Prime Minister's Office files (PREM)
CHINA. Prime Minister's visit to China, September 1982: policy; part 2
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/962
- Date: 1982 September 13 - 1983 February 24
This file includes briefings prepared ahead of Mrs Thatcher's visit to China including a 'hasty guide to the history of China' and a briefing on Deng Xiaoping - described as 'older and deafer, though still mentally alert'. Among the papers is a memo from the Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong about London Zoo's need for a fertile female giant panda. At the time of Edward Heath's visit to China eight years previously, the Chinese had presented a pair of giant pandas to the British people. Subsequently the female had not proved to be fertile. The note states that 'London Zoo would clearly like to have a fertile female and, in due course, a baby panda'. It was hoped that 'if the Prime Minister were to be offered a female giant panda for the British people she might feel able to accept it'. The file covers Thatcher's meeting with Deng and Zhao Ziyang on the future of Hong Kong. Deng reportedly said that he was 'very sorry' but 'hoped we would understand that sovereignty over the entire area including Hong Kong Island and Kowloon would be recovered by 1997. That was certain. China had no other choice'. The file also contains thank you letters from Mrs Thatcher for services or gifts provided for her during the visit. She is advised that a letter should go to one embassy staff member who had 'kindly lent her Carmen hair rollers to Mrs Thatcher'.
DEFENCE. Briefing on military capabilities of Warsaw Pact
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/972
- Date: 1979 May 21 - 1983 January 19
A letter from newly-appointed Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine in January 1983 is marked Top Secret and UK Eyes A. In it Heseltine discusses the laser weapon research and development programmes 'RAKER' and 'SHINGLE'. He claims that the Soviet Union could field laser weapons by the mid-1980s but that it was uncertain whether the ownership of offensive laser weapons was useful. He also wrote: 'We developed and deployed with very great urgency a naval laser weapon, designed to dazzle low flying Argentine pilots attacking ships, to the Task Force in the South Atlantic.' However, the weapon was not used in action.
DEFENCE. Modernisation of Theatre Nuclear Forces (TNF) in Europe. Proposed basing of United States Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) in the UK; part 3
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/979
- Date: 1982 October 20 - 1983 September 21
Ahead of the planned arrival of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, John Nott, the Secretary of State for Defence, wrote to the Prime Minister admitting that 'we underestimated the problem of possible public opposition'. Nott thought the government should move towards a dual key arrangement with the United States, while taking steps to minimise public opposition. However, the Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, thought that 'any hint...of second thoughts would seriously prejudice relations with Washington and risk bringing about the total collapse of the NATO deployment programme'. 'Any sign of vacillation', he continued, would be 'a gift to Moscow'. However with an eye on the approaching general election, Nott wrote again on 15 December 1982 that the deployment of cruise missiles in the UK was likely to cause his colleagues 'very considerable political problems in 1983' and would leave them vulnerable to a charge of hazarding the UK for an American system. He told Mrs Thatcher: 'I think this matter can only be re-opened direct between you and President Reagan. If we were to go to dual key I shall certainly then sleep more safely in my bed'. The file also contains correspondence between US President Ronald Reagan and the Prime Minister on the question of arms control and the record of a meeting between Mrs Thatcher and Vice President Bush in June 1983 at which she reportedly described the Greenham Common women as an 'eccentricity' whose activities had been inflamed by the media. She thought they had made themselves unpopular in the area because of the disruption they had caused to normal life.
