The British government’s role in using the entertainment industry is smaller than in America, but nonetheless involves many of the same familiar activities. From helping provide ideas to the writers of Yes, Minister to exploiting the England football team’s success in the 1990 World Cup, the Thatcher government proved adept at enhancing their public image. In this episode I explore several examples of the Thatcher government using popular culture for political and PR purposes.
I haven’t done many episodes on the British side of political involvement in the entertainment industry, aside from podcasts on Buster Crabb and Richard Whiteley, and a few others. I am still trying to map out exactly how the Ministry of Defence interacts with the industry, and I want to wait until I’ve got that nailed down before speaking on it. So I thought I’d look at some of the weird and funny stuff about Thatcher that has come out of the British national archives in the last few years.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister and was in the job from 1979 to 1990, having taken over the Tory party leadership in 1975. She was the longest-serving British PM of the 20th century and one of the most divisive. Her supporters called her ‘Maggie’ or ‘the Iron Lady’ and praised her for transforming the British economy. Her opponents, which included miners, trade unionists and pretty much the whole of Liverpool, criticised her for transforming the British economy.
My perspective is that, much as I despised the bitch, Thatcher’s reputation preceded and exceeded her actual influence. Whenever the Tories won a political victory during her time in power it was always Thatcher who took the limelight, and acted as a lightning rod for people’s attention. In reality she was the frontwoman for the system, just like any other PM. It suited the government, the opposition and the news media to play up this image of Thatcher as a quasi-dictator.
In reality, she protected the British security state and others who were really running the show. I’ve previously explored how when she was leader of the opposition and the Labour Callahan government was in power, the government were considering abandoning the fiction that MI6 was shut down at the end of WW2. Due to Thatcher’s stringent opposition, and the Cabinet Secretary’s influence on Callahan, this policy was dropped.
When Thatcher got into power in the 1979 election, her government effectively censored an episode of the BBC’s flagship documentary series Panorama, which threatened to not only expose the fiction about MI6 no longer existing, but looked into some of their covert operations. Thatcher was prepared to use the government veto to prevent the programme from airing, and there were months of negotiations and back and forth between the BBC, the central government, and MI5 and MI6. In the end the BBC caved in and edited the programme down to half its original length, removing everything British intelligence found objectionable.
Thanks to the passage of time, we can now read files from Thatcher’s government about what was going on when I was a kid. Over the last few years a large number of files have been made public by the national archives and by the Thatcher Foundation, so the remainder of this episode will be an exploration of several incidents where Thatcher’s government and the entertainment industry intersect.
In December 1982, which is when I was born, Thatcher paid a visit to the Bessbrook barracks in Northern Ireland. A file on her visit to the barracks describes how when she met with the soldiers there, quite a number complained about the poor quality of the overboots they were given. Overboots are boots you wear on top of your regular footwear, particularly in wet weather. On December 23rd Thatcher wrote to the MOD to ask them about this, and it was 6 weeks before she received a reply.
The MOD’s response essentially says that there was no problem with the overboots, and that they’d never received any complaint about them before. The letter says, ‘We believe that if this were a real problem reports to this effect would have emerged before now’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thatcher’s handwritten note says ‘Seldom have I received a more unsatisfactory letter. A bureaucratic gem, I will show it to Anthony Jay’.
For those of you who don’t know, Anthony Jay was one of the writers of the popular BBC sitcom Yes, Minister and later Yes, Prime Minister. He was friends with Thatcher, who was a big fan of the show. Indeed, the minister in the show is portrayed quite sympathetically, often trying to reduce bureaucracy and the overall size of government but being thwarted by the civil service, which was all good PR for Thatcher who had been elected on a ‘get rid of the red tape’ ticket.
