My small, doomed stand against Thatcher’s war on truth

As a civil servant in the 1980s, I had a front row seat as the British government began to lose touch with reality. Since then, things have only got worse

Six years after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, I got a job as a writer at a strangely dysfunctional government department called the Central Office Of Information. Even though I lived in a squat, had the socialist historian EP Thompson’s Protest and Survive on my bookshelf and had been an organiser for a miners’ support group during the 1984 strike – when we put up some of the miners’ families during visits to London for marches, they found our earnest wholegrain lifestyle utterly ridiculous – I thought it was OK to join the COI for a number of reasons. Dylan Thomas and Somerset Maugham had worked for it during the war, for a start, and I considered myself to be a “writer”, too, even though the only thing I’d had published was a 20,000-word guidebook to Edinburgh under the imposed pseudonym of Elspeth Mackintosh (my own surname too clearly Cornish for a book on Scotland).

But the main reason I joined was that I discovered during the application process that the department’s role was to issue information that was not beholden to any political party. The COI was not Margaret Thatcher’s loudhailer, my new bosses told me; she had to use the Conservative party’s own funds for that. Our job was to describe clearly and objectively to the British people what it was that the government was doing. I liked that. I’d read George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language and I was filled with notions around the democratisation of language. Having spent the past three years writing blurbs for a small publisher (the books were westerns: “Peace wouldn’t reign in Vulture valley until six gunshots rang in the air!”), I was intrigued by the idea of cold truth set out in type. I thought I could learn my trade, and I was right about that at least. Also, I thought, Thatcher would soon be replaced by a Labour government and everything would be rosy.

By the time I left, seven years later, the COI was no longer the sole arbiter of what was and what wasn’t “objective information”. During the years they employed me, Thatcher had eroded this notion so effectively that we COI writers had little or no authority left. Advertising and public relations and lobbying agencies now clustered around Number 10 like flies over treacle, and the idea of truth had evaporated. Something got lost in those years. It is difficult to imagine the administrations of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss without the preparatory demolition of the foundations that Thatcher carried out. Never again would our governments allow us the dignity of knowing the facts and drawing our own conclusions from them.

* * *

‘Oh dear. We weren’t expecting you. I don’t think there’s a desk.” These were the first words my new boss spoke to me when I pitched up at the publications department of the Central Office of Information in November 1986. He was a kindly, slightly mournful man who wore good suits and maintained a fine beard. The office was in Lincoln House just south of the Thames: a scruffy, grey, uncared-for building with smelly loos and peeling grey linoleum floors.

There were three separate teams of writers in the publications division of the COI, and I was one of a new intake of three, each of us allocated to one team. I was the only one to survive. The first, quite a cool and snarky dude who’d just come back from Switzerland, resigned within a month, horrified by absolutely everything. The second, a smart and ambitious young woman, left a few months later with a huge sigh of relief, finding her way back to what she thought of as real life in Soho’s ad land. Only I stayed.

I loved it from the very first day. The debacle of the missing furniture was quickly sorted, and by the end of that first afternoon I had my own metal desk in the writers’ room, complete with an ancient wooden structure of cubbyholes that sat on top and were gradually filled by visiting stationery ladies with letterheads, acknowledgment slips, timesheets and other impenetrable items. I was presented with an old green manual typewriter with a canvas cover and a slim box of carbon paper. Everything we typed was done in duplicate, the carbon copies staying with us, the originals going off to the relevant government department that had requested them.

My boss handed me two slim paperback manuals with a sigh. One was titled A Working Guide for Government Information Officers, the other Their Trade Is Treachery. One of my colleagues, a spritely 60-year-old ex-advertising man with a blond military moustache, sauntered over to my desk and pointed at the second one. “Very amusing,” he tittered. “You’ll enjoy that.”

