Kissinger’s Emotion, Soviet Joke in Thatcher Resignation Files

  • Former secretary of state was ‘very emotional’ about ouster
  • Shevardnadze sent out for news amid ‘consternation’ in Moscow

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rang Margaret Thatcher’s office in “a very emotional state” after she resigned as Britain’s prime minister in 1990, while the ambassador from the Soviet Union hazarded a joke at her ousting, newly released files show.

Previously secret papers about Thatcher’s premiership published by the National Archives in London on Friday also cast further light on her relationship with Ronald Reagan, the depth of divisions within her government and her passion for single-sex education.

Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger

Photographer: Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Getty Images

“Henry Kissinger telephoned me in a very emotional state about your decision to resign; it was worse than a death in the family,” Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell, wrote in a note. “Nobody outside Britain could understand how your fellow Conservatives could have done this,” he quoted Kissinger as saying.

Thatcher quit after losing the support of her cabinet in the face of a challenge to her leadership from former Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, who was emboldened by Tory divisions over Britain’s relationship with the European Union and the premier’s waning popularity. Even though she beat Heseltine in a first round of voting among lawmakers, she didn’t win by a sufficient margin, so there had to be another round, before which she dropped out. She was replaced by John Major five days later.

The Soviet ambassador reported “consternation” in Moscow at the resignation. President Mikhail Gorbachev sent Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze “out of a high-level meeting in the Kremlin to find out what on Earth was going on,” Powell wrote to Thatcher. “The ambassador said he had indeed found it very hard to explain and there was a certain irony. Five years ago they had party coups in the Soviet Union and elections in Britain. Now it seemed to be the other way around.”

‘Warm and Friendly’

Gorbachev’s “unusually warm and friendly” letter to Thatcher was joined by dozens from leaders around the world in the files, suggesting a level of respect for the prime minister even among those with whom she clashed in her 11 years in office.

She had many admirers in the U.S., and an inch-thick file deals with offers of awards from U.S. organizations. The U.K. ambassador in Washington was put to work to assess the invitations; more were declined than accepted.

“Without freedom and justice, life would have no dignity or meaning,” Thatcher wrote in a 1986 note to Reagan that’s included in the files. In another she emphasized “who our real friends are.” The president was equally effusive, writing to Thatcher “to underline how highly I value your support, advice and counsel.”

Near Disneyland

The importance of the U.S. to Thatcher’s vision for Britain is also clear; she took a hands-on role in trying to persuade MCA Inc. to build a theme park at Rainham, east of London. She convened meetings and dispatched ministers to Orlando, Florida, as she tried to battle off inducements from the French government for the complex to be built near Disneyland Paris.

One demand from MCA was for the Channel Tunnel rail link to be routed north of the Thames to provide transport to the park, something Transport Minister Michael Portillo said was “out of the question,” according to the files. But the line, completed in 2007, does in fact pass through Rainham, where there is now a bird reserve on the proposed site.

Another transport issue in the files would be familiar to the current premier, Theresa May, as her team weighs the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport before giving the final go-ahead for a third runway after years of political argument.

In a memo from December 1979, Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong referred to “the mounting difficulty of securing public acceptance for any new airport development” as ministers discussed the building of a new terminal at Heathrow, west of the capital.

‘Most Strenuously’

Thatcher also found time to champion women-only colleges in the face of a European Court ruling interpreted as requiring equal opportunity for all jobs. She said in notes written in the margins of documents that she would fight “most strenuously” and “vigorously” to protect the right of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge Universities to champion female academics.

“It is absurd to try to prevent women’s colleges from continuing as women’s colleges with women fellows,” she wrote at the top of a June 1986 letter from Somerville, the all-woman college at Oxford where she studied. “To stop it would infringe, not enlarge liberties.”

A note later that year suggested the prime minister had won over European Commission President Jacques Delors. “It seemed to him one of these cases where community law and common sense were contradictory,” U.K. Permanent Representative David Hannay wrote after a meeting with Delors. “In his view common sense should prevail.”

‘Less Lively’

It was a victory in Thatcher’s often fractious relationship with the EU. In a note after her downfall thanking the interpreters who worked for her during summit meetings she reflected that, without her, the encounters would be “a little less lively and a little less interesting.” She then added: “I shall miss them.”

The premier also made a prediction to French President Francois Mitterrand about Britain’s relationship with the bloc that proved accurate in a way she might not have expected.

“I hope that our joint efforts have set Britain and France on a course towards the closer co-operation which is in the interests of both,” she wrote after her resignation. “In particular, I believe that the completion of the Channel Tunnel will be an event of enormous significance in the history of both countries and in shaping attitudes in Britain towards Europe.”

Advocates for Brexit in June’s referendum used the refugee encampment near Calais at the French end of the tunnel as a rallying point in their campaign to stem immigration by leaving the EU.

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