Margaret Thatcher Iron Lady Archives Reveal Behind The Scenes Battles Hidden For 30 Years

Margaret Thatcher Iron Lady

The Huffington Post UK   First Posted: 30/12/11 06:23 Updated: 30/12/11 20:05

Margaret Thatcher's bitter battles within her cabinet over the economy, with the military over defence cuts, the Argentinians, the French and their concerns about the abuse of parliamentary expenses have been laid bare in secret documents published for the first time.

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The remarkable records reveal how the former prime minister faced a near carbon copy of problems faced today by David Cameron.

The files, released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule that governs the publication of official government papers, come as interest in Thatcher has been re-ignited by the soon to be released biopic The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep.

Previously unseen, the documents cover the divisive leader's 11-year period in power between 1979 to 1990, which saw a radical transformation of British society and economy.

While famous for insisting she would stick by her economic policies, declaring that "the lady's not for turning" and expelling the so-called "wets" who opposed a squeeze on spending from her cabinet, the files reveal some of Thatcher's supporters in cabinet apparently feared she was in danger of "going soft" herself.

She is said to have rebuffed calls to not waste money on attempting to revitalise Liverpool's economy and instead abandon it to "manged decline".

The papers show that industry secretary Sir Keith Joseph, and his then deputy, Norman (now Lord) Tebbit believed the prime minister was guilty of unfairly raising voters hopes that "uneconomic" factories could be rescued from closure.

The battles echo present day cabinet divisions bubbling under the surface between Lib Dem and Tory cabinet ministers over George Osborne's austerity measures.

SEE A FULL SLIDESHOW OF THE THATCHER YEARS BELOW

Also detailed in the papers are Thatcher's run-ins with the military top-brass. Thatcher, who won reelected partially as a result of her successful defence of the Falkland Islands, was accused by the head of the Royal Navy of attempting to "dismantle" the fleet less than a year before the 1982 Argentine invasion.

First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach wrote to the prime minister at the time to argue that cuts to the navy would "prejudice our national security".


Riots: Thatcher feared civil unrest could hit the royal wedding

The files also reveal that two-thirds of her cabinet opposed the decision to maintain Britain's nuclear deterrent at huge cost to the public purse.

Thatcher's then defence secretary John Nott and trade secretary John Biffen privately warned her the decision to purchase the Trident II system at a cost of £10bn could be seen as cutting the resources available for conventional forces at time when the military was already over-stretched.

The coalition is currently laying the groundwork to spend billions of pounds replacing that now aging nuclear weapons systems amid similar criticisms that the conventional armed forces, including the navy, are being gutted and rising tension in the south Atlantic over Britain's claim to the Falkland Islands.

The documents also cover the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They show that Thatcher's administration secretly made contact with the IRA to seek an end to the hunger strike in the Maze Prison. In public Thatcher was unwilling to bow to the prisoners demands, drawing international criticism. However the files show her government was using back channels to negotiate and end to the crisis.

In a further example of how some things never change, the papers detail London's often bizarre diplomatic battles with Paris. One document revealed the length to which Whitehall officials went to keep Thatcher, who was in power when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, away from a French communist.

When French president Francois Mitterand visited London in 1981 his communist transport minister was made to sit at the other end of the table from the prime minister - even though the prospect of building a channel tunnel was one of the key items up for discussion.

And while David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have been engaged in a war of words in recent weeks over the future direction of the European Union, Thatcher had to negotiate somewhat more trivial matters with one of her French counterparts.

On 1979 visit to Britain, officials working for French president Giscard d'Estaing complained that the chair their leader was due to sit in was not of equal status to that of Thatcher's because hers had arms and his did not, prompting a diplomatic back-and-forth at the highest levels of both governments.

Both Cameron and Thatcher presided over a Royal Wedding. While this year's wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton provided a brief good news boost for Cameron and Nick Clegg amid anti-government protests, Thatcher was so concerned that rioters would disrupt Prince Charles' wedding to Diana she discussed issuing firearms to the police.

One of the more trivial insights provided by the papers is how Thatcher was concerned with her public image following her election as prime minister. It seems such was her concern that she not be seen to be abusing her expenses, the Iron Lady, or ironing lady, took her own ironing board and crockery with her to Downing Street.

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