ECONOMIC POLICY. Public expenditure and cash limits; economic outlook part 23
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/985
- Date: 1983 July 1 - 1983 July 29
This file contains a confidential note from Kenneth Stowe to the Health Secretary, Norman Fowler, two days after the general election, on lessons to be drawn from the previous Parliament. He wrote: 'All the difficult decisions were deferred until the end of the third year - and the issues had to be shelved or buried.' He advised: 'It makes every kind of political sense for you and your colleagues to grapple with this now and to plan immediately what changes you want to bring about over the next two sessions of Parliament'. Mrs Thatcher responded with a handwritten note: 'Robin [Butler] we shall have to give urgent attention to the fundamental issues'. The Prime Minister's economic adviser, Alan Walters, wrote to her in July 1983 urging her to 'grasp a painful nettle'. He continued: 'This is the one non-repeatable opportunity to roll back public spending. If a Tory majority of 144 cannot do it, then there is little hope for Britain. I believe it is possible to galvanise your colleagues to pursue a real and substantial reduction in public spending. They need a strong lead and only you can give it. They will follow - with many a grumble but also with admiration'. Bernard Ingham, in a note on public presentation, complained that the government had 'not demonstrated a sureness of presentational touch since the election' and that the issues of hanging and public expenditure control had been damaging. 'So far as hanging is concerned the lobby feel that this distraction has shown you in a less than resolute light.' Although he felt the issue of control of public expenditure had been even more damaging. 'Potentially at least your priceless assets with the electorate - integrity and resolution - may have been compromised', he warned. The media would be watching the public expenditure survey closely for evidence that 'rising damp in the Cabinet has become a surge that the Wets are fighting back and intend to be very awkward'.
ECONOMIC POLICY. Policy towards privatisation; disposal of public sector assets; contracting out of public sector functions; part 7
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/989
- Date: 1983 January 31 - 1983 September 30
In this file various organisations are mentioned in connection with potential privatisation. Ferdinand Mount and Alan Waters were critical of George Younger's support of the Scottish Transport Group. Mrs Thatcher wrote: 'Do not circulate. These things are best said orally!' The file includes the Prime Minister's furious reaction to a memo dated 25 July 1983 on 'Competition and Privatisation' by Nigel Lawson: 'Further work on this is a MATTER for E [the relevant Cabinet Committee] to put in hand, and NOT to be invoked by MINUTE'. She confided to an adviser: 'Mike - I shall have to have a word with the Chancellor. This is the 3rd message from him that has given me cause for concern'.
GOVERNMENT MACHINERY. Special advisers; appointment procedure; pay; part 2
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1043
- Date: 1980 October 10 - 1983 December 22
This file mentions several individuals, as prospective special advisers, some of whom have gone on to serve in government or have found success in other fields, including the best-selling author Michael Dobbs, the Cabinet Office Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin, the current Foreign Secretary William Hague and the broadcaster and former MP Michael Portillo. Mrs Thatcher expressed concern about Hague's relative lack of experience.
GRENADA. Power struggle; US-led invasion; position of Governor-General; attitude of HMG; part 1
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1048
- Date: 1983 March 29 - 1983 October 27
This file deals with the fast-moving diplomatic and military situation sparked by the assassination of the Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop on 19 October and subsequent US-led invasion. In a telegram to the British Embassy in Washington, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe expressed concern about the possibility of American intervention on the island, something he and his colleagues thought could not 'be justified internationally unless it was required to save lives'. The file includes the text of a statement the Prime Minister delivered to the House of Commons on 24 October on which she has written: 'No reason to think that military intervention is likely to take place'. However, on the same evening the Prime Minister received a message from President Reagan indicating he had decided to 'give serious consideration' to a request from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) for support. A second message from Reagan confirmed the US intention to 'respond positively' to the request. The Prime Minister's written response, included in the file, lays out her serious doubts about the venture. She wrote: 'I cannot conceal that I am deeply disturbed by your latest comments. You asked for my advice. I have set it out and hope that even at this late stage you will take it into account before events are irrevocable'. The Prime Minister also spoke to the President over the secure line at 00:48 on the same evening but the President confirmed that US forces were 'already at zero'. Another message from Reagan justifies the US action by stating that Grenada had been taken over by 'Leftist thugs' and 'the alternative to decisive action on our part' would have been the imposition of a regime 'inimical to our interests'. The file also contains a briefing from Mrs Thatcher's Foreign Policy advisor Anthony Parsons in which he claims the US had been 'planning the Grenada move for some time'. The file includes a note of a telephone conversation between President Reagan and the Prime Minister on 26 October in which Reagan 'regretted the embarrassment' that had been caused and said that 'worry about leaks' had been at the root of the American behaviour. He said there was absolutely no lack of confidence in the British government and that this had been the first decision he had taken which had been properly kept secret. Even the military had only been given a matter of hours. The file also conveys reaction to the invasion from around the world.
