Immigration

Uncovering the secret Thatcher files: What Britain thought about Australia

0:00

The faded documents inside the handwritten file marked ‘The resignation of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’ provide an unprecedented glimpse into a world leader’s dying days in power.

At first glance, there’s nothing even remotely impressive about the dog-eared yellow manila folder – except of course for its secret contents.

After 11-and-a-half years in office, the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister – and the longest serving of the century – finally faced the infuriating reality that, despite winning three elections and enjoying the vast support of her party’s membership, she no longer commanded the support of enough parliamentary colleagues to retain the keys to 10 Downing Street.

Meticulous from the moment she arrived, Mrs Thatcher remained so until the very moment she left, instructing staff to prepare a confidential dot-point ‘resignation action plan’ for November 22, 1990.

“The files throw light on perhaps the most momentous resignation of modern times,” explains Mark Dunton from Britain’s National Archives.

“Only one hour and a quarter after telling Cabinet (who, according to the minutes, “took note, with profound sadness”), Mrs Thatcher is busy writing letters and signing them off to foreign leaders, explaining about her decision to resign, wishing them well and thanking them for their co-operation.” 

In all, 40 letters were frantically signed and dispatched before her audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, where Margaret Thatcher formally tendered her resignation.

The controversial dispatch from the British High Commission in Canberra titled 'Australia: Image and Reality'.
The controversial dispatch from the British High Commission in Canberra titled 'Australia: Image and Reality'.
SBS

While Australia’s Prime Minister at the time, Bob Hawke, received the same basic sentiments as most other trusted allies, the Iron Lady didn’t waste one last opportunity to sprawl some trademark steely flourishes on others.

“I shall certainly continue to make my views known”, she scribbled boldly at the bottom of her letter to the Emir of Kuwait.

Just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most surprising exchange was with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, who, in a letter addressed to “Dear Margaret”, noted with irony, “(F)ive years ago we had party coups in the Soviet Union and elections in Britain. Now, it seems to be the other way round”. In her final reply to the man with whom she formed an unexpected diplomatic partnership, she signed off with another handwritten sprawl: “(W)e shall continue to watch your success with the greatest positive interest.”

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger telephoned Downing Street “in a very emotional state” to say the Prime Minister’s resignation “was worse than a death in the family”.

“You took decisions that moulded the beginnings of an independent Zimbabwe,” effused the President of Zambia.

“In this outmoded so-called man’s world, it required a mother to put an end to the carnage that led to the destruction of more than 45,000 lives.”

Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia went further still, writing: “No British leader in modern times, Winston Churchill notwithstanding, has so earned the admiration and gratitude of my family and my countrymen and the free world.”

In a three paragraph, unsigned reply, Bob Hawke said he had appreciated Mrs Thatcher's "direct and straightforward approach" while a much longer tribute from then Opposition Leader Dr John Hewson praised her "revolution of ideas".

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher acknowledges applause on Ocotber 13, 1989 at the end of the Conservative Party conference.
AAP

“Many of the foreign leaders writing back to her express shock and consternation at the fact that she had been toppled from power. Still, one gets the impression of a politician fizzing with resolution and determination,” said Mr Dunton.

One of the more interesting letters to arrive at Downing Street that day was from Brussels, though not from the lofty Commissioners but her team of interpreters.

They wrote: “We derived enormous pleasure and enjoyment from being both spectators and players during your many memorable innings…  We shall greatly miss your responsiveness, consideration and unflagging energy.”

One of her final dispatches before her departure from Downing Street was a handwritten reply on the iconic letterhead. “I think European Councils will be a little less lively and a little less interesting!” she joked, “I shall miss them.”

There is only one document in the bound bundle that hints at the bitterness that would haunt Mrs Thatcher until her death in 2013.

Replying to a telegram from the White House, her closest Downing Street Advisor, Charles Powell, explained rather bluntly that Mrs Thatcher’s demise, “was a devastating blow and a sad commentary on the standards of loyalty in politics”.

Australia: image and reality 

SBS can further reveal that after her successful visit to Australia in 1988, Margaret Thatcher wrote to the Civil Service that “Australia deserves a greater priority in our foreign policy”, echoing the frustrations of the British High Commissioner to Australia at the time, Sir John Coles, who concluded that “redefining Britain’s relationship with Australia” was “long overdue”.