However, I didn’t realise until I read this file just how close Jay was to Thatcher, and that she was showing him classified government documents. After all, this is a letter from the Ministry of Defence to the Prime Minister, on an issue of the quality of equipment being supplied in Northern Ireland, at that time a fairly violent place. The PM should not have been risking militant and terrorist gangs finding out about problems with the British Army’s equipment. Of course, when this file became public this was brushed off as an amusing quirk of history, rather than a PM sharing classified information with a TV screenwriter.
I cannot find any reference to this in any episode of Yes, Minister, but there are dialogues about similar issues, such as this from the first episode of the second season:
So it seems clear that Thatcher was to some extent colluding with at least one of the writers behind Yes, Minister in order to encourage them to incorporate dialogue and storylines that made her look good.
Another interestingly example is in 1984 when the French security services planted a bomb in the grounds of their own embassy in London in order to test security. When Special Branch found the bomb they were furious, and even more so when they searched the hotel room of the security officer who had planted the bomb, and found more explosives. Owing to the 30 year rule, this did not become public knowledge until 2014, when the file was released.
But three years after the event pretty much the exact same storyline appeared in an episode of Yes Prime Minister, which is all about negotiations between the French and British governments over the channel tunnel.
It strikes me that there’s no way the writers could have been so on-the-nose without someone tipping them off. While there’s no proof that Thatcher shared this information with the writers, it’s clear that someone did and it was only high-level ministers and security staff who knew about what had happened. Given that, just like in the TV show, in 1987 the French and British governments were negotiating over the proposed channel tunnel project it appears this entire episode was written as a piece of PR for the government. Whether it was to make excuses for the compromises Thatcher had to make, or simply to make the French look like shifty, untrustworthy foreigners, or both, I’m not sure.
Thatcher and Punk Music
There are some other amusing things in the Thatcher files, such as when President Ronald Reagan used a phone conversation with the British PM to recommend that she read the latest Tom Clancy novel, Red Storm Rising. Saying that, this was the same Ronald Reagan who told the director of the CIA that he thought the country was in deep trouble, on the basis of a Tom Clancy novel. Reagan was batshit.
Nonetheless there is a quite important story from the Reagan-Thatcher alliance that’s worth looking at. Shortly before the 1983 general election, several Dutch newspapers received letters and copies of a tape recording that purported to be a conversation between Thatcher and Reagan. The recording seemed to show that Thatcher had personally ordered the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war, which would be a substantial war crime as the ship was retreating from the ‘exclusion zone’ and the laws of war say you aren’t allowed to fire on surrendering or retreating forces. The tape also suggested that the government had deliberately allowed HMS Sheffield to be hit and sunk by Argentine missiles, in order to boost public support for the war.
The tape is of low quality, but there are copies of it floating around online so here it is:
The stories resulting from this tape caused a scandal, known as Thatchergate. The Thatchergate files were released in 2014, and make for very funny reading. Even though the tape was of poor quality and rather obviously a forgery of some kind, it was taken incredibly seriously. Letters between the Foreign Office and Downing Street explain how MI5, MI6 and even the CIA got involved in investigating the tape and trying to determine its origins. All three intelligence agencies quickly concluded it was a fake, saying it had probably been compiled from various public statements made by Reagan and Thatcher, edited to try to sound like a conversation between the two.
But the question remained, who made the tape? MI6 doubted that it was a Soviet forgery, and both they and MI5 suspected it was the work of some left wing group within the UK. However, the State Department believed it was ‘KGB disinformation’, which was not only wrong but also deeply ironic given what’s played out over the last couple of years.
It is now widely accepted that the true origin of the Thatchergate tape was the anarchist punk band Crass, who apparently put it together to either prank or smear the PM. The story adds up – punk bands are known for this sort of mischievous behaviour and they did have access to audio production and editing, being in the music business. While we cannot be absolutely certain exactly where the tape came from, this seems the most likely and plausible explanation.
