01 August 2013

Archive aficionados will be aware that today’s release of files by the National Archives marks the first move towards a 20-year release. Future tranches could be poorer, as the use of electronic files, and eventually email, may well stifle the candour found here in handwritten notes.

The highlights in the newspapers bring to life the inner workings of government from 30 years ago. The content is fascinating. We discover details about nuclear release procedures in light of the increased presence of US nuclear weapons on UK soil, and the degree to which, to her fury, Mrs Thatcher was kept out of the loop over the US sudden assault on Grenada. Domestically, we learn more about ramping up of policies towards current or future trade union strikes, and details of briefings prepared for a potential transition in the 1983 election.

This latest batch of files is particularly notable for two reasons. Firstly that here we have as a normal release even the more secretive files from the period. It is only over the last 20 years that we have become accustomed to expect a near-entire release of what is in the archive. No doubt there are still many redactions in the file batches, there always are, but the level of release now is a contrast with what was still difficult to obtain even 10 years ago. Both the level of openness of those doing the weeding in the departments and the pressure on them was revealed recently in the FCO’s release of their previously withheld and then misplaced permanent under-secretary department (PUSD) files.

The releases include some wonderful hand drawn charts on NATO-Warsaw Pact balance of forces in a confidential memo to the Cabinet. And we have the details of the 1983 ‘WINTER-CIMEX’ nuclear war scenario include the fictional speech the Queen gave as the country went through the transition into a Third World War. These war exercises were a major feature of the Cold War, crucial planning exercises for the civil service and for military forces. And 1983 was a crucial year for them. It was that year that the NATO exercise ‘ABLE ARCHER’ was believed to have been interpreted by the Soviet Union as a surprise attack. Fears that the Soviet’s might overreact to Western actions contributed to Thatcher’s  pressure on President Reagan to moderate his rhetoric – apparently paving the way for later and more fruitful conversations with Gorbachev.

The second reason why this batch is so notable is that these files show best how the written record can be a tool for really getting inside of what the government did and why. Historians know that archives don’t give the full picture. Minutes of Cabinet meetings are notoriously sanitised, the files are just what is written down, not necessarily all of what was discussed, there is much that will go on inside the heads of the key protagonists, in discussions in corridors and out of earshot of someone able to write it down.

But Mrs Thatcher’s premiership is a god-send for archive lovers. Part of the reason is her style. She would often communicate with other departments and record her views and her decisions through a scribble on top of any memo she received. And she never held back. That was how she liked to work and it means we get a great insight into not just what was going on in government, but how it might have felt. Her reaction to the suggestion of William Hague as a 21-yr old special adviser to the Treasury is typical. Her frustration, emphasised by three underlines, is there for all to see on a memo from the Treasury that seemed to presume it was a done deal is: ‘NO, this is a gimmick’.

August may be known as the slow news month, but it is good to see interest in matters which, at the time, were of the highest importance to this country (fertile pandas aside). But the question remains as to whether the Thatcher years will be a swansong for such archive releases. Electronic files in the 1990s, increased use of email and a supposedly less formal government style – and therefore record - under Tony Blair, means historians are currently pondering what the future record will hold. Hopefully today’s politicians are just as willing to scribble down their thoughts – the future will thank them for it.

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