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Margaret Thatcher's Falklands Memoir

 

Over Easter 1983, working alone at Chequers, MT sat down and wrote by hand a 128 page recollection of the Falklands War, an intensely personal document of some 17,000 words unlike anything she had written before. She based it partly on the minutes of the War Cabinet, but aside from that and a few sketchy notes of her own, she seems to have drawn only on her then formidable memory. The work was done so secretly that it is doubtful anyone outside her close family knew how she was spending her Easter break.

MT read it again closely before writing the Downing Street Years and it has been used since by her authorised biographer, Charles Moore. We publish it now in full, the highlight of a collection of her most personal papers

 

Origin & writing of the memoir

Opening paragraph

MT was the least introspective of people, so there was something against the grain in her sitting down to record any of her doings. The germ of the idea almost certainly came from the Franks Inquiry into the origins of the war, which forced her to work carefully through her own files on the Falklands in preparation for giving evidence privately to the committee in October 1982. A few months later she had to work through the report itself before it was debated in Parliament in January 1983, a second bout of intense labour. She read the text in finest detail at least four times, judging from her annotations. The experience seems to have bred the thought that posterity would be taking a close look at this topic, so she had better record her version while it was reasonably fresh in the mind. Perhaps too she had acquired a certain fondness for research.

The thing that clinches the connection between the memoir and Franks is that the memoir begins pretty much where the report ends. It is almost as if she saw his work as unfinished. She was certainly more than content with the report, which provided an account of the origin of the war close to complete vindication from the government's perspective. As John Nott put it privately to MT: “The Report itself puts our case better than we could ever have dared to hope”. It is no surprise at all that her Falklands memoir has nothing to say about the origins or outbreak of the war.

Her decision to borrow the minutes and papers of the War Cabinet - more properly OD(SA) - must also have influenced the shape of the memoir. Probably the reason for focussing on OD(SA) was that its records were of manageable size; the main Falklands files at No.10 would have been too massive for her purpose. The rather odd title she chose, "Notes on the Emergency Cabinet Committee", reflects this decision, and possibly implies that she began writing with a narrower purpose than producing a general memoir of the war. Certainly it was not quite the right title by the end, because the memoir ranges a lot wider than the minutes of OD(SA), which were in fact a dry source, produced under such tight time and security constraints that they generally recorded decisions but not discussion. Unsurprisingly it is where she deviates from the minutes or expands on them than the most valuable material is found. Correspondingly the least valuable pages are those where she summarises, reliably enough, a document we now have access to. The minutes and circulated papers she used are published in full on this site.

At one point she describes the text as "written in retrospect from notes". What notes were these? Did she make a contemporary record of the war which we no longer have, maybe destroying it when the memoir was finished? It seems unlikely. She did keep brief notes, quite hard to follow, on some of her conversations - notably the one with Macmillan with which the memoir opens, and a later one of her phone conversation with Haig regarding British use of Ascension Island. It is possible she was referring to these and their like. They are on this site. Alternatively in talking of notes she was acknowledging the fact that she was using cabinet committee minutes, but trying to obscure the precise source.

Was it all written in a single burst, over a few days at Chequers? It seems likely so. The penmanship suggests that she was doing a good chunk every day - something like 27 pages on day one (just short of 4,000 words), 24 the next. You can clearly see her change pens at the top of p28 and again on p52 when she helpfully dates the third day as Easter Sunday. This fits with her diary which shows her all but free of engagements from Good Friday (1 April) till the following Tuesday (5 April). She probably read back through the text at various points during composition, but otherwise kept up a fair pace.

Who was the memoir written for? Clearly some kind of audience was intended, because throughout the memoir MT is appealing to one. She pays personal debts on all sides, almost every significant and some insignificant players in the war receiving the warmest praise (a single notable colleague excepted, of which more below). In places the style reads as much like a speech as a fragment of autobiography. But one should be wary of this point if it is taken as pointing somehow to shallowness of purpose. There is deep emotion in these 'rhetorical' sections of the memoir, the kind in fact that her speechwriters often beat back. When she described an episode in the war as a "crisis of Britain's honour" she was using in full sincerity words that few in British politics would have employed without a tick of embarrassment, if they could have brought themselves to utter the words at all. In such phrases she was defiantly reclaiming for public life a concept that most British people had fondly assumed always to be there, but which she feared - to her anger and shame - had more or less died the death. The best way of putting it might be to say that in places the text reads like a speech she would have dearly liked to make had she been free to. It must have been deeply frustrating to her that at this point she was not, days off calling a General Election in which it had already been decided she should avoid anything that would seem to take political advantage of the war.

