The Downing Street Years

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The Downing Street Years is Margaret Thatcher's autobiography. As the title suggests, it covers her premiership (1979–1990). It was accompanied by a four-part BBC television series of the same name.

In his 2015 book "Lockerbie" (Chapter 7 The Lady’s not for Remembrance) - soon to be made into a feature film by producer/director Jim Sheridan - Dr Jim Swire identified a Lockerbie lacuna in Mrs Thatcher's memoirs The Downing Street Years:

Among nine hundred and fourteen pages of tightly written text, hidden deep in the chronology, the reader would find but four words: "December 21 - Lockerbie bombing."

When asked by veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell the reason for this omission, Mrs Thatcher insisted: "Because I didn't know what happened and I don't write about things that I don't know about."[1]

The Lady’s not for Remembrance

PM Thatcher visiting the crash scene
Wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 near Lockerbie, Scotland
Tam Dalyell posing the question: Margaret, tell me one thing - why in eight hundred pages did you not mention Lockerbie?

The following is an extract from Chapter 7 The Lady’s not for Remembrance of Dr Jim Swire's upcoming book "Lockerbie" (soon to be made into a feature film by producer/director Jim Sheridan) which identified a Lockerbie lacuna in Mrs Thatcher's memoirs The Downing Street Years:

One day after the Lockerbie explosion she walked upon the field where lay the crushed cockpit of Maid of the Seas. By the Church of Tundergarth she stood wrapped against the Scottish cold, around her across the hills and streets and gardens lay two hundred and seventy bodies and bits of bodies and a broken town. Moving through the debris, she commented:

“One has never seen or ever thought to have seen anything like it. And I don’t think anyone else has, either. I went to the other site where the petrol contained in the wing exploded. Many houses were damaged, it looks very much worse in daylight.”

Yet that freezing Lockerbie hillside and town strewn with the remains of the dead; our first traumatic memorial service in Dryfesdale Parish church; repeated pleadings by the bereaved for a personal hearing at Downing Street; revelations of international "terrorism" on a massive scale; German, Iranian, Syrian and Palestinian reputations questioned; the most severe peace-time attack on her nation since the Second World War – all in some mysterious way were expunged from her version of British history. Among nine hundred and fourteen pages of tightly written text, hidden deep in the chronology, the reader would find but four words: ‘December 21 - Lockerbie bombing’. Such an event demanded an entire chapter of its own. Yet not a word, not a whisper. Could it be that the Lady wished to erase the event from British and world memory? That would have been a naive expectation, and Thatcher, above all things, was not naive. We bereaved sent her a respectful and polite letter, asking why her memoirs made no mention of our tragedy. She replied regally:

"We wish to add nothing to the text".

This, from the comfort of her Chester Square home she presumed to be sufficient of a reply.

It would take a further fifteen years before another angle to the story would emerge. In August 2009, the then retired Member of Parliament for Linlithgow and Father of the House, Tam Dalyell, revealed that in 2002, in a conversation with Thatcher, she claimed that she had not written about Lockerbie because she “knew nothing” of Lockerbie:

"I was the chairman of the all-party House of Commons group on Latin America” explained Dalyell. “I had hosted Dr Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, between the time that he won the election and formally took control in Bogota. The Colombian ambassador Victor Ricardo invited me to dinner at his residence as Dr Uribe wanted to continue the conversations with me.”
“South Americans are very polite. A woman, even a widow, never goes alone into a formal dinner. And so, to make up numbers, Ricardo invited me to accompany his neighbour Margaret Thatcher. I had not spoken to her, nor her to me, for seventeen years."
"As we were sitting down to dinner, I tried to break the ice with a joke about a recent vandal attack on her statue in the Guildhall. I said I was sorry about the damage.”
“She replied pleasantly: 'Tam, I'm not sorry for myself, but I am sorry for the sculptor.'"
Raising the soup spoon I ventured: 'Margaret, tell me one thing - why in eight hundred pages...'"
"She purred with obvious pleasure. 'Have you read my autobiography?'"
"‘Yes, I have read it. Very carefully. Why in eight hundred pages did you not mention Lockerbie?'"
"She replied: 'Because I didn't know what happened and I don't write about things that I don't know about.'" (Thatcher's knowledge of events was confirmed on 17th December 2009, in a Yorkshire Post column by her former Chief Press Secretary Sir Bernard Ingham. He describes the shock in Downing Street on the evening of the bombing, and an overnight journey by the Thatcher entourage to view the Lockerbie devastation.)
"My jaw dropped. 'You don't know? But, quite properly as Prime Minister, you went to Lockerbie. You witnessed it firsthand.'"
"She insisted: 'Yes, but I don't know about it and I don't write in my autobiography things I don't know about.'"

