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"Gentleman George": the secret archive of George Younger

 

George Younger - the fourth Viscount Younger of Leckie - was one of MT's longest-serving colleagues in government, holding Cabinet office for a full decade, firstly as Secretary of State for Scotland (1979-86), then as Secretary of State for Defence (1986-89). He also ran her campaigns in the Conservative leadership elections of 1989 and 1990.

There were few people in politics MT liked or trusted more. His integrity, courtesy and quiet charm earned him the nickname "Gentleman George", and it was one she used herself with real affection.

When Lord Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary over the Falklands, she considered appointing Younger in his place, dismissing the idea only because he was not sufficiently well known at the time.

An authorised biography by David Torrance was published in 2008, and margaretthatcher.org published for the first time some fascinating documents from his private files, with the generous permission of the Younger family.

career & outlook

GY as Defence Secretary

George Younger (1931-2003) was a leading Scottish Conservative politician for 20 years, the namesake of a famous great-grandfather (the 1st Viscount), a man who had played a crucial part in ending the premiership of David Lloyd George in 1922.

Younger held junior office under Ted Heath, 1970-74, and had enduring (partly temperamental) sympathy for the consensus politics to which Heath aspired and which MT so forcefully rejected. His earliest dealings with the new leader in 1975-76 were indeed a little rocky: she initially made him Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, a significant promotion, but less than a year later dropped him from the job, precisely at the moment she acquired her 'Iron Lady' tag. He was hurt (and many of his friends angered at what they saw as rough treatment), but characteristically he nourished no resentment and quietly made his way back up the Opposition hierarchy. When the Shadow Scottish Secretary, Teddy Taylor, lost his seat in the 1979 General Election, Younger was the natural choice to take the job in government. Along the way he acquired a good grasp of MT's character, learning to stand his ground with her in arguments (and sometimes win them) without damaging their relationship.

As Scottish Secretary 1979-86 he generally found himself playing a defensive hand, putting the best face on economic policies that were unpopular in Scotland and not especially to his own taste. But unlike many of similar outlook, Younger had no use for faction and therefore carefully kept his distance from Prior, Gilmour and other critics of MT dubbed the 'wets'. In this respect he showed shrewdness as well as commitment to party discipline, because the label usually proved fatal. In fact his sympathy for a centre-left position, combined with complete loyalty to the leadership, made him a helpful figure to a Prime Minister often seen as dangerously far to the right. It is notable too that he was a long-standing exponent of the view that the state should do what it could to resist when strikes threatened essential services (of which more below), leaving him completely in tune with MT during the year long miners' strike of 1984-85. It is no surprise that Younger was her immediate, almost instinctive, choice to succeed Michael Heseltine as Defence Secretary when the latter literally walked out of the cabinet on 9 January 1986. Something similar almost happened before, suggesting he had a kind of slot in her mind as a good man for emergencies: as noted above, she thought of him as a possible Foreign Secretary in 1982, a mark of very considerable faith in his abilities. In the end she appointed the much better known (and by her much less well-liked) figure of Francis Pym, but it would have been a stunning promotion for Younger had it happened. It is not clear whether he ever knew that he had been considered for the job.

At Defence he presided over the services at the beginning of the end of the Cold War, as tensions eased and the arrival of Gorbachev made a huge impact on Western opinion. His mild manner and calm authority suited these less hawkish times, with MT herself moving quickly (and with striking success) to play a constructive part in the new era of superpower diplomacy. Younger began to appear more often on the national stage, playing a prominent part during the 1987 General Election campaign, making the case against unilateral nuclear disarmament. The resulting Conservative victory, however, carried a personal sting: the weakening Conservative position in Scotland left Younger's own seat in Ayr vulnerable and he decided not to run again. In July 1989 he left the Cabinet to begin a successful second career in business, becoming chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Feb 1987: GY in Conservative Party Political Broadcast on defence [film]

1989 & 1990 conservative leadership elections

Younger may well have expected to play no further part in politics beyond this point. In fact he was summoned back within months to do a delicate job for the Prime Minister. An obscure backbencher, Sir Anthony Meyer, had decided to challenge her for the party leadership, an opportunity which occurred annually. Would Younger manage her campaign? He readily agreed.

