Documents released by the National Archives show just how well the former prime minister was served by the spin machine
One can look at today’s disclosures about the doings in the office of Margaret Thatcher and wonder whether poor Gordon Brown got the roughest end of a very rough stick. The Labour premier ran his ill-fated administration in the harsh glare of the information age. We followed him forensically in real time. His failings were laid bare, his tantrums leaked, inconsistencies pulled apart on the front pages and on the evening news.
In comparison, Thatcher was able to do what she did in an agreeably closed bubble. There were mutterings of dissent from her ‘Wets’ but nothing to take the shine off an administration that even now is held up as one that heralded renewal and political renaissance in Britain.
The newly declassified government archives from 1984 paint a different picture and may in time prompt meaningful re-assessment.
From the files we learn new things about Thatcher and the miners’ strike. It was the well-rehearsed case of the government and the National Coal Board that they wanted to close 20 pits. When the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, said that was the thin end of the wedge, he was variously depicted as wicked or soft in the head. But the documents reveal a plan to shut 75 mines over three years. Her reputation, finely honed and widely circulated, was for straight-talking. Was she straight with the electorate over the mines?
We now know that for all the claims made by supporters and apologists who say she hassled the apartheid regime for the release of Nelson Mandela, she actually made little or no effort to raise the issue during talks with the hardline South African president PW Botha at Chequers on 2 June 1984.
She could not have stopped the assassin’s bullet that killed PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in 1984. But we now know that prior to the shooting, warnings of atrocity should anti-Gadaffi protests be allowed to go ahead outside the London embassy were made to British diplomats. Imagine that sequence of events on Gordon’s watch. Later, according to the classified documents, the Iron Lady – resolute, principled, unflinching – accepted that the government would have to allow “a murderer to go free”.
Even the poll tax, the measure that would send her into that fatal downward spiral, was avoidable calamity. The files reveal a memo from a minister warning that her local government reforms are “going to cause the government lots of trouble over the next few years”. Still, the lady was not for turning.
She is fortunate that we discuss her administrations in terms of theatre; her relationships with Reagan and Gorbachev, or hand-bagging of faint-hearted leaders in Europe; her defence of the Falklands. But what of the omissions? What did she do of significance to address Britain’s main problem of postwar economic restructuring? Or the hollowing out of the industrial base that she accelerated and what the people or communities affected would do without the industries that once sustained them? She did little or nothing about our international decline in terms of skills or schooling or to settle the debate about our place in Europe. Indeed she was not even able to settle the debate within her own party – which suffers from that legacy still.
We assert that in this modern era, the skills of political science and practice are more pronounced and persuasive than they have ever been, but as information seeps out about the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the facts give lie to that. She was served by the most formidable spin machine we have seen and aided by outriders who were happy to overlook the ruinous effect of many of her policies because they admired her style and ideology.
It’s all too late now; she has gone and the era has passed, although its ill-effects are still to be seen in communities that have never recovered from her wilful sledgehammer assault upon them. As the veil lifts further, the BBC should have a care. Don’t be surprised if the protest ditty Ding Dong the Witch is Dead starts selling enough to chart again.
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