But she did write on the subject of Lockerbie, not in another autobiography, but in her 2002 publication "Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World". In it she simply says: “Libya was clearly behind the bombing of Pan Am 103... Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was a Libyan intelligence agent, and it exceeds the bounds of credibility to imagine that he was not doing the Libyan leader’s bidding.” This, in a four hundred and seventy page lecture to the world, was her entire arsenal of proof that al-Megrahi was guilty of the attack.[2]

Mark Thatcher wanted "big fee"

Margaret Thatcher's close friend Woodrow Wyatt recounted in his diary on 3 February 1989 a conversation he had with Rupert Murdoch who wanted Thatcher to write her equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika, explaining her philosophy and that the columnist John O'Sullivan could do all the "donkey work" for her. Wyatt countered this by stating that the chairman of the publishing house Collins had tried to get him to persuade Thatcher to publish her memoirs with Collins and Thatcher herself seemed favourable to this option.[3] The next day Wyatt put Murdoch's idea to Thatcher but she claimed she did not have the time.[4]

On 29 November 1990, the day after Thatcher's resignation as Prime Minister, Wyatt told her of Murdoch's suggestion of O'Sullivan as a helper, to which Thatcher responded: "What a wonderful idea. That would be marvellous".[5] On 6 December, Thatcher told Wyatt that George Weidenfeld of publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson had approached her about her memoirs but Wyatt warned her off him and advocated doing a deal with Murdoch. Thatcher replied:

"I would prefer to do it with Rupert because he has been so wonderful and supportive of me, even if I do it for a little less".[6]

On 11 December Wyatt recorded that Murdoch had visited Thatcher but that she had not made up her mind about what sort of book she would write and that she would not accept an advance on a book she had not started writing. Murdoch said she was the first author who he had heard would not do that.[7]

On 28 January 1991, Thatcher told Wyatt that she wanted to deal with Murdoch directly and did not really want an agent.[8] However by 23 March Wyatt was writing that Thatcher "seemed to be all over the shop now with her book" and he said to Murdoch that he thought she was going to do a deal with him but "Now she is apparently putting out tenders to publishers and agents". Murdoch replied:

"Yes, it's Mark Thatcher, the son, who has taken charge of her affairs and she is doing everything he tells her. He has even got a Maxwell publisher (Macmillan of New York) on the list. When people talked about getting three to four million for her memoirs, Mark replied that he could get more than double that, eight to ten million. Good luck to him if he can but I don't think he will".[9] On 26 April Wyatt was writing that Mark Thatcher "has fouled everything up with people who might help her write it and publishers and all the rest of it".[10] On 9 May Wyatt was still despondent: "I am desperately worried about her. I feel that Mark has mucked up her chances of a quick, high-priced sale for her memoirs".[11]

Mark Thatcher openly talked of getting eight, ten or even twenty million for his mother's memoirs, which was more than Murdoch was willing to pay. In his dealing's with Murdoch's rival Robert Maxwell, Mark Thatcher apparently had a one million fee for himself. On 21 April 1991 Murdoch used the front page of The Sunday Times to denounce his interference.[12] Thatcher was indignant and said to Wyatt: "How can Rupert do this to me?"[13] Murdoch told Wyatt later that day: "None of her friends dare tell her what a dreadful mess Mark is making of her affairs".[14]

