By Jonathan Owen

14 Feb 2019

Recently released files from the prime minister’s office of the early 1990s – many of them marked secret or confidential – shine a light on the inner workings of Number 10 and the roles of civil servants at the heart of policymaking and delivery. Jonathan Owen takes a look at 10 of the things we were not meant to know, until now...

Bill Clinton and Rupert Murdoch's Spitting Image puppet. All photos: PA

The documents from the National Archives, most of which are from 1994, have been released now as part of the transition from the 30-year rule to the 20-year rule by 2023.

They reveal how officials dealt with dilemmas ranging from allegations of corruption against Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark to warning John Major about the negative impact of identity cards amid concerns about racist police.

Our diplomats had doubts about Bill Clinton’s moral compass...

It’s fair to say that John Major’s Conservative government was not exactly filled with joy at the prospect of presidential candidate Bill Clinton becoming leader of the free world. In a private briefing, which proved to be remarkably prescient in light of Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal years later, the Democratic candidate’s morality was flagged up as cause for concern.

On 2 November 1992, the day before the US presidential election, Foreign Office private secretary Christopher Prentice wrote, in a private letter to Downing Street official Sir Stephen Wall: “Clinton himself is an unknown quantity so far as the UK is concerned. Despite his time at Oxford, his attitude towards us is likely to be unsentimental.” He included a briefing on what a Clinton administration could look like, based on dispatches from Sir Robin Renwick, Britain’s ambassador to Washington. It stated: “The public has still to be convinced of his adherence to the highest standards of public and private life. His evasive style keeps alive misgivings about his reliability and integrity.”

...and the new president’s competence

After Clinton was inaugurated as president in January 1993, the make-up of his administration was also a cause of concern among officials reporting back to London.

Renwick, in a confidential memo to the Foreign Office in May 1993, commented: “Clinton badly needs to move back towards those who elected him and to demonstrate greater competence throughout his administration, starting with the White House.”

Referring to the president’s teenage daughter Chelsea, he added: “The other problem has been the incompetence and arrogance of some of the young and inexperienced White House staff… Senior senators are not taking kindly to being pushed around by a team they refer to as Chelsea’s playmates.”

Unbeknownst to him, Renwick’s memo would preempt the assessment of fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker – whose reaction to the extreme youth of White House staff was similar, albeit less restrained. In a scene from 2009’s In The Loop, when he visits the White House, Tucker rants about having been briefed by a “nine-year-old child” whose notes were “written in alphabetti spaghetti.” He adds: “When I left, I nearly tripped up over his fucking umbilical cord.”

‘Grubby teenagers’ played a part in stopping ID cards in the 90s

Downing Street official Lucy (now Baroness) Neville-Rolfe, in a note to prime minister John Major in July 1994, warned of the dangers of compulsory identity cards, proposals for which were under discussion.

Summarising the case both for and against the scheme, she cautioned: “You should be aware that the arguments for a national ID card are not clear cut.”

Advantages would include the prevention of crime, particularly fraud, and “strengthening” immigration controls, the aide said.  But she warned: “ID cards could be seen as over-regulatory, especially if we moved straight to a compulsory card to maximise the law and order gains. There would also be concern about the police enforcing any controls in a racist way.”

She commented: “Public enthusiasm might fade once the public find themselves – and their grubby teenagers – forced to produce cards as though they were criminals.”

Not all former USSR countries were worth John Major’s time

Officials didn’t mince their words when counselling the PM about meeting his foreign counterparts. In a memo to Major in November 1993, his private secretary for foreign affairs, Sir Roderic Lyne, said of the president of Uzbekistan: “You are giving Karimov lunch for one reason only: he is sitting on large deposits of oil, gas, gold and copper (and Uzbekistan is the world’s fourth largest cotton producer).”

A request from the prime minister of Tajikistan for a photocall prompted very different advice, however: Lyne dismissed the country as “very poor” and advised against it.

Developing trade with former Soviet Union countries was a divisive issue. The following month, in a “personal and restricted” letter to Sir David Gillmore, Foreign Office permanent secretary, Lyne described a “marked contrast in the attitudes of the FCO and the DTI to commercial opportunities in the ex-Soviet Central Asian States”.

He praised the Foreign Office for recognising “the trade potential of the three resource-rich Central Asian States (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) plus Azerbaijan as the principal British interest in the sub-region.” But he accused the Department of Trade and Industry of putting “the first three of these countries, though not Azerbaijan, into the ‘too difficult’ category”.

A few weeks later, in January 1994, Gillmore wrote back and complained: “There has been a good deal of frustration here at DTI ministers’ reluctance to devote much time or attention to the commercial opportunities offered by the FSU [former Soviet Union].”

Gus O’Donnell told Major to confront Rupert Murdoch over bad press…

The prime minister was told to complain to media owner Rupert Murdoch about the personal attacks being made on him by the tycoon’s British newspapers.

In a briefing for John Major ahead of a meeting with Murdoch in August 1993, Gus – now Lord – O’Donnell, then the prime minister’s press secretary, advised him to go on the offensive.

He suggested that the PM tell Murdoch that his papers “have ceased to make rational criticisms of policy. They are now simply anti everything and anti [the prime minster] in particular.”

O’Donnell said: “This is bad for economic confidence and hence, bad for business.”

He also attacked The Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, suggesting that he was the source of the problem.

