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Proletarian issue 64 (February 2015)
Thatcher government’s machinations exposed
Revelations from cabinet papers released under the 30-year rule.
The annual release of 30-year-old cabinet papers and notes by the British government – or, at least, of the few that we are deemed fit to see – invariably proves that lying to and misleading the public is routine practice for those who serve the ruling class in Westminster. This is the case every year and will still be the case thirty years from now, unless the working class succeeds in overthrowing its oppressors and exploiters and establishing socialism.

Still, even though we know that bourgeois governments, of whatever hue, support imperialist aggression against other nations, turn workers against each other to break any chance of united action against the capitalist class, lie, cheat, murder, and commit any crime in the service of capital, it is always useful to have some documented proof of these crimes.

This is especially the case because official history, as taught in schools to our children, is still going to use the lying, whitewashed version of events, and we need to be able to offer an alternative backed up with evidence – preferably from the bourgeoisie’s own sources – so as to counter this official ‘history’ or, more precisely, mythology.

The transparency charade

A recent report from a government-commissioned ‘independent’ review led by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, into this practice of releasing some government papers once 30 years have passed has suggested reducing the waiting time to 15 years.

That is still plenty of time to formulate and carry through even long-term plans based on lies and deception without any real fear of being held to account or of those plans being thwarted. However, until the passage of the Public Records Act 1958 introduced a 50-year rule, there was no right of access to government records at all. The mandated waiting time was reduced to 30 years in 1967, so it could be claimed that, painfully slowly, we are getting closer to finding out at least some of the lies and subterfuges practised against us by our ‘servants’ in public office while it makes a difference.

According to Dacre, “From an international perspective, the UK now operates one of the less liberal access regimes to official records.” He went on, however, to give the game away regarding the real purpose of his team’s review: “If there has been a corrosion of that trust between politicians and people over the past few years – and my belief is that there has been – our recommendations might in the longer term go a little way to restoring it.” (See Review of the 30 Year Rule, nationalarchives.gov.uk)

So stopping the lies or making the liars accountable isn’t Dacre’s job. What he’s really been tasked with is persuading people to trust those liars again!

Meanwhile, what any reduction of the release date timeframe won’t do is stop the heavy censorship that ensures that most of the really embarrassing items are never in any danger of being seen. Those files that are released often have large passages that are redacted or whole pages removed, with a notice placed in the file to say that the missing parts are not for the public to see.

Moreover, many files remain closed indefinitely, owing to a sweeping escape clause contained in section 3(4) of the Public Records Act, which states that files can be withheld “if, in the opinion of the person who is responsible for them, they are required for administrative purposes or ought to be retained for any other special reason.

A minister or Whitehall official who wants to suppress a file must first tell the lord chancellor, but whoever wishes to ‘retain’ the file does not have to explain what ‘administrative purposes’ they may be required for, or the nature of any ‘special reason’ for their non-publication. They simply have to tell the chancellor that the file is being retained.

So, among the files not released this year are ones bearing such names as: ‘Falkland Islands: political’, ‘Gibraltar: political’, ‘India: political’, ‘USSR: military’ and ‘The narcotics problem: proposals for greater involvement of the United Kingdom intelligence community’. There is another entitled ‘Soviet funding of the NUM, information from Sir Bernard Braine MP’, and one on ‘special intelligence operations’.

Other files have been marked with a T, which means ‘temporarily’ retained. But there is nothing in the rules which says how long something can remain ‘temporarily retained’, so we shouldn’t expect to see any of these any time soon. This group involves files on ‘Public opinion and public debate on nuclear weapons issues’, ‘Defence sales’ and the ‘Situation in the Middle East’, among others.

So what bits of information have they left for us to look at?

The Big Bang

The 1986 ‘Big Bang’ (deregulation) of the City of London’s financial dealings caused a huge rift in Thatcher’s cabinet. On one side were the ‘traditionalists’, who claimed they feared that such financial deregulation could lead to “unethical behaviour” and ultimately to “boom and bust”, to quote David Willetts (then a member of the 10 Downing Street policy unit and subsequently an MP and government minister).

Against this view were the likes of John Redwood (elected to parliament in 1987), a dogmatic opponent of any regulation that might in any way limit the ‘rights’ of the rich to strip the poor and even each other financially in the name of freedom to make profits.

Let it be noted that neither side worried about the immediate effects on the poor, but the traditionalists understood that the real strength of the bourgeoisie lay in hiding the true nature of imperialism from the working classes, whilst Redwood et al felt that the time was ripe for the veils to be safely ripped away.

