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
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The Independent Online

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.