GRENADA. Power struggle; US-led invasion; position of Governor-General; attitude of HMG; part 2
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1049
- Date: 1983 October 28 - 1983 December 16
This file continues the correspondence following the US-led invasion of Grenada. It includes the diplomatic aftermath of the invasion, including reports from the UK's ambassador in Washington, Sir Oliver Wright. Wright described the internal US reaction, where Congress felt 'collectively insulted by the lack of consultation', the Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, ('who has a remarkable nose, political as well as physical') deplored Reagan's 'gunboat diplomacy', and the media felt it was kept in the dark. The file also contains documents retrieved from Grenada, prior to the overthrow of Bishop, of which a Foreign Office official says, 'the inexorable build-up of pressure on Bishop to relinquish hold on real power or to see it wrested from him is striking.'
HOME AFFAIRS. Contingency arrangements for dealing with a serious Thames flood
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1051
- Date: 1979 July 25 - 1983 December 22
This file covers contingency plans for a major Thames flood, prior to the completion of the Thames Barrier. It notes that there was one chance in 50 of a tidal flood in London during flood season. Potential outcomes included the collapse of buildings, widespread electrical failure, structural damage to bridges, earth slippage, looting and other outbreaks of civil disorder and recommended that 'mass evacuation would be needed'. There is a briefing note in the file which suggests options to take in the event of a tidal flood if the Thames Barrier had not been completed and gates could not be released. One suggestion is that flood defences downstream could be breached so that some of the water would flood into low lying land in Essex and Kent rather than central London. However, potential problems were identified with this, including cost, the need for explosive charges to be laid in advance and the legal difficulty in having flood defences owned by the water companies. There was also the 'major political difficulty' for the government caused by 'deliberately flooding Kent and Essex in order to protect central London'. The briefing concluded that it was 'doubtful whether this option should be contemplated' and that it 'needs thorough investigation' and 'sensitive handling'.
INDUSTRIAL POLICY. Industrial relations legislation; Employment Bill; democracy in Trade Unions; part 9
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1061
- Date: 1982 March 24 - 1983 January 20
This file shows the gradual nature of Norman Tebbit's trade union reforms. In October 1982 it was felt that it would be 'a mistake to legislate at this stage for compulsory strike ballots' which were 'notably unsuccessful under the 1971 Industrial Relations Act'. Ferdinand Mount, head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, felt that there was 'a danger of complacency and timidity creeping into our approach to the reform of trade union law'. He produced a significant paper on trade union reform in October 1982, which the Prime Minister felt should be 'kept wholly confidential'. In it Mount posed the question of 'What do we want to see in the year 2000?' His answer was: 'A trade union movement much reduced in size…a trade union movement whose exclusive relationship with the Labour Party is reduced out of all recognition'. The file charts the evolution of policy into January 1983 and the Green Paper entitled 'Democracy in Trade Unions'.
