Nick Jones

Arthur Scargill’s claim throughout the year-long miners’ strike that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor had a secret plan to close 70 pits with the loss of up to 70,000 jobs has been proved correct. 

Cabinet records for 1984 have revealed that within a month of becoming chairman MacGregor was advising the government that he intended to close as many as 75 pits with the loss of 64,000 jobs.

Margaret Thatcher ordered there should be total secrecy about the existence of MacGregor’s personal target for closures. She had been warned by Downing Street officials that under no circumstances should his plans be revealed to the public.

So effective was the subsequent cover-up within Whitehall that MacGregor’s 75-pit closure list was never mentioned again in the cabinet papers nor was it ever referred to during the year-long pit strike.

Because there was no record of MacGregor’s true intentions in government documents which related to the coal board, Mrs Thatcher had no hesitation in authorising an advertising campaign to tell the country that Scargill was lying to his members when he claimed MacGregor wanted to butcher the coal industry and shed 70,000 jobs.

 

Later, at the height of what became Britain’s longest and most violent industrial dispute, the Prime Minister gave her personal approval to a letter in MacGregor’s name that was sent to every miner’s home.

In it the coal board chairman said he could state “categorically and solemnly” that Scargill’s claim that 70,000 jobs were at risk was “absolutely untrue.”

When the strike began on 6 March 1984  – and then for the duration of the dispute – the NCB insisted that it wanted to close only 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs, a closure rate that the National Union of Mineworkers always argued was far below what the chairman had planned for.   

Cabinet records have now revealed the full extent of government misinformation during the strike: MacGregor had in fact outlined his personal hit list for pit closures at a private meeting with Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, six months before the start of the dispute.

Several days later at a meeting in Downing Street held on 15 September 1983, Walker told Mrs Thatcher the details of MacGregor’s proposals.

A cabinet office note of their conversation revealed that MacGregor “had it in mind” for the three years of 1983-5 that “a further 75 pits would be closed”; the first 64 closures would reduce the workforce by 55,000 and the next 11 would secure a further manpower reduction of 9,000.

His proposed rate of closures would have devastated the marginal coalfields almost immediately, as the secret document makes clear: “The manpower reductions would bite heavily in particular areas: two-thirds of Welsh miners would become redundant, 35 per cent of miners in Scotland, 48 per cent in the north east, 50 per cent in South Yorkshire and 46 per cent in the South Midlands (which included the whole of the Kent coalfield).”

Mrs Thatcher and the three cabinet ministers who knew of MacGregor’s secret plan (Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Tom King, Secretary of State for Employment, and Peter Walker) would have realised that it would have been a political disaster for the Prime Minister if it had ever emerged that MacGregor had told the government as early as September 1983 that he wanted to close 75 pits.

Scargill had claimed as far back as November 1982 that the NCB had prepared a closure hit list.  Public confirmation of its existence would have allowed the NUM president to have accused MacGregor and Thatcher of having been caught lying to the miners and to the country. 

Cabinet papers show Mrs Thatcher agreed that no record of Walker’s report on MacGregor’s plan should be circulated. Six days later in a note to the Prime Minister, Peter Gregson, deputy secretary at the Cabinet Office, advised that because the chairman’s plans were so “sensitive” there should be no further written record of what had been said; future estimates of closures and job losses should be referred to by way of “a short oral briefing.”

Only one copy was made of the original document mentioning 75 pit closures.  At the top of the three-page manuscript is the instruction: “Secret Not to be photocopied or circulated outside the private office.” A hand-written note in right hand corner states: “typed by Lillian, seen by MCS, P Gregson, FERB, one copy made and given to Sir R Armstrong (cabinet secretary).”

Mrs Thatcher’s papers include further guarded references to MacGregor’s plans for “accelerated pit closures” including notes of another three pre-strike meetings; each of these documents names the typist who would have been one of only a handful of people who knew what MacGregor had in mind.  

21 September 1983: Peter Gregson note to Thatcher: “I suggest a short oral briefing...in the absence of written material...the best way would be for the Prime Minister to have further meetings of the small group who met on 15 September.”

31 October 1983: Meeting to brief Thatcher: “Walker should be invited to give only the barest background on closures”.  (typed by Jean, No 1 of 1 copy, not to be copied).

12 January 1984: “The Secretary of State for Energy discussed with the Prime Minister today the plans for closing uneconomic pits...MacGregor wished to raise the target for reduction (from 28,000 over two years) by 16,000 to 44,000.” (typed by Monica, only one copy).

18 January 1984: Peter Gregson note to Thatcher: “No ministerial discussion of the NCB’s closure strategy since the unrecorded talk you had with the Secretary of State for Energy and the Chancellor of the Exchequer last September...MacGregor disposed to accelerate the rate of closures...this is a highly sensitive matter.”

19 January 1984: “The Prime Minister held a meeting today... MacGregor had concluded the run-down ought to be accelerated. This would imply the loss of 45,000 jobs over the next two years...the Chancellor agreed that the rate of closures be accelerated...the PM said that the objective of a more accelerated run-down of coal capacity was accepted.”  (typed by Rosemary, only one copy)

Cabinet records have also revealed how closely Mrs Thatcher was personally involved in drafting a letter which flatly rejected Scargill’s claim that MacGregor intended to “butcher” the coal industry and insisted the NCB was looking for 20,000 voluntary redundancies.

It was delayed for a week after she asked for a further redrafting and the letter was finally sent on 21 June 1984, three and a half months into the strike.  MacGregor accused the NUM leadership of having “deliberately misled” miners by claiming the coal board intended to away with 70,000 jobs and close down around 86 pits.

“If these things were true I would not blame miners for getting angry or for being deeply worried. But these things are absolutely untrue. I state categorically and solemnly. You have been deliberately misled.”

Three drafts of the letter are included in Mrs Thatcher’s papers together with a note from her private secretary Andrew Turnbull discussing the options for submitting another draft; he also warned of the “dangers in substituting another text.”

One of the drafts showed that key words were heavily underlined by the Prime Minister; one sentence underlined twice included the line that even if the NUM leadership kept the dispute “going indefinitely” there could be “no victory” however long the strike lasted. Continuing the strike would not result in an “NUM victory” because “in the end everyone will lose – and lose disastrously.”

If Mrs Thatcher had at any time doubted her resolve to pursue what became a fight to the finish with Arthur Scargill, the underlined words serve as a reminder that she saw a victory for her government as the only possible outcome.

Illustrations: Ian MacGregor, The Enemies Within; Morning Star, 6.3.1984; Daily Express, 7.3.1984; Daily Mail, 15.6.1984; Sun, 3.7.1984