The Archives Centre recently opened up nearly 30,000 pages of Margaret Thatcher’s personal and political papers for 1980. The papers are owned for the Nation by the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust which has been very committed to supporting access to a rolling programme of openings in the papers (broadly in line with the current thirty-year rule).
Opening modern personal and political papers can be a stressful business, especially when the papers are those of a former Prime Minister, whose legacy remains hugely controversial. Even after their official review and cataloguing, there is always a doubt that an item which should have been closed (for official reasons or to comply with the Data Protection Act) has slipped through the net.
The work of the professional archivist is necessarily procedural. Files must be given references and labelled, boxes marked-up, closed items identified and extracted, catalogues typed, location guides produced, websites and online resources updated. Not least because researchers visiting the Centre expect to order a file and have it retrieved within five minutes, or less. Ahead of a major opening of papers all of these processes, and more besides, must be completed so that everything works perfectly on the day of release. Almost inevitably some of the stages are completed at the last minute as the archivist rushes around, fuelled by caffeine, often rescued by kind colleagues doing last minute proof-checking or box numbering.
To add my normal stress levels, we held a press day ahead of the formal opening of the 1980 papers. This meant being ready three days earlier than otherwise would have been the case. Representatives of the main broadsheet newspapers and other broadcast media all came to our reading rooms looking through the released papers for newsworthy stories. We had prepared a detailed ‘press pack’ of stories pitched at different levels, but there was still plenty of time for the press to find a controversial story of their own in the release.
In the end, our story received good coverage in the broadsheets and a lengthy piece on Radio Four’s “Today” programme. After all my worrying, there may not have been any “smoking gun” stories for the media, but there is plenty for historians and other researchers to work on.
The papers for 1980 were dominated by the poor state of the economy, with almost every indicator headed firmly in the wrong direction and the whole year spent in recession. This first full year of an incoming Conservative government was difficult politically too. There were strains within party and government, registered repeatedly in the files which have been released.
Politically, though, the year is best known for Margaret Thatcher’s conference speech and its backs-to-the-wall mentality, typified in the “Lady’s NOT for Turning” phrase.
The text of the speech has long been in the public domain and TV clips of the famous section are still regularly broadcast. What we opened for the first time were the preparatory papers for Thatcher’s all-night speech writing sessions, including her annotations on the drafts produced. We can see the introduction of the famous section by her speechwriting aide Ronnie Millar. The phrase puns on the title of a play – even then a bit obscure, now almost completely forgotten – by Christopher Fry, “The Lady’s not for Burning”. Soundbites are as much born as made and no one in the Thatcher speechwriting team seems to have had an inkling that the phrase would have anything like the resonance it did.
It is generally forgotten, but there is also a section in the speech headed: “Beyond Economics”, which takes up ‘Big Society’-type themes largely discounted or ignored in assessments of Margaret Thatcher’s political rhetoric at the time and since. For this and other reasons, there are obvious parallels between 1980 and 2011, in each case the first full year of a in-coming Conservative administration.
More generally, these private files tell a fuller story of the inner workings of No.10 than those released at Kew by the National Archives earlier this year, because they include the “back office” functions such as dealings with the party and the press, and the vital office of diary secretary, gatekeeper to the PM.
The Margaret Thatcher Foundation and the separate Archive Trust are combining to digitise them all and put the best sections online (see www.margaretthatcher.org). Thousands upon thousands will eventually feature on this site, making Margaret Thatcher’s career (we believe) the most accessible of any political or public figure in history to date.
For further information, see http://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/archives/collections/thatcher/thatcher_home.php and http://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/archives/collections/thatcher/thatcher_opening.php. For press links to the opening of the papers, see the Guardian and the BBC.
Andrew Riley, Archivist