The memoir as history

What does the memoir tell us? Its main value historically comes from its long and detailed laying out of the case against the one colleague she did not cover with praise - her Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym. Even Pym is more or less exempt from direct personal criticism, but the treatment is damning all the same. He is on the wrong side of those arguments about the national honour. He is browbeaten by a tougher negotiator (US Secretary of State, Al Haig), defies her judgment and attempts to rally colleagues against her. Some of the criticisms are unfair, even self-refuting: Pym's attendance at "some country house" for an EC meeting is noted immediately before the reflection "I am glad that Chequers played quite a part in the Falklands story". But it was not a matter of trivialities, of course. The differences between them went to the heart of the matter - whether it was right to fight the war at all?

Unfortunately Pym seems to have left no account of his side of the argument. More may emerge from the archives, but much about his role in the war is presently obscure. Expected by MT to combine with Willie Whitelaw in the War Cabinet, prompting her to appoint Cecil Parkinson a member so as to boost the home team, in fact Pym seems to have been fairly isolated on OD(SA), though at one important point he made common cause with Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney-General. Havers was a constant attendee of OD(SA) as the government's lawyer, although not a full member, and his role never quite comes into focus in the memoir. Certainly he does not seem to have been an object of deep suspicion like Pym. He too appears to have left no record. Pym's meetings, calls and correspondence with US Secretary of State Al Haig are largely unavailable, but they might tell a story, because peeping through the pages of the memoir is the uncomfortable thought from MT's perspective that the Foreign Secretary was combining with the Americans to outmanoeuvre her during the phase of Falklands diplomacy, not without success.

There were two closely related crunch points in the diplomatic phase of the conflict when she and Pym came to blows, both intimately involving the Americans. The first came on Saturday 24 April and is set out fully and credibly in the memoir. Pym returned from the US with peace proposals drafted in discussion with Haig the previous day, which he personally supported and now urged on his colleagues. Haig had warned Pym that if Britain rejected his plan it would be isolated, by the US among others, that the President supported the plan and that an immediate settlement was the only chance of preventing military conflict which might very possibly achieve neither Britain's short-term goal of repossessing the islands nor its long-term one of holding them peacefully. Pym concluded that compromise was preferable to running those risks, a judgment that positioned him, of course, as a peacemaker on the eve of what might prove to be a historic military disaster.

The memoir tells how Pym on his return met MT to put to her the plan, which she saw as "a complete sell-out". Among many failings from her point of view it did not secure self-determination for the islanders. "I told Francis that the terms he had returned with were totally unacceptable. They would rob the Falklanders of their freedom and Britain of her honour and respect". He went ahead nonetheless in circulating a paper recommending them to OD(SA), for a meeting that evening, Haig requiring an answer on that timetable.

On her account MT spent much of the day going through Pym's paper, skewering it word for word: her annotated version is on this site (dated 23 April). When she was sure of her ground, she summoned Whitelaw and secured his support in the coming meeting by making plain that she would not under any circumstances accept the plan. ("Had it gone through the Committee I could not have stayed".) In the meeting itself Pym found little support, she claims - and her account is the best, the minutes themselves revealing nothing of the discussion. A neat procedural way was found to avoid bringing the issue to decision and so cornering either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary: on John Nott's suggestion, Haig was asked to put his plan to the Argentinians first, on the calculation that they would probably not be able to accept it. That proved to be the case. Haig's peacemaking shuttle was formally abandoned.

Painful as it was, there is no great controversy about this first collision between them. The second is far more difficult and obscure, and the account MT gives of it, originating in her memoir and followed closely in the Downing Street Years, gave rise to sharp criticism in Charles Moore's biography, as strong as any in this much respected book. It raises a stark question: can the memoir be trusted?

To put it simply, Haig and Pym seem to have attempted virtually the same manoeuvre ten days later, and this time things played out rather differently. They seem to have learned something from their first try. Following the Argentine refusal Haig's shuttle was formally abandoned and the US announced a 'tilt' towards Britain (on 30 April), but in fact US mediation merely found other channels. A new set of proposals came from Washington via Peru. They were not obviously better or worse than the 23/24 April plan from MT's point of view: crucially, again, they did not secure her core principle, that the islanders' wishes should be paramount. Pym backed the proposals, as before, remaining of the view that the military risks required the government to be flexible in its diplomacy. He seems to have felt that the recapture of South Georgia on 25 April had created a new opportunity for settlement, on a kind of "honours even" basis. Of course, MT did not see things that way, nor was it what she meant when she talked of Britain's honour. The sinking of the General Belgrano on 2 May is only likely to have deepened the divide between them.

One key difference between the two episodes is that on this occasion Britain was not given the luxury of asking Argentina to go first. Instead we were required to submit a detailed response to the US proposals, and Pym seems to have taken care that it embodied MT's viewpoint, islanders' wishes and all. This was a shrewd move, because while MT had shown that she could turn him down flat, the Americans were in a stronger position to oppose her. And oppose her they did, emphatically.