“Despite the much expressed contempt for governments (Australia) is in some ways the greatest nanny-state of all."

In a confidential and colourful 15-page dispatch titled 'Australia: Image and Reality', Sir John attempts to help bureaucrats in London better understand the “rapidly changing Australian society”.

“In order to protect and advance our substantial interests we need to be as aware of the nature of that society as we are of the societies of our European, North American and other allies”, his dossier begins.

“But somehow that knowledge does not come so easily in the case of Australia.

“The British media show little interest in the real problems of this country.

“The Australian myth is that this is the land of opportunity, the land where the class system of Britain and elsewhere does not exist, where no person is better than the next, where everyone is entitled to 'a fair go', where the 'battler', given a modicum of luck, can achieve the good life and rise to whatever position his talents entitle him.

“This land of ‘mateship’ and democracy has more private schools than Britain.

“And the ‘battler’? The people of this country have become ‘soft’.

“The effects of easy living on the majority of Australians are all too apparent in the relative absence of the work ethic and in denigrating attitudes towards achievement and productivity.

“The soap-opera ‘Neighbours’ is a more accurate picture of Australia than the ‘Flying Doctors’.

“The confidence that Australia is the best is a constant in the daily scene here.

“The Australian audience loves to be told that this or that Australian achievement has no equal.

“Much of the impetus which drives Australia to its excellence in sport is fired by a national determination to assert Australianness against the rest of the world.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office expressed frustration at Mrs Thatcher’s refusal to warmly address letters to Bob Hawke
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office expressed frustration at Mrs Thatcher’s refusal to warmly address letters to Bob Hawke.
SBS

The High Commissioner went on to make a devastating assessment of Australia’s three tiers of government – local, state and federal.

“Despite the much expressed contempt for governments this is in some ways the greatest nanny-state of all.

“The major charge which can be fairly leveled against public administration in Australia is that of corruption.

“Some of the states are notorious,” he noted, adding that earlier in 1989 “many heads rolled” in Queensland.

“The New South Wales Minister for Police told me some time ago that if there was ever an enquiry into corruption in his own police force it would make the Queensland affair look like a children’s tea-party.

“The long-established corruption and maladministration in the States are a bad blemish on the country’s political system.

“The quality of government at State level is generally poor.

“Yet I do not find that surprising.

“The population base of 16 million is too small to provide politicians of high quality to man political parties in nine separate political units.”

Even the Australian climate was not spared.

“The claims made for the merits of the Australian climate are also not self-evidently true.

“Sydney suffered 75 wet days out of 120 between last January and April, the Australian summer.

“There are too many exceptions for that picture of sun-soaked Australia to be sustainable.”

The High Commissioner’s observations on the issue of immigration and multiculturalism were prescient.

 “Australians like to regard themselves as more tolerant and easy going than others.

“This claim is being tested by the changing racial composition of Australian society.

“The pattern of immigration is a sensitive subject here and the public debate is of a low quality.

“There is no doubt that many Australians, especially the older generation, are disturbed by the increasingly complex racial mix of Australian society.

“The generally tolerant attitudes of most Australians on most questions are often seriously strained by this issue.

“Australian governments and others put a great deal of energy and resources into trying to solve the problems of the 230,000 Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia; but there are plenty of Australians who believe this effort to be excessive and misdirected, and the situation of most Aborigines remains hapless.

“Yet on balance the Australian record of absorbing immigrants, some 4.6 million since the Second World War, is impressive.

“The ordinary Australian is a tolerant person.

“There is an easiness and openness in personal relationships which distinguishes this country.

“The desire to cut down tall poppies is a weakness in the Australian make-up.

“The philistine, iconoclastic, beer-swilling Aussie exists but the Australian does not have a monopoly of these qualities.

“Far too little recognition is accorded abroad to Australian cultural achievement.”

The High Commission went on to outline the potential political impact.

“The first 60 years are the worst” – a friendly birthday telegram sent to Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“The first 60 years are the worst” – a friendly birthday telegram sent to Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
SBS

“The modern Australia is in truth very far removed from the one which sent its troops to fight alongside ours in two World Wars, very different too, from the country portrayed by expatriate Australian comedians or even by Crocodile Dundee.

“For many recent migrants the Australian connexion (sic) with Britain has no special meaning.

“Many young Australians, unlike their parents, have no knowledge of, and no natural predilection for, Britain.

