I’m Mark Dunton, principal record specialist for contemporary records at the National Archives. And I’m here to tell you about a particular document produced by Cabinet. Now, Cabinet is really the senior committee, the most senior committee, of the government. And it’s really at Cabinet where the government’s strategy and policy is largely formulated. Cabinet consists of ministers, mostly ministers in charge of government departments, and it’s chaired by the Prime Minister.
It meets at Number Ten Downing Street normally once a week, but they can meet more frequently during crises. The cabinet papers held by the National Archives comprise, well, a whole range of material, really, but among the most important are the Cabinet minutes and the memoranda. These are the papers that were circulated before meetings for ministers to then discuss at the Cabinet meetings.
And the good news is that these records have all been digitised from 1916, which is really when the first Cabinet minutes were first created. The minutes I have in front of me document a very stormy cabinet meeting in July 1981 during the Thatcher government. But before I talk about this document in more detail, I must just explain the context for you. At this time in the early 1980s, Britain was in the grip of a deep recession, which was actually really a world recession.
The British economy was in a very poor way. Problems were accumulating for Margaret Thatcher’s government and there was a great deal of disagreement about the government’s economic strategy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, produced a budget in March which went against all the normal orthodoxy of really the post-war period because his budget raised taxes at a time of severe recession.
And there was quite an outcry about this. 364 economists expressed their disagreement with the government’s policy in a letter which was published in the Times. There were some very significant urban riots, rioting in Brixton in April that year, and then riots also broke out in Manchester and Toxteth in Liverpool in early July 1981. And these riots, the scale of the destruction caused, really did shock people. Unemployment was rising rapidly and beginning to approach 3 million.
All of this was in the background when the cabinet met in July 1981, 23rd of July at the time that this document was created. There were big disagreements, big divisions in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. There was a division between those who were avid supporters of her policies and those who disagreed with the government’s economic strategy in a fundamental way.
And we can see this when we look at the documents, because although it’s very carefully worded, one can see that there are some major criticisms being expressed of the government’s economic policies and you can see this from some of the words that are used so somebody is talking about: ‘Merseyside and other areas of urban dereliction and deprivation.’ Merseyside, ‘a community which was visibly falling apart, its hopelessness and despair’, and then also reference to ‘unemployment totals rising to 3 million later in the year […] following the recent rioting in a number of cities,
The tolerance of society was now stretched near its limit.’ It’s also said that, you know, in order to give people some hope, we need to have ‘new and constructive action.’ This was a major disagreement. And although Mrs. Thatcher at the end of this meeting promised further discussion later in the year, actually that that never really took place. Later that year, Mrs. Thatcher reshuffled her cabinet and brought in people who were more sympathetic to her line on these matters.
So there were some very strong criticisms being expressed by critics of the government’s policies within the Cabinet. But there is another story to tell, because Mrs. Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe, they would say that at this time in mid-1981, at the very time that all this criticism was being expressed, actually the tide was beginning to turn in the government’s favour and GDP growth, growth in the economy was just beginning an upturn, which was then to last for about eight years. Inflation gradually was beaten and unemployment remained high but began to fall in 1986. So there is another side to this story, and it’s important for the historian to evaluate all the parts of the jigsaw puzzle in order to get the whole picture.
These minutes were written by the Cabinet secretary, and they’re written in a very careful way. They’re written normally to kind of reflect agreement and consensus. And the reason is that Cabinet operates under a key principle. It’s called collective cabinet responsibility. And essentially it means that once policy is decided, ministers should all support that policy, particularly in public, and if they can’t support it, they need to resign. The careful wording of the Cabinet minutes reflects this sort of general desire for consensus, but as I’ve been explaining, this does not mean that the minutes don’t have any colour to them because you can see, even in these carefully worded minutes here, that strong disagreements are being expressed. It’s important that there’s a formal record of what is decided at cabinet so that cabinet ministers know what the line is to stick to. But it also… they are a record of government formulation of policy to be held in perpetuity in the archives as the public record, a record of the government’s decision making, there for scrutiny for all time, really, once they’re released, they’re an important sort of tool, if you like, of our democracy. Their existence reflects our general openness about government decision making.