Margaret Thatcher’s personal papers for 1983 – the year of her landslide election victory over Michael Foot’s Labour Party – have been opened to the public for the first time.

The private papers show she had a sense of how quickly a landslide victory could create problems for her.

Chris Collins

More than 50,000 papers relating to Thatcher’s re-election, arguments with the Bank of England over interest rates, and her scuppered plans to position Cecil Parkinson as her heir apparent, have been opened by the Churchill Archives Centre and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/).

The papers also reveal surprising overtures to the USSR and the evolution of Thatcher’s thinking towards the Soviet Union in a series of speeches made during the autumn of 1983 as she sought to act on intelligence about Russia’s growing paranoia of a Western ‘first strike’ doctrine.

The early months of 1983 were characterised by uncertainty over when the Prime Minister, who privately favoured an October election date, might call for a General Election.

As history shows, the nation went to the polls on June 9, returning Thatcher and the Conservatives with a gargantuan 144-seat majority. This signalled their best performance since 1935 by some measures and made Thatcher the first Conservative PM since Salisbury to win two elections in a row.

Despite Conservative attempts to downplay success in the Falklands for fear of being seen to ‘cash in’ on the victory, the South Atlantic war loomed large over the election campaign as Labour’s Denis Healey made it a central issue.

He accused Thatcher of ‘glorying in slaughter’ which led to almost the worst possible outcome for Labour, as they were now seen to be playing politics with the Falklands conflict.

In an election press conference on June 2, Thatcher said: “It’s gone beyond all bounds of public or political decency.” She also wrote a letter to St John-Stevas saying: “I agree with you about the Healeyism. It went too far – even for him.”

However, despite the bad feeling that may have caused between the parties, the archive papers opened at Churchill this week also show that the Prime Minister dismissed out of hand personal attacks on Michael Foot and other members of the Opposition, a marked difference to today’s frequent attacks by politicians of all persuasions across the despatch boxes in the Commons.

In a note to Iain Spoat, Conservative MP for Aberdeen South, she said: “Please leave out all references to Labour personalities. We fight on policies.”

When Michael Foot retired in October 1983, following the summer’s heavy election defeat, she sent him a warm letter saying she had ‘greatly valued the frankness and confidence with which we have been able to conduct our personal business as Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition’.

Despite the overwhelming size of the election win, both the PM and her closest circle of advisors exchanged cautionary messages both before and after June 9. 

One such example in the files for 1983 comes from her press secretary Bernard Ingham who wrote on June 7, just before the election, to say: “Nor should you under-estimate the British capacity to reject success. The more successful you are – i.e., the bigger your majority – the more the media will seek to bring you down to earth and humble you.” His note is marked with not just one of Thatcher’s distinctive ticks next to it, but two.

Following the election, congratulations arrived in Downing Street in vast numbers from across the world. President Reagan wrote twice as well as calling.  Former US President Nixon also wrote and almost every head of government across the world put pen to paper, producing an international Who’s Who of cards, letters and telegrams in the files opened this year.

The scale of the victory and the peculiarly personal element of it following the Falklands campaign left Thatcher a freer hand at the post-election reshuffle than at any other time as Prime Minister.

But as the archive reveals, her plans to promote Cecil Parkinson to Foreign Secretary, a move which might have paved the way for a future leadership bid as her heir apparent, unravelled in chaos when he informed Thatcher, on election day itself, of his affair with his former Commons Secretary Sara Keays.

Following the news, Thatcher hurriedly redesigned the reshuffle, placing Parkinson as Minister for Trade and Industry and making Geoffrey Howe Foreign Secretary. Nigel Lawson took over Howe’s former job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In any event, Parkinson only held the Trade and Industry Ministership until October when revelations of his affair appeared in the press.

Elsewhere, 1983’s papers also show Thatcher voicing her grave discontent at the Governor of the Bank of England who raised interest rates from ten to 11 per cent while she was on an unannounced trip to the Falkland Islands. Thatcher endured a difficult relationship with Governor Gordon Richardson whom she believed to be a barrier to her plans for the economy.

‘If I had been here, you would not have put up rates’ Thatcher told Richardson on her return – according to the diary of her economic advisor Alan Walters. Walters later wrote in the margins of one of the released documents ‘Governor got a bollocking’.

The archives also show her discontent with Barclays Bank at the interest rate decision; Thatcher feeling the bank, which wanted to raise its own mortgage rates by two percentage points, was profiteering.

Chris Collins, of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, said: “The 1983 files show Margaret Thatcher reaching her political prime, winning her biggest election victory and laying the foundations of a new political consensus at home and even abroad, a prospect beyond her grasp and possibly her imagining a few years before. But it is fascinating that the private papers show she had a sense of how quickly it could change, of how a landslide victory could create problems for her. And in fact she first learned of the Parkinson affair on the day she won the election, rubbing in the point that power contains an element of illusion.”


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