Four years later, in 1987, Thatcher faced another general election and this time the government attempted to co-opt punk music in support of the PM. In March, just a couple of months before the election in June, Thatcher gave an interview to Smash Hits, a pop music magazine. In a shameless attempt to appear down with the kids the PM was prepped and briefed at some length before the interview, to try to ensure she didn’t appear as out of touch and ignorant of popular culture as she really was.
The briefing includes a note about political celebrities, saying:
The interviewer will doubtless assume to speak for “the average reader’ who, he may assert, feels closer to Socialist policies than to your Government’s policies. He will argue that the recent phenomenon of the “political pop star” supports his views since many artists now espouse various left-wing causes. You will want to challenge this.
In the interview, the interviewer soft-balled every question but Thatcher did what the briefing instructed. When she was asked about groups such as the Smiths and the Housemartins openly saying they wanted to get rid of her, she replied ‘I do not mind. Most young people rebel and then gradually they become more realistic and it is very much a part of life rebelling.’
Perhaps the funniest part of the briefing was the summary of punk music, which is almost entirely inaccurate. It says:
‘The “PUNK” era which hit the music world between 1976-1978 was a very basic musical style featuring a strange bunch of anti—establishment acts, most famous of which were THE SEX PISTOLS with songs such as GOD SAVE THE QUEEN and ANARCHY IN THE UK. Other PUNK acts such as THE CLASH and THE DAMMED were popular for a while but when the SEX PISTOLS split up in 1978 the style died out, to be replaced by the current technological musical era featuring computers, synthesisors, and videos.’
Aside from it being highly amusing that Thatcher was getting a briefing on the Sex Pistols, almost every detail in this paragraph is wrong. I’m no music historian but I know that punk continued into the 1980s and began before 1976. Indeed, the fact that Crass were sending out tapes to try to disrupt Thatcher’s re-election in 1983 proves that this briefing four years later was simply wrong in a lot of what it said.
Despite all this, it seems the interview was considered a success by Downing Street, who were quite happy with the way it came out.
Thatcher Hosting Celebs at Number 10
Another aspect to this that’s worth looking at is how Thatcher used celebrity visits to Number 10 Downing Street as a means of improving her public image. While this had happened before it was very rare, and it became fairly normal during the Blair years.
In June 1987, just days before the general election, the Tory party hosted a rally in Wembley where 45 celebrities joined senior Conservatives on stage to endorse the government and encourage the public to vote for them. This included some of the biggest names at the time – Ronnie Corbett, Jimmy Tarbuck, Bob Monkhouse and Shirley Bassey among them.
In early 1988 the Thatchers decided to host a reception at Number 10, ostensibly to thank the celebrities for their support, but obviously also to create a photo opportunity to try to maintain Thatcher’s popularity among the working class people she constantly screwed over. So they drew up a list, and Thatcher’s husband Denis, the oil baron, went through the list putting marks and comments next to each name.
Some names got a tick, or two ticks, indicating he was very happy for them to be present. Others got a question mark, meaning Denis did not approve. Some of the approved names included Judi Dench, Donald Sinden, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Frederick Forsyth and Rolf Harris. Those with question marks include David Attenborough, Paul McCartney, Paul Daniels and Shirley Bassey. His handwritten note, attached to the list, says, ‘I find it both unpleasant and embarrassing to entertain those who publicly insult the PM.’
It isn’t clear why he had objections to so many of the proposed guests, and he may have been confusing David Attenborough with his brother Richard, a long time Labour supporter. Nonetheless it shows just how politicised celebrity was becoming in the 1980s, and how the British government were aware of the value of associating themselves with beloved public figures. Again, not an innovation as such but it gives a sense of the process behind the scenes by which these sorts of events are put together.
A couple of years later in 1990, the England football team had a good World Cup in Italy, getting to the semi-finals. As the tournament came to a close an idea started circulating at Number 10 that they should invite the team to a reception in order to co-opt their popularity for political ends. The file on this ploy, which only became public recently, makes it clear that the whole thing was essentially a photo opportunity for the PM, and that she knew next to nothing about football.
