5 things we now know about Thatcher and 1981

National Archives files show Thatcher considered arming police during the riots, and pulling out of

1981 saw riots spread across the UK's inner cities, as ethnic minority communities in Liverpool, Manchester and parts of London rose up against police, angry about racial discrimination. It was also the year that 10 IRA hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death in protest that they were being treated as criminals, demanding the rights of prisoners of war. It is widely perceived as one of the toughest years of Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Now, confidential government documents from 1981 made available under the 30-year rule reveal details of what was going on behind the scenes.

1. Senior ministers wanted to abandon Liverpool

In the aftermath of the 1981 riots, some of Thatcher's closest ministers came very close to writing off Liverpool entirely, saying that the "unpalatable truth" was that they could not halt Merseyside's decline. While Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine was arguing for money to be spent on regeneration for riot-hit communities, Sir Geoffrey Howe thought it would be a waste of money, writing:

I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.

Howe acknowledged the potentially explosive nature of this suggestion, warning: "This [managed decline] is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative." Other close advisers told her that the "concentration of hopelessness" on Merseyside was largely self-inflicted.

2. Thatcher considered arming the police during the riots

The papers give an unusual level of detail about the Prime Minister's response as riots against the police broke out in inner cities across the UK. On the morning of 11 July, the eighth day of the riots, Thatcher talked to her Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw.

They discussed how to obtain better equipment for the police, and briefly touched on the idea of sending in troops, which a Liverpool MP had called for. However, they soon agreed that deploying the army "could not be contemplated", and it would be better to arm the police.

That same evening, Thatcher visited the Metropolitan Police, spending more than seven hours with the commissioner and not leaving Scotland Yard until 3am. The police appealed for a new Riot Act, and gave her a list of riot gear they wanted: shields, protective clothing, water cannon, CS gas, rubber bullets and surveillance helicopters.

The police got the riot equipment -- the first time police were given discretion to use rubber bullets and baton rounds in mainland Britain -- although ministers stopped short of giving them firearms. Tthe new public order law was not passed until 1986.

3. Withdrawal from Northern Ireland was discussed

As hunger strikes in Northern Ireland drew international condemnation for the British, Thatcher's public stance was that she would "not flinch" from keeping the area in the UK. The protest lasted from March until October, with 10 IRA prisoners ultimately starving themselves to death.

Despite the "Iron Lady" public stance, however, a confidential report of a cabinet meeting on 2 July reveals that Thatcher "said that further thought would need to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable." The report says:

Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives.

Ministers acknowledged that such a course of action could lead to civil war and "massive bloodshed" in Northern Ireland, as well as unrest among the Irish diaspora in the UK.

The papers also reveal that Thatcher took part in drafting proposals aimed at ending the protests, even though her government claimed it was not involved in negotiations.

4. Thatcher had her own expenses scandal

Thatcher very nearly underwent an expenses scandal of her own after an official in the Department of Environment revealed to Parliament -- without permission -- that £1,836 had been spent refitting Downing Street for Thatcher's arrival, including £19 for an ironing board.

In an angry letter, her private secretary Nick Sanders wrote:

This must not happen again. It is all too likely that such information will be picked up and used against the Prime Minister at question time.

A series of memos show attempts to limit the damage. "I will pay for the ironing board," wrote Thatcher in blue felt tip. "I have an excellent ironing board which is not in use at home. I will pay for the new one." She was equally outraged that bed linen had cost £464, while crockery had cost £209. "I could use my own crockery," she wrote. "Bearing in mind we use only one bedroom -- can the rest [of the linen] go back into stock."

Given that she dedicated most of her career to cutting public spending, the information certainly would have caused outrage had it gone public -- the basic dole payment was £20.55 a week, one tenth of the cost of the Downing Street crockery.

The Cameron's showed no such restraint when they claimed £30,000 to do up their kitchen last year.

5. Thatcher went behind ministers' backs on Trident

Two-thirds of Thatcher's first cabinet opposed buying the US Trident missile system. She went ahead with the deal anyway. The cabinet were only told of the decision when details of the secret deal with Jimmy Carter were leaked in the US.

The papers show John Biffen, the trade secretary, privately warning Thatcher in March 1981 that she shouldn't underestimate the electoral damage that the anti-nuclear movement could cause. Correctly, he predicted that CND would grow even bigger than its heyday at Aldermaston in the 1950s.

The level of cabinet resistance to the idea is revealed in a note from the defence secretary, John Nott, who supported the decision. He said that a full debate on nuclear defence policy must be held "since two-thirds of the party and two-thirds of the cabinet were opposed to the procurement of Trident. Even the chiefs of staff were not unanimous."

The foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, was also behind the decision:

Failure to acquire Trident would have left the French as the only nuclear power in Europe. This would be intolerable.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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