A version of the booklet Their Trade is Treachery, once given to all civil servants to warn against spying.
A version of the booklet once given to all civil servants to warn against spying. Photograph: Courtesy of Simon Petherick

First published in 1964 as a strictly internal document for British civil servants, Their Trade Is Treachery was still being issued in 1986 to new recruits like me in order to warn us of the dangers of entrapment by Soviet spies. The book opened as follows: “Spies are with us all the time. They are interested in everything, defence secrets, scientific secrets, political decisions, economic facts; even people’s characters – in order to recruit yet more spies. This booklet tells you about the great hostile spy machine that tries to suborn our citizens and turn them into traitors. It shows you how sometimes it succeeds, and sometimes it fails. This booklet tells you how to recognise at once certain espionage techniques, and how to avoid pitfalls, which could lead to national catastrophe or a personal disaster – or both.”

I had been a little put out not to have had the tap on my shoulder during my three years at Oxford. I was at an all-male college, I drank too much, gossiped, failed to attend lectures and frequently disappeared to London for parties – surely I was prime MI5 recruitment material? But no, to my chagrin, the call never came. Perhaps now I would discover the world of espionage; my friends, after reading it, looked forward to me falling for honey traps.

The other manual, A Working Guide for Government Information Officers, was a little drier but, given my idealism about the politics of language, equally exciting to me. At its core lay four key principles, requiring that all government publicity

a) should be relevant to government responsibilities

b) should be objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical

c) should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being, party political

d) should be produced and distributed in an economic and relevant way, having regard to the need to be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds.

Now we were talking. This made me feel as if I was working for Clement Attlee’s 1945 New Jerusalem government, not Margaret Thatcher’s collection of cynical grandees and bow-tied businessmen. I’d read Graham Greene’s nostalgic memoir about his period as a subeditor at the Times in the 1920s, the comforting atmosphere of the editorial room with the quiet thud of the coals falling through the grate of the fire, and I felt the same: I could work here quite happily for years.

My fellow writers were charming. The men wore suits and ties, the women long skirts, apart from one who favoured thick RAF-blue trousers. Nobody talked about feelings or family, there were no watercooler chats about last night’s TV. Occasionally, someone might recommend a forthcoming classical music concert, but for the most part, we worked in companionable silence, the keys of our typewriters syncopating our days.

* * *

The year I joined the Central Office of Information, 1986, was the year the government’s advertising spend more than doubled: from £66m in 1985 to £148m a year later. Only £38m of that increase was accounted for by privatisation advertising (remember Tell Sid, the British Gas ads?) The other £44m of increased spend reflected Thatcher’s belated discovery of the power of advertising: lascivious commercial advisers like Tim Bell finally got her to understand that advertising was more powerful than politics.

The COI didn’t do advertising. In another building, there was a COI advertising department, which we in publications viewed as being highly irregular and deeply suspect, but in fact all they did was sign off the invoices sent in by Bell and his ilk. Heaven forfend, we even heard stories of people from the advertising department being taken out to lunch by agency executives! We shook our heads and gripped our typewriters more firmly. We maintained the principles of objectivity, clarity and truthfulness in the publications that we wrote; this regrettable lurch into lurid and often infantile TV advertising surely wouldn’t last.

While Soho whiz-kids were dreaming up slogans to assist in the sell-off of Britain’s public sector, I was writing leaflets such as What to Do When Someone in Your Family Has Died for the Department of Social Security. Only two years later, someone in my close family did die at the terribly young age of 33, and in the midst of that trauma, I realised why I had worked so many long hours trying to ensure that the wording of that leaflet was correct. Death is awful, as Vera Hall sang, and, for some people, that leaflet would be the only guidance they would get during the worst time of their life. It felt, somehow, significant, the work we were doing. It felt useful.

The projects came thick and fast. Soon after I started, I was called over to the Inland Revenue to be briefed on a new job. I trotted across the river to Whitehall and sat in an office with a Treasury man who explained the task. The notes to the income tax return, which accompanied the form that went out to millions of taxpayers every year, needed to be rewritten.

“You see, the thing is, the notes as they stand assume that the person who is reading them is a man.”

He read me out an example: “If your wife has earnings which contribute to the family income, state them here.”

“Do you get the drift?” he asked, languidly.

UK government-issued leaflets about Aids from the late 1980s.
Government-issued leaflets about Aids from the late 1980s. Photograph: SSPL/Getty

The work was not easy. Rather like one of those flowcharts that direct you one way or the other depending on the outcome of each stage, we had to be sure that every statement we made was not only true but could exist safely on its own with the least chance of misunderstanding. Because if, through imprecise language, we caused someone to take an action that would not be in their interests, then we, the writers, were to blame.