For example, one early memo suggests inviting the team ‘for a drink just before lunch. This would allow pictures to get on to the lunchtime news’. It goes on to explain to Thatcher that she need only see them for 20 minutes, just long enough to get some good PR. They enlisted the help of the Minister for Sport, but told him not to broach the topic with the team until after the third-place playoff, ‘just in case there is some unpleasant aspect’ to the game.
After the tournament, England were awarded the FIFA fair play trophy, and the government issued a statement congratulating them. It reads:
Please pass my warmest congratulations to Bobby Robson and the team on winning FIFA’s Fair Play Trophy in the World Cup. We are all extremely proud of them for the superb sportsmanship they showed throughout this hard-fought tournament. They combined this with flair, skill and immense determination on the field. The team have been a great credit to this country and an example to the world.
It is patently obvious that whoever wrote this statement didn’t actually watch the tournament. The generic language, the total lack of specifics, betray that the government only cared about the World Cup inasmuch as they could exploit it for publicity purposes.
When the reception actually took place, Thatcher was given a speech to read at the event. Again, it was clearly written by someone who hadn’t watched the games, and was praising something not out of sincere appreciation for their achievement, but to make themselves look good. For example, Thatcher actually claimed in this speech to have watched the games, but merely mentions where she was when she supposedly watched them, nothing about the games themselves:
You were watched by hundreds of millions including to my certain knowledge – one prime minister. Now that wasn’t easy because i was abroad a lot, but i managed to snatch some time from my duties to watch your progress and cheer you on from various parts of the world – let me see – Kiev, the mountains of Armenia, Moscow – where Romania beating Russia downcast my hosts somewhat – and then the later stages of the cup from Dublin, Andrews Airforce base, Washington and of course Houston, Texas. This really was a World Cup!
The inclusion of the phrase ‘let me see’ tries to make it seem folksy, like she was actually recalling where she was when she watched the games. Utter manipulation and falsehood. The speech went on to try to take some credit for the government by pointing out that two of the players did YTS (Youth Training Scheme) courses. She also praised their ‘fair play’ and said,
We all noticed too that when an England player was brought down, unlike other teams, our players did not immediately seek the Oscar for Best Actor for impersonating the death scene from Richard III. You got on calmly with the game and always accepted the referee’s decisions without demur.
This is a piece of traditional English sports xenophobia. For a long time we’ve made out that it’s those greasy foreigners who dive and cheat and play-act and our noble, righteous English sportsmen do no such thing. This is complete bollocks, and is little more than nationalistic prejudice, but it’s interesting to see Thatcher deploy this trope as part of her PR operation.
Indeed, at the time all this was going on there was a problem with hooliganism in English football, which had seen English clubs temporarily banned from European competitions. Thatcher made a show of clamping down on hooligans, which had alienated her from working class football supporters. One further memo makes clear that part of the purpose of this event was to ‘promote the image that you are not anti-football (but simply anti-hooliganism)’.
In reality, Thatcher was anti-working class and took any opportunity she could to shit on poor people from a great height. Somehow she remained in power through three elections, and garnered a decent amount of working class support. Despite being an agent of ruling class warfare she maintained her position in part through these sorts of PR operations. By associating herself with working class pasttimes like football and pop music she fooled a lot of people into thinking she was somehow one of them, or represented their interests. She was very much a cult of personality leader, and PR is vital to such people.
It is only now that the truth behind these tactics – the sheer degree of cynicism the government employed in order to fool gullible people into supporting them – can be seen. It ranges from helping the writer behind the most popular political sitcom this country has ever seen, to exploiting sporting triumphs, to pretending to know about punk music. While this all might seem a little crude compared to what’s happening now, I think it’s an important lesson in how we got to this point. Today, celebrity and politics are so intertwined that we could not separate them if we wanted to, and Thatcher was a key step on the road that brought us to this.