The IRA bomb that went off in the Grand Hotel, Brighton in the early hours of 12 October 1984 blew half the building to bits, killed five Tory high-ups, including an MP, and seriously injured 34 others. The security forces really should have sniffed it out before Margaret Thatcher and most of her Cabinet moved in. It had been set up, with a timer, several days in advance. As an assassination attempt directed against Thatcher, however, it failed, having been placed in the wrong room. ‘The cry went up: “Maggie’s safe!”’ Jonathan Aitken remembered afterwards. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ (How ‘British’! No hugging or kissing!) It also failed as an act of terrorism. Terrorism is supposed to terrify. The Brighton bomb didn’t. If anything, it had the opposite effect.
One of the enduring images of the event is of Thatcher addressing the Conservative Party conference later in the day: firm, unruffled, defiant. She was determined to carry on. To someone who suggested they abandon the conference, she replied: ‘No way. We are continuing. They don’t beat us.’
Steve Ramsey’s new book Something Has Gone Wrong: Dealing with the Brighton Bomb is a journalist’s account of the event seen through the eyes of its victims, the emergency services, the press and the police, from the moment the bomb went off to the arrest and trial a year later of its main perpetrator, Patrick Magee. It carries a puff and a preface by Norman Tebbit, one of the most serious casualties. His wife was even more seriously hurt. She still can’t walk. There’s a lot here about Tebbit. He comes out of it much as you might expect: stoical, with quite an attractive line in black humour – ‘Are you allergic to anything?’ ‘Only bombs’ – and his political venom intact. On returning to the Cabinet in January, he told reporters that he was looking forward to ‘roughing up the Labour Party before too long’.
The bomb confirmed Thatcher’s reputation as the ‘Iron Lady’ and boosted her in the polls. Her biographer Charles Moore also thinks it strengthened her hand against Arthur Scargill in the ongoing miners’ strike. One downside could have been that it made her look too unflappable, devoid of human emotion, ‘robotic’, as Theresa May is now accused of being. Ramsey marshals all the evidence he can find to counter this: cameos of her ‘praying, for some time’ before she went to bed; expressions of concern for injured colleagues, her husband first, who was sleeping in a separate room. ‘She’s a very passionate person,’ according to Moore. ‘But her passion was very much engaged, in her mind, in doing her job. That’s what she puts her passion into.’ That figures.
Having missed the bomb in the first place, the police and security services seem to have been pretty efficient afterwards, according to Ramsey’s account; which however is entirely made up of the accounts, quoted at length, of the police officers he has interviewed. A few people behaved badly, including male hotel guests, including at least one Tory MP, who didn’t want to leave their rooms because they had women (‘not their wives’) in bed with them ¬– ‘but we promised that we’d keep quiet’, the officer who found them said.
Memories of the Second World War were still quite sharp in the minds of several of the people involved in the Brighton bombing. Thatcher and Co. were almost reliving Britain’s Finest Hour. That’s what gave them so great a boost. Didn’t the IRA cotton on to this? The Brighton bomb was a victory for Thatcher, bequeathing to us in the process an ideal of strong and resolute personal ‘leadership’ – the Führerprinzip (Alan Clark used the ‘F’ word too, in reference to her ‘charisma’) – that was one of her main legacies to British politics, which the political Right misses, and still yearns for, today.