“I was surprised to learn, given the worldwide scale of his business, that he ’phones Kelvin MacKenzie most days to keep up to date on the British scene. God alone knows what Kelvin tells him, as he is often very poorly informed. This explains why Murdoch frequently obtains very biased views of what is happening here.”

The press secretary also advised Major to tell Murdoch that “Conservative MPs now see no reason to be helpful to media,” and to refer to “pressure growing over privacy rules, VAT on newspapers [and] cross-ownership”.

...but gay rights reform should take The Sun – and Mary Whitehouse – into consideration

Although it might not be setting the bar very high, John Major was seen as more progressive than his predecessor Margaret Thatcher on gay rights. His openness had extended to inviting actor Sir Ian McKellen to give him a private briefing in September 1991, a few months after the two had discussed the issue during a lunch at Chequers.

In a memo to the prime minister in March 1993, regarding discussions about reducing the homosexual age of consent, William Chapman, Major’s private secretary for home affairs, said: “The first months of your premiership raised expectations among the homosexual community who saw that they no longer faced someone with Mrs Thatcher’s prejudices.”

He added: “If you do wish to continue your process of reform, the trick will be to do so in a way likely to aggravate least the community represented by The Sun and Mrs Whitehouse.”

The aide advised: “It would obviously be unwise to press in the present climate for a reduction in the age of consent.” But by the following year it had been lowered from 21 to 18, before finally being brought down to 16 in 2000.

Kim Jong-il was seen as a womanising petrol-head

A Downing Street file marked “Top Secret” contains an undiplomatic assessment of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, whom it portrays as a homicidal playboy with a penchant for fast cars. It is a picture at odds with the unsmiling persona presented by the totalitarian ruler, who was in his 50s when the comments were made.

In a July 1994 briefing sent to Downing Street private secretary Philippa Leslie-Jones after the death of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung, FCO private secretary J S Smith warned of Kim Il-sung’s son and heir: “What little we know of Kim Jong-il is not reassuring,” and remarked: “He has a reputation for wild personal behaviour.”

The official added: “He is widely believed to have been responsible for the attack on the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983, in which several Korean ministers died, and for the bombing of a KAL [Korean Air Lines] airliner in 1987, in which 115 people died.”

Smith wasn’t the only one concerned. In a cable to Downing Street and the FCO the same month, an FCO official named Harris described Kim Jong-il as having “a reputation for womanising, fast cars and wild behaviour”.

Americans were alarmist about British Muslims decades before Fox News dubbed Birmingham a ‘no-go zone’

It appears that the very presence of a large Muslim population in Leeds was enough to trigger alarm among US officials concerned over the security of the American military base at Menwith Hill, Yorkshire.

Sir Percy Cradock, chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, wrote to Charles Powell, the prime minister’s private secretary for foreign affairs, in February 1988, regarding “possible US anxieties over the state of security at Menwith Hill Station”.

He explained how, in the aftermath of US airstrikes against Libya in 1986, the “chief of station at Menwith Hill asked for increased security measures. He was particularly concerned about large Muslim communities in the area, not least in Leeds.”

Cradock added: “In June 1986 a car containing three men ‘of Middle East appearance’ particularly worried him. They turned out to be anti-Qadhafi Libyans, who were doing nothing particularly sinister. As a result, however, various improvements to security were made at the station. The then chief of station tended to be alarmist and it is possible that highly coloured accounts of the situation filtered back to Washington. But all is in order now.”

‘Back to Basics’ Major was told to back away from committee hearings

Major was advised against appearing before the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life during its inquiry into the conduct of ministers and other holders of public office.

He had established the committee earlier that year, in response to a series of scandals such as the cash for questions affair, which exposed how a number of MPs took bribes to ask parliamentary questions.

But a confidential Downing Street file highlights how officials were keen to avoid the prime minister becoming the centre of attention.

In a letter to Major in December 1994, his principal private secretary Sir Alex Allan advised him against appearing before the committee: “This would be a bad idea. Lord Nolan is right to think it would be a media circus, and might stimulate some members of the committee to adopt an adversarial approach.”

Thatcher’s son was the target of a dirty tricks campaign, according to the cabinet secretary

Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark was accused of personally profiting from an arms deal between British Aerospace and Saudi Arabia, which his mother had signed in 1985.

In May 1989 Labour MP Jeff Rooker was sent a document from an anonymous source, outlining the allegations, which he had passed to the prime minister.

Officials dismissed the claims. And Sir Robin Butler, cabinet secretary, suggested they could have been the work of a smear campaign by Tiny Rowland, chief executive of London-based conglomerate Lonrho.

Lonrho had been engaged in a bitter takeover battle for control of House of Fraser, something which the government had prevented from happening.

In a May 1989 letter to Charles Powell, private secretary for foreign affairs to the prime minister, Butler explained that he had “had a personal word” with Sir Roland Smith, the former chairman of House of Fraser, who “was in no doubt that this material was part of the campaign organised by Tiny Rowland”.

He added: “Sir Roland Smith believes that, incredible as it may seem, the motive for all this has been to put pressure on the government with the aim of securing an outcome satisfactory to Lonrho of the Lords’ Hearing on the MMC [Monopolies and Mergers Commission] Report into the House of Fraser. If so, it all seems to have been incredibly clumsy and to have rebounded badly on Mr Rowland and Lonrho.”

Read the most recent articles written by Jonathan Owen - FCDO appoints first ever blind ambassador

Share this page