Nick Jones

Trade Union Reporting

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”.

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”.

The Thatcher Foundation is attempting to rewrite the history of her role in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and is seeking to refute evidence implicating the former Prime Minister in covering up the true extent of the planned pit closures.

To support its case, the Foundation has challenged the accuracy of my analysis of her 1984 cabinet papers