The Falklands War – the conflict that defined much of Margaret Thatcher’s political career and legacy – dominates the release of her personal papers for 1982 at the Churchill Archives Centre from Monday (March 25).
Thousands of pages of her papers are being opened to the public at the Centre and made available online by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.
Among the 40,000 pages of documents being released is Thatcher’s own copy of the note confirming the Argentine invasion of the Islands, and an emotionally-charged letter to President Reagan, eventually toned down, where she resolutely refuses American overtures to concede ground to Argentina’s military dictatorship.
A previously unseen 12-page record made by Ian Gow, Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, following the appearance of Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and Defence Secretary John Nott at the backbench 1922 committee, describes how the tenor of that tense exchange informed Carrington’s much-lamented decision to resign.
Thatcher’s attempts to dissuade him came to nought and the archive contains a warm letter of explanation from Carrington to Thatcher, and a touching letter by return from the Prime Minister on May 4, 1982, relating how much she and the Cabinet missed his presence.
But the papers released this year also contain evidence of less cordial relations and weak support at best from large sections of the Conservative Parliamentary Party in the build-up to war. Outside Number 10, junior ministers Tim Raison and Ken Clarke as well as Stephen Dorrell and Chris Patten were also expressing alarm; Dorrell for one saying he would only support the Task Force as a negotiating measure and advocating a withdrawal if the military Junta in Argentina refused to negotiate.
On Tuesday, April 6, four days after the Argentine invasion, Thatcher met with former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, seeking his advice on handling the looming conflict. While there was no official minute of the meeting, Thatcher’s own note survives. It references the now famous advice from Macmillan not to have Chancellor Geoffrey Howe in her War Cabinet so that money would not be an issue in making military decisions, and also details his counsel on handling war correspondents – essentially to restrict, if not censor them, as much as possible.
However, as the situation in the South Atlantic worsened in the face of Argentine intransigence and fighting began, wider Conservative and opposition support eventually began to fall in place behind the Prime Minister.
Critics remained, however, and the archive for 1982 contains sharp exchanges with Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Hume, who challenged the morality of the Government’s action, and even Astronomer Royal Martin Ryle, who described the occupation as a ‘relatively minor event’ – a view tersely rebutted by Thatcher.
The personal sadness she felt at the loss of life during the Falklands War is reflected in the keeping of notes such as the slip of paper handed to her on June 12, relaying that HMS Glamorgan had been hit by an Exocet missile, with casualties at that point unknown. Elsewhere, the archive records instances of the Prime Minister anxiously awaiting news and reading long into the early hours of the morning as losses mounted and the British and Argentine forces traded heavy blows.
News that the Argentinians had surrendered came in a call from Fleet Command at Northwood at 9pm on Monday, June 14. The Thatcher Archives has her notes on the call, as well as her annotated copy of John Nott’s celebrated earlier statement announcing the recapture of South Georgia nearly two months earlier on April 25.
The ‘Falklands Factor’ famously led to a huge post-war boost in the Prime Minister’s own popularity rating, as well as the Government’s. She connected the conflict to domestic issues, asking in a famous speech ‘why does it need a war to bring out our qualities and assert our pride?’.