1981 FILES: Papers reveal Thatcher’s role as the ‘Ironing Lady’

Margaret Thatcher was not pleased to see the list of refurbishment expenditure at Number 10.
Margaret Thatcher was not pleased to see the list of refurbishment expenditure at Number 10.

NEWLY declassified files released at the weekend by The National Archives have given a fascinating insight into the workings of the Margaret Thatcher government.

The 1981 files give people a rare insight into the dynamics of the Thatcher government in the Prime Minister’s second full year in office.

The newly released files give people a new perspective on Margaret Thatcher government.

The newly released files give people a new perspective on Margaret Thatcher government.

It was a busy year for the Government which was forced to deal with riots in Brixton and Toxteth, hunger strikes by IRA members imprisoned at Maze, unemployment passing 2.5 million and much more.

l Prime Minister showed her frugal side

The Iron Lady was dubbed The Ironing Lady this week after the newly released papers revealed the former Prime Minister’s frugal side.

On receiving cost details for refurbishment expenditure at 10 Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher was shocked at what she saw.

Beneath where an aide had written “I find these figures impossible to believe”, Mrs Thatcher added her own handwritten note saying “So do I! I could use my own crockery.”

She also said that she would be covering the cost of the ironing boards (£19) and other items. Mrs Thatcher wrote: “I will pay for the ironing boards and other things, like sufficient linen for the one bedroom we use. The rest can go back into stock. MT”

The Prime Minister was asked to sign off on improvements to a minister’s accomodation in Wales, estimated to cost £26,000.

In hand-written remarks, Mrs Thatcher said: “It is a good idea but not (underlined twice) at that price. I just don’t believe that a one room + bathroom + kitchenette can cost £26,000. Get some other estimates.”

The comments were effective, knocking the cost down to £12,000 and saving the taxpayer £14,000.

l The IRA

Hunger strikers at Maze prison were only refusing food because they were ordered to by people outside the prison.

That was the Prime Minister’s strongly-held view when she met with religious leaders to discuss the issue.

In a meeting with Cardinal O’Fiaich, Mrs Thatcher said the hunger strikers “were chosen to go on the hunger strike and had to carry the cross for the cause. They dared not refuse to do so”.

After stating her belief that the “strike could be brought to an end tomorrow if those taking part in it were given the necessary orders”, the minutes said of Mrs Thatcher: “She was not prepared to barter. She could not accept the prisoners’ argument that their crimes were committed for political reasons and were therefore different from ordinary offences.

“Murder was murder, whatever its motive. All criminals, whatever their religion or political beliefs, had to be treated in the same way in prison. The law was the same for everybody.”

Ten men, including Bobby Sands, died as a result of their hunger striking as they sought political status of republican prisoners.

As the men died the pressure on the Government increased. Some have concluded from the unattributed, hand-written notes that Mrs Thatcher and her Government were negotiating with the IRA during this time.

But in meetings with religious leaders she remained steadfast in her belief that it was not the Government’s fault if people were dying.

In a letter responding to a message from Cardinal Thomas O’Fiaich, the Prime Minister said: “The solution does not lie in our hands. It lies with the hunger strikers themselves, their families and advisers. More directly, it lies with the leaders of the Provisional IRA, who have taken a cold-blooded decision that the unfortunate men now fasting in prison are of more use to them dead than alive. This seems to me the most immoral and inflexible decision anyone could take.”

l Toxteth Riots

In the wake of the 1981 Toxteth riots in Liverpool, Prime Minister Thatcher was advised by then Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe (pictured) to effectively abandon Liverpool.

Following Michael Heseltime’s suggestion that much more money needed to be invested in such areas following the riots, Mr Howe said: “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for “managed decline”?

The comments were made to the Prime Minister in a confidential note as Mr Howe realised even at the time how incendiary his comments were.

He said: “This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere - for example in nearby towns of which some are devloping quite promisingly.”

The files show Mrs Thatcher, on a visit to Livepool following the riots, had met with community leaders and “had been amazed at their hatred for the police”.

She was told by the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, that there was a “certain amount of racial tension” and a “silent colour bar” operating in the city. After meeting community leaders in Liverpool, Mrs Thatcher said she “was not concerned about the colour of people’s skins” before adding that she “condemned anyone, whatever his colour, who attacked the police”.

Despite saying she “disagreed with much that had been said” she also “begged them not to resort to violence nor to live in separate communities”.

l The papers can be found at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

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