National Archives: cabinet papers from 1983 – in brief

Cabinet memos, from the Falklands war laser weapon to inky thumbs for Sinn Féin and panda pandering in China

Labour's 1983 manifesto

The traditional "top secret" briefing materials prepared for an incoming prime minister should Labour's Michael Foot have won the 1983 election did not even bother to spell out how the party's manifesto, famously described by Gerald Kaufman as the "longest suicide note in history", might be implemented.

"In the light of the current disagreement within the Labour party leadership about defence policy, I do not think it would be either sensible or practicable to try to prepare a detailed brief on how under a Labour government we might move towards 'a non-nuclear defence policy' or get rid of United States bases in this country," wrote Sir David Goodall, a senior cabinet office official on 26 May – two weeks before the election.

Thumbs down

A Egyptian voter marks his finger with indelible ink to prove that he cas
Plans were afoot to use indelible ink on voters' thumbs to help beat an alleged Sinn Féin multiple voter scam. Photograph: Rex Features Photograph: Rex Features

Jim Prior, the then Northern Ireland secretary, proposed legislation to the cabinet in September 1983, requiring the thumbs of Northern Irish voters to be marked with indelible ink in an attempt to halt Sinn Féin "vote early, vote often" impersonation at the ballot box. Prior claimed that up to 25% of Sinn Féin's electoral support was based on such practices.

The cabinet, however, postponed introducing such a measure into its crowded legislative programme.

University challenge

Politics - Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph - 1980
Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph at a press conference after a meeting with a TUC delegation at No. 10 Downing Street. Photograph: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Ima Photograph: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Ima

The cabinet minutes for 10 November 1983 show that the then education secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, said he would have to introduce legislation to "close one or two universities" if he was expected to go ahead with planned £50m cuts to higher education.

The savings were approved only after it was argued that they could be found through unfilled vacancies caused by the natural wastage of academic staff. At the cabinet meeting, extra money was found to put the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company "on a sound footing".

Laser guidance

Falklands War and HMS Sheffield
The UK had a laser weapon to deter Argentinian pilots attacking the Royal; Navy in the Falklands war. Photograph: Martin Cleaver/PA Archive/Press Association Ima Photograph: Martin Cleaver/PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Britain developed a top secret laser weapon for use against Argentina during the Falklands war, but it never saw action, released Ministry of Defence files reveal. The gun was designed to dazzle low-flying Argentinian pilots attacking ships that were part of the taskforce sent to retake the islands in 1982.

Michael Heseltine, then defence secretary, revealed the existence of the weapon in a "top secret" memo to Margaret Thatcher sent in January 1983.

"Knowledge of it has been kept to a very restricted circle," he said.

The UK had a programme of developing laser weapons and was concerned about the impact of Soviet lasers on its military hardware and personnel when they were aimed at troops' eyes and optical sensors on equipment.

Heseltine told Thatcher that the Russians might have already deployed a laser weapon on its cruiser, Kirov.

There was also serious US concern at the Russian's progress in developing non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons, which could knock out the electronics of low-flying planes or debilitate soldiers' central nervous systems.

Spiritual firmness

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Photograph: Steve Liss/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Photograph: Steve Liss/Time & Life Pictures / Getty

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the dissident Russian novelist who was expelled from the USSR in 1974, warned Margaret Thatcher that Moscow would inevitably launch an attack and only a rediscovery of the west's "spiritual firmness" could prevent disaster.

The author of The Gulag Archipelago met Thatcher for an hour at Downing Street on 11 May 1983, where they exchanged ideas about ending the Soviet system and defending the west against inevitable Moscow expansionism.

In an analysis that the prime minister described as "disturbing", the author said "a moment would come when the Russians would not be able to prevent their rockets being used", adding: "Britain, Europe and the whole world would have to live through terrible, unprecedented experiences."

Thatcher admired the Nobel prizewinner, who sold more than 30m books worldwide, and appreciated his recent public description of supporters of unilateral disarmament as "naive".

"The terrible feature of current demonstrations in the west against nuclear weapons was that the demonstrators were opposed to any defence – they were prepared to surrender," he told her.

He said that one of Britain's great moments was at hand. It was necessary to state openly that the country was in a most dangerous situation [that] might be worse than that of 1940.

He offered a way out because communists were afraid of "courageous resistance".

"If they saw that the situation in Britain had changed and that we were if necessary prepared to sacrifice and die, they would not touch Britain but would instead consider moves against other countries," he said.

"If the west could rediscover spiritual firmness, the struggle could continue for a long time."

Panda pandering

A giant panda eating bamboo.
Margaret Thatcher was asked to bring back a fertile female panda after her trip to meet Deng Xiaoping in 1983. Photograph: Steve Bloom Images/Alamy Photograph: Steve Bloom Images/Alamy

Margaret Thatcher was urged by her top aide to use a sensitive trip to Beijing to meet the Chinese premier, Deng Xiaoping, to acquire a female giant panda for London Zoo.

The previous Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, had brought home a pair of pandas in 1974 as a gift from China to the British people, but the female turned out to be infertile.

After a meeting with Lord Zuckerman, president of the Zoological Society of London, Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary wrote in a memo: "I think Lord Zuckerman hopes that, if the prime minister were to be offered a female giant panda for the British people, she might feel able to accept it."

The panda question was inserted in otherwise delicate negotiations with Deng in 1982 over the future of Hong Kong, wider Sino-US relations and trade with the UK.

A briefing note on Deng described the leader as "older and deafer though still mentally alert", while officials also included "a hasty guide to the history of China".


Alan Travis and Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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