Thatcher's 'handbaggings' and acerbic notes

The cabinet papers are packed with evidence that Thatcher's "handbaggings" were no Whitehall myth and few of her colleagues were immune to her acerbic handwritten notes. "We have got to get economies," she regularly told the Treasury. "We must get ahead faster."

When Brussels came up with a procedure that might jeopardise the UK EU budget rebate, she responded: "No - the procedure is ridiculous. Its whole purpose is to demean Britain ... we must fight this one - if necessary openly."

When her foreign secretary, Peter Carrington, and agriculture secretary, Peter Walker, looked as though they might compromise over Britain's 50-mile fishing exclusion zone, she told them: "It is our water and … our fish. Don't give them away", adding repeatedly "no", "too woolly" and finally "never" in the margins of the Downing Street papers.

When the Department of Industry failed to heed the complaints of a shipbuilding company she responded: "Please tell S[ecretary] of S[tate] I am appalled at the excuses and the draft letter" and "I am very angry that industry should think of sending such a letter".

Confronted with futile attempts to improve the Post Office, she boiled over: "But we are just giving in to culpable inefficiency every time."

Bristol riot

It took the home secretary, Willie Whitelaw, nearly three weeks to report to the cabinet on the 2 April riots in the St Paul's area of Bristol. . He told the Cabinet that the chief constable "accepted that the police had made errors in the initial stages of the incident but [his] subsequent decision to withdraw all officers from the area for several hours had been the only one open to him at the time".

Whitelaw said demands for a full public inquiry should be rejected as undesirable. It would only lead to the police being pilloried to no good purpose and unnecessary demands for substantial sums to be spent on the area.

"The pressure to hold a public inquiry into every controversial matter affecting the police ought to be resisted, not least because of the demands such inquiries made on the time of senior judges," Whitelaw told his colleagues.

Cutting welfare benefits for strikers' families

The aim was to "change the bargaining balance between employers and employees". A Misc 33 cabinet committee paper early in 1980 read: "The union negotiator is secure in the knowledge that supplementary benefit provides a safety net that is cost-free and inexhaustible. The cards are stacked against the employer [in any long-term dispute]." The new social security rules assumed that strikers got £12 a week strike pay.

Death of the sixpence

In January 1980, the Treasury minister, Nigel Lawson, proposed the end of the old sixpence – 2.5p in decimal coinage – saying it was considered obsolete and it would enable them "to recover a quite valuable stock of metal that is locked up in sixpenny bits". Thatcher approved, saying: "There will be headlines about the 'end of the tanner' but it will be worth it for the £3.5m" – the amount the Treasury claimed the move would raise.

Guardian and cabinet leaks

A spate of leaks of cabinet papers prompted a Whitehall inquiry and Thatcher's press secretary, Bernard Ingham, took exception when it concluded in July 1980 that there was no evidence of a "any kind of subversive plot or any connecting link indicating a continuing common source or sources for the leaks". He told the Cabinet Office to consider the "fairly sustained pattern of leaks of unemployment figures" to the Guardian's Labour editor, the late Keith Harper, and "the sustained leakage" of cabinet committee papers to the Guardian, "mostly appearing under the name of Richard Norton-Taylor".

Misleading a select committee

A decision by the Common's defence select committee to hold an inquiry into strategic nuclear weapons policy – just as Polaris was about to be replaced – prompted political anxiety in Downing Street.

The defence secretary, Francis Pym, suggested he "play it long" and not provide evidence to the committee until an announcement about Trident had been made.

Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, endorsed the approach. "It should not be too difficult to string the committee along," he agreed, adding that: "It will be important to maintain the committee's goodwill in order to do everything possible to ensure a favourable reception of the public announcement in the House when it comes."

Thatcher responded: "Yes – but the committee will be very angry when they learn about the decision."

Greenpeace terror

Alongside the IRA and Middle Eastern paramilitary groups, "London Greenpeace" appears in a survey of terrorist groups active in the UK. The comprehensive study compiled for a meeting of the cabinet's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) noted: "In the past two years there has been a marked increase in the number of small anarchist-dominated or influenced groups in the UK, the most dominant being London Greenpeace; the latter plays a major co-ordinating role in anti-nuclear affairs and is responsible for many of the international links."

Welsh and Scottish nationalists are dismissed as not constituting severe threats.

Cluster bomb sales

The Ministry of Defence was eager to promote export orders for sensitive armaments that had been opposed by human rights groups.

A meeting between Foreign Office and MoD officials in May 1980 noted: "MoD sales were duty bound to push sales wherever possible, but as civil servants they were reasonable about political constraints. In this spirit they hoped for some review of the limitations on sales of Blowpipe [missiles] and BL 755 cluster bomb."

Oman, however, was a favoured ally, allowed to purchase restricted armaments. The Foreign Office was determined to limit the weapon's spread. "The FCO regarded the Oman case as special and exceptional," the memo noted. "Supplying Egypt could encourage a request from Jordan with a consequent reaction from Israel. Altogether it seemed best not to promote sale anywhere [else] in the region."


Alan Travis and Owen Bowcott

The GuardianTramp

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