Large scale document archive

Margaret Thatcher's files as Prime Minister, 1984


MT's Prime Ministerial files from 1984 were released at the UK National Archives in Kew on 3 January 2014

Here are uploads of selected secret files from No.10, along with commentary focussing on the coal strike

Hong Kong files are at the end of this page

1984 Oct 12: one last paper, Prime Minister ...

The last paper MT read before the Brighton Bomb at 2.54am, hurriedly initialled minutes before the explosion. It had been faxed from No.10 earlier that evening - see time marker at top left

Shortly after 2.40am on Friday 12 October 1984 MT was finishing her red box at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, working in the sitting room of her suite alongside her Principal Private Secretary, Robin Butler. She had spent much of the day and evening on her conference speech, a business exhausting for all involved. Her husband was already in bed next door. Butler handed her a final paper, on the rather modest topic of what was to become of the Liverpool Garden Festival site when the event was over. Given the lateness of the hour he asked her to look at the paper overnight and give her opinion in the morning, but characteristically she said she would rather get it out of the way so she could focus on the speech, and settled down to read. She marked the document with a red biro then quickly initialled the timed faxed coversheet, in black, before handing it back around 2.54am. Here it is, the image on the left.

Moments later the bomb exploded four floors above.

Had the device been placed a little differently, or been big enough to destroy the structure of the hotel outright, this document might well have been the last thing MT ever read. As it was, the decision to do a little more work almost certainly kept her out of the bathroom, the only part of her suite that suffered damage. And just as it was characteristic of her to clear the decks before preparing for bed, so Robin Butler exhibited a true mandarin's sang froid in making sure the document was safely packed into his briefcase when the room was finally cleared, from where it found its way like any other paper back to the relevant file without so much as a post-it sticker to record its curious history.

Last document MT read before the Brighton Bomb


The miners' strike (in part)

The biggest single bloc of files in the 1984 release, and the most anticipated, relates to the coal strike of 1984-85.

Stories drawing on these files have been splashed in the press and revelations claimed from every perspective. Conspiracy theorists have found support (they always do). But, in truth, this release has big limitations. For one thing, the strike ran on till March 1985, but these files end in November 1984 and we will have to wait another six months for the remainder. The files of other departments on this topic are not yet available and may never be, particularly those of the Department of Energy which was closest to the heat of it all but which has made a poor job of archiving its doings. The Cabinet Office's coal files also appear to have gone astray. And anyone who has read carefully the relevant chapter of MT's memoirs will recognise much of the material, because it was thoroughly worked through during the preparation of the book. There is little that is genuinely new in this release.

There are deeper reasons why these files tell us less than they might. Ministers had a morbid, surely not misguided, fear of leaks on the topic. In past miners' strikes these had sometimes had devastating results, for example during the February 1974 General Election campaign. Accordingly as little as possible found its way onto paper. The strike was managed by a cabinet committee known as MISC101, its members briefed orally at meetings rather than in the normal way for such business, by papers circulated in advance. Discussions of the strike in full cabinet were handled with greater caution still.

Even MISC101 played a limited role, increasingly confined to discussions of presentation rather than substance, an acknowledged 'inner group' meeting to make the key decisions, a group which was fluid and showed over time a tendency to shrink. Ministers as central to the dispute as the Trade and Industry Secretary, Norman Tebbit, and the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, found themselves on the edge of things, with Energy Secretary Peter Walker the only constant.

Like many people at home in front of a tv camera, Walker was an instinctively secretive man. (If there is a paradox there, it is of a superficial kind.) He preferred when he could to handle things in conversation and to deal with the Prime Minister directly, eventually drawing complaint and fundamental questioning from Tebbit on 25 July, warning MT that "on our present course, I do not see that time is on our side". Responding to this one of MT's closest officials, her Economics Private Secretary Andrew Turnbull, told her he suspected "that the problems encountered in MISC101 are borne of anxiety which in turn arises from Mr Walker's understandable desire to play his cards close to his chest". In fact No.10 occasionally suspected Walker of keeping it in the dark, and Walker thought the same of the National Coal Board (NCB), probably with reason. Most surprising of all, MT seems to have censored herself, her trademark annotations on documents noticeably pared back. Where are the 'no no noes', the handwritten comments sometimes not much shorter than the thing she was commenting on? Fortunately, she allowed herself the odd tick or two.

If the inner thinking of central government is sometimes obscure in these files, it is no surprise that we learn very little of the policing of the strike from them, operational decisions being firmly outside the political sphere. Probably we will struggle to find more at this tactical level from any source for a long time to come. And the union side of things is almost completely opaque. We may never get a full picture of this central event in modern British history unless the topic finds an outstanding historian, and soon.

Preliminary verdicts on some of the big controversies of the strike?


Selected documents on the strike

We are uploading a large selection of documents to our site database where they can be searched in any manner of ways. Uploading takes time and is not yet complete, but more than 500 are already there. Most of the documents in the coal strike files are being uploaded into the site database.

Documents on the strike, 1984


Whole files on the strike

You can also read in full the coal strike files from which the selected documents are taken. These are already uploaded, exactly as they appear in the reading room at Kew. They are big files and depending on your connection will take a while to download:

PREM19/1329 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 8 [1983 Jun 23 - 1984 Mar 30]

PREM19/1330 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 9 [1984 Apr 3 - May 31] 68MB

PREM19/1331 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 10 [1984 Jun 1 - Jul 18]

PREM19/1332 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 11 [1984 Jul 19 - Aug 31] 68MB

PREM19/1333 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 12 [1984 Sep 2 - Sep 20]

PREM19/1334 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 13 [1984 Sep 21 - Oct 19] 86MB

PREM19/1335 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 14 [1984 Oct 20 - Nov 20]

CAB130/1228 Official Committee on coal, 1983 (MISC57) [1983] 37MB

CAB130/1260 Official Committee on coal dispute, 1984 (MISC57) [1984] 26MB

CAB130/1268 Cabinet Committee on coal dispute, 1984 (MISC101) [1984] 78MB

1984: Hong Kong & other files

Over the next few days we will be uploading more files released by TNA on 3 January 2014, including material on the the US.

Here are the massive Hong Kong files, covering the period up to the initialling of the British-Chinese agreement in September that became the Joint Declaration. The signature of the Declaration in December will be covered by files in the next release, due this summer.

PREM19/1262 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 11 [1984 Jan 3 - 31]

PREM19/1263 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 12 [1984 Feb 1 - Mar 30] 160MB

PREM19/1264 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 13 [1984 Apr 2 - 30]

PREM19/1265 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 14 [1984 May 1 - Jun 30] 139MB

PREM19/1266 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 15 [1984 Jul 2 - 31]

PREM19/1267 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 16 [1984 Aug 1 - Sep 25]

CAB148/241 Defence & Oversea Policy Committee of Cabinet (Sub-Committee on Hong Kong - OD(K)) [1984 Jan 11 - Sep 12]

PREM19/1402 USA (visit of Mrs Jeane Kirkpatrick to UK) [1984 Mar 23 - Oct 16]