And here is the second key difference. Not only did Haig bluntly reject our amendments to his plan, in a three hour conversation with the British Ambassador, President Reagan also wrote her a letter unambiguously taking the same line. Previously, he had not been directly involved in selling any of Haig's propositions. On 24 April his assent to the Haig-Pym plan had been asserted, but not directly demonstrated. This presidential letter put MT on the spot. It is striking that after her initial approach to Reagan on the eve of war, an unsuccessful last ditch attempt to hold back the Argentinians, she had not initiated contact with him. Calls between them during the war came from the Washington end of the line - and achieved nothing for either side, one might add. In later years she would probably have handled things very differently, but at this point she did not know the president nearly as well and did not seek his intervention, probably because she was uncertain it would help her. Of course, Reagan's letter will have been written at Haig's instance, since it commended his proposals. And did the Foreign Secretary have an inkling it was on its way? Likely so, and so she will have thought.

A third large factor is that the fighting had started, and the killing. Hundreds were already dead. Allies had flinched, the Opposition was scouting lines of attack, public opinion seemed potentially malleable. The successful Argentine attack on HMS Sheffield on 4 May, following ours on the General Belgrano two days earlier, created a second "honours even" moment, in the brutal calculus of high stakes diplomacy.

MT was now cornered. Effectively she had lost control of the diplomacy to Pym, who speedily consolidated his gains. On the morning of Wednesday 5 May there was a meeting of the War Cabinet to consider the US plan, which ended with a decision to put the whole thing to full Cabinet, the only time during the war that it was summoned to make a decision rather than hear reports of what had been decided elsewhere. The memoir implies that MT made that decision because she was unhappy with the Peruvian terms, appealing to a higher court. She goes on:

Cabinet didn't like them very much - but agreed that we must make some response. These proposals were not very detailed, indeed they left a lot to be worked out. Nevertheless they could be accepted provided three things were made perfectly clear: that South Georgia & the other dependencies were outside the proposals; that any interim administration must consult the islanders' executive and legislative council and the wishes of the inhabitants must be respected in the long-term settlement. We agreed to request Haig to make those amendments. Francis was doubtful but Cabinet was firm. The truth was that none of us liked the terms but if we could make them reasonable in the interim and long-term, and secure the withdrawal of Argentinian forces, and therefore avoid further loss of life - we would agree.

In fact Reagan and Haig accepted the amendments and forwarded the revised terms to Peru.

Here is the thing Charles Moore jumps on. The memoir - like the Downing Street Years - gets it wrong on a key point. Cabinet did not insist that the wishes of the inhabitants must be respected in the long-term, not at all. In fact MT herself told her ministers that they couldn't get self-determination and commended the terms anyway, as the best that could be got (see Moore Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography (Volume One), p719). The changes requested by Cabinet were minor, almost of a face-saving variety.

That MT was extremely unhappy at this situation is obvious. In fact she was probably in a state of great conflict about it, because after the four hour Cabinet she sat down and wrote a letter to the President, comprehensively rejecting the proposals:

In your message you say that your suggestions are faithful to the basic principles we must protect. I wish they were but alas they are not. … The present proposals do not provide a right to self-determination although it is fundamental to democracy and was enjoyed by the Islanders up to the moment of invasion. We asked that it should be included. The reply, contained in Mr Haig's letter to Francis Pym was that it could not because the Argentinians would not accept it. So our principles are no longer what we believe, nor those we were elected to serve, but what the dictator will accept.

Given that the Cabinet had accepted the terms, to send this letter would have amounted to an appeal to the President that he overrule her own government, an impossible thing. Worse still, the Cabinet had given Pym the authority to reply on its behalf, which he had already done. She must surely have realised this herself, because after consulting with Whitelaw, she eventually sent a much toned down letter, asking for smaller amendments. But even that was futile, because she had left it so late - her letter was only sent at 8.30 in the evening - that by this stage the US had received Pym's reply, and responded to it. The telegrams crossed.

Reagan made no reply to her letter. Was this a crushing silence? As it turned out the Argentinians swiftly rejected the proposals. Probably the White House concluded that the whole thing had been overtaken by events, sparing them the thankless task.

It is hard not to conclude that the memoir is unreliable at this point. Charles Moore is right. Counterarguments could be made - for example, that MT only agreed the US/Peruvian proposals in the knowledge they would be rejected. But that is not what the memoir says, since it denies the concession altogether, and anyway the argument is unconvincing. She was not making a merely tactical move on 5 May. A big and very painful concession genuinely had been made, one she feared she might well have to live with, and that was a truth from which she shied away.