In a foreword to the white paper on financial deregulation, then Chancellor Nigel Lawson paid lip service to the stated worries regarding ‘unethical behaviour’ voiced by the ‘wets’ or traditionalists, writing: “The rapidly developing nature of banks and the banking system makes it all the more important to address these weaknesses speedily and effectively without at the same time hobbling British banks with excessive regulation.” (‘Archives 1985 and 1986: Thatcher policy fight over “Big Bang” laid bare’ by Jim Pickard and Barney Thompson, ft.com, 30 December 2014)

Arms trade woes

The Westland Affair is another example of a rift within the cabinet of the time. It arose because the British manufacturer of military helicopters, Westland, being in acute financial distress, was the target of takeover interest from the American company, Sikorski.

Michael Heseltine, the then defence secretary, was opposed to Sikorski taking over Westland because he believed, probably correctly, that Sikorski’s main interest in acquiring the company would be to eliminate a rival and that the net result would be a loss of jobs in Britain. Heseltine busied himself supporting a European consortium willing to rescue Westland instead – to the point of seeking to persuade various European national armaments directors to commit to buying helicopters only from a European-owned firm.

What was not clear at the time, however, but has emerged in the released papers, was that Heseltine, rather than simply taking sides in the EU vs US rivalry, was also extremely worried that, in its bid for Westland, Sikorski had allied itself with Italian multinational Fiat.

The state investment authority of Libya’s revolutionary government, led by Colonel Gaddafi, had taken a large stake in Fiat, sufficient to entitle it to a seat on the board, and Heseltine was seized with paranoid fears of the Libyan revolution, then in close alliance with the Irish republican movement, coming within sniffing distance of the ‘crown jewels’ of the British defence industry.

‘I do not regard the present assessment of Libya’s role in terrorism on the world stage, including on the streets of London, to be compatible with political acceptability in our industrial community,’ Mr Heseltine told the prime minister in a handwritten note.” (‘Archives 1985 & 1986: Heseltine warned Thatcher over Westland bid’ by Jim Pickard and Barney Thompson, Financial Times, 30 December 2014)

However, for reasons that are still not clear, Prime Minister Thatcher, supported by Leon Brittan, objected strongly to Heseltine’s efforts.

In order to discredit Heseltine, a letter from the solicitor general, Patrick Mayhew, claiming that Heseltine had resorted to “material inaccuracies” in the presentation of his case was leaked to the press.

This affair did not only cause Heseltine to resign from the cabinet. Following the leaking of the solicitor-general’s letter, we also witnessed the resignation of Leon Brittan from the post of Trade and Industry Secretary, carrying the can for the ‘unauthorised’ leak.

Unfortunately, six files relating to this affair have been withheld, leaving us to guess at what else was going on behind the scenes, and to wonder about the various connections and vested interests of the players in this saga. We do know that Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell, plotted with Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, against Heseltine and worked to place him in as bad a light as possible – both with Thatcher and with the media.

Cooperation with the Irish ruling class against the liberation struggle in the north

Many files relating to Ireland and the British security services will also most likely never see the light of day because of the instigation and/or complicity in the organisation of British forces in acts of terror and assassinations, both directly by the army and by third-party militias.

Some interesting snippets have come to light, however, further proving what we already knew. One such is the high degree of unity of purpose and collusion between the Irish government, and especially its security forces, on one hand and the British government and its military on the other.

A secret British military report in 1985 said that its forces enjoyed “excellent relations” with the 26-county Garda (police force), with significantly more “cooperation” than was known about even to the Dublin government of the day.

In November 1984 talks, we learn, Thatcher told then Irish premier, Garret FitzGerald, that progress could possibly be achieved by simply moving the border – that is, by a repartition (presumably handing the republican-majority city of Derry back to Ireland and clinging on to the rest of the north). An official note of the top-level meeting records: “She wondered if a possible answer to the problem might not simply be a redrawing of boundaries.” (See ‘Margaret Thatcher’s intransigence in Irish talks revealed in archive files’ guardian.co.uk, 27 December 2014)

The suggestion apparently horrified FitzGerald, who warned Thatcher against adding “momentum” to calls from the Republican movement for Irish unity. He also advised her that his government was working towards a “lowering of expectations” on all sides rather than for national reunification.

During the course of their discussions, the two leaders revealed some of their mutual fears. FitzGerald feared the possibility of the armed struggle enveloping the whole island, with the rise of a Sinn Féin seen as increasingly influenced by Marxism and developing closer unity with revolutionary forces worldwide.