However in June the Maxwell deal fell through and a week after this Mrs Thatcher signed to Marvin Josephson, an American agent, who quickly accepted a £3.5 million deal with HarperCollins] for two books to be published in 1993 and 1995. The publishing world believed that Mark Thatcher had got the worst of both worlds by demanding too much at first and then losing the prime moment by dithering in the negotiations while the value of the memoirs declined.[15]

Thatcher had eighteen months to write the book covering her premiership. She hired a previous director of the Conservative Research Department, Robin Harris, to do most of the writing, the Oxford academic Christopher Collins to do the research and O'Sullivan to help polish the drafts. Just like with her speeches, Thatcher would "edit, criticise and exhaustively rewrite the drafts" until she was happy.[16]

Critical of John Major

The Downing Street Years were published on 18 October 1993, timed to coincide with the Conservative party conference. It was serialised in The Sunday Times on the Sunday after the conference closed. There were rumours the book would not be helpful to her successor, John Major, and these were confirmed when the Daily Mirror leaked her views that Major had "swallowed...the slogans of the European lobby...intellectually...[he] was drifting with the tide". The editor of The Times, Simon Jenkins, denounced her criticisms of Major.[17] However at the conference Thatcher tried hard to be loyal to Major and she was even seen greeting Michael Heseltine. After Major made a speech saying he was going "back to basics", Thatcher praised him for returning to "the true path of Conservatism".

Thatcher was interviewed with David Frost on Breakfast with Frost about her memoirs[18] and she promoted her book with radio and television interviews, book signings, a question and answer session at the Barbican chaired by Jeffrey Archer and a four-part BBC television series.[19]

Geoffrey Howe reviewed the book in the Financial Times, Nigel Lawson in the Evening Standard, Douglas Hurd in The Spectator, Norman Tebbit in the Daily Mail and Bernard Ingham in the Daily Express.

One of her biographers, John Campbell, wrote of the book:

The book has its longueurs, but it is still by far the most comprehensive and readable of modern prime ministerial memoirs: partisan of course, but generally a clear and vivid account of her side of the arguments. Of course it aggrandises her role, exaggerates the degree to which she knew where she was going from the beginning, slides over her moments of doubt and hesitation and diminishes the role of most of her colleagues, aides and advisers. It is a shockingly ungenerous book, shot through with gratuitously withering comments not only about people like Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe whom she had some cause to feel bitter about, but also about other inoffensive colleagues who had served her well. Only Willie Whitelaw, Keith Joseph and Denis are beyond criticism, plus of course Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell. Other officials are barely mentioned. Nevertheless The Downing Street Years is a good record.[20]


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:The Crime of LockerbieArticle16 August 2009Tam DalyellTam Dalyell said: "Yes, I have read 'The Downing Street Years' very carefully. Why in 800 pages did you not mention Lockerbie once?" Mrs Thatcher replied: "Because I didn’t know what happened and I don’t write about things that I don’t know about."


  1. "Iron Lady Thatcher denied all knowledge of Lockerbie"
  2. "Iron Lady Thatcher denied all knowledge of Lockerbie"
  3. Woodrow Wyatt, The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt. Volume Two (Pan, 2000), p. 24.
  4. Wyatt, p. 25.
  5. Wyatt, p. 410.
  6. Wyatt, p. 417.
  7. Wyatt, p. 421.
  8. Wyatt, p. 445.
  9. Wyatt, p. 483.
  10. Wyatt, p. 502.
  11. Wyatt, p. 511.
  12. John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher, Volume II: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 756.
  13. Wyatt, p. 501.
  14. Wyatt, p. 501.
  15. Campbell, p. 756.
  16. Campbell, p. 756.
  17. Campbell, p. 776.
  19. Campbell, p. 776.
  20. Campbell, pp. 776-777.
  • John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher, Volume II: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003).
  • Woodrow Wyatt, The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt. Volume Two (Pan, 2000).

External links

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