“More and more we shall have to recognise Australia for what it really is: an independent state with a powerful sense of nationhood, an urbanized society with most of the problems of similar societies elsewhere, a country hesitantly adapting to its Asian environment, not wanting to weaken its traditional links with Britain, Europe and America but keen to establish with those traditional partners a modern political and commercial relationship which first the aspirations and sentiments of the Australia of today.”

Australian insights

The hundreds of bundles of documents give a rare insight into Australia-UK relations, particularly the decades-long campaign to secure an enhanced trade deal with the European Union.

While Australia has this year signalled a desire to ‘kick start’ a trade relationship with the United Kingdom post-Brexit, in 1990 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office noted, “Australia is a significant and growing investor in the United Kingdom, attracted by its advantages as a base for expansion into the Single European Market”.

Europe, and Australia’s long running battle to secure an agricultural trade deal, was the topic of discussion when the two Prime Ministers met face-to-face for the last time in office at the 75th anniversary commemorations of Gallipoli, in Turkey.

Thatcher
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser standing with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the playing of the anthem on her arrival in Canberra, July 1979. (AAP)
AAP

Minutes of the meeting hinted at frustrations that would boil to the surface years later in the EU referendum.

“Mr Hawke asked how the Prime Minister assessed the view of the other EC countries on the French and German proposals on political union. The Prime Minister said she thought they would mostly be in favour, although no-one seemed to have a clear idea what political union meant. She found it rather like boxing against a feather mattress.”

The High Commissioner to Australia was infuriated after protestors disrupted Margaret Thatcher’s visit to Australia in 1988, writing a stern dispatch after a particularly bad experience on the streets of Melbourne.

It said the visit had been "marred" because an "insufficient police presence" made the outing a “noisy, physically unpleasant and tense affair… to which [Thatcher] should never have been exposed”.

The High Commissioner observed, "the Australian media are notorious for their low standards of journalism, their scurrilousness, triviality and bias”, and their reporting of the Prime Minister’s visit was largely "snide comment, half-baked and out-of-date ideas about Britain and grudging admiration of the Prime Minister”.

The Prime Minister’s files reveal she sent personal thank you notes to her Victoria Police Close Protection Officers following the incident, as well as the manager of the Body Shop where the protestors had gathered. Mrs Thatcher also kept photographs and handwritten letters sent by students from remote outback cattle stations who she spoke with by radio during a visit to the School of the Air in Alice Springs. 

As previously revealed by SBS, Margaret Thatcher and Bob Hawke ‘disagreed profoundly’ over the Harare declaration and the Commonwealth’s response to ending South Africa’s apartheid.

The relationship had become so fraught that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office raised the tone of Mrs Thatcher’s correspondence with her Australian counterpart after she repeatedly ignored their advice to address letters ‘Dear Bob’ rather than ‘Dear Prime Minister’.

Her Private Secretary promised to do better, noting the refusal was perhaps "the female factor", suggesting "she [was] cheesed off with him" after they clashed over South Africa at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

There was, however, one topic on which the pair did agree: Australia receiving one of two original copies of the Australian Constitution.

Thatcher
Prime Minister Bob Hawke and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Vancouver in 1987. (AAP)
AAP

A directive sent from Downing Street reveals that, despite refusals from the Lord Chancellor and Civil Service, Mrs Thatcher was "sympathetic to the request" and pushed ahead with her instructions for one of the documents to be sent to Canberra.

The memo read: “(T)he Prime Minister said that the birth of a nation was a remarkable event and not to have it legitimized by a birth certificate must be galling, especially when the foster parents had two. She wondered how people in this country would feel if somebody else had two copies of the Magna Carta and we had none. She thought we were being selfish in refusing the Australians.”

Mr Hawke had made four formal requests that had been politely declined, refusing to accept the offer of a replica, noting, “permanent possession of the original document containing the Australian Constitution is a matter of great consequence for all Australians".

The Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, didn’t appear, however, to share the Prime Minister’s determination. When Britain’s Foreign Secretary raised the issue with him directly during a meeting at CHOGM in Kuala Lumpur in 1989, the minutes noted, “Senator Evans reacted with surprise… saying that ‘he didn’t give a stuff about the Constitution Act’”. 

