Thatcher wanted to raid European ‘butter mountain’

One of the butter mountains in Europe (PA) Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to raid the European “butter mountain” and other food stockpiles to make good a shortfall in Britain’s emergency reserves, according to newly-released official files.

Government papers released by the National Archives show that, shortly after her election in 1979, Mrs Thatcher was warned by agriculture minister Peter Walker that the previous Labour government had allowed the stockpiles for use in war or civil emergency to be depleted.

“Unfortunately the previous Government raided this larder and did not replenish it,” he informed her, adding that the cost of restoring it would be about £14 million.

Mrs Thatcher however believed a more cost effective solution lay in the European Economic Community’s famous food stockpiles accumulated under the common agricultural policy (CAP) to maintain farm prices.

“I understand that there are large butter mountains, sugar surpluses and beef stocks in Europe. Who do they belong to?” she wrote.

“As most of the finance for them comes from us can we not claim title to some of it without having to pay to get the sugar. Alternatively does the existence of this source of supply not reduce the need for us to stockpile.”

Mr Walker, however, was doubtful, replying: “While I am confident that we would be able to use intervention stocks during an emergency we should not exaggerate the importance of this.

“The fact that the CAP has generated large surpluses at a heavy cost to the UK does not necessarily mean that the UK has large stocks: in fact the only large intervention stock at present in the UK is of butter.”

Within two years however the official policy had been turned on its head as ministers rushed to sell off the remaining food stocks as part of Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation agenda.

Cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong told the prime minister: “Treasury ministers, who originated the idea of stockpile disposal, attach importance to it both because it would reduce the PSBR (public sector borrowing requirement) and because it would contribute to the Government’s target for the disposal of public assets.

“They are very anxious that there should be significant food disposals before the current financial year ends, hence the need for urgent decision.”