We wrote leaflets on how to have safe sex during the Aids crisis, guidance for businesses seeking government help in hedging their export invoices, summaries of grants available to aspirant artists. During the 1990 Kuwait hostage crisis, I represented the COI at an interdepartmental meeting in a Cabinet Office underground boardroom, where I was instructed to write information guidance for the families of the hostages explaining what government support would be made available to them. (At the meeting, the permanent secretary quizzed the man from social security: “Can we get these families any money?” “Yes, perm sec, they can apply for benefits.” “They work, do they, these benefits?” “Yes, perm sec.”)

It seemed to us, the unlikely collection of men and women in the writers’ room at the COI, that the work we did reflected the notion of belonging: that each citizen of the UK contracted a government to carry out their wishes and, in return, they received a clear account of its activities.

We should really have been paying more attention.

* * *

The first real inkling I had that my idealistic vision of government information was being undermined came in 1987 when the Thatcher government decided to make its first announcement about its plans for a community charge, or poll tax, to replace domestic rates. A document had been issued by the Department of Environment setting out to parliament the proposed policy, but now the department intended to issue a booklet and video to explain to the general public the changes that they intended to introduce. These changes were extremely controversial. Once they were finally made law in 1990, the poll tax riots that ensued saw hundreds of people either injured or arrested.

As usual, we received an instruction from the Department of Environment to prepare the text of the booklet. The instruction came with an unusual level of detail, suggesting ways in which the proposed Charge could be “sold”. It made reference to allegedly poor accounting practices by Labour-held councils in cities such as Liverpool, and argued that the new charge would eradicate inefficiency and corruption. This detailed brief, in other words, was in effect a political justification for the creation of the community charge.

We writers huddled together and agreed as one: this was simply unacceptable. We would have to advise the department that such a booklet had no place as government information, it would sit more happily as a Conservative party-funded publication. Government information was supposed to explain, not justify. We put this in a typed letter, which was then taken across the Thames to the department’s offices in Marsham Street by the government information van service. We waited. And waited. No response. After several days, one of us leaped into action and telephoned the department.

“Yes, we received your letter,” we were told. “No, we don’t agree with your perspective, and we have asked the department’s advertising agency to produce the booklet instead. Goodbye.”

A demonstration against the poll tax in Warrington in 1991.
A demonstration against the poll tax in Warrington in 1991. Photograph: Denis Thorpe/The Guardian

While writing this, I thought I had better be sure of my memory, so I spent a couple of days trawling through archived files at the National Archives in Kew. Eventually, I found what I was looking for: a 1988 memorandum written by a senior COI official which specifically referenced this incident:

“In discussing the department’s plan for the new community charge material, we drew heavily on the Widdicombe conventions [drawn up in 1985 to confirm the validity of several decades of guidance on what governments should be permitted to publicise] and our commonsense experience in advising the DOE that their proposals for the booklet and the video were in our view not acceptable, as drafted, in terms of style, tone and distribution. Despite arguments that earlier DOE material had set precendents, we advised that amendments should be made to the text of the leaflet and the script of the video to make clear that the community charge was subject to parliamentary approval of the necessary legislation. We also advised that the publicity proposals should be referred to the Lord President because of their likely political content and because the community charge legislation had not at that time been put before parliament. In the event, DOE ministers indicated that if we wanted to refer the matter to the Lord President that was up to us, but DOE ministers intended to carry out intensive publicity activity to counterbalance inaccurate and misleading claims and reports in the media.”

The patterns seem so obvious now, looking back. In 1981, the government had told the COI it needed to itemise all its costs. Previously, it was just allocated an annual budget and told to get on with producing information material for all government departments – none were allowed to commission their own publicity. In 1984, the COI was told to issue itemised invoices to its departmental clients. Then, in 1985, in another memo I uncovered at the National Archives, the head of the civil service, Sir Robert Armstrong, wrote to all departments: “The prime minister has been considering how departments, and subsequently cabinet and cabinet committees, might improve the presentation of government decisions and measures.” Finally, in 1986, the deputy secretary of the Treasury wrote to all departments, announcing that, “subject to certain safeguards […] departments should be free to place contracts with outside agencies direct for most publicity services, with effect from 1 April 1987”.

