A ‘Fun’ Fad or the Future? Newly-released files show how British government officials remained ambivalent about the internet

It was the dawn of a new age of electronic communication, but British government officials had mixed feelings about the new world wide web when it emerged in the 1990s. Newly-released files made available at the UK’s National Archives at Kew in south-west London show how British politicians and their advisers in the mid-1990s saw certain advantages to the internet, but also remained somewhat ambivalent about some aspects of the new invention.

The National Archives

In a tradition that occurs annually and at this time of the year, Thursday 27th December, 2018, saw the release of the latest batch of British Government records from the Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) and the Cabinet Office (CAB), this time relating to the year 1994.

They shed new light for historians on some of the key topics under discussion during John Major’s premiership. In addition to the 1994 material, the latest file releases to the National Archives (TNA) also include some files from the later years in Downing Street of Major’s predecessor as PM, the late Margaret Thatcher.

Not much is known by her biographers about Margaret Thatcher’s attitudes to new technology. What is quite striking about one of the files (TNA PREM 19/4621), however, is the extent to which, in hindsight, the then relatively new internet placed some members of the Major government in a dilemma about the possible potential, or not, of the new technology, including e-mails.

Thatcher with Major 1992

File no. PREM 19/4621 covers the period from July, 1986, to November, 1994, a period when Margaret Thatcher was still in office (she was Conservative PM 1979-1990), and John Major unexpectedly succeeded her (Major was Conservative PM 1990-1997).

The file mainly concerns the development of a new IT system for Number 10 Downing Street, but it also includes some fascinating discussion by officials of the importance of Britain’s Conservatives keeping up with wider technological developments by embracing the growing popularity of the internet, especially as the new Bill Clinton/Al Gore Democrat administration in the USA had already made notable use of it as an effective new tool to engage with voters and the public.

The main Opposition party in Britain also appeared to be ready to adopt the same communications strategy developed by the Democrats, something which worried Conservative policy advisers.

In particular, government officials in the UK clearly realised that they needed to put the British government online or they would look increasingly outdated and out of touch, and possibly hand an advantage to their rivals. Advisors to Major’s administration became especially concerned that the new Labour Party leader, Tony Blair, who was now head of the main Opposition party in Parliament (and had adopted a language of change and ‘modernisation’), would show how he belonged ‘to a new generation by signing up’ as an internet user.

Cartoon of pencil

The newly-released file reveals how Damian Green, who was a member of the policy unit at the heart of the Conservative government, wrote a memorandum in August, 1994, to Alex Allan, John Major’s principal private secretary, in which he pointed out to Allan that ‘Internet users will be a growing group of opinion-formers’. Green also noted that various MPs ‘who are computer literate have made the point to me that it would be advantageous for No. 10 to be seen to be up with developments in this area. Specifically, connecting No. 10 with the Internet would keep us up with the White House, which has made a big thing of the modern way the Clinton/Gore administration deals with communications’.

Perhaps realising the need for greater urgency on the matter, Alex Allan in turn wrote his own memorandum in September, 1994, on the advantages of the government going fully online, including how it would ‘allow members of the public linked to the Internet to send E-mail to the Prime Minister/Number 10, largely as an alternative to writing/faxing/phoning their views’,  and also facilitate the creation of new government websites that could help enhance the way the government engaged with the British public.

On the other hand, Allan was less convinced about the merits of e-mails. He commented at one stage: ‘One particular issue is whether we should advertise that it is possible to send messages to the Prime Minister, and – presumably – get a reply’. He added: ‘I am sure we should offer this in time, but I am cautious about rushing into it. I do not believe that we would get a huge volume of E-mail in the long run, but we could expect an initial flood as people around the world tried it out for fun’.

It’s an interesting piece of evidence about how officials were struggling to come to terms with the rise of new technologies in the last decade of the 20th century. There is an irony, however. Historians now know that Blair’s New Labour (and especially Mr. Blair himself) were not as advanced when it came to IT as the Conservatives had privately feared. Indeed, looking back on the period and, in particular, on the 1997 General Election, and given New Labour’s growing reputation for professional marketing techniques and better communications during the election campaign, it is surprising how both the Conservatives and Labour parties still appeared rather ‘conservative’ towards the new technology. This would soon change, though.

In fact, the internet and e-mails arguably revolutionised the way subsequent political campaigning and all future governments operated.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

This entry was posted in Archives, British history, Media history, Public History, Research, The National Archives, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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