25 OCTOBER 1975, Page 4

Political commentary

Mrs Thatcher and the impudent politicians of the FO

Patrick Cosgrave

Enough has been said elsewhere of Mrs Thatcher's conference debut as Leader of the Conservative Party, of her self-confidence and vivacity, and of the rapturous reception she received. Not enough, however, has been said on the careful preparation made for that moment, nor about the difficulties she met in the course of that preparation which seem to me to raise a serious political, if not constitutional, issue.

When Mrs Thatcher became leader of her party the event was greeted, largely because of her sex, with a storm of publicity and a focusing of international as well as British attention on her which was almost unbearable; especially as, though it was largely favourable, the momentum it gave her career could hardly be sustained, and certainly not sustained until the next general election. After her first visit to Scotland as leader she was mobbed by an enthusiastic crowd: she was accompanied only by one aide, and she, he and the police were utterly taken aback by the enthusiasm. It was immediately clear that, what with the need to settle down with her new Shadow Cabinet and divided party, and the likelihood that this adulation would result in dangerous over-exposure, it would be desirable for her to have a low profile period, and this followed directly. However — such is the unfairness of politics — her quisence in subsequent months gave rise to discontent, especially as a sterling performance was to be expected of her at Blackpool in October. t was thought desirable, therefore, that there should be some sort of lead-up to the conference which would return her somewhat nearer to the centre of the stage: the opportunity for this was given by her American tour.

Thus the background. What is now clear is that the Foreign Office, and particularly the British Embassy in Washington, did nothing whatever to extend even the ordinary courtesies consisting of advice and assistance to a senior British politician, and possibly future Prime Minister, travelling in a foreign country but actually, by their press briefings and hints dropped to American politicians, did what was possible to undermine Mrs Thatcher's instinct. By coincidence, Mr Edward Heath was in the US at the same time and, though he is merely a backbencher — albeit a senior and distinguished one — he was given both help and encouragement from senior British civil servants. It is ironical to observe that the last occasion on which a Conservative Leader was thus undermined in the United States, to the accompaniment of criticism of him by Labour leaders, for "knocking Britain abroad," the victim was Mr Heath.

"Some of them," said Mrs Thatcher at Blackpool of Labour politicians, ". . . suggested that I criticised Britain when I was overseas. They are wrong. It wasn't Britain I was criticising. It was socialism . . ." The Foreign Secretary, of course, sheltered under the supposed convention that Opposition politicians do not, when abroad, criticise the government at home. It was always a dubious convention, and if it ever had any validity that validity has been of doubtful substance in the last decade or more. What is, of course, intolerable, is the use of this pseudo-convention to inhibit the expounding of Opposition policies — Labour or Conservative — abroad when these differ from the policies of the government in office; and especially the assumption of Civil Servants of any role in such tactics.

The process began last June when Vice-President Rockefeller was about to visit Britain. It was suggested to him before he left that Mrs Thatcher was a politician of no great weight, and that he need not pay much attention to her: he and his staff were surprised, to put it mildly, to find that the reverse was true. On September 15 Mrs Thatcher spoke in New York to the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies, and gave as vigorous a defence of capitalism, and as strong a denunciation of socialism, as she did in Blackpool last week. With great speed and thoroughness senior British officials gave confidential briefings to British and American journalists declaring their embarrassment, and their conviction that she had behaved wildly. The following day she spoke to the New York Pilgrims' Society. The speech was milder in tone and senior officials were quickly in action again, suggesting to the press that Mrs Thatcher had seen the folly of her efforts on the previous day and had now agreed to their amendment of her following American speeches. The usefulness of this ploy was obvious, for it suggested to journalists unfamiliar with British domestic politics that it was the Foreign Office and its representatives — rather than, say, Mrs Thatcher herself, or Mr Gordon Reece of her personal staff — who should be looked to for guidance on what she actually meant. Yet, there was not one single word of truth in the assertion that Mrs Thatcher had yielded to any pressure to amendment of her views or her words.

As the tour went on the momentum generated by Mrs Thatcher herself overcame the

obstruction with which she was faced. But her path remained strewn with difficulties. At one point she explained Conservative policy on the British oil industry, stating her plans to denationalise oil on coming into office, if suitable buyers in the private field could be found. This evoked particularly strong denunciation from Labour politicians (who were perfectly within their rights) and from the Civil Service, who most certainly were not. The argument of the critics was that Mrs Thatcher was attempting to undermine the oil industry as it is at present by discouraging American investment. It was, of course, an illogical argument: if investment is to be discouraged it will be discouraged by nationalisation. Any prospect of denationalisation will, of course, stimulate it. What was striking, however, was that Foreign Office talks and briefings again claimed to know more about the balance of opinion and possibilities within the Conservative Party than did that party's Leader; and their performance was repeated in relation to Mrs Thatcher's guarded scepticism about the likely benefits of the Helsinki Accord. Throughout, Civil Servants were taking a line on the relative merits of the policies of the two main British parties which they had no right to take, and which was infinitely more shocking than any denunciation by any British politician travelling abroad of any other British politician MrsThatcher and her staff did not, however, respond with anything like the hostility which an observer might feel to be justified, for they were convinced that Foreign Office staff abroad were subject to strong political pressures from the government in London. I believe that this was indeed the case and it is, of course, exactly what happened to Mr Heath before the 1.970 general election. It has always been a part of British political arrangements that the domestic Civil Service attempts, to some extent at any rate, to prepare for the possible advent of a new government by studying its manifesto and policy documents and sketching out legislation to meet its requirements. In 1970 all contact between senior civil servants and the Opposition was forbidden by Mr Wilson's government, in total breach of a long-established convention.

Now, it has often happened that when the Tories are in power Labour politicians accuse the Civil Service of being in essence Conservative. I am not, after a study of Mrs Thatcher's tour, suggesting that the Foreign Office is a hotbed of socialists. Rather, I believe that the Foreign Office in particular (but some other departments as well) support the government or the opposition by every subtle means in its power if that government or that opposition agree on policy matters with its Civil Servants. For this reason the FO supported Mr Heath in the US in September. This, the suggestion that the Civil Service has, on most major matters, a policy of its own, is essentially the contention of Richard Crossman's diaries: it always has been suspected of the Foreign Office and has been, amply I think, proven by Mrs Thatcher's North American tour, for the Labour Government, in its present foreign policy (in which. policy on oil forms a major part) does enjoy the whole-hearted acquiesence of the FO. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the situation is disgraceful, and might on this occasion have had a damaging effect on British domestic politics, and it is something of a pity that Mrs Thatcher has apparently chosen not to make an issue of the treatment she received. As the Crossman diaries suggested, thorough and structural reform of the Civil Service is long overdue.