Strategy briefings prepared for Margaret Thatcher, monitoring files on opposition parties, and top-level planning papers for the 1989 European Elections are among newly-available Conservative Party Archive files released by the Bodleian under the thirty-year-rule. As in previous years, the bulk of our new releases are drawn from our collections of Conservative Research Department (CRD) files, including the papers of CRD Director Robin Harris as well as policy briefing and opposition monitoring files prepared by David Cameron during his time as a desk officer. This year we will also be releasing files from the newly-catalogued records of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, as well as additional files from the records of Conservative Central Office and the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs. This blog posts examines some of the highlights from among the newly-released files, demonstrating their use for historians and students of British political history.
1989 European Elections
Among the highlights of our releases this year are the Party’s election-planning files for the 1989 European Elections. The records of the Conservative Research Department are particularly strong on this topic, and include working papers on the development of the Party’s manifesto. The image below shows manifesto drafts from February 1989, with a covering note from Geoffrey Howe to Margaret Thatcher outlining the state of play [CPA CRD 4/30/3/23].The election did not go well for the Conservatives, who after ten years in office lost their first national vote to the Labour Party since the 1970s. Among the files newly-available for 2020 are the papers of the Jackson Inquiry into what went wrong with the campaign, including its final report which blamed divisions within the Party over European policy for the result [CPA CCO 508/4/23/2]. These files, and others on the 1989 European Elections, should prove particularly useful for the study of the history of the Conservative Party and Europe.
Another particularly strong area in this year’s releases is in the party’s opposition monitoring files. Keeping tabs on the activities, policy proposals and backgrounds of politicians from other parties was one of the key responsibilities of the Conservative Research Department, and the resulting files they produced make for an invaluable source for historians of the Thatcher era. For instance, the regular Labour Briefing series of memoranda provides us with an insight into how the Conservatives gathered intelligence on the Labour Party and sought to use it for political advantage. The papers also include references to contemporary political leaders – the memorandum shown below quotes then-backbencher Jeremy Corbyn speaking in opposition to Labour leader Neil Kinnock [CPA CRD 4/16/30].The Party’s opposition monitoring operation at the end of the 1980s is also of historical interest because of the contribution of David Cameron, who became head of CRD’s Political Section in 1989. The image below shows briefing notes prepared by Cameron on the Green Party’s annual conference following the Party’s successes in the European Elections [CPA CRD 4/16/65]. Among other papers of Cameron’s de-restricted for 2020 are briefings on energy and industrial policy, as well as documents relating to his work as secretary of the Party’s Trade & Industry Forum.
Thatcher’s Image and the Poll Tax
This year’s set of releases can also give us a more general insight into the politics of the final years of the Thatcher government. The Research Department files on the 1989 Party Conference, for instance, reveal much about the Party’s messaging priorities. The image below shows a briefing note prepared for Margaret Thatcher by Brendan Bruce, the Party’s Director of Communications, setting out her strengths while warning of potential areas where the Party will have to be on the defensive [CPA CRD/4/29/8].While the Party may have been confident about the immediate political situation in 1989 however, the files also reveal increasing uneasiness about the introduction of the Community Charge – commonly known as the ‘poll tax’. The file below from Central Office’s Local Government Department reveals the Party’s concerns about the electoral impact of the new tax in marginal seats, warning that it will create ‘far more losers… than winners’ [CPA CCO 130/6/38]. These papers thus have the potential to give us a real understanding as to how the Party confronted the politics of the poll tax, an issue that was ultimately to bring the Thatcher era to a close.
All the material featured in this blog post will be made available from 1 Jan 2020. The full list of de-restricted items will be published shortly on the CPA website, where past de-restriction lists from previous years are also available.