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Page last updated at 08:19 GMT, Saturday, 30 January 2010
Thatcher unplugged

By Chris Collins
Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Margaret Thatcher

At the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge, a symphony in sixties concrete, are Margaret Thatcher's personal files, several million pieces of paper beautifully boxed, sorted and catalogued.

These are the documents she kept in the flat at No.10, alongside filing the machine allowed her to keep for herself when she left Downing Street - the Political Office, the Press Office, the Policy Unit and the secretariat (the diary secretary and the "Garden Room Girls").

They provide a crucial complement to the official documents stored at the National Archives in Kew.

This has never been done before for any political figure, in any country

There is something unusual here: hers is the first premiership for which much of this back office material survives. As a result we will have a richer picture of the Thatcher premiership than we have of previous administrations. The first of those papers, covering 1979, are now being opened up.

Why was it kept? It is partly because people who were there at the time realised this was a historic administration and made sure the records survived - Bernard Ingham to the fore.

Margaret Thatcher"s diary from 1979
The Thatcher diary from 1979

It is also because the Margaret Thatcher Foundation has actively worked to preserve the records and make them accessible. It is announcing today that it will be digitising the whole of her papers as Prime Minister, in Kew and Cambridge, and putting thousands upon thousands online.

As far as we can see, this has never been done before for any political figure, in any country - not for Reagan, nor Roosevelt, Mao or Mitterrand. Others will surely follow, but not for the first time, Margaret Thatcher will be ahead of the pack.

What do they show? There are fun things, like the secret Thatcher diet, almost certainly a pre-election move to help her face the photographic onslaught during the 79 campaign.

'No honeymoon'

There are files of engagements, showing that she was a bit of a soft touch and just couldn't say 'no' to cub scouts, local councils and the like when they asked for time, to the despair of her diary secretary.

She complained about the food at state dinners, and asked a particularly well-fed minister to look into it (there is authentic dry Thatcher humour in the minute).

There are many much more substantial things. Her notes for cabinet-making are here, showing the moment Michael Heseltine refused the job of Energy Secretary. She accepted his plea to stay at his shadow post of Environment, but did not forget.

A diet used by Margaret Thatcher
Her diet featured eggs, spinach and steak

There are the handwritten notes of her speech to European leaders at the Dublin European Council where she launched her campaign to get a budget rebate for Britain. "Voila la vrai fille de l'épicier", a Belgian politician commented.

Her wariness and at times frank dislike of the European Community shines through these files.

Asked to deliver an election broadcast saying the British people did not understand Europe and that Labour did not accept the "European ideal" she wrote in the margin: "Maybe they did understand it! That's what it sounds like!"

In domestic politics, the scene darkened quickly. It was no picnic and not much of a honeymoon. By November her Political Secretary was noting that she might now face demonstrations wherever she went.

In mid-November interest rates had to be increased by a staggering three per cent points in a single day when the markets stopped buying government debt, leaving Conservative backbenchers stunned.

The only bright spot from her point of view was that things were worse for Labour. It is no surprise to find a file of leaked documents from the Labour side, and a number of prominent Labour figures were quietly speaking to the Conservatives and providing advice and encouragement.

Much more is to come. You can read it all at www.margaretthatcher.org.

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