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Newly declassified British Government archives from 1976

On 29 December 2006 the National Archives in London released key British Government papers from thirty years earlier. margaretthatcher.org reviews the files

hybrids, PairS & polar opposites: MT's relations with Prime Minister james CALLaghan

Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition meet from time to time to discuss sensitive items of business, invariably in the Prime Minister's room at the House of Commons, comfortably away from the cameras. The tone and frequency of such meetings naturally vary. Margaret Thatcher held only three officially minuted meetings with Jim Callaghan during 1976, now available at PREM16/1035 and here placed online. MT's appointment diaries suggest there were probably one or two more encounters that went unrecorded, but the minutes don't suggest these two very different politicians felt any strong need (or desire) to keep in closer contact.

One of the meetings concerns a hugely controversial incident on the floor of the House of Commons on 27 May 1976. Labour won a division by a single vote on a bill to nationalise the aircraft and shipbuilding industries. It was apparent that a Labour MP had "broken his pair" - that is, voted for the government despite having agreed with an absent Opposition MP that neither of them would vote - with the result that a major piece of legislation had been passed by a procedural trick. As Labour MPs on the floor of the Commons began singing "The Red Flag" in celebration, Michael Heseltine grabbed from the despatch box the Speaker's Mace (the symbol of the authority of the House) and angrily offered it to them. His reputation as a political wildman owed a good deal to this action, for which he apologised to the House the following day. The Conservatives called off all cooperation with the government in the handling of Commons business, greatly slowing its pace and forcing overworked ministers to attend votes they might otherwise have safely missed.

Eventually, on 11 June, the Prime Minister wrote MT suggesting they resolve the dispute by investigating what exactly had happened on the division. She countered by suggesting they meet for a discussion, the official account of which digs deep into the frosty sub-soil of Parliamentary practice and law. The Opposition argued that the Bill was a 'hybrid' measure, which required special procedures giving interested parties a chance to make their case to a Select Committee. Ministers strongly resisted, but after much further argument, involving the House of Lords as well as the Commons, they conceded the hybridity point by omitting the ship repair industry from the Bill altogether, a big tactical victory for the Conservatives. Ministers also agreed to re-run the disputed vote, which they took care to win. The Bill became law in March 1977.

The other meetings in 1976 were less sensational. On 3 May Callaghan warned MT of the Government's decision to withdraw the "Spearhead Battalion" from Northern Ireland a few days later, a concession to the often strained convention that policy towards Northern Ireland was not the subject of ordinary party warfare. There was obviously some anxiety on the part of ministers that they would be criticised as softening security policy at a time of great violence in the Province. There is a certain sharpness in MT's response to the news.

They met again on 20 July in the Commons, at MT's request. Althought the conversation ranged over several topics, essentially she wanted to talk patronage, particularly her nomination for one of Britain's two European Commissionerships. A convention had already emerged that the jobs should be parcelled out between the two major parties and held by senior figures in each, but the final choice lay with the Government and the Prime Minister understandably failed to assure his visitor that her candidate for the job - John Davies - would be appointed. Davies had been a controversial minister under Heath and before that a highly political Director-General of the CBI; somewhere along the way he had irritated the newly-appointed (British) President of the Commission, Roy Jenkins. In the event the job was given to a younger and more junior Conservative, Christopher Tugendhat. Davies was compensated with the job of Shadow Foreign Secretary in place of Reggie Maudling in November 1976.

"the facts about immigration": MT's visits to pakistan & India

Foreign travel figured largely in MT's preparations for government, perhaps as much for the sake of her domestic British audience (which was not left unaware of her lack of foreign policy experience) as for purpose of study. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Foreign Office file on her visits to India and Pakistan in 1976 show that the subject of immigration - then high on the British political agenda - was on her mind. This triggered official anxiety, aggravated by the fact that Foreign Office helpfulness to MT in preparing for her visit to the United States the previous year had irritatated ministers. Care was taken to get the approval of No.10 before work got very far. Hopes were repeatedly expressed that MT would prove amenable to 'guidance' from the Foreign Office, 'gentle' or even 'firm' in character. MT on her side sought to keep officials at a certain distance, excluding them from her meetings with Heads of Government.

The problem was put delicately by British officials in New Delhi: "on several occasions it has been difficult to reconcile statements by ministers with our understanding of the facts about immigration". Then, more bluntly, they asked London how they should respond if she asked how many future immigrants there might be from India? "Do we tell Mrs Thatcher that ministers who say we are dealing only with dependents are talking nonsense?" In the event MT chose simply to listen and learn.

Another delicate subject was the State of Emergency in India. MT was visiting at the personal invitation of Mrs Gandhi and would be under pressure to offer some public comfort to her host, who had found little support in the West for her crackdown on political opponents and press critics. (Emergency restrictions on the press at one point seemed likely to result in there being no British coverage of the visit at all, to MT's natural dismay, but her memoirs recall that she insisted her press conferences be open to all and that consequently British broadcast and newspaper journalists were well-represented in her party.) MT finally chose to avoid public comment on the controversy while she was a guest of the Indian Government - for which she was criticised in the normally sympathetic Daily Telegraph - but the formula she used in public ("I came to learn and not to comment") did not preclude a private meeting with Opposition MPs. The highlight of the trip, though, was lunch at Mrs Gandhi's modest family home, with Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi both in attendance. When the meal was over the Indian Prime Minister insisted on clearing the dishes herself, a winning gesture after MT's own heart. Afterwards Mrs Gandhi told her staff of MT that she was impressed with the "direct and no-nonsense way in which she put across her views". She was seen as representative of a new generation of British politicians without links to India, or hang-ups about it.

A visit to Pakistan had preceded the Indian trip. There too the highlight was an informal Prime Ministerial meal, with the British-educated Bhuttos gossiping amiably of Lincoln's Inn and the political pecking order in London.