Thatcher’s promise to “fight the enemy within”: cabinet secrets reveal her “war of attrition” against Scargill
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
Four months into the year-long miners’ strike, when a potentially disastrous dispute in the docks had opened up a second front against the government, Margaret Thatcher rallied Conservative MPs with her infamous pronouncement that she was ready “to fight the enemy within.”
Her war-like declaration was no slip of the tongue: secret cabinet papers for 1984, released under the thirty-year rule, disclose how she had been fired up to mount a “war of attrition” against Arthur Scargill.
She was convinced the task of defeating the “extreme left” of the British trade union movement was as great as that of regaining the Falkland Islands.
With military precision she secretly ordered the build-up of nuclear and oil-fired generation of electricity to ensure indefinite endurance of power supplies and then bought off sympathy strikes in the docks and on the railways in order to ensure that Scargill was isolated and ultimately defeated.
Her accusation on 19 July 1984 that striking miners were the “enemy within” mirrored the bellicose language adopted by her closest advisers, who included the former Conservative minister John Redwood, then head of her Downing Street policy unit.
Mrs Thatcher’s conviction that she was in a fight to the finish with Scargill had been strengthened the day before by a private letter of support from the US President Ronald Reagan:
“Dear Margaret, In recent weeks I have thought often of you with considerable empathy as I follow the activities of the miners’ and dockworkers’ unions...My thoughts are with you...I’m confident as ever that you and your government will come out of this well. Warm regards. Ron”
Next evening, addressing a private meeting of Conservative backbenchers, she declared that she had no intention of giving in to the “industrial muscle” of striking miners who were responsible for “violence and intimidation like a scar across the face of the country”.
“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands but we must also remember to fight the enemy within.”
Her language that evening mirrored what she and Downing Street insiders had been saying. At cabinet that morning, on being informed of the breakdown the previous evening of the latest negotiations between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers, she told ministers the government was entering “a new phase in the dispute” and they had to devise new ways to “reinforce the pressures on striking miners to return to work.”
A position paper prepared by her policy unit had set out the strategy to be adopted: the “extreme left” aimed to destroy her government and John Redwood urged her to return to her original strategy of “encouraging a war of attrition” to get the miners back to work.
“Any fudged formula over uneconomic pits which allows the pace of pit closure to be slowed and the level of subsidy to increase is defeat...There is only one thing worse than presiding over industrial chaos, and that is giving in to the use of industrial muscle for unreasonable ends.”
Redwood’s advice was dated 13 July and headed “secret, sole copy”. The five page document had been heavily underlined by Mrs Thatcher; his warning against giving in to “industrial muscle for unreasonable ends” stood out, having been underlined three times.
In her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher says she was “enormously relieved” that the negotiations with the NUM broke down on 18 July because it denied Scargill the chance to “claim victory.” From then on her tactic was to get striking miners to realise “they had no hope of winning and a return to work would begin.”
Two of her policy unit’s key proposals that July were to play their part as the dispute unfolded. Redwood advised use of the law against secondary picketing and to “make an attack on the Yorkshire NUM funds.”
In the event both strategies were pursued as the strike progressed: working miners went to court to challenge Scargill’s repeated assertion that the strike was “official” and it was their legal action which eventually resulted in the sequestration of the NUM’s assets.
Mrs Thatcher’s determination to mount a “war of attrition” against the NUM leadership had been preceded the day before by encouraging news at a meeting of the ministerial group dealing with the miners’ strike.
Nicholas Ridley, Secretary of State for Transport, had reported “some promising signs” of a possible settlement to an unexpected dock which had been triggered when workers at Immingham, who were not registered dockworkers, had loaded lorries with iron ore bound for the British Steel Corporation at Scunthorpe.
Immediately the dock strike began Mrs Thatcher told the cabinet it was “clearly desirable” to resolve the dispute as soon as possible because the government’s priority was to defeat the miners’ strike.
She was even firmer at a later meeting of the ministerial group handling the disputes: the priority was to “settle the dock strike as quickly as possible in order to allow the government to concentrate on winning the miners’ strike.”
Ministers were instructed to reassure employees in the ports that the government had no intention to “alter or abolish” the dock labour scheme which provided guaranteed employment for 13,000 dockers, of whom 4,000 were surplus to requirements; Mrs Thatcher believed the dockers enjoyed “extra-ordinary privileges.”
Her tactics paid off: two days after Ridley’s report on “promising” talks between the two sides, the strike was called off.
She was advised that the dispute in the docks had been deliberately engineered by two leading officials of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Alex Kitson and Walter Greendale, who were said to be anxious to redeem their union’s “promises of support for the miners’ strike.”
There was a second but far less effective dock strike in September 1984 which was triggered by the berthing and unloading at Hunterston of the bulk carrier Ostia which the local dockworkers had refused to handle in support of striking miners; the Ostia was carrying coking coal urgently needed at the Ravenscraig steel works.
Mrs Thatcher’s tactical skill in preventing an extension of the miners’ dispute to other key industries had been tested earlier in the year by a threatened rail strike. Again the Prime Minister had been warned that the two key union leaders involved, Jimmy Knapp of the National Union of Railwaymen and Ray Buckton of the train drivers’ union ASLEF “would prefer to mount industrial action in order to support the NUM.”
When the threat of a rail strike was first discussed by cabinet on 8 May Mrs Thatcher said it was “particularly vital from the point of view of endurance to avoid a combined coal and rail strike.”
A week later the cabinet agreed to increase British Rail’s pay offer from 4.3 to 4.9 per cent in order to “clinch a settlement” so as to “maintain as far as possible the isolation of the miners from the effective support of the rest of the union movement.” The following week the unions accepted the offer and the strike threat was lifted.
As the picket lines strengthened in the early months of the dispute, and as it became obvious that the NUM would only agree to the closure of loss-making pits if their coal reserves were exhausted, Mrs Thatcher’s advisers urged her time and again to escalate the dispute in order weaken Scargill’s support.
The advice of her policy unit was often couched in war-like terminology. There was only one “game plan”: defeat of Scargill. Her promise to “fight the enemy within” was made in deadly earnest and her tactics increasingly reflected the tone if not always the detail of the secret guidance she was being given:
Redwood (13 July): “You cannot follow a strategy of encouraging a war of attrition ...and a strategy of trying to find a fudged formula...go back to the original strategy of a war of attrition, where the perceived way of the strike ending is for miners to go back to work.”
Redwood (29 August): “Speedier use of stipendiary magistrates and of legal processes so that pickets can seen their comrades being prosecuted and punished quickly for criminal offences...Examining the possibility of mounting a conspiracy charge against union leaders inciting pickets to violence.”
Redwood (7 September): “The coal industry is comprehensively bust. The activities of the NUM and the attitude of many NCB managers have contrived to ruin a potentially profitable resource industry. Where nature has endowed our country generously, predatory unions have succeeded in turning a national asset into a national liability.
“Experiments could be made with giving bad mines to miners, along with a substantial capital sum if they were prepared to try and make a go of it themselves...offering the worst mines to miners along with a dowry, would have presentational advantages.”
Redwood (21 September): “Encourage NCB to extend its threat of dismissal to all those not only convicted of criminal damage against Coal Board property, but also those convicted of serious offences against persons on picket lines or NCB property.”
Redwood (3 October): “It is vitally important the NCB should sack any miner convicted of violence against fellow NCB employees or property.”
Peter Warry (26 October): “We need to regain and retain the initiative...following the NACODS settlement...eliminate the idea that further NCB concessions are just around the corner...place more cards in our hand by upping the stakes...withdraw assurances of no job losses for those that do not return.”
Warry (9 November): “The screw needs to be gradually tightened...start talking about the possibility of withdrawing capital investment promises in non-working areas.”
Warry (13 November): “The lengthy strike is causing inexorable geological destruction on faces and whole pits...must at some stage make it impossible for the NCB to continue to guarantee that no striker will ever face compulsory redundancy.”
In her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher paid tribute to Redwood and Warry ; Redwood became the “extremely effective” head of her policy unit in 1983.
Illustrations: Time, 24.12.1984; Daily Express, 15.5.1984; Socialist Worker, 10.3.1984; Sun, 14.6.1984; Daily Mail, 4.4.1984; News Line, 29.5.1984