Nick Jones

Margaret Thatcher must have finally got the measure of Arthur Scargill’s intransigence over pit closures when she read the management’s internal account of the first futile negotiations between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board.

Her 1984 cabinet papers include a heavily underlined account of Scargill’s dramatic standoff with the NCB chairman Ian MacGregor eleven weeks into the year-long pit strike.

After the collapse of the talks, held on 23 May 1984, there was an immediate hardening in the advice being given to Mrs Thatcher; she was informed there was no chance of settlement with “a fanatic like Scargill”.

A week later, after the miners’ president had been arrested for obstruction during the Battle of Orgreave, the Secretary of State for Energy Peter Walker told Thatcher “Scargill was aiming at mob rule.”

 The previous week Scargill had emerged from the NCB’s headquarters to tell waiting reporters the first round of talks over MacGregor’s demand for the closure of 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs had been “a complete fiasco.”

 

When asked to withdraw the planned closures – which the NUM argued contravened the Plan for Coal – MacGregor had simply replied “no comment”. After the chairman indicated there was no point continuing the discussion, Scargill and the NUM’s national executive committee broke off the talks.

But the management’s account of the meeting did throw a different light on events as reported by the news media. In fact the NUM president had been equally uncommunicative, declining to take part in negotiations; he even denied his own executive committee a chance to ask questions.

Scargill’s point blank refusal to enter into a discussion with MacGregor and other coal board directors had clearly infuriated the Prime Minister. She had underlined key sentences in the text, including a reference to the fact that “no one but Mr Scargill” would be allowed to ask a question.

At one point her double underlining seemed to indicate that she had realised there was probably no chance of a negotiated settlement.  She clearly disagreed with Scargill’s assertion that the closure of collieries on “economic grounds was a violation of the Plan for Coal” but endorsed MacGregor’s conclusion that further discussions with Scargill “would be of no value.”

Although angered by Scargill’s obduracy she could not but have admired his total command of his executive committee. Perhaps subconsciously there was a meeting of minds; the NUM president appeared to be as much of a control freak as she was.

Such was Mrs Thatcher’s domineering attitude at her own meetings during the strike that she was advised by the deputy cabinet secretary Peter Gregson that it would be “very desirable” to get MacGregor to do as much of the talking as possible.

“As he is so laconic, it is all too easy to put words into his mouth and it would be better for you to hear from him at the outset.”

But the Prime Minister’s impatience with the NCB chairman was all too evident in a note later that month from her private secretary Andrew Turnbull.  He warned that if she asked for too many meetings with MacGregor it would look as if she was giving him his “marching orders.”

Another reminder to show restraint preceded crisis talks at Chequers on 23 September at which the Prime Minister wanted to hear MacGregor’s response to strike action threatened by the pit supervisors’ union NACODs.

Turnbull was explicit in his advice to Mrs Thatcher as to how to handle MacGregor: “If you want to find out what ideas the board has (if any) you will need to give him time to answer...and prevent Walker from answering the questions for him.”

Although MacGregor’s first direct talks with Scargill got nowhere, the management’s account of the stand-off between them in May 1984 provided a vivid account of Scargill’s negotiating tactics.

 MacGregor and his fellow directors had made a series of presentations but each time, when asked if the NUM had any questions, Scargill replied that he had no comment to make, a routine he repeated on four occasions that afternoon.

At one point it was noted that the union’s vice president Mick McGahey was “ostentatiously reading his newspaper”; when the Lancashire general secretary Sid Vincent tried to ask a question, the president told him to “shut up” as it had been agreed beforehand that “no one but Scargill would ask questions”, a point Mrs Thatcher had underlined.

At the end of the management’s presentations Scargill asked MacGregor if he would withdraw his proposal to close 20 collieries and make 20,000 men redundant.  He said the Plan for Coal did not mention the “closure of collieries on economic grounds” and the only way to resolve the dispute was for the NCB to “discuss sensibly the expansion of the industry.”

The transcript showed the extent of the impasse: “MacGregor said he had no comment...MacGregor said it appeared the meeting had reached a point where further discussion would be of no value.” 

But Scargill had another trick up his sleeve. He asked if his executive could stay in the room and as a result it was the management which left first, allowing the NUM president to claim it was the management which had walked out of the talks.

Next morning at cabinet Peter Walker told Mrs Thatcher the NCB representatives withdrew at Scargill’s request, but this was “falsely represented” as a walk out by McGregor and the board.

Scargill’s adamant refusal to accept the closure of loss-making pits other than on grounds of exhaustion had tried the patience of Mrs Thatcher. 

He was equally resolute when the pit deputies union NACODS voted to go on strike in October 1984, a threat that could have halted production at pits such as those in Nottinghamshire where men had continued to work.

Because of the government’s concern that a strike by the supervisors responsible for pit safety might deliver an unexpected victory to the NUM, MacGregor made two significant concessions during talks at the offices of the conciliation service ACAS.

The NCB agreed to re-examine its original proposal to close 20 pits and also to allow “third party involvement” in the review procedure for closing loss-making collieries.

When Scargill was asked to accept the agreement reached at ACAS the NUM refused on the grounds that the NCB was still refusing to withdraw all mention of the word “closures” from the agreed text.

Cabinet records indicate Mrs Thatcher spoke personally to both the Secretary of State for Energy Peter Walker and MacGregor during a weekend of hectic contact behind the scenes.  She urged them to make no further concessions. At one point MacGregor had indicated that he would consider whether reference to “closure” could be omitted but later gave a personal assurance to the Prime Minister that “any further weakening would be over my dead body.” 

In the event, despite fears that some of MacGregor’s management colleagues might resign, the NCB refused to make any further concessions in the wording but while the NUM stood firm in demanding removal of the word “closure”, the NACODS executive considered sufficient progress had been made and called off its strike.

During the final months of the strike Mrs Thatcher insisted that the independent review procedure for pit closures which was the basis of the NACODS’ settlement remained the coal board’s last word. She told the cabinet on 8 November that it was the “best deal since nationalisation” and that the government’s twin objective was to continue to encourage a return to work and to ensure that the NUM was “isolated from effective support from other unions.”

The ACAS talks were a point of no return for Scargill: from then on there was acceleration in the rate at which miners abandoned the strike and despite a final attempt by the TUC to get a settlement, a special NUM conference decided on 3 March 1985 – against Scargill’s wishes – to go back to work without an agreement.

Illustrations: Daily Express, 20.5.1984; Daily Mail, 20.9.1984; Daily Star, 15.5.1984; Morning Star, 13.3.1984.