Page last updated at 02:07 GMT, Saturday, 30 January 2010

Papers reveal Margaret Thatcher's first days as PM

By Terry Stiastny
Political correspondent, BBC News

Transcript of a 1979 phone call between Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Carter
The papers are going on show at Churchill College in Cambridge

Many of Lady Thatcher's private papers from her first year in power are being released and put online by the archives which hold them.

The documents shed light on the early days of the new Conservative government in 1979.

They also give an insight into what life is like for a new incumbent at Downing Street.

Judging by their notes, it is clear that Margaret Thatcher's aides had looked back at what happened after previous elections and wanted to learn lessons.

They remark that previous handovers of power had been "unpleasant" and were at pains to remind the new PM how important it was that the basics were remembered.

For example, Buckingham Palace needed to know the phone numbers of party officials - apparently "they didn't in 1970".

But despite efforts to plan in advance, Mrs Thatcher did not have an economic adviser in place when she arrived at Downing Street.

Chris Collins, historian at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, who has studied the papers closely, believes they show that all governments have to learn on the job.

No doubt her would-be successors in the modern Conservative party will also want to see what tips they might glean.


Within Mrs Thatcher's first year in office, the government was facing economic problems and Tory MPs were urging more and faster cuts in public spending.

Diary belonging to Margaret Thatcher from 1979
Mrs Thatcher's workaholic tendencies are clear from her diaries

A note in the files summarises backbench views of the economy in November 1979.

Ian Gow, Mrs Thatcher's parliamentary aide, wrote that the "overwhelming majority" of Tory backbenchers at the time "would not merely assent to further reductions in public expenditure... but would welcome them".

Those words were underlined by hand by the prime minister.

One backbencher observed that the government was getting substantial criticism even without having made real cuts, adding: "If we were going to get the criticism, we might as well make the cuts."

Mr Collins says that the project to digitise the Thatcher archive to make her public and private papers available online is a "world first".

The public papers from 1979 have also recently been released by the National Archives.

Mr Collins believes that although Britain does not have a tradition like that in the United States of presidential libraries, future prime ministers might want to follow suit.

He also thinks Lady Thatcher still has massive recognition as a political figure, both at home and abroad, because she is seen as a "turnaround politician": someone who made big changes.


The documents show there were lighter moments as well.

Diary belonging to Margaret Thatcher
The items give an insight into the first year of Mrs Thatcher's government

The new prime minister received a note of congratulation from Peter Sellers, amongst other celebrities, on her election victory.

He sent a telegram, saying: "As an ex-Goon from East Finchley, I send you many congratulations."

And there were early signs of Mrs Thatcher's famous reluctance to stop working.

In her first phonecall with US President Jimmy Carter, he asked her whether she had had a chance to get any rest.

"No," she replied, "The adrenalin is running so fast at the moment that I don't need rest."

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