Another January, another crop of previously closed files to open. Archives may be closed for various reasons: as many of our collections came from politicians, their papers may be subject to official rules about when they can be seen, often 30 years or more after they were written. In other cases we have to protect the interests of the individual, if there’s sensitive information about someone in a file, that might cause distress if it came out.
At the risk of being disappointing, many closures are boringly routine, and do not contain anything particularly exciting. One of my colleagues has found something rather odd this year, though, in the papers of Sir John Nott, best known for being Secretary of State for Defence during the Falklands War. After implementing severe cuts to the Royal Navy just before the war, Nott had offered to resign when the Argentines invaded, but Margaret Thatcher had refused to accept his resignation. To general astonishment, he then insisted on resigning after the war was over, and wrote Thatcher a very personal – not to say fulsome – letter when he did so.
One of our newly opened files contains the draft of Nott’s letter, where he has crossed out these more effusive passages:
“Your greatest triumph, as a Prime Minister, if I may say so, is that your Colleagues, with very few exceptions, actually like you as a person. Some of them even love you just a little. … Your good looks, charm and bearing have always attracted me as a man. I am sorry, but what’s wrong with that?”
If you just looked at Nott’s side of the correspondence, you would just assume that (probably wisely) he thought better of his more purple passages. In an archive though, you have the chance to look at more than one side. Margaret Thatcher’s personal papers for 1983 were also opened up recently, and tucked away in there is the letter which Nott actually sent, recently published on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website – and in it are all the lines which he had previously crossed out.
It just goes to show that you should never accept a source at face value … in any case, the letter doesn’t seem to have done Nott much good. His draft version is annotated with the words “She did not reply.”