Revealed: Thatcher's anger at plans to exclude her from unveiling of Falklands memorial

Margaret Thatcher Visiting Salford

Margaret Thatcher reacted with considerable anger after being told there was no room for her at the 1985 official unveiling of the Falklands war memorial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

In a previously unknown clash between the former prime minister and the Church of England, Downing Street was told that only 25 people could fit into the crypt for the unveiling, and once the Queen and other royals, the chiefs of staff, and 13 clergymen including vergers were included, there was no room for Thatcher.

The release of her 1985 personal papers held at the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge shows that she took issue with one of the themes of the long-delayed service proposed by the Dean of St Paul’s – penitence and reconciliation – believing it could be seen as implying that the Argentinians had not been the aggressors in the conflict.

Downing Street and the church were extremely sensitive about the arrangements for the memorial because there had been a major row over the July 1982 Falklands thanksgiving service, when the archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, had prayed for the Argentinian dead.

The problems started when Thatcher’s private office in Downing Street learned that the Ministry of Defence (MoD), where Michael Heseltine was the defence secretary, had invited the Queen to unveil the memorial. While the prime minister would be at the service, which was to be televised live, she was not to be part of the unveiling party in the cathedral’s crypt.

At first, there was an polite exchange of correspondence with the MoD, during which Thatcher was offered the alternative role of being the first to lay a wreath at the memorial.

One of her private secretaries told her: “The main issue concerns who should be present at the unveiling of the plaque in the crypt. MoD propose that only the royal Family (including four equerries), chiefs of staff, and the clergy (13 of them apparently) should be there. We think you will wish to be there ... we doubt whether the leaders of other political parties need to be there.”

The MoD was told that the “prime minister does not think it satisfactory that the room available in the crypt for the unveiling party should be so largely taken up by the clergy and the equerries that there is not room for those directly involved in the campaign”.

But when the MoD dug in its heels, telling Downing Street that Thatcher would be “physically uncomfortable in such a cramped space” and arguing that the “composition of the unveiling party was constrained by clergy protocol”, the prime minister reacted with some force, writing on the reply: “Kindly ask the secretary of state (Heseltine) to see me immediately (underlined twice) after Cabinet. MT.”

This response seems to have done the trick. Heseltine sent her a polite apology acknowledging that the matter was not well handled. But there remained the question of the content of the service and the dean’s proposed theme of penitence and reconciliation.

Robin Butler, Thatcher’s principal private secretary, anticipated her unease, telling her this “could easily be misunderstood as implying one-sided penitence and reconciliation on our side when it was the Argentines who were the aggressors and still not formally ceased hostilities”.

Butler went on to suggest that, “knowing the sensitivities”, it was right to “give the dean a pretty plain warning of the dangers”. Thatcher agreed but added: “I think we must put the ... point more gently.” It was, however, resolved after Butler paid a personal visit to the dean “and found him quite open to being guided!”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alan Travis Home affairs editor, for theguardian.com on Saturday 10th October 2015 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010