All posts by simonmackley

New Conservative Party Archive releases for 2019

Speaking notes prepared for Margaret Thatcher, annotated drafts of William Hague’s election leaflets, and briefing papers written by David Cameron as a young researcher are all among files newly-released by the Conservative Party Archive for 2019. This year, our releases are drawn primarily from the records of the Conservative Research Department (CRD): these comprise the department’s subject files and working papers, its briefings prepared for Members of Parliament, and the papers and correspondence of CRD desk officers. In addition to our regular scheduled de-restrictions, the Conservative Party Archive is pleased to announce that the papers of Robin Harris, the Director of the Conservative Research Department from 1985-1989, will also be made available for consultation for the first time. This blog will briefly look at some of the items to be found in each of these main series, demonstrating the value of these collections to researchers of the Conservative Party and historians of modern British history.

Conservative Research Department Files, 1988

Among the newly-released records are a number of files on the ever-thorny question of Europe, including the minutes and papers of the European Steering Committee, the Party’s coordinating group for the 1989 elections to the European Parliament. These files provide a fascinating insight into the challenges the Party faced in trying to balance the record of its MEPs with the increasing Euroscepticism of British Conservatism: a September 1988 report on the Party’s private polling on Europe, for instance, warned that nearly a third of Conservative general election voters were opposed to EEC membership and would not turn out to support the Party in the European Elections [CPA CRD 4/30/3/1]. The Conservative Party Archive has, separately, also recently acquired the records of the Conservative delegation to the European Parliament in this period, and will be seeking to make these available for consultation later in 2019.

Minutes and papers of the European Steering Committee – CPA CRD 4/30/3/1.

Conservative Research Department Briefings, 1988

This year’s releases under the thirty-year rule include a wide range of policy briefings prepared by the Research Department. These briefings, typically prepared for Conservative MPs and Peers ahead of parliamentary debates, provide an excellent snapshot of the Party’s thinking, tactics, and rhetorical strategy on the key issues of the day. Subjects covered by the briefings include some of the most prominent policies of the Thatcher government, including the introduction of the Community Charge (Poll Tax) and the privatisation of state-owned utilities.

A selection of CRD briefings from the Environment and Local Government file, covering the Community Charge, Section 28, and Acid Rain – CPA CRD/B/11/7.

This series notably includes briefing papers prepared by David Cameron during his time in CRD, covering topics on environmental, energy and industrial policy. In 1989 Cameron became the Head of the Political Section, a post he held in the department until 1992, and we expect to be able to de-restrict more of his papers from this period in the years ahead.

Two CRD briefings on Energy Privatisation written by David Cameron – CPA CRD/B/10/8.

Conservative Research Department Letter Books, 1988

The papers and letter books of the Research Department desk officers are a unique resource for those studying the history of Conservatism. Among those files newly de-restricted for 2019 are the letter books of CRD Desk Officer Richard Marsh. Specialising in environmental policy and local government, Marsh’s papers include extensive material on the Poll Tax, and are likely to be of high value to researchers of the subject. Marsh’s papers also include a draft copy of William Hague’s election leaflet from the 1989 by-election, complete with revealing annotations – a pledge to bring in harsher sentences for criminals, for instance, is struck out and replaced with a vaguer commitment to take ‘vigorous action in the fight against crime’ [CPA CRD/L/4/40/2].

Annotated drafts of an election leaflet for William Hague, the Party’s candidate in the 1989 Richmond By-election – CPA CRD/L/4/40/2.

Papers of Robin Harris, Research Department Director, 1985-1988

Finally, the records of CRD Director Robin Harris provide a rich insight into the Conservative Party during the 1980s. For instance, Harris’ letter book for August and September 1987 shows how the Research Department went about preparing material for Thatcher’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference, with draft sections of the speech and working memoranda included in the file [CRD/D/10/2/25].

Robin Harris file on Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 Party Conference speech, including draft speech sections – CPA CRD/D/10/2/25.

Harris’ papers also show how the Party responded at times of political crisis. During the Westland Affair, when Thatcher’s premiership was briefly seen to be threatened, the Party received numerous letters from the public calling on the Prime Minister to resign. Harris’ memo books from the time show how Conservative Central Office managed the situation, drafting template responses defending the government’s conduct [CRD/D/10/1/11]. The papers should prove to be a valuable resource for historians of the period, and we expect to be able to make further de-restrictions in this series under the thirty-year rule in January 2020.

Robin Harris memoranda on the Party’s response to the Westland Affair – CPA CRD/D/10/1/11.

