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Secrets revealed

09 August 2013

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THE story of how William Hague's prospective appointment as special adviser to the Treasury was black-balled by Margaret Thatcher has already been told. When the most recent disclosures from government archives were made, under the "30-year rule", the papers picked up on this apparent snub to the future Tory leader. It would be too obvious a gimmick, Thatcher scrawled on a memo in 1983. But, as we found out in UK Confidential 1983 (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), the PM was not averse to the odd opportunistic gimmick herself.

This was the year of the launch of the Youth Training Scheme, or YTS. Despite union opposition, YTS schemes were burgeoning, and Mrs Thatcher wanted one of these young people employed at No. 10. The problem was that none of her staff wanted one, and we see a flurry of notes arguing that such an intern would be more trouble than he or she was worth. The PM's plans were, on this rare occasion, frustrated by the mandarins.

What transformed this programme from an Archive on 4 for political nerds into something more resonant were the witnesses. We heard from Edward Streater, a United States diplomat at the time of the US invasion of Grenada (a cock-up in transatlantic relations, everyone now seems to agree); and from Lord Jenkin, the then Environment Secretary, who was pushing local-government reform through Parliament.

Lord Jenkin conceded that he was given a poisoned chalice; something he recognised at the time, when he wrote a prescient memo. That local-government fin-ance was going to be the issue that eventually brought down the Thatcher administration could not have been known, even to Jenkin; but his note warns colleagues of the long-term consequences when central government starts dictating the budgets of local councils.

And then there was the election campaign, during which Neil Kinnock made one of the great political speeches of the past half-century, and put himself in the running for the leadership of his party. In Reflections (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), Lord Kinnock told his interviewer, Peter Hennessy, that leadership of the party now seemed like an extended mid-life crisis.

It started with the fallout from those local-government reforms, and the Militant Tendency in Liverpool were creating merry hell. Lord Kinnock recalled a meeting with Derek Hatton, at which the militants called for a Labour-backed General Strike and the overthrow of the Thatcher regime.

Adopting Nye Bevan's phrase, Lord Kinnock admitted to being a political poet forced to do the work of a political plumber. Did he im-molate himself in order to provide the tarmac for a more successful Labour Party in the 1990s, Hennessy asked. Not on purpose: he would have loved to be PM, and according to the pollster Bob Worcester, he lost the 1992 election by only 1240 votes.

It was noticeable that Lord Kinnock's style changed when talking about Europe, a subject about which he still clearly feels engaged. The poetry of reminiscence becomes the functional rhetoric of the political plumber: the sentences become longer, and the sub-clauses proliferate like so many U-bends.

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