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.