Nick Jones

A secret Downing Street report into the aftermath of the 1984-5 miners’ strike says that Margaret Thatcher would have been beaten by Arthur Scargill if she had not intervened personally in the first week of the dispute to establish what amounted to a national police force.

The decisive moment was her instruction to the Home Secretary that chief constables had to stiffen their resolve to stop the movement of flying pickets in order to keep the pits open for working miners.

“If that first battle had been lost, the rest would have been academic” says a review into the lessons of the year-long strike that was written in May 1985 and has been released by the National Archives as part of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet papers for 1985-6.

The report set out the steps being taken to rebuild coal stocks at the power stations to prepare for the possibility of another strike in 1986-7.  Mrs Thatcher wrote in the margin of an early draft that it was “too insipid, too little insight”.

But the report does acknowledge how close her “government came to disaster” because ministers had under-estimated the length of time that the miners could be kept out on strike “even on limited supplementary benefit, by a combination of union solidarity and intimidation”.

 

What the review illustrates so clearly is that despite the propaganda about the government’s ability to withstand the loss of coal production and keep the lights on, there was in fact continuous unease among Mrs Thatcher’s ministers about the outcome of the strike.

In a note accompanying the report, marked “secret and personal”, the Prime Minister’s private secretary Andrew Turnbull reminded Mrs Thatcher that the government’s fortunes fluctuated as the strike progressed.

There were several low points: the wait for the result of the Nottinghamshire miners’ ballot; the first and second dock strikes; the moments when it appeared the National Coal Board had conceded “too much” to the National Union of Mineworkers; and the vote for strike action by NACODS, the union for pit safety supervisors.

The Downing Street line that the government had “gradually overpowered” the strikers was misleading: “The outcome did not become inevitable until the return to work picked up again in the New Year.”

But the key moment initially was a week into the strike, on 14 March 1984, when the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor told Mrs Thatcher that miners who wanted to get to work in the Nottinghamshire pits were being prevented by “violent picketing”.

Mrs Thatcher immediately “galvanised” the Home Secretary Leon Brittan who in turn “galvanised” the police into keeping the entrances to pits open through the activation of a co-ordinated response across the English and Welsh coalfields by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Mrs Thatcher faced a public order problem “unparalleled in modern times” in its scale and duration and her intervention led to “large-scale movements of police, the wide use of police powers to prevent and deal with criminal offences and breaches of the peace and, on occasion, the deployment of police horses and of officers in riot gear”.

ACPO’s co-ordination proved sufficiently flexible to make possible what was, “all in all, a highly effective police response”.

For much of the strike over 7,000 police officers from other forces, including London and Greater Manchester, were being deployed in “mutual aid” in coalfields such as Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire; in the first week 3,000 officers from other forces were in Nottinghamshire alone.

But despite the unprecedented mass picketing at sites such as Orgreave, the report says the police were able to cope without the resort to CS gas.

“Defensive equipment such as shields and helmets proved of great importance, and so did the use of police horses.

“It is unlikely that any other police force in Europe would have been able to cope with such disorders without resort to more aggressive methods, the use of which would have undoubtedly inflamed the situation further.”

Police reinforcements were accommodated in Army and RAF establishments and the report acknowledges that ministers were challenged by MPs about service involvement.

“Widespread media and political interest was aroused by suggestions that servicemen, dressed in police uniforms, were assisting on picket line duties. It appeared that many of these suggestions, all of which were unfounded, had been put about for mischievous purposes by NUM members and their supporters.”

Nonetheless the further evidence of the extent of Mrs Thatcher’s reliance on the police will strengthen the continuing demand for a full inquiry into police conduct at Orgreave and other violent confrontations.

It was the revelation in the 1984 cabinet papers that it was her instruction to “stiffen the resolve” of chief constables that led the police to start stopping vehicles on motorways carrying pickets, that prompted the former deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester, John Stalker, to accuse Mrs Thatcher of taking Britain to the brink of becoming a police state.

Statistics in the report underline the extent and effectiveness of the police response in England and Wales: a total of 1,385,865 police officer man days were devoted to mutual aid in the coalfields; 1,390 police officers were injured.

9,808 people were arrested and 10,372 charges were brought; of the 5,656 people tried by 5 March, 1985, 1,503 were acquitted, 160 sentenced to immediate imprisonment (the longest sentence being 5 years), 37 to detention centre and 4 to youth custody; 2,560 fines were imposed.

In Scotland 112 police officers were injured; 1.504 people were arrested of whom 1,046 had been proceeded against by mid-March 1985 and 603 had been convicted.  

The report says the cost of policing the dispute was over £200 million in England and Wales and nearly £5 million in Scotland.  

Illustrations:  The Guardian 19 March 1984; Daily Mail, 30 May 1984; Morning Star, 30 May 1984; Sun 10 October, 1984