Declassified government papers reveal Margaret Thatcher was nearly forced to appear in court as a witness in a trial involving a Scottish MP.
Correspondence between the Prime Minister’s staff reveals how they desperately tried to keep her out of the witness box to give evidence on behalf of Ron Brown, the larger-than-life former Labour MP for Edinburgh Leith.
Following legal advice, Number 10 conceded that Mrs Thatcher could not avoid an unprecedented court appearance for a serving Prime Minister – but was spared when the case was settled out of court.
Mr Brown, a socialist firebrand who was repeatedly suspended from the House of Commons, was among protesters who gathered on 1 September 1982 outside the Holiday Inn Hotel in Glasgow where Mrs Thatcher was attending a function. When the Prime Minister arrived, Mr Brown is reported to have stepped into her path, shouting and waving his arms.
The MP was arrested and charged with breach of the peace, and during his trial defence solicitors asked Mrs Thatcher to give evidence.
She avoided an appearance at Glasgow Sheriff Court by arguing she could not appear “without disruption to the performance of her duties as Prime Minister”, and offered a written statement instead.
Mr Brown, who died in 2007, was eventually found guilty and fined £50, and wrote to the Lord Advocate to demand he “take steps to ensure that English residents – including ministers – turn up in Scots courts when required”.
The matter might have rested there, but for a sketch in a newspaper three years later making fun of Mr Brown’s offer to mediate between the UK and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The MP sued the newspaper for libel after it wrote he had “assaulted Mrs Thatcher”. She was again asked to appear as a witness, but Mr Brown’s lawyers refused her written statement. They claimed the newspaper’s lawyers would “mount a considerable attack” and that “the jury will need to see and hear from the Prime Minister”.
By 1989, Mr Brown’s lawyers wrote to government solicitors warning they would “proceed to issue a subpoena to secure Prime Minister’s attendance at court” unless she agreed to appear voluntarily.
Mrs Thatcher received some sympathy from Mr Brown, who wrote to her to apologise.
“I am sorry to learn that you have been asked to attend court in person,” he said, adding: “I trust you will understand that it was never my intention to embarrass you by this case.”