By the time of the challenge MT's political position had been seriously weakened by troubles at home and abroad. The economy - so strong at the time of her third election victory in 1987 - was suffering the effects of renewed inflation and the consequent steep increase in interest rates; a deep recession was coming. Her long-serving Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, had just resigned claiming No.10 had made his position impossible. A highly controversial reform of local government finance was working its way through the legislative machine, the introduction of the Community Charge or "poll tax" (as it was universally called, a name given it by opponents). And Europe had become a deeply divisive topic among Conservatives, with MT increasingly open in her rejection of the move towards economic and monetary union, to the horror of the numerous pro-Europeans in the Parliamentary Party, Meyer among them. At the reshuffle which saw Younger leave the Government, one of the most pro-European ministers - Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe - had been demoted, clumsily in the eyes of many (his own, and Younger's, included).

The campaign was successfully managed and MT easily returned to office, winning 314 votes to Meyer's 33, with 24 spoiled papers (presumably hostile to MT) and three abstaining. But while she told the press "how very pleased I am with this result", and Younger professed to believe her position strengthened, reality was otherwise.

The day after MT's victory, her campaign team met to examine the figures and to brief Younger, who planned to send MT a written report as to the state of things. He made a lengthy and very frank note of the meeting, remarkable for the air of gloom and decline it conveys. (He titled it "Post Mortem Meeting Notes", aptly enough as to mood.) Most of those present would have been considered strong supporters of the Prime Minister - Ian Gow, Mark Lennox-Boyd, Richard Ryder - which only makes the downbeat tone all the more striking. Everyone saw deep difficulties facing MT, making a leadership challenge the following year all too possible (as of course happened, with fatal results). There were no very compelling ideas as to what could be done to improve the situation from her point of view, except perhaps to push harder for Britain to join the ERM, then seen as a popular step likely to help stabilise the economy. No one dissented when one MP (a friend of John Major) commented: "We are talking about the beginning of the end of the Thatcher era".

(The document also throws light on one of the mysteries surrounding the 1990 leadership campaign. After MT resigned some MPs complained that they had not been canvassed by the Thatcher team. Her PPS at the time used to reply: "Ah, but they had been! They just didn't know it". What could he have meant? Younger's note shows that during the leadership campaign the previous year much effort went into carrying out a canvass by a group of eight 'Apostles', unnamed MPs who were not seen as Thatcher people and who were not even allowed to know each other's identity. The intention was to ensure that "a man should never know that he has been canvassed", an approach apparently used in both campaigns. It seems a curious tactic, better suited to gaining intelligence than winning support.)

Wednesday 6 December 1989: post mortem on leadership campaign

Following the meeting Younger drafted a carefully-worded memorandum for MT which opened bluntly: "The result is not as good as the figures. Many voted with varying degrees of reluctance for the Prime Minister. They cannot all be relied upon another time". She was told the many sources of discontent and urged to remedy them by adopting a series of measures, most of them unpalatable to her (removing Charles Powell & Bernard Ingham, sounding more positive about European integration, giving more responsibility to Geoffrey Howe).

Friday 8 December 1989: George Younger's report to the Prime Minister

These proposals did not really bear fruit and a follow-up meeting in January 1990 came to nothing. But MT was deeply grateful for the role Younger had played, writing him a warm letter which acknowledged "the result would have been different had you not been in charge". Later he and other members of the team were each sent an inscribed silver cup as a token of her thanks.

Thursday 7 December 1989: MT letter to GY

Tuesday 30 January 1990: MT letter to GY

A year later, when Michael Heseltine challenged MT for the leadership following Geoffrey Howe's resignation, Younger was again asked to run her campaign. He accepted, but with some reluctance this time. The challenge was far more serious, the underlying position much worse: he probably knew she was likely either to be forced out, or very badly damaged. It is sometimes suggested that he tried less hard than he might during the second campaign, but while his business commitments may genuinely have got in the way, two-facedness was simply not his style, and certainly MT did not believe it. The letter she wrote him in early December 1990, days after leaving office, is notably warm - far more so than those she sent colleagues whose role had displeased her.

Tuesday 4 December 1990: MT letter to GY

Although Younger wrote no memoirs, he gave his version of these events in an article for Scotland on Sunday in October 1993.

Sunday 3 October 1993: GY on the fall of MT

Younger played no further part in politics after 1990, concentrating on RBS, whose takeover of the much larger NatWest in early 2000 was a triumph owing a good deal to his mix of personal and political skills. Retiring from the job the following year, long before RBS hit the rocks, his hopes of a peaceful retirement sadly came to nothing: aged only 70, his health quickly began to fail and he was diagnosed with cancer. Learning of his illness, MT wrote him a touching letter in November 2002. His reply speaks hopefully of a return to a public role which he must have known was unlikely to come, and reflects on a strike by the Fire Brigade's Union, a struggle for which the government of Tony Blair had failed to prepare, in his view, contrasting it with his and MT's struggle with Arthur Scargill's miners.