Reading through all these letters and memos at the National Archive, it seems that my bosses at the COI were mostly concerned at the time about potential job losses, in the event that departments deserted them for the lure of private sector ad agencies and PR firms. I can find little discussion about the impact these changes might have on the objective quality of the information that the government was giving to the people who elected it.

In the same way, I don’t think we writers in the publications division of the COI really understood at the time just how massive a change was taking place in the way government intended to communicate with its electorate. We still thought our skills would continue to be valued, and that you could maintain the notion of objective truth, even as Thatcher continued to reshape our country in her desired image.

* * *

Tempers never flared in the writers’ room. Occasionally, someone might become frustrated with a particularly complex task of boiling government policy down to language that could be understood by anyone, but the usual remedy was a long lunch down at the tapas bar on the Kennington Road where we’d guzzle rioja while a mournful flamenco guitarist plucked away in the corner.

The only occasion I recall genuine fury was when a new arrival to our team proposed a definition of effective writing. Sara was a garrulous and talented arrival from ad-land. She had spent her career as a successful copywriter at JW Thompson, then took a decade off to wander around Greece on her own. On her return, needing income, she found herself among us oddballs in the COI publications department.

One quiet morning, frustrated I suspect by what she saw as the limits to our remit, she recounted a story. It is, no doubt, an apocryphal story, but it proved explosive. It went as follows. A young man who worked in advertising in New York walked through Central Park every day on his way to his Fifth Avenue agency. Each morning he would pass a beggar sitting on the ground with a hat in front of him and a sign that read “I am blind”. The hat never contained more than a few bucks. One morning in early May, the sun shining and the blossom decorating the trees, the young man stopped by the beggar, leaned down and asked him whether he might object if he made a slight amendment to the beggar’s sign. Approval given, he took out his pen, wrote on the card, and put it back. The next day when he passed, he saw that the beggar’s hat was filled to the brim with cash.

“And what do you think the sign now read?” Sara asked, with a triumphant glint in her eye. “It read: ‘It is spring and I am blind’.”

Oh, the scenes! Nicholas, normally the least communicative and most reserved of the team, couldn’t contain himself. “The use of the English language to manipulate other people’s behaviour is abhorrent to me,” he fumed. “There is absolutely nothing to commend in that story.”

Yet here was the crux of the matter. Sara’s definition of effective writing implied a mission to create change. Nicholas and others felt that words should explain, not affect. In Sara’s example, passersby needed to be encouraged to donate to the beggar’s hat by being prompted to imagine a spring day with sight; Nicholas, however, believed that each individual should have the personal sovereignty to be able to make their own minds up on the clear evidence without their decision-making being influenced.

* * *

Margaret Thatcher stepped down as prime minister in November 1990. It was during John Major’s flaccid follow-on that I finally understood how doomed the notion of objective government information was. In 1991, he announced something called the Citizen’s Charter. To this day, I believe no one has any idea what that was. At the time, he and his grey-faced friends pretended that it meant that the citizen was to be given power to critique and improve public services. I recall the day when the pitch document arrived at COI publications department to provide the leaflet for this nonsense. (We were now so fully untied from government departments that we were pitching for each job against commercial design agencies like Fitch.)

The pitch brief spoke of a revolution in public services, how in the future all such services would be responsive to and supervised by the electorate. I actually laughed when I read the brief. As well as being asked to write the copy for this ludicrous fandango, we were asked to offer design ideas for the logo. One of our naive young designers in the design studio came up with a whole set of earnest and dramatic images inspired by the Russian revolutionary art of the 1920s. An older and wiser designer just drew a very simple circle with a sketch of an idealised family in the middle of it. I took one look at her drawing and laughed again: “That will win us the job,” I said. “It has absolutely no meaning whatsover.”

It won, we produced John Major’s citizen’s charter material, and I left the COI the following year. The department limped on as a perennially shrinking, quasi-commercial agency for another two decades until someone in David Cameron’s government finally noticed it in 2011, and shut it down.

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Simon Petherick

The GuardianTramp

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