British government secrets revealed after 30 years


A burnt out car in Liverpool's Toxteth neighborhood from this past summer's rioting. Exactly 30 years ago riots tore the same area leading some members of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's cabinet to argue that the city should be abandoned, according to papers released today.



One of the great rituals of British life - at least for us history junkies - is the annual unsealing of official records. Most British government deliberations are locked away for 30 years under rules of official secrecy. On the last working day of each year the records of 30 years ago are released for the first time by the National Archives.

This year's released papers are particularly relevant.

Last summer, as the country got to grips with government imposed austerity cuts, riots tore across some of England's largest cities. Thirty years ago, as the country languished in recession brought about by sudden cuts to government expenditure, riots tore across some of England's largest cities.

The worst of the 1981 riots took place in Liverpool. Cabinet papers released today show that then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was being given contradictory advice about what to do in Liverpool. Her chancellor of the exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, worried about how to spend limited government resources told her to abandon the city to "managed decline." Her environment minister, Michael Heseltine argued for greater resources. He was shocked by the poverty and alienation he found in the inner city.

In the end, Liverpool wasn't completely abandoned. It was regenerated via cultural investment in new museums and other arts infrastructure and by funding for Liverpool university. But that didn't really get into full swing until the Labour government of Tony Blair took office in 1997.

The other key paper released has to do with the IRA. Thirty years ago Bobby Sands and others went on hunger strike in the Maze prison. Their demand was that they be treated as political prisoners. A single copy of notes of a cabinet discussion shows the government aware of "increasingly disturbing signs of an erosion of international confidence in British policy."

The Guardian's report is excellent and contains this summary of Thatcher winding up the conversation, "further thought would need to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable".

Practical rather than implacable is not how we always think of the Iron Lady. This is the kind of real history missing from the new film about Mrs. T starring Meryl Streep, by the way.