Nick Jones

Trade Union Reporting

 

When reflecting on the lasting impact of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, a struggle that has become so firmly embedded in the collective memory of political and industrial events of recent years, I am often tempted to hit fast-forward rather than press the play-back button. How would a year-long fight-to-the-finish that pitted the country’s strongest trade union against an all-powerful Prime Minister, play out three decades later? Given the revolution there has been in communication techniques, what would the chances be of success if there was a repeat of the grassroots revolt against the decimation of the coalfields and their communities?

Black and white photographs taken by friends, family and supporters at the 1984 Battle of Orgreave helped subsequently to demolish Police prosecutions for rioting that were levelled against 95 striking mineworkers.

But at the time, very few close-up – and potentially incriminating – pictures made it into the news coverage of the mainstream media.

Most press photographers and television camera crews were penned in behind police lines, and therefore kept largely to the perimeter of the eight-hour confrontation between pickets and mounted police.

While newspapers and television news bulletins captured the scale of the conflict – and especially the graphic images of police on horseback charging through the pickets – there was nothing like the visual record of hand-to-hand combat that would be available today as a result of the abundance of camera phone pictures and videos that invariably emerges from demonstrations and protests.

No wonder the iconic photograph taken by John Harris of Lesley Boulton, cowering as a mounted police officer approached her with a raised baton, has become an enduring image of the strike, reproduced repeatedly to illustrate the violent response of the police as the pickets assembled outside the Orgreave coke works on June 18, 1984.

Such was the divisive nature of so much of the news reporting of the 1984-85 miners’ strike – and media concentration on picket line violence – that there was often little coverage of the remarkable solidarity shown by the international trade union movement.

Pit Props, a new book examining the strength of international support during the dispute, seeks to put the record straight. Editor Granville Williams says it tells the story of the magnificent response of fellow trade unionists around the world.

Nicholas Jones, a former labour and industrial correspondent, who reported the strike for BBC Radio, compiled a diary of news reports of help and assistance from overseas during the miners’ year-long struggle.

For the first time for 30 years he re-opened his file marked “miners’ international solidarity”, and it took him straight back to the events surrounding the largely under-reported, but totally unprecedented action by other mining unions and the wider international trade union movement.

 

Nicholas Jones at Hatfield pit, near Doncaster, which ceased production in July and is currently being dismantled and its shafts sealed.“If only”…if only there had been a deal in the 1980s the coal industry might have survived, says Nicholas Jones, who was a BBC labour and industrial correspondent during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

I returned to Yorkshire for BBC Newsnight to report on the industry’s final demise, and to visit the UK’s very last deep mine that is still producing coal, but only for another few weeks.

Deep mining of coal will cease by the end of the year when the Kellingley pit near Castleford closes in early December.

As I stood in the yard, looking across as coal poured from the pit shaft conveyor, I was almost lost for words, sensing that an historic moment was only weeks away.

“I can hardly believe it…” were my opening words as I described the imminent demise of the Big K, the Yorkshire super pit that once employed 3,000 men, and was the biggest deep mine in Europe.

Margaret Thatcher’s 1985 cabinet papers about the 1984-85 miners’ strike were a revelation for Nicholas Jones, as he explained when giving the annual lecture at the commemoration meeting to mark the death of two Yorkshire miners killed while on picket duty.

After a wreath laying ceremony, Jones told the gathering at the Barnsley headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers that he had been misled and that an award winning programme was based on inaccurate information.

Jones, who was named the 1986 Industrial Journalist of the Year, asserted in his BBC Radio 4 programme Codename Tuscany that it was confidential advice from European banks that allowed the courts to seize the miners’ missing millions.

But Mrs Thatcher’s papers have revealed that in fact it was tip-offs from the Security Service MI5 – based on telephone taps and surveillance – that enabled the sequestrators Price Waterhouse to take control of £8.7 million deposited in banks in Luxembourg, Zurich and Dublin without the NUM’s knowledge.

Jones said his experience in being misled during the strike – as had also happened over denials of a secret hit list for pit closures – had made him all the more determined to unlock the secrets of the strike.

David Hart, a shadowy financier who secretly helped the working miners to start crippling legal action against the National Union of Mineworkers, had almost unlimited access to Margaret Thatcher during the 1984-5 pit strike. 

But in the final month of the dispute the Prime Minister was advised to sever her contacts with Hart because news of his role was leaking out and on the point of becoming an embarrassment to the government.

Behind the scenes Hart was passing on instructions to the National Coal Board’s chairman Ian MacGregor and this had angered the Secretary of State for Energy, Peter Walker, who complained to Mrs Thatcher.

