They Don't Have Anything Like Our Presidential Libraries, but Brits Now Do Have the Churchill and Thatcher Archives and that's Something


Mr. Shear is the author of the, The Keys to the Kingdom, an investigation into a weapons deal between the US and Japan (the FSX), Doubleday 1994. As a Fellow at The Center for Public Integrity, he was one of several co-authors of the Buying of the Congress, Avon 1998. A staff correspondent for National Journal, he covered fiscal policy. He is writing a biography about an American woman who spied for the British during World War II.

“If you want to learn about Stalin, study Henry VIII. If you want to learn about Mrs. Thatcher, study Henry VIII,” Alan Bennett’s Tony Award winning “The History Boys” tells us. While the playwright makes an interesting point, the history boys who run the Churchill Archives at Churchill College Cambridge hurry to add that if you really want to learn about Baroness Thatcher make an appointment. The Churchill archives claims Thatcher’s whole wardrobe of ideas, not to mention some of the stage set that was her political life, including her father’s preaching notes, the Conservative Party’s work-up on her as a possible candidate for MP, even her appointment books, beginning in 1962.

And we’re only talking surfaces.

The archivist of Thatcher’s private papers, Andrew Riley, dreams of one day digitizing the entire collection. Over the last five years, since the archive came into possession of the collection, about five thousand pages have been prepped for Googling. Digitizing history is a matter of priorities  “These papers we’ve digitized are the ‘best of’ as we saw it,” he says. The “hits” appear on the Thatcher Foundation website. The papers themselves reside at the Churchill College Cambridge where Riley hopes they will remain in perpetuity. In total, the Thatcher collection consists of about 2,500 boxes, 500 of which have been microfilmed, about 150-thousand pages of documents. The collection is comparable in size to the massive collection of Winston Churchill’s papers.

The Thatcher papers represent the first time the private papers of a living Prime Minister have been made available to the public. “What we have here,” Riley says, “are the private letters to Baroness Thatcher from members of Parliament, copies of official letters that she was allowed to take with her and much more.” That includes minutes and papers of the Conservative Party’s “shadow cabinet,” correspondence with colleagues, such as Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph, not to mention opposition leader Neil Kinnock, now president of Cardiff University, in Wales. So it is that between the archives and the Internet, historians will be able to gain new insight into the life of Margaret Thatcher, as she prepares to go knocking at the front door to 10 Downing Street.

 “You can see from her papers what she’s thinking on a daily basis, which will give you an idea potentially of why she did what she did.” The papers are being arranged chronologically. “If it’s the Falkland’s war happening or its the miner’s strike, you’ll see how she prioritized her work and made decisions.”

However, Historians will have to wait until 2010 before they get a good look behind the UK’s version of the Kuromaku, the secret black kabuki curtain. That is when the full archive of private papers as well as the public documents held by the government become simultaneously available at Churchill College and at the National Archives in London’s Kew Gardens. The period covered in the release will contain documents up through May 1979, the year she became Prime Minister.  Her trustees are empowered to make further openings, however. Thatcher was the longest running British leader in the U.K.’s recent history.

The papers have been a boon to Allen Packwood, who runs the Churchill Archives. “You are going to learn a lot more about the nuts and bolts of the Thatcher – Reagan relationship,” he promises. “You’re likely to get a much greater insight into how that relationship worked on a week-to-week level and the highs and lows of that relationship.”

Referring to both the Churchill papers and Thatcher’s Packwod says, “These collections may be as close as we get in U.K. to a presidential library.” On the issue of presidential libraries, he quickly acknowledges super-sizing is the real issue. The Churchill archives are much like a small, private library, although one has the sense of sitting atop an iceberg, where 90 percent of the bulk is out of view. A presidential library, of course, is the ultimate ego trip, a tourist destination, where nearby communities calculate an economic return on the library’s proximity, like resorts. The Churchill Archives runs on a modest budget of £ 400-thousand a year, not yet even a million deflated American dollars.

The Thatcher papers, gifted to the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust, a charity, landed at Churchill College as if by gravitational attraction, drawn by the Churchill papers, more than a million items, containing everything noteworthy from the war-time leader’s past. That means, Sir Winston’s school papers, his childhood letters, and speech notes such as the one declaring that “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent….”

Says Packwood, “Cataloging the Churchill material took five people, five years, a total of 25 man-years to complete.” The huge database resulting from that Churchillian effort allows researchers to type in the name of any person, place, or subject, in any combination pertaining to Winston Spencer Churchill. “You could actually limit you search from one particular day to another for correspondence between Sir Winston and another individual.” The problem is, you have to be there if you want to actual see the results, although the archives do offer a list of professional researchers.

But there’s help coming in the digital future, says Packwood. “We’re now working with a commercial partner, and they’ve microfilmed all the papers.” Now, this is not even the end of the beginning of digitizing the papers but, says Packwood, “I would hope that a significant portion of the papers would be online within the next five years.”

The Churchill archives may lack the kingly dimensions of a presidential library, but it’s function is much the same, and it is designed to house an entire era. Alongside the Churchill collection, there are the papers of the key actors who joined him on the political and diplomatic stage — the papers of Alexander Cadogan, Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Field Marshal Lord Slim, etc… The effect is like walking down the alphabet of World War Two history.

Playwright Alan Bennet suggests that history is “one damn thing after another.” The Churchill archives suggest that history “is one thing leading to another.” Mrs. Thatcher donated her papers to Churchill College Cambridge because of the great man’s legacy. “I would guess that her view is very much that the Cold War starts with Sir Winston Churchill,” says Packwood, “and that the Cold War finishes in her period. That must have been a great attraction to her.”

But what will that mean for the archives? The Churchill papers lured Thatcher. Now what? Says Packwood,  “Historians are beginning to see that we’re building up a formidable collection here on international relations.” That’s the clear on the Conservative side. Now, Messrs. Packwood and Riley must see if Labo(u)r might line up behind Mrs. Thatcher. Could Tony Blair be next for Cambridge?


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