Thatcher harboured an identical fear, and also fretted that the Irish struggle might spark an uprising by victimised Asian communities in Southall and elsewhere, at a time when progressive organisations such as the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA-GB) were strong.

Illegal surveillance of the miners and their supporters

Another important struggle highlighted in the cabinet papers was the great miners’ strike of 1984/5.

Commenting on these revelations, BBC Radio’s industrial correspondent Nick Jones, posting on the website of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, noted that: “During the 1984/5 miners’ strike so much phone-tapping was going on that the cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, took immediate steps to ensure that no mention was ever made of its extent.

We already knew about this thanks to a former MI5 intelligence officer, Cathy Massiter, who blew the whistle on internal spying in 1985, revealing information about the illegal bugging of the telephones of many political and human-rights campaigners during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Massiter’s claim is now further vindicated, as Nick Jones pointed out;

The cabinet papers revealed that Thatcher was warned on 1 February 1985 of the danger to her government’s reputation if it leaked out that the security service might have crossed the line during the strike.

These warnings came from senior politicians and Whitehall staff – that is, from people ‘in the know’. Jones wrote of Thatcher that “She was told by the cabinet secretary that while intelligence gathering could be justified to counter threats of support for the strikers from foreign governments or organisations, there might not be the same legal justification for the interception of telephone calls within the UK during the course of an industrial dispute.” (‘Miners' strike – Cabinet papers expose cover-up of massive MI5 operation’, cpbf.org.uk, 30 December 2014)

Since all detail of the information gathered by interception and secret surveillance during the strike has been withheld from the released documents, there is no indication within the files as to the precise purpose of intelligence operations, nor of the extent or outcome of the cooperation between MI5 and the police.

We do know it was happening though. Why else would Bernard Ingham warn Thatcher in November 1984 that he thought nothing “further should be done covertly while the strike is collapsing”?

Another matter confirmed in the papers is the scale of all types of surveillance deployed against anyone suspected of being involved in any way on the NUM’s side. Professor Vic Allen was mentioned in the cabinet papers as a friend of Arthur Scargill and as someone who had travelled to Moscow, as the British state tried its very hardest to prove links between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leaders and the Soviet Union, Libya and other socialist and progressive countries. (Although why the miners should have been supposed to be ashamed of such links is beyond us!)

Government-backed legal action to seize the £8.5m that had been transferred to banks overseas by the NUM was so successful that law officers had to advise that a case involving the sequestrators might have to be abandoned because of fears that the scale of the surveillance would be revealed in open court, according to Jones. “Assisted by highly-accurate intelligence about the NUM’s clandestine operation, chartered accountants Price Waterhouse managed to freeze secret accounts in Luxembourg, Zurich and Dublin without the union’s knowledge and before further withdrawals could be made.

We now know, thirty years after the strike, that it was not the banks but the intelligence services that helped Price Waterhouse track down the NUM’s assets so swiftly by supplying that ‘highly-accurate intelligence about the NUM’s clandestine operation’.

On 7 January this year, two Labour MPs called on the government to release in full all documents regarding the bitter strike. The call was led by Ian Lavery, MP for Wansbeck in Northumberland, who is also the president of the NUM, joined by Dennis Skinner, a former miner who represents Bolsover in Derbyshire. Mr Lavery asked cabinet office minister Francis Maude: “What’s the government got to hide with regard to the miners’ strike? Can you say when the documents that haven’t been released will be released and will they be released un-redacted?”

Mr Skinner added: “Isn’t the whole subject of these papers embarrassing to the government and to the minister?”

It is right and proper, of course, that MPs who claim to represent miners should ask the government these questions and try to pressure them to release the hidden papers in full, but aren’t they also embarrassed and ashamed by the fact that during the last thirty years their party, the Labour party, was in government for fifteen of them and never released this information? Not to mention that during the strike itself, the Labour party did everything within its power to undermine and demoralise it and to subvert the leadership of Scargill and Peter Heathfield.

Efforts to assist apartheid South Africa

The released papers also reveal that, in 1985, Thatcher, who totally opposed sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and who famously described the ANC liberation movement as a “typical terrorist organisation, just like the PLO and the IRA”, nevertheless advised racist leader PW Botha to make some concessions to the ANC, such as releasing Nelson Mandela, with the aim of saving the apartheid state.

Such was British imperialism 30 years ago, and so it remains today – rotten to the core and over-ripe for destruction and its replacement by socialism. Our work continues.
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