How Thatcher first stamped her authority on life at No 10

No-nonsense notes in margins of archived papers reveal a lady who knew her mind

On Monday, the nation will have an anniversary to celebrate or mourn – according to taste – because it will be 20 years to the day since Margaret Thatcher announced that she was standing down. To mark the date, the National Archive Office has released online more than 100 bundles of papers that crossed Mrs Thatcher's desk during her first few months in office, complete with her handwritten comments and her constant underlining of words or phrases that struck her as important.

They reveal a Prime Minister who liked to be presented with documents written in clear English. She completely lost patience with a briefing note about the Common Agricultural Policy, and wrote on it: "Please translate into English." Foreign Office briefing papers were given similar treatment. "I despair of FO memos" she wrote on one. Further on, she added: "This is jabberwocky to me – what is it supposed to mean?"

In the 1970s, the Conservatives were more pro-Europe than Labour, but Mrs Thatcher planned to change that, so when it transpired that the first foreign leader to visit the UK during her premiership was to be the German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, she was determined to dispel any idea that the new government would be as she put it a "soft touch". Preparations for the visit generated an ocean of paperwork, including a civil service note for the Prime Minister suggesting that she make an after-dinner speech which would "set the tone and style for the government's approach to EEC matters". She agreed, but sensed trouble. "Has the Chancellor got a sense of humour?" she inquired.

But on a personal level, she gladly acceded to a German request that the dinner guests should include Chancellor Schmidt's daughter, who worked in London, though that meant inviting her son, Mark. But when she was shown the seating arrangements, her reaction showed that Mark's status as her spoilt darling did not blind her completely to his true status. "Mark is really much too high up in the precedence order," she wrote in the margin. "Put him much further down."

Another bundle of documents reveal the flurry at the top of the government when the late Robin Cook – then a junior MP – wanted to introduce a law to make the head of the secret services answerable to Parliament.

After the revelation that the Queen's art historian, Sir Anthony Blunt, had been a Soviet spy, Mr Cook – like others – was bemused to learn that there had never been an Act of Parliament that authorised the Government to create a secret service, let alone lay down who was in control of it.

Everyone in government agreed that Cook had to be stopped, but the question was how. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, was for subtlety. Instead of having Tory MPs turn out in force to make sure Cook was denied permission even to introduce his Bill to the Commons, Hailsham proposed that they let him get through that opening stage and leave it to the whips to make sure it never went any further.

This did not appeal to Mrs Thatcher. "Surely we should oppose from the outset. It is much easier than to allow this Bill to continue," she wrote in the margin of Hailsham's letter. But the Leader of the Commons, Norman St John Stevas, sent Mrs Thatcher a handwritten warning that the whips "for no particularly good reasons" agreed with Hailsham. "Would you be prepared to let them play it their way?" he asked. She gave in "reluctantly". Cook's Bill was quietly smothered in parliamentary procedure.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine