Margaret Thatcher’s secret support for strike breakers after pit dispute
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
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.”
But as the weeks went by the wives of working miners contacted Downing Street time and again to complain about the victimisation still being suffered by their husbands, and Mrs Thatcher became increasingly infuriated at the coal board’s failure to protect and support them.
Her instructions to MacGregor, and her criticism of him for ignoring the plight of those who went to back, continued into late August 1985, almost six months after the end of the strike.
The secret documents released by the National Archives underline the strength of her commitment to defend the working miners: in a letter to MacGregor dated 13 June 1985 she declared that her government would never “let down the people whose courage and determination took them through the worst strike in our history”.
Leaders of the Wives’ Back to Work Campaign had a secret meeting with Mrs Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in September 1984 and they subsequently kept in regular contact.
During the final two months of the strike they wrote to her warning that government backing for possible “talks about talks” between the NCB and the NUM was slowing down the return to work.
Mrs Irene MacGibbon and Mrs Jane Fjaelberg both telephoned Downing Street to voice their alarm about a rushed settlement. In her reply to Mrs Pauline Linton, Mrs Thatcher said she understood the wives’ fears that the NUM leadership “might yet evade responsibility for the misery they have caused”.
She had insisted that the NCB must remain resolute. “For my part, I have made clear that there can be no fudging of the central issue and no betrayal of the working miners to whom we owe so much.”
But within a few weeks of the strike ending the wives were again contacting Downing Street, this time to complain about the victimisation of men who defied the strike.
Her principal private secretary Robin Butler reported on a dinner for working miners held at the home of the newspaper columnist Woodrow Wyatt on 31 March 1985.
Butler summed up the plight of the strike breakers: “those who had been loyal to the NCB could no longer take the victimisation...smear campaigns were being run against non-striking branch officials”.
In a letter that week to Mrs Hackett, wife of another working miner, Mrs Thatcher thanked those men who were continuing to withstand “the most extreme threats and intimidation with a courage which is an example to us all”.
She also admired the courage of the wives whose husband had defied the strike. “The miners who stood up for their right to work in the mining dispute were defending a fundamental privilege of a free people. We can be very proud of them.”
The Prime Minister asked for her reply to be sent in a plain envelope and it was signed, “Every good wish, yours sincerely, Margaret Thatcher”.
Her impatience at the NCB’s failure to provide transfers for the strike breakers prompted an angry of exchange of letters with MacGregor. He made it plain that long-term transfers for all those who had returned to work were not possible because the number of vacancies was “very small” compared with the potential demand.
“To arrange transfers of men who feel they are being intimidated in any way would be an admission that such tactics by the hard-core militants were succeeding. The board are determined this will not happen.”
Therefore to make an exception for men such as Mrs Fjaelberg’s husband – one of five working miners at Cwm colliery – would be “quite inappropriate and unfair”, although the NCB would help as far as possible.
After Butler informed the Prime Minister that MacGregor’s inflexible approach was filling him with “misgiving”, she wrote an instruction in the margin: “We had better get MacGregor in next week.”
A note of the subsequent meeting said MacGregor had acknowledged there were some cases which required “special treatment”; the board was in touch with the President of the Working Miners’ Committee, Colin Clarke, who was providing a list of those who needed help.
A week later Downing Street was supplied with a list of 24 young men from Yorkshire who had been threatened with redundancy despite having been “badly harassed and having their lives made impossible because they worked during the strike”.
Woodrow Wyatt sent another list of men aged between 30 and 40 who had been told they too would not be allowed transfers and would have to apply for redundancy if they “weren’t prepared to be victimised for the rest of their lives”.
Wyatt blamed the NUM President for the continuing victimisation: “Scargill is working very hard to organise a disciplined union to fight for revolution not only in the coal industry but in other industries. Our friends who would combat him are being deliberately disillusioned by local coal board management.”
Mrs Thatcher’s response was written in the margin: “Robin, please contact Mr MacGregor immediately”, and the word “immediately” was heavily underlined.
In those instances where her cabinet papers indicated names had been attached, the National Archives has inserted a note to say that the lists had been “closed for 80 years under exemption”.
In another initiative endorsed by the Prime Minister the NCB was encouraged to give transfer strike breakers to the new Selby coalfield where an NUM working miner at the Stillingleet pit, T W Hudson, had secured the return to work of 83 per cent of the men before the strike ended.
Hudson suggested to Mrs Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary Michael Alison, who was Conservative MP for Selby, that up to 750 miners who were being harassed or intimidated could be transferred to the new North Selby pit where the NUM was not yet represented and where the men could establish their own union branch.
“Hudson’s vision is one of turning Selby into a predominantly moderate coalfield, by putting into it as many working miners from the 1984-5 dispute as possible.
“There could well be born a new tradition amongst many miners of looking naturally to the Conservative Party for support and protection, as earlier generations looked to Labour,” said Alison in a note date 10 June 1985.
Within days Mrs Thatcher was told that Hudson’s plan to by-pass the NUM was in operation. Michael Eaton, the NCB’s personnel director, was “quietly arranging transfers to Selby” for the working miners named on Woodrow Wyatt’s lists.
A “circuitous route” for the transfers had been approved by the Energy Minister, David Hunt. “He fears that this might leak out and thinks that it is better to do good by stealth so that the militants do not get the impression that their tactics are working and make life more difficult for others.”
In her follow-up letter of 13 June 1985, Mrs Thatcher told MacGregor that she wanted Eaton, “in whom she had great confidence”, to deal with transfers and that every complaint about a failure to help the men who were still subject to intimidation should be “fully investigated immediately” and that any genuine requests for help would be granted.
But a month later the National Working Miners Committee complained that the transfer arrangements were not working and that the Selby coalfield was “now in the hands of militants”. A Downing Street note dated 10 July 1985 said that intimidation was continuing in the Kent coalfield.
After further prompting by her private office, MacGregor assured the Prime Minister in a letter dated 23 July 1985 that the NCB would not relax its efforts “until peace has been restored” in all the mining communities.
Every complaint of intimidation had been investigated: “Of the 106 ‘hardcore’ cases reported to us, 43 men have been made or are being made redundant by request, 21 have declined an offer of transfer or redundancy and are remaining at their pit, one has left the industry voluntarily, 36 have been transferred or a transfer is being arranged and 5 have yet to be interviewed for a transfer.”
Illustrations: Sun 30 November 1984; Daily Express 25 July 1984; Sun 20 November 1984; Coal News March 1985