Nick Jones

Margaret Thatcher was advised by her infamous press secretary Bernard Ingham that there should be “no gloating” by the Conservative government at the end of the year-long miners’ strike.

Her 1985 cabinet papers reveal she regarded the imminent defeat of Arthur Scargill as providing the “best opportunity” for some years to return the coal industry to profitability.

Her optimism reflected the advice she was being given during the closing weeks of the strike: she had received a dramatic forecast of what could be achieved by the so called “MacGregor miracle”. 

If the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor was encouraged to cut manpower by 50,000 plus by 1990, coal could become highly competitive and be “winning new business from gas and oil”.

“The immediate human costs would be large, but so would the corresponding gains in competitiveness,” was the upbeat assessment of one of her Downing Street advisers.  

By reducing deep-mined production to 70 million tons a year, the “MacGregor miracle” would enable the NCB to deliver coal to inland power stations for “as much as £10 per ton less than imported coal”.

 

Her papers show that within a week of the miners returning to work on 3 March 1985 there was the first confirmation of the savage downsizing that was about to take place in the coal industry.

Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, told Mrs Thatcher that the NCB expected to close 30 to 40 pits over the following eighteen months with 30,000 to 40,000 redundancies.  A note by her private secretary stressed that the management planned to secure “as many voluntary redundancies” as possible; “the brunt of the closures would be in Scotland, Wales and the militant areas of Yorkshire”.   

Cabinet records released by the National Archives indicate that Mrs Thatcher kept a tight grip on events during the countdown to the NCB’s announcement in late February 1985 that 50 per cent of the miners had abandoned the strike – the news that enabled the Prime Minister to claim victory. 

South Wales, which had shown unrivalled solidarity, was one of the coalfields that was determined to avoid a chaotic collapse of the strike and a special conference of the National Union of Miners voted, but only narrowly, in favour of a return to work without an agreement.

Throughout the final weeks of the dispute she insisted there must be “no fudging” and “no betrayal” of the working miners in Nottinghamshire and other coalfields around the country who had defied the strike. 

Her refusal to countenance a negotiated end to the dispute was evident when the TUC leader Norman Willis intervened secretly on behalf of the wider trade union movement. 

He made a desperate, last-minute attempt to get a settlement but Mrs Thatcher told Peter Walker that the TUC’s proposals should be rejected out of hand by the Department of Energy as being “in toto unacceptable”.

For the first six months of the strike the NUM had rejected any involvement by the TUC and the dispute was not discussed at a national level within the union movement until the annual congress in September when delegates voted in support of assisting the strikers.

But by then the return to work was starting to gather pace and the first direct intervention by the TUC was not until October 1984 when a procedure for future pit closures was agreed with NACODS, the union representing the pit deputies responsible for mine safety.

Norman Willis urged the conciliation service ACAS, which had brokered talks between NACODS and the NCB, to delay the deal so as to enable further negotiations with the NUM.

NACODS resisted the delay, accepted the NCB’s promise to allow “third party involvement” in the review procedure for closing loss-making collieries and called off its threat to join the pit strike.  The TUC’s intervention was in vain because any possibility of a compromise had been rejected immediately by Arthur Scargill. At that point Mrs Thatcher ruled out any further talks.

But, as the turn of the year approached, and other trade union leaders sensed the scale of the defeat facing the NUM – which the TUC had always regarded as its “strongest regiment”– Willis tried desperately to see if it was possible to find a way out.

His frantic efforts to hammer out a set of proposals began in early December when what was known as the TUC’s “gang of seven” held a private meeting with Peter Walker and the Secretary of State for Employment, Tom King, and also one official. Such was the secrecy that Walker did not mention the meeting when the Cabinet met the following day and he briefed Mrs Thatcher “in the margins”.

A secret note by her principal private secretary Robin Butler indicated Walker’s pretty bleak opinion of the TUC’s leadership:  “His general impression was that they did not know what to do to get the strike settled”.

In another note the following month Butler told Mrs Thatcher that Willis went to see Walker “very privately today, carrying a piece of paper” which was the basis of a public statement the TUC intended to make about the future of the strike.

Willis hoped the government would not “reject out of hand” a constructive initiative by the TUC which might appeal to the NUM.  In a private discussion that week with Scargill, Willis had told the NUM President that “he must face facts and that the longer the strike now went on the less chance he would have of holding the NUM together”.

But the TUC’s proposals, and its call for a return to work followed by a six-month pause to allow discussions between the NCB and the NUM on the future of the coal industry, were immediately rejected by Mrs Thatcher.

Walker was told he “must not allow himself to be manoeuvred into a position in which he is morally committed to welcoming, or not condemning, an unsatisfactory TUC statement”.

A note on Mrs Thatcher’s conversation with Walker – and a separate note in her own hand writing – left no room for any doubt that she would not allow any agreement with the NUM unless it accepted “in writing” that the NCB took the decisions on the closure of uneconomic pits:

“She felt that that TUC’s proposals were in toto unacceptable and that Willis should be under no illusions as to the government’s attitude towards them.”       

Coinciding with the TUC’s intervention was news of an unexpected peace initiative from within the NUM.  Walker told Mrs Thatcher that Peter Heathfield, the union’s general secretary, and its chief executive Roger Windsor were “secretly and privately – but with Scargill’s knowledge – going to discuss with two NCB officials” a possible agenda for new talks.

But again the Prime Minister stood firm, insisting there was “no purpose” in further negotiations unless Scargill withdrew his opposition to the closure of uneconomic pits.

Mrs Thatcher confidence that a collapse of the strike was in sight was reinforced by the reports she was being given on coal stocks and the Central Electricity Generating Board’s ability to keep the lights on throughout the winter. 

In mid January 1985, the CEGB reported that it had met peak loads on three successive days despite the “present terrible weather” and was confident that even if remained exceptionally cold until mid-April, the power stations would still have “very substantial stocks of coal”.

Illustrations: Daily Mirror 25 January 1985; Daily Mail 25 October 1984; Daily Mail 13 December, 1984;  News Line 6 December 1984