Monday 18 November 2002: MT letter to GY

Thursday 28 November 2002: GY reply to GY

1975-79: planning for strikes

Younger's determination to find an answer to the problem of strikes in essential services dated back to the mid-70s. Many Conservatives felt that the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974 had seriously damaged and then finally destroyed the Heath Government. In Opposition the party set up a committee under Lord Carrington to examine the issue ("the Authority of Government Policy Group"), on which Younger was asked to serve. It is interesting to discover that Whitehall quietly helped, allowing an ex-minister to study relevant papers from his time in office and even finding a retired civil servant to prepare a lengthy summary of the key classified report which was circulated to the Group. And some very senior ex-officials appeared as witnesses, including the former head of the Civil Service, Lord Armstrong, and two former Permanent Secretaries, Sir Antony Part and Sir Conrad Heron. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Mark, gave informal evidence over lunch with Lord Carrington, attendance at the full committee being too much of a stretch for Britain's most senior policeman. There were some significant figures from the business world too, including the managing director of Shell and the recently retired director-general of the CBI, Sir Campbell Adamson.

MT seems to have been suspicious of this body from the first, fearing its work would leak to the press through the presence of 'outsiders' and so fuel existing press interest in the theme of Tory-union confrontation. Such stories were common, and potentially very destructive: "how would you handle the unions in government?" was a question Conservative politicians preferred not to be asked, particularly before the Winter of Discontent made clear that Labour had no better answer. It is notable that no one particularly close to her served on the group: distance was being kept. Keith Joseph would have been a natural candidate, but instead he nominated a young Oxford don, Jonathan Sumption (now a top QC), with whom he later wrote a book.

The Report did indeed leak, in April 1978 (to Peter Hennessy at The Times). This was followed a month later by a second leak, from a related Policy Group (on Nationalised Industries) by Nick Ridley, this time to The Economist . The latter was misleadingly written up as a Tory masterplan to take on the unions, though it amounted to only three pages, inevitably thin in content, and in some respects pointed away from confrontation, noting that in key industries like electricity and gas the only defence against strikes was to avoid provoking them. The Authority of Government Group was more cautious still - an unkind summary of its final report might be that government no longer had much - but in her fury and anxiety at the leak MT ordered its papers destroyed, all the same. Her own file on the Group is almost empty, that of Central Office fuller but still missing the original minutes. Only in the papers of George Younger is a complete set known to survive, published for the first time on this site.

Younger almost certainly kept the papers because he saw value in the deliberations of the Group; he even tried (vainly) to rehabilitate it in 1979 by an exchange of letters with MT. He did so from the perspective of a comparative hawk, very much in the minority on the Group. According to a letter in the Conservative Party Archive by William Waldegrave, meetings with witnesses would sometimes end with "rather comical votes of thanks", Lord Carrington saying "thank you Mr X, I think you've shown that not much can be done" - but then "George Younger would say the opposite!" [CRD4/13/2, Waldegrave to James Douglas, 1 Oct 1976]. It is clear that Younger was determined to make something useful out of the exercise, outflanking the pessimism of older and more senior figures like Carrington by concentrating on the nuts-and-bolts. The minutes show that he wanted to discuss how you actually would go about keeping the lights on if power workers went on strike, rather than how to restore popular faith in government.; if pressed on the latter he would probably have said: "keeping the lights on would be a good start". As he pointed out at the group's first meeting: "unless we could convince the public that we were able to handle the unions we would lose the next election. The task was to persuade ourselves and then the public that faced with a confrontation, we could win". This was a formulation MT could not have improved upon, for all her doubt as to the tactical wisdom of holding such discussions in Opposition, and it pointed the way to the approach that was followed, with decisive results, in government.

1975-79: Authority of Government Policy Group

1977 June 30: Nick Ridley Report

1978 Apr 18: Peter Hennessy's article on the leaked Authority of Government Report

1976-79: younger's diary

Younger kept an occasional diary in the late 1970s, which he abandoned unfortunately shortly after the beginning of the first Thatcher Government, probably due to pressure of time. There are frank glimpses of the Thatcher Shadow Cabinet, of her sometimes eccentric (if not infuriating) style of chairmanship and sidelights on the great pressure she was under in the decisive months of winter 1978/79.

1976-79: Younger diary

notes

Read all Younger material on this site

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The Younger MSS have now been deposited in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Key files have been filmed by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation and copies may be made available (covering costs) for purpose of private research.