IRELAND. Situation in Northern Ireland; part 14
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1069
- Date: 1983 August 1 - 1983 December 13
This file covers the period immediately after the Maze Prison escape on 25 September 1983 in which 38 IRA prisoners escaped from H-Block; the biggest prison break in British history. The FCO advised the government to 'take every opportunity to limit the propaganda benefit the IRA will try to reap from the outbreak' as they 'clearly regard the latest escape as a propaganda tonic for their flagging morale'. On a report into the escape which reached her desk five days later, Mrs Thatcher has written: 'Even worse than we thought'. The file also deals with the shift in Anglo-Irish relations caused by the election of Garret FitzGerald as Taoiseach. A memo from the Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong to the Prime Minister on 3 October 1983, lays out some of the Irish proposals, including the commitment to accept Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, if necessary with an amendment to the Irish constitution, in return for cross-border security cooperation and the involvement of Irish judges with the judicial process in north. However, Mrs Thatcher was initially sceptical, writing: 'We will explore further - but no good will come of it - indeed having now read it several times - I believe the risk of worse violence is very high'. A subsequent minute from Armstrong advised that it 'would be premature to dismiss Dr FitzGerald's ideas out of hand'. The file also contains a 'first impressions' despatch from the newly appointed British Ambassador in Dublin, Alan Goodison, and a discussion paper for possible policy options on Northern Ireland which includes a long list of options under consideration.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT. Organisation and finance; abolition of Greater London Council (GLC) and Metropolitan County Councils (MCCs); public transport in London; attitude to Association of London Authorities; part 17
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1081
- Date: 1983 September 19 - 1983 October 31
This file includes the Government's reaction to the establishment of the Association of London Authorities, a body which included the GLC and 11 Labour boroughs. Ferdinand Mount viewed the establishment of the ALA with 'cheerful equanimity'. Ahead of abolition, scheduled for April 1986, there was due to be a GLC election in 1985 and the Government discussed whether the election should be deferred or substituted. Mount was in favour of deferral: 'It is tidier and constitutionally more proper. Substitution would not really deny Ken Livingstone one year of dangerous liberty, since the most important services would still be under Labour domination.' In October a group of ministers met to discuss challenges in local government over the next five years, including a rate-capping bill, the abolition bill, which was to be added to the legislative programme in 1984, and the attendant heavy demands on parliamentary time.
PRIME MINISTER. Prime Minister's meeting with Alexander Solzhenitsyn: record of meeting
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1103
- Date: 1983 May 6 - 1983 May 12
Solzhenitsyn visited London in May 1983 to receive the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion and visited the Prime Minister on 11 May 1983. During the meeting Solzhenitsyn offered his opinion on a range of subjects, including the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov ('no new ideas') media representations ('the Western media did not open people's eyes to the realities of the world'), and the effects of Soviet economic mismanagement ('the only course open to the Soviet Union was to start a war'). The Prime Minister found his analysis 'disturbing' and had her own assessment of the arms race - 'We held weapons to defend ourselves…But for the Soviet Union, armaments were a virility symbol.' Solzhenitsyn went on to decry the 'terrible feature of current demonstrations in the West against nuclear weapons' was that the young in Britain 'did not seem prepared to defend their country' and that the West had 'lost the nuclear race'. He also stated that the German army in the Second World War 'could have liberated the Soviet Union from Communism but Hitler was stupid and did not use this weapon'. Finally, Solzhenitsyn ended by stating that 'he had been an optimist his whole life but after he had gone to the West he had become a pessimist.'
PRIME MINISTER. Prime Minister's visit to Falkland Islands, January 1983; part 1
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1112
- Date: 1982 August 10 - 1983 January 12
Planning for Mrs Thatcher's visit to the Falklands, in the aftermath of the war, began in August 1982. It was realised that in January 1983 the islanders would be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the permanent British settlement. This file reveals the meticulous level of detailed planning that was required in order to make the Prime Minister's trip possible, akin to a military operation in its own right, particularly in relation to the RAF flying arrangements. The Argentine threat to the visit was seen as 'significant'. Chief Press Officer Bernard Ingham was furious that the BBC did not make the film and soundtrack covering the Prime Minister's arrival freely available to other networks.
PRIME MINISTER. Prime Minister's visit to Falkland Islands, January 1983; part 2
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1113
- Date: 1983 January 10 - 1983 March 29
This file contains letters of thanks from Falkland Islanders to the Prime Minster following her visit, and copies of correspondence with the RAF crew. In her letter of thanks to Sir Rex and Lady Hunt, dated 14 January, Mrs Thatcher wrote: 'You will know as well as anyone how much the Falkland Islands have been in my heart and thoughts over the last year. I was deeply touched by the warmth and kindness of the welcome I received everywhere I went and from everyone I met'. The file also contains a certificate conferring the Freedom of the Falkland Islands on Mrs Thatcher and the Ministry of Defence's invoice for the cost of Mrs Thatcher's flight to the Falklands.
