14:38, December 29 267 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-29 14:38:03
So documents about Thatcher have been declassified. What about the rest?

The annual excitement that is the release of hitherto classified documents from the National Archives is upon us. This year an unusually high number have been withheld by the Cabinet Office. The reason given for continued secrecy is, of course, national security. When, I think we are all asking ourselves, is someone going to start tackling the problem of national insecurity, which is endemic?

The main thing we have learned from this year’s cache is that Margaret Thatcher is indeed very much the person we thought she was. Having been defenestrated as prime minister by her erstwhile protege, John Major, Thatcher at first assumed she would be able to continue bossing him about as the power behind the throne. Major appears to have disabused her with some alacrity, using the fiendish strategy he seems to have applied to all things: not taking her too seriously.

Major’s notes on national and international affairs are rather endearing. A 1992 coup attempt against Russian president Boris Yeltsin was greeted with: “Illegal coup. Calm. Put the clock back.” An attempt by the London School of Economics to annex County Hall in another illegal coup was quelled with a simple: “Barry. Hang on!” Annoyingly, however, it seems that Major’s laidback strategy was wrong. National insecurity, among Guardian types anyway, has been given a good old stir with the news that Thatcher was definitely right about a number of issues. Dang.

Thatcher was right about the exchange rate mechanism, warning Major that his economic plans would lead to disastrously high interest rates. (I remember being a bit bitter about the 15% rate on my mortgage, as I was understandably ignorant of the fact that I was still part of the lucky generation.) Thatcher was right about pandas, believing they were bad omens and refusing to share a plane with one, presumably in the prescient knowledge that before long there would be more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. And she was right about television licences, arguing passionately that non-payers should not be criminalised.

The licence thing is one of those examples of left and right achieving harmony, despite opposing motivations. Thatcher wanted decriminalisation both because the alternative aggrandised the BBC far too much for her taste, and because she preferred the state’s power to be limited whenever possible. But one in 10 prosecutions in England and Wales are for non-payment of licence fees, and people – often women – still go to prison for the crime.

Cheeringly, however, the cabinet papers do confirm that the Conservative party came to view Thatcher as irredeemably toxic, which is something they now like to pretend was never true. There was much worry over what to do during the 1992 general election, what with Thatcher not quite realising that she had become voter hemlock. She could certainly not be allowed to appear at the final rally. Chris Patten, then chairman of the party, was charged with gently breaking this to her, explaining that the rally should be “as forward-looking as possible”. Also, Thatcher was furious that Major was ditching the poll tax, somehow having missed the fact that she had been deposed precisely so that the poll tax could be ditched. Oh dear, as Major most probably retorted.

It’s worth noting that some of Major’s ideas, which sank without trace at the time, did get taken up much later. Perhaps his idea for a cabinet minister for Europe would have helped slow the slide to Brexit by changing public perceptions about the EU “superstate”. Maybe his hope that London’s democratic representation could be beefed up had legs after all.

The stuff that’s being held back though? That stuff looks tantalising. Minutes from European council meetings have been withheld, which is particularly irritating because the countries we are negotiating with have access to these. “The people” are being kept out of the loop. Papers on the common agricultural policy have been deemed sensitive, as have papers on the European community budget.

Documents relating to the collapse of the BCCI bank though? The files on this scandal were closed five years ago, the investigation having taken in such things as money laundering, arms dealing, international prostitution and terrorism. Withholding papers on this little lot just doesn’t look good.

Documents on the Scott inquiry were also held back. The million-word report into British arms sales to Iraq in the 1980s was shown in advance to Conservative ministers who were criticised in it. By contrast, the Labour opposition was given two hours to read the report before it was debated in parliament, and a heavily whipped vote was taken, exonerating the government’s actions by 320 votes to 319. Democracy was made rather a mockery of then, and clearly that seems set to continue into 2018.

It’s either depressing or cheering, depending on whether you’re a glass half empty or a glass half full person, to see how great the relevance of these 25-year-old documents is to our situation today. Iraq, dodgy international banking and most of all, Europe, remain painfully tied into daily lives. Of course, the papers are also released or withheld under the auspices of a Conservative government that one can scarcely believe has legitimacy at all, mired as it is in incompetencies, narrow escapes and plain falsehoods.

Is it upsetting that these things never seem to change? Or is it cheering that when the whole world seems uniquely dysfunctional, this particular time isn’t so different to the dysfunctional days of yore after all? Take your pick.

And take solace in the fact that we still have pandas, in our hearts and – for the time being – on the planet.

Deborah Orr is a Guardian columnist