Why could she not face it? Wounded pride surely, but there is calculation too. She was clearly determined to say nothing disobliging of the President, a thing evident throughout the memoir. In truth, from her point of view Reagan had not got the point when it came to the Falklands: he couldn't or wouldn't see the principle involved, as she saw it. But she had decided this could not be said. So she focussed on the positive, such as the massive logistical help the US was giving. Kirkpatrick was given a passing swipe, but aside from that all the Americans are let off the hook. She even goes out of her way to find something nice to say about Haig, praising him for being "tough … but fair". Almost inevitably this left Pym as something of a whipping boy, punished for everyone's sins. It won't have helped his cause that at a crucial moment he had outmaneovred her.

What this does this tell us about the memoir? Like any historical document it was written at a particular time, from a point of view and with a purpose. How could it not be? We need to compare it with other sources to draw out the full meaning and where necessary correct the narrative. MT had no illusions that she was delivering a final verdict in her own cause, just recording her view as powerfully as she could.

In one respect though the memoir is not much like the rest. It is loaded with emotion, with expressions of grief, fear, pride, exhilaration, and of guilt - that she was safe when others were in mortal danger, on her say so. Would any of MT's male contemporaries have written in such a style, if the job had fallen to them? It is hard to believe it. They would have handled emotion, if any was expressed at all, with self-deprecatory asides, understated and underplayed. And we would have read their words differently too: would we even be asking what Callaghan felt, or Pym? The Falklands memoir is among the most important historical documents ever written by a British woman, and it gains profoundly from the fact.

The Easter weekend

June Mendoza's portrait of MT, April 1983

Easter 1983 was planned as a quiet moment in a very busy life. As early as February MT's diary secretary was warning that the days were looking dangerously overloaded, but as we have seen a bit of time was found, not just for the writing of the memoir, but other things.

The portrait painter June Mendoza came twice to Chequers to continue work begun at No.10 (to the left). The resulting picture is one of the best ever painted of MT, and its power lies as much as anything in the pose, a matter ultimately negotiated between painter and subject. It had been difficult to find the right concept for the picture, but finally there it was: the subject sat, hands neatly crossed, facing the viewer full on, as she usually did in conversation. Anyone who ever sat talking with Margaret Thatcher will have seen something captured in this painting. There is authority and femininity in almost equal quantities, an icon of female power.

Easter 1983 fell in early April, exactly a year after the invasion of the Falklands. Although she never forgot her scientific apprenticeship, MT was mildly superstitious too, and an anniversary was a moment for looking back. She took care that weekend not simply to record the past, but to meet with friends whose careers the invasion had ended. The Carringtons came to lunch at Chequers on Easter Monday, a year after his resignation. The following day she drove a few miles to lunch with Humphrey and Maggie Atkins. Undoubtedly they spoke of it all. Perhaps she talked of the memoir, or stayed discreetly silent, since it covered events their resignations had caused them to miss.

The document itself went back to No.10 to be stored at the flat in a dark red archive box. In March 1992, out of power and beginning her memoirs, she told us: "I wrote something about the war - I must let you see it". She arrived the following morning clutching the box, held tightly to her chest and handed it over in a slightly grudging style, yielding it up for only one hour to photocopy the contents. In the hurry the copying was imperfectly done, the odd sentence missing from the bottom of pages that came out of the machine, others blurred as paper was snatched from the glass a fraction too soon. We worked on her memoirs using that imperfect copy.

The memoir then went back to her home, locked away till after her death when it was reunited with her other files in Cambridge. Now finally it is published in full.

To make it easier to read, there is a transcript alongside each handwritten page. The imperfect copy is also published, because it shows the form the text was in when she retrieved it from her archive in 1992. Whenever MT read a document, she underlined things, simply as part of the process of assimilation. The Falklands memoir was evidently read and re-read, so that the underlinings proliferated. In other words, the photocopy shows us the emphasis she placed when she was writing rather than reading, taking us closer to her original thoughts. The transcript therefore follows the photocopy, corrected against the original to remedy those missing and blurred bits, ignoring all those later underlinings.

MT's Falklands memoir (1983 original, with transcript)

MT's Falklands memoir (as photocopied in 1992)

The memoir is also available as three half hour voiced over podcasts:

Falklands memoirs podcast - episode 1

Falklands memoirs podcast - episode 2

Falklands memoirs podcast - episode 3

The memoir is quoted almost word for word a few times in MT's Downing Street Years, though unacknowledged as the source. Here is MT reading two of those fragments for the audiobook, telling the story of the rescue of the SAS from the Fortuna Glacier on South Georgia on 22 April and her first big quarrel with Francis Pym two days later:

Falklands memoir fragments read by MT for 1993 audiobook

 

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