Thursday, May 29, 2008

British PM kidnap plot

Can you decipher the newly-released diaries of Lord Hailsham (Quintin Hogg)? The diaries, partly written in code, have already revealed that there was a student plot to kidnap Alec Douglas-Home, in 1964, when he was prime minister, and they promise to provide insights into the period when Edward Heath was prime minister. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation is appealing for help in decoding more of Hailsham’s writing.

Lord Hailsham was a UK Conservative frontbencher and cabinet minister for more than 30 years, and, for a short period in 1963, was seen as a possible leader of the party. He died in 2001, three days after his 94th birthday. Approximately 1,000 boxes of his papers are held by the Churchill Archives Centre, which recently released 450 of them - including political diaries (1970-1979) and a wartime diary (1941-1942) - for scrutiny by researchers.

Under an arrangement with the Centre, the Margaret Thatcher Foundation has been given exclusive rights to publish parts of the diary online. Some of them were written in code, adapted from an American shorthand system. The Foundation says it has successfully translated a number of the coded entries ‘with very generous help from some cryptanalysts at GCHQ working in their spare time’. The University of Cambridge - home to both the Churchill Archives Centre and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation - issued a press release (April 2008) suggesting that ‘the most astonishing revelation’ in the diaries is about a ‘massive security breach’ in April 1964 - which nearly resulted in the kidnap of Douglas-Home.

The decoded diary entry reads: ‘An odd story of the 1964 election never published. Alec (then Prime Minister) was staying with John and Priscilla Tweedsmuir - who had no room for Alec’s private bodyguard. He went to the nearest town (Aberdeen?) and John & Priscilla left Alec for a time alone in the house. Knock at the door. Door answered by PM in person. Deputation of left-wing students from Aberdeen University. Said they were going to kidnap Alec. He: “I suppose you realise if you do the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.” He asked and received permission to pack a few things & was given 10 mins grace. After that they were offered and accepted beer. John & Priscilla returned and the kidnap project abandoned. The bodyguard swore Alec to secrecy as his job would have been in peril.’

Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, who is helping to digitise Hailsham’s papers, said the prank ‘was one of the worst breaches of a Prime Minister’s personal security in the twentieth century.’ But, according to The Scotsman, Lady Douglas-Hamilton, the 14 year old daughter of Hailsham’s hosts, says the meeting was all rather amicable and there was no real threat.

The Foundation believes that the diaries may have ‘special significance’ in particular for what they reveal about Edward Heath’s government, since no other senior Conservative seems to have kept a diary during that period.

A large number of extracts from the diaries are available on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, some of them decoded and some with photos of the originals. However, there are also entries which are still untranslated, and the Foundation's website is appealing for help in decoding them.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Foundation expresses surprise at the existence of the diaries given how forcefully Hailsham condemned political diary-keeping in his memoir, A Sparrow's Flight, and how he stressed that nothing of the kind would be found in his own papers. Perhaps he saw the notes as something less than a diary, the Foundation surmises, or else maybe he intended ‘to make a bonfire of them but failed to (thankfully)’.

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