All the material featured in this blog post will be made available from 1 Jan 2019. The full list of de-restricted items will be published shortly on the CPA website, where de-restriction lists from previous years are also available.

“What the hell are you doing?” The Lewisham North By-Election, 1957

Next week the voters of Lewisham East will go to the polls to elect a new member of parliament. Using the collections of the Conservative Party Archive, this blog post looks back at the last parliamentary by-election in the borough, held in 1957.

On 16 Feb 1957 a letter arrived at Conservative Central Office on the subject of the Lewisham North by-election, held two days previously. Addressed to the “Party Manager”, it read simply:- “Dear Sir, What the hell are you doing?”. [CCO 1/12/25/3]

Scanned image of a letter sent to Conservative Central Office, reading "Dear Sir, North Lewisham Bye-Election (and no doubt others) - What the hell are you doing?"

A letter recieved by Conservative Central Office following the party’s defeat in the Lewisham North by-election. [CCO 1/12/25/3]

The letter was just one of many critical messages sent in by Conservative supporters around the country following the by-election, which had seen the party lose the seat to Labour on a swing of 5.5%. The vote had been the Tories’ first electoral test since Harold Macmillan had replaced Anthony Eden as Prime Minister – and it appeared that the change in leadership had failed to improve the party’s fortunes.

The by-election was triggered by the death of Sir Austin Hudson, the Conservative member for the seat since 1950. Although present-day Lewisham is seen as a Labour stronghold, in the 1950s the Conservatives had a strong record in the area, and with a new leader in Downing Street the government could be expected to have a fair chance of retaining the seat on a platform of tax cuts and improved living standards. In his election address the party’s candidate, Norman Farmer, urged voters to give a “vote of confidence to the new Conservative government”, and echoed Macmillan’s pledge that “Britain has been great, is great and will stay great.” [PUB 229/1/12]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Conservative Campaign was soon blown off course however, as Labour went on the attack over the government’s controversial Rent Bill, which dismantled much of the post-war rent control system. The Labour candidate Niall MacDermot used his election address to warn that tenants will be left “at the mercy of the landlord” under the Tory plans. [PUB 229/1/12] The line of attack appears to have worked:- a memorandum by the party’s Chief Organisation Officer on 8 Feb 1957 notes that “The main lines of opposition attack appears to be the ‘Rent Bill’. We are likely to lose Conservative support on the issue… I am not very hopeful of holding the seat”. [CCO 1/12/25/2]

Scanned image showing the first page of a report on the Conservative Party's prospects in the Lewisham North by-election, 1957.

Conservative Party report on the campaign situation in Lewisham, dated 8 Feb 1957. [CCO 1/12/25/2]

Another issue that haunted the Conservatives was the legacy of the Suez Crisis, which had brought down Eden’s premiership. Not only did Labour continue to attack the Conservatives’ handling of the episode, but in Lewisham North the party also faced a challenge from the right-wing League of Empire Loyalists, an imperialist pressure group that supported independent candidate Lesley Greene. Greene, who was also the organising secretary of the League, used her election address to denounce the government for the loss of British influence over Suez: “All but one of the Cabinet Ministers responsible for this sickening humiliation are still members of the Government. Where is their national pride?” [PUB 229/1/12] The Conservatives sought to counter such charges by appealing to voters’ patriotism: “Don’t Listen to Nasser’s Advice’ urged one of Farmer’s leaflets, claiming that the Egyptian leader wanted to see the Conservatives defeated. [CCO 1/12/25/2] The party failed to defuse the issue however, and the Conservatives were forced onto the defensive throughout the campaign.

Scanned image of a Conservative election leaflet with slogan "Don't Listen to Nasser's Advice".

Election leaflet in support of the Conservative candidate Norman Farmer. [CCO 1/12/25/2]

Unsurprisingly, Conservative post-mortem reports on the by-election defeat identified Labour’s campaign against the Rent Bill and the fallout from Suez as major reasons for the defeat. However, the party’s campaigners also identified more practical reasons for the failure to hold the seat:- Labour for instance were accused of deploying an illegal number of cars to ferry their voters to the polling stations (the use of private motor transport in elections was strictly regulated in the post-war period), while one Conservative canvasser berated the party for “knocking-up” their supporters too late in the day, as “it is difficult to get women to vote in the evenings as they have their husbands’ dinners to prepare”. [CCO 1/12/25/3] Reports such as these offer a fascinating insight into the very different nature of election campaigns in the 1950s.

The Conservative defeat in North Lewisham was ultimately short-lived: the party regained the seat in Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory, and subsequently held it until 1966. Even so, the contest gives us a snapshot of British politics at a time of great upheaval and change. Whoever wins in Lewisham East next Thursday, it might well be that historians of the future will similarly look at the records of the campaign in order to understand our own politics and times.