The British High Commissioner to Australia sent these clippings to Margaret Thatcher in London after an embarrassing incident involving former Australia.
The British High Commissioner to Australia sent these clippings to Margaret Thatcher in London after an embarrassing incident involving former Australia.
SBS

British bureaucrats noted that despite, “his officials intervening to say that Australia had been asking for an authentic copy and that they were still asking", Senator Evans "ploughed on regardless", expressing his "complete lack of interest".

A Foreign and Commonwealth Office “personality profile” described Opposition Leader Dr Andrew Hewson as “an archetypal over-acheiver and working-class boy made good”.

“Very ambitious.

“A touch arrogant and a workaholic.

“Has a penchant for monogrammed shirts and French champagne."

Political polar opposites, the files reveal that Mrs Thatcher and Mr Hawke shared a healthy sense of humour. For his 60th birthday, Mrs Thatcher sent a personal telegram: “Congratulations – the first 60 years are the worst."

After visiting Australia in May 1989, the Secretary of State recalled a conversation he had with the Prime Minister ahead of the upcoming election against Opposition Leader Andrew Peacock: “His comment to me on Peacock was that a Leader of a Party could be lazy and he could also have a third-rate mind but he should not be both!”

One dispatch from the British High Commission in Canberra ahead of the 1987 election noted that in one opinion poll, “Mrs Thatcher is rated more highly than Mr Hawke,” a sentence underlined and ticked by an amused Prime Minister. 

Following his win, another telegram was dispatched from London: “I send you my warm congratulations on your Election. There is a lot to be said for third terms.”

Only one would win a fourth.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office expressed frustration at Mrs Thatcher’s refusal to warmly address letters to Bob Hawke.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office expressed frustration at Mrs Thatcher’s refusal to warmly address letters to Bob Hawke.
SBS

Royal relationship

Perhaps the most unusual find in the final bundles of cabinet documents during Margaret Thatcher’s time in office, is a handwritten note exchanged with Princess Margaret, the Queen’s late sister.

Communications between senior members of the royal household and members of the government are ‘absolutely exempt’ from the Freedom of Information Act.

Written on Kensington Palace letterhead and dated February 7, 1980, Princess Margaret wrote the following over four pages:

My Dear Prime Minister,

I write belatedly to thank you for your kind letter. I just had to have some things dug out of my face but luckily everything went well and were' worrying.

I was so interested to hear about your visit to the United States. I expect you surprised them no end at answering their questions in a positive way, when they are used to waffling on for hours in figures of 8, not actually answering anything. The steel strike is depressing.  I well remember when Charles Villiers took it over.  I congratulated him on his courage and he said, "I am taking on a moribund, old fashioned, out of date, uneconomical, out of date industry" [sic] and I said "Is there any hope of improving it?" and he said "Very little." [sic]

I suppose if one is an ordinary working man and one's union tells one not to vote for new machinery or technology because otherwise you will lose your job or your card - you just don't dare. I went to Cambridge for a Debate (rather fully all about the church, lots of clerics) and found them all rabid conservatives - not a Trotskyite to agree with!  They were passionately against the Olympic Games in Moscow.  I tried the "Isn't it hard on the athletes" bit but they were adamant.  I suppose individuals must choose whether to go as it's up to the Olympic Committee if that silly boxer doesn't make a hash of it he might get Africa to cock a snook at the Russians.

I found it quite impossible to find out what is happening in Afghanistan. Are they about to wheel into Iran and get all the oil? More power to your policy of nuclear power stations.  I wish they weren't called "nuclear" as people always think of the bomb.  I've been advocating them since I was 20!

Many thanks for allocating £10,000 to the N.S.P.C.C. (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) They are vital and I am President and support their free service.

With again many thanks for your letter

Yours very sincerely

Margaret

One of numerous hand signed thank you notes signed by Margaret Thatcher after protestors disrupted her visit to Melbourne in 1988.
One of numerous hand signed thank you notes signed by Margaret Thatcher after protestors disrupted her visit to Melbourne in 1988.
SBS

“There are other dimensions to Mrs Thatcher, not just the steely Iron Lady”, Mr Dunton from Britain’s National Archives told SBS.

After 12 years of colourful files documenting Mrs Thatcher’s time in power, are historians sad to read the last of them?

“I wouldn’t like to say that,” he laughed.

“I believe, actually, there is still a lot more interesting records to come.

“I look forward to John Major’s marginalia," he said.

“These comments in the margin are absolutely fascinating, they are so revealing about the prime ministers, the pressures they’re under, their personalities, their reactions to events.”

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch