Nick Jones

After only a week of the year long pit dispute Margaret Thatcher had intervened to “stiffen the resolve” of chief constables whom she believed were failing to provide police protection for those miners who wanted to report for work. 

Her cabinet papers for 1984 reveal that she demanded action after becoming “deeply disturbed” at the way the National Union of Mineworkers had resorted so quickly to unlawful mass picketing to intimidate those men who had volunteered to work normally.

Within four days of her intervention police were turning back flying pickets from Yorkshire who were heading south on the motorway to coalfields in the Midlands and Nottinghamshire. Striking miners from Kent were being turned back at the Dartford Tunnel.

In another  move behind the scenes she put pressure on the government’s top law officers, the Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham and the Attorney General Sir Michael Havers, after being told that magistrates in Rotherham and Mansfield were “dragging their feet” in dealing with cases involving pickets arrested for pit head violence.

Two secret letters from the Lord Chancellor, dated May 1984, disclose private concern within the Nottinghamshire constabulary about the “quality of the evidence” police officers were presenting to the courts.

Mrs Thatcher’s impatience at the slow process in the courts led to repeated interventions.  She believed the impression had been created that the miners’ president Arthur Scargill was being allowed to operate “above the law” in pursuing the pit strike.

 

Two months into the dispute, after over 900 arrests in the Nottinghamshire coal field, Lord Hailsham advised Mrs Thatcher that the Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire had “expressed reservations about the quality of some of the evidence upon which the arrests have been made, and for this reason is not anxious for dates of trial to be fixed too soon.”

Later the same day Lord Hailsham corrected his letter to the Prime Minister. In fact – said the Lord Chancellor – the chief constable was “anxious lest delay causes the quality of the evidence available to deteriorate.” 

Nonetheless, despite the rewording, the revelation that as early as 16 May 1984 a chief constable was privately voicing his concern about the “quality of the evidence” to be presented to the courts could prove highly significant in view of the continuing demands for an inquiry into police conduct during the strike.

In the event there were months of delay in bringing many of the cases to court. Publication of the secret correspondence regarding police conduct in Nottinghamshire will inevitably spark comparison with events in South Yorkshire where 95 pickets, who were arrested during the “Battle of Orgreave” for riot and unlawful assembly, were all acquitted after defence lawyers argued that police evidence had been fabricated.

Mrs Thatcher’s papers reveal that her government had extensive contact with the South Yorkshire Police – the force that was not only in command at the “Battle of Orgreave” but also during the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster, which again is the subject of an ongoing investigation into the accuracy of police statements.

Mrs Thatcher’s first behind-the-scenes intervention was at a meeting in Downing Street on 14 March 1984, a mere eight days after the start of the miners’ strike. Ian MacGregor, the National Coal Board chairman, complained that “militants” were preventing access for miners who wanted to work and there had been no arrests.

She agreed it was vital to uphold the law to prevent mass picketing; a second meeting was called because it was “essential to stiffen the resolve of chief constables.”  Leon Brittan said he was not satisfied with the response of chief officers but he had gone to “the limit of what the Home Secretary could do while respecting the constitutional independence of police forces.”

Mrs Thatcher asked for a fuller report to see if the police were “adopting the more vigorous interpretation of their duties which was being sought.”

Later that day the full cabinet was told police in Nottinghamshire were “exercising their powers to stop coaches carrying flying pickets.”

But Mrs Thatcher repeated her demand for more “vigorous action”: the government should provide chief constables with any assistance they needed “to react with speed and flexibility” before large numbers of pickets were able to assemble.

On first hearing of the concerns of MacGregor and the Secretary of State for Energy Peter Walker, she admitted that she feared Scargill was about to repeat his success of the 1972 pit strike when flying pickets from Yorkshire succeeded in closing the Saltley coke depot, a setback which eventually forced the then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath to concede a 27 per cent pay increase for mineworkers.

Because of her consternation that she too might be defeated by the size and strength of the NUM’s pickets being massed at pit gates, she considered it “vital that criminal law on picketing be upheld,” having become “deeply disturbed” by the NUM’s success so early in the strike in being able to organise flying pickets to stop coal production.

A note of the meeting, written by her private secretary Andrew Turnbull set out the Prime Minister’s absolute determination to thwart Scargill:

“Helping those who volunteered to go to work was not sufficient; intimidation had to be ended and people had to be free to go about their business without fear. It was essential to stiffen the resolve of chief constables to ensure that they fulfilled their duty to uphold the law.”

Mrs Thatcher’s impatience at the failure of the police to do enough to remove the threat of intimidation was even more explicit at the second ministerial meeting. At the start of the week 93 pits were open, but ten where men were willing to work had since closed due to picketing.

Again a note of the meeting left no doubt as to the Prime Minister’s frustration: “It was essential for the government to be seen to be upholding the criminal law on picketing...It appeared that the police were not carrying out their duties fully as large pickets were being permitted and few arrests were being made.”

Four days after her intervention there was a massive police operation across the motorway network to identify and turn back NUM pickets heading for the pits which were continuing to work in the Midlands and Nottinghamshire coalfields in defiance of the strike.

In news reports next day the Chief Constable of Humberside, who was co-ordinating the operation, denied the police had become the political weapon of Mrs Thatcher; their job was to ensure “the rule of law” was maintained.

At a another ministerial meeting that week the Home Secretary reported that a total of 7,245 police officers were on duty in Nottinghamshire to keep the pits open; one option considered was the use of military helicopters to take even more police officers to the coalfields to ensure continued protection for working miners.

In another move later in the month the Prime Minister told the Home Office to respond in “a sympathetic and generous way” towards the additional cost of providing police support for the working miners of Nottinghamshire.

As the number of arrests increased Mrs Thatcher started to congratulate the Police on their efforts to protect working miners. 

A month into the strike, after more than 100 arrests at Creswell colliery in Derbyshire, which had been besieged by 1,000 pickets, the Prime Minister said it was “totally wrong and false” for the NUM to accuse the police of being heavy handed; it was on slur on the police for the “superb way they have kept open a man’s right to go to his place of work unmolested.”

But eight months into the strike a secret Home Office report admitted the police tactic of intercepting pickets on motorways and main roads could have been counterproductive. 

Stopping them at police boundaries and turning them back from likely sites of trouble might merely have diverted them to other destinations.  The problem was once diverted there was “no longer such good information” about where they were likely to go.”  

Nonetheless as the arrests mounted for breaches of the peace, obstruction and criminal damage, so did Mrs Thatcher’s impatience with delays in the courts.  Four months into the strike, at a series of ministerial meetings on 16 July 1984, the Attorney General Sir Michael Havers criticised the slow progress: magistrates had dealt with only 20 per cent of the 2,800 cases which were pending.

The two main courts, Rotherham and Mansfield, were “dragging their feet” over the appointment of stipendiary magistrates.  Mrs Thatcher urged her two most senior law officers to look at ways of “speeding up the process” because the failure to deal with indictable offences was giving the impression that “Scargill and his union were above the law as far as the dispute is concerned.”

By late August her frustration with the courts prompted direct intervention.  Sir Michael had recommended that Lord Hailsham should “remind, if necessary enforce”, the magistrates’ courts to accept stipendiary magistrates. He set out the steps that had been taken:

“Today the ring round of the clerks to the justices has started...the un-co-operative courts have now been warned that a stipendiary will be appointed if the backlog justifies whether they request it or not.”

But time and again the cabinet papers contain references to Mrs Thatcher venting her anger at the failure to reduce delays in the courts:

Cabinet meeting, 13 September:  Home Secretary reported a total of “rather more than 6,000 arrests but about 5,000 of the resulting court cases remained to be tried.”  Prime Minister said delays were a cause for concern – “violence appeared to go undeterred; both the government and the legal system risked being brought into disrepute...the government might make it known that the cause of the delay was at local level and challenge the magistrates’ committees to be more co-operative.”

Cabinet meeting, 20 September: Prime Minister said the strike had lasted for some six months but “relatively few cases of alleged violence or other serious offences” had been brought to trial. The Home Secretary should ensure magistrates’ courts did “not impose artificial or unreasonable delays” on the relevant committal proceedings.

Ministerial group, 25 September: Home Secretary said Lord Chancellor would see what could be done “to expedite trials.”

Ministerial group, 27 September: Home Secretary said of more than 7,000 arrested, some 1,200 had now been tried.

Cabinet meeting, 18 October: Home Secretary said inroads had been made into the backlog of cases...“over 50 people had now been sentenced to terms of imprisonment.”

Home Office note to Prime Minister, 11 November: 7,700 arrests to 6 November; 3,400 cases dealt with; and “almost 3,300 cases outstanding, including many of the worst offences.”

Ministerial group, 13 November: Attorney General said backlog of cases had been “greatly reduced” in the magistrates courts, where nine stipendaries had been providcd.  Prime Minister called for discussion on “further ways of reducing what still appeared to be unacceptable delays in trying the most serious criminal cases.”

 Illustrations: Daily Mail, 30.5.1984; The Guardian, 19.3.1984; London Evening Standard, 15.3.1984; Sun, 10.10.1984; Sun, 13.3.1984