Walker’s disagreements with MacGregor over his management of the way the Coal Board was dealing with the strike became increasingly acrimonious after acceleration in the return to work.

At one point the Energy Secretary wrote to Mrs Thatcher accusing MacGregor of being “dishonest” in his pursuit of a vendetta against NACODS, the union for pit safety supervisors.

But it was the Prime Minister’s encouragement for the secret activities of the working miners’ shadowy Mr Fixit that prompted Walker’s first complaint.

So many telephones were being tapped during the 1984-5 miners’ strike that the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong became so alarmed that he took immediate steps to ensure that no mention was ever made of the extent of the eavesdropping.

Margaret Thatcher’s success in hushing up the bugging of phones by the Security Service MI5 is finally revealed in her 1985 cabinet papers released by the National Archives.

Action to prevent public disclosure of the role of intelligence officers was personally approved by the Prime Minister. 

At one stage government-appointed lawyers were on the point of being advised to be prepared to withdraw legal action over the hunt for the miners’ money if awkward questions were asked in court.

Armstrong’s intervention in February 1985 to ensure a cover-up over the role of the Security Service in the pit dispute was highly significant given the events that were about to unfold.

Later that same year, in a Channel 4 documentary, the former MI5 intelligence officer Cathy Massiter blew the whistle. She revealed there had been illegal bugging of the telephones of political and human rights campaigners during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Throughout the year-long pit strike Arthur Scargill and other leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers always believed their phone calls were being intercepted and their movements closely monitored.

Six months after the end of the 1984-5 miners’ strike Margaret Thatcher was still intervening personally to protect miners who continued to be victimised for having defied the National Union of Mineworkers and resumed work.

Hand-written instructions on her 1985 cabinet papers indicate her exasperation and later fury at the failure of the National Coal Board’s chairman Ian MacGregor to do more to ensure that the men who broke the strike were transferred to pits of their choice and did not lose money.

Lists of strike breakers who were being harassed and who were later moved to other collieries after Mrs Thatcher’s personal intervention have not been released and the names are to be kept secret for 70 to 80 years.

The cabinet records reveal extensive correspondence between the Prime Minister and leaders of the Miners’ Wives Back to Work Campaign, on whose behalf she made constant efforts to support the 30,000 miners who had returned to their pits before the end of the strike on 5 March 1985.

One note, written on 24 May 1985 and signed “MT”, said the government had to instruct the NCB to safeguard the working miners and must guarantee them certain conditions if they were being harassed by the NUM – the words “instruct” and “must” were both underlined.

She demanded two safeguards for the men:

“Have a transfer if they so wish and all reasonable expenses must be paid.” 

“No miner who worked should suffer financially because he worked; i.e. if he is moved to a surface job his pay must be made up to what it would have been.”

A secret Downing Street report into the aftermath of the 1984-5 miners’ strike says that Margaret Thatcher would have been beaten by Arthur Scargill if she had not intervened personally in the first week of the dispute to establish what amounted to a national police force.

The decisive moment was her instruction to the Home Secretary that chief constables had to stiffen their resolve to stop the movement of flying pickets in order to keep the pits open for working miners.

“If that first battle had been lost, the rest would have been academic” says a review into the lessons of the year-long strike that was written in May 1985 and has been released by the National Archives as part of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet papers for 1985-6.

The report set out the steps being taken to rebuild coal stocks at the power stations to prepare for the possibility of another strike in 1986-7.  Mrs Thatcher wrote in the margin of an early draft that it was “too insipid, too little insight”.

But the report does acknowledge how close her “government came to disaster” because ministers had under-estimated the length of time that the miners could be kept out on strike “even on limited supplementary benefit, by a combination of union solidarity and intimidation”.

Margaret Thatcher was advised by her infamous press secretary Bernard Ingham that there should be “no gloating” by the Conservative government at the end of the year-long miners’ strike.

Her 1985 cabinet papers reveal she regarded the imminent defeat of Arthur Scargill as providing the “best opportunity” for some years to return the coal industry to profitability.

Her optimism reflected the advice she was being given during the closing weeks of the strike: she had received a dramatic forecast of what could be achieved by the so called “MacGregor miracle”. 

If the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor was encouraged to cut manpower by 50,000 plus by 1990, coal could become highly competitive and be “winning new business from gas and oil”.

“The immediate human costs would be large, but so would the corresponding gains in competitiveness,” was the upbeat assessment of one of her Downing Street advisers.  

By reducing deep-mined production to 70 million tons a year, the “MacGregor miracle” would enable the NCB to deliver coal to inland power stations for “as much as £10 per ton less than imported coal”.