This blog is based on the Conservative Party Archive’s correspondence series and collection of historical election addresses. The archive as whole contains the official papers of the Conservative Party’s parliamentary, professional and voluntary wings, spanning from 1867 through to the present day. Visit our website for more information on our holdings and to view our full online catalogues.

New Conservative Party Archive releases under the 30 year rule

Top-level strategy papers that detail the Thatcher government’s efforts to secure a third term are among papers newly-released by the Conservative Party Archive for 2018. The previously-restricted documents, now made available for the first time under the 30 year rule, form part of an extensive series of party papers from the election year of 1987, including drafts of the Conservative manifesto, detailed plans of campaign activities, and election briefings prepared by the Conservative Research Department. This piece briefly examines two such documents from one of the newly-released files [CRD 4/30/7/25], private briefings prepared for the Prime Minister’s election planning meetings in December 1986 and April 1987, to illustrate the research potential of these newly-available collections.

Although the 1987 election ultimately resulted in a second landslide for Thatcher’s Conservatives, the party was far from certain of such an outcome. ‘We believe that the electorate will be in a more questioning mood than in 1983 in the aftermath of the Falklands’, the December 1986 report cautioned, stressing the need for the party to develop and communicate clear plans for the future rather than simply seeking re-election on the basis of past achievements. The changing nature of the electoral map prompted particular concern. Although the Conservatives had opened up a narrow polling lead, the report identified a ‘sharp North-South disparity’, which posed a serious risk to the Conservative position: while the party’s national polling suggested a parliamentary majority of 20, this ‘disappeared entirely and left us in a minority of 2’ when regional variations were taken into account. In an echo of the party’s present-day challenges, the report additionally flagged up the dangers of the growing age-gap in the party’s support: ‘the under 45 group, and particularly first time voters, are still a cause of considerable concern.’

The Conservative Party’s electoral position was complicated by the growing North-South political divide. [CRD 4/30/7/25].

The prospect of a lost majority was still taken seriously on the eve of the election campaign, as the papers prepared for a top-level meeting at Downing Street on 16 April 1987 reveal. Although Party Chairman Norman Tebbit’s paper on general strategy began with the cautious observation that the government were favoured to win ‘with a smaller but working majority’, he warned that ‘the prospect of a hung parliament is attractive to the press and will be promoted by those hostile to us’. To counter this, he urged, the party needed to polarise the issues as far as possible, presenting a Conservative majority as the only alternative to weak or extreme government: ‘Our aim should be to make the supreme issue whether there will be a continuation of Conservative Government or through a “hung” Parliament a Labour administration with Alliance or other minority party support.’

Strategies aside, the party’s election plans also give a fascinating insight into how the party sought to understand and reshape its image going into the election. Discussing the party’s loss of support during the middle of 1986, the CCO Campaign Plans document warned of a ‘a growing perceived conflict between the two important themes of “Calvinism” or “individual responsibility” on the one hand, and “caring” on the other […] reflected in serious concerns about unemployment, health care, education and pensions’. Yet the strategy paper also reveals a resistance to any significant change in course: the proposal to organise the Prime Minister’s campaign tours around the theme of ‘regeneration’ is pointedly removed from the draft document in favour of a more individualistic emphasis on ‘believing [in] people’ and ‘personal property’. Similarly on Thatcher’s own image, the paper goes out of its way to reject suggestions that she adopt a ‘soft’ image, instead recommending a campaign focused upon her strengths: ‘leadership, strength and experience.’

Early plans emphasised that the Prime Minister campaign on the idea of ‘Regeneration’, but as the notes in the margin show others favoured a more ideological campaign theme. [CRD 4/30/7/25].

These papers will provide an essential resource for scholars of the 1987 general election and the politics of the Thatcher era, complementing the Conservative Party Archive’s existing collections of published material from the campaign. The Bodleian has also additionally taken receipt of a large donation of previously undocumented files from this period, so it is hoped that the CPA will be able to continue to expand its collections on the 1987 general election in years to come.

Among the new releases is the first draft of the 1987 Manifesto [CRD/4/30/7/29], shown here next to the final version [PUB 157/4].

The material examined in this blog post will be made available from 1 Jan 2018. In addition to papers on the 1987 general election, the list of newly-released papers also includes material on the introduction of the poll tax, the party’s private polling and opinion research, and a wide range of briefings produced by the Conservative Research Department. For a full list of derestricted items, see the CPA website.