SECURITY. Seizure of Iranian Embassy in Kensington and the taking of hostages
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1137
- Date: 1980 April 30 - 1983 February 24
This file begins with a formal note verbale from the Iranian Embassy to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office drawing attention to the 'incidence at this Embassy today in which the lives of twenty odd diplomats and staff...is under constant threat of death'. There follows a series of options for dealing with the crisis which were presented to the then Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, including 'a planned shoot-out at a moment of our choosing'. In discussion, the Prime Minister is reported as saying that if it became necessary to mount an assault 'it was doubly important, following the failure of the American attempt to rescue the hostages in Tehran, that we were successful'. The file also includes a transcript of a telephone conversation between the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister on 3 May 1980, two days before the final assault, in which they discuss the on-going situation at the embassy. Following the successful SAS operation to end the siege, telegrams carrying messages of congratulations from around the world were sent to the Prime Minister, including one from former US President Richard Nixon. His message praised the 'superb demonstration of British guts and British efficiency' calling it 'an inspiring example to free people throughout the world'. The file concludes with correspondence relating to a compensation claim for damage caused to the building during the rescue.
UNITED STATES. Visit to London of Kenneth Dam, Deputy Secretary of State; discussion of US/UK relations and foreign policy issues
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1151
- Date: 1983 November 3 - 1983 November 7
This file contains briefings ahead of a meeting between the Prime Minister and the US Deputy Secretary of State, Kenneth Dam, held just two weeks after the US invasion of Grenada, as well as a record of the meeting itself. A note from the British Embassy in Washington, dated 4 November 1983, says the Americans were expressing 'regret about the lack of any adequate consultation' prior to the invasion but did not accept that they were wrong to take action. 'The subsequent fracas has left bruises on both sides', according to the memo. A subsequent memo from the FCO in Bridgetown, Barbados, said that 'having first greeted the Governor-General as a quaint and unimportant anachronism' the Americans were now threatening to swamp him with 'requests, queries and calls'. There is also a suggestion that US troops might do more to win 'hearts and minds' by 'mending roads, painting churches, giving children's parties and being photographed doing so. They could even have a shot at playing cricket. Let the Grenadians teach them something'. At the meeting with Dam, the Prime Minister said that all the signals Britain had received pointed to the fact that the US would not invade. 'We had told Parliament on 24 October that we did not consider that the United States was going to invade. There had then been the exchange of messages between herself and President Reagan on the evening of 24 October. To say that all this had put us in difficulty was putting it very mildly', Mrs Thatcher is quoted as saying. Mr Dam said that he could not defend the lack of consultation but the US administration had a terrible problem with leaks. The Foreign Secretary said that despite the two countries' close relationship and good secure communications, there had been no indication of the shift in American thinking.
UNITED STATES. Foreign Policy; part 1
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1152
- Date: 1981 March 21 - 1983 December 22
This file contains a profile of Al Haig, US Secretary of State, by the British Ambassador in Washington, Sir Nicholas Henderson in May 1981: 'I do not find him brimming over with imagination…he is smoking again and doing so much - too much for a man who has had a serious heart operation'. The most notable item in the file is a striking piece of marginalia by Mrs Thatcher, who expressed strong objections to a paper put forward by Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary, on 25 July 1983, concerning nuclear proliferation: 'We just can't circulate this paper - it is dreadful'. She added: 'If it came to us from a friendly power I should tear it apart'.
UNITED STATES. Prime Minister's visit to Washington, September 1983
- Catalogue ref: PREM 19/1153
- Date: 1983 August 31 - 1983 October 14
The file includes comments on President Reagan's political prospects and briefing papers on US personalities. The record of a conversation between President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher on 29 September 1983 at the White House includes interesting exchanges about policy towards Israel and the shooting down of a Korean airliner by the Soviet Union on 1 September. The Prime Minister asked 'that the President should think very carefully before the US resumed the supply of arms to Argentina. A decision in this sense would simply not be understood in Britain'.