is terrific’.

Dealing with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan was a recurring theme of 1980, particularly the question of UK participation in the Moscow Olympics. PREM 19/374 contains the following striking comments by Cabinet Minister Michael Heseltine. Referring to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan he states ‘it is a political move which needs to be countered by whatever means at our disposal, political or otherwise. If this means that we have to embrace the use of sport for the first time as a political weapon, I feel that the end would justify the means’.

Mrs Thatcher’s Government attempted to persuade British sportsmen and women and their sports federations not to attend the Games. PREM 19/376 contains several powerfully worded letters from Mrs Thatcher putting the Government’s case to various individuals. Here are some examples:

In a letter of 12 May 1980 to Dr Edmund Marshall MP Mrs Thatcher writes, ‘Never in the history of the Olympic Movement has the host state been committing aggression against another state at the time of the Games’.

In a letter to Sir Dennis Follows, Chairman of the British Olympic Association, dated 20 May, Mrs Thatcher writes, ‘the Games will serve the propaganda needs of the Soviet Government’ and ‘British attendance at Moscow can only serve to frustrate the interests of Britain’.

However, the British Government could not prevent those British athletes who wanted to participate from doing so.

In her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher entitled her chapter on Foreign Affairs during the first 18 months of power ‘Into the Whirlwind’, and given her intensive diplomatic activities during 1980 it seems a very fitting title, which could also apply to the domestic and economic scene.  The newly released records give us new insights into the strength of Margaret Thatcher’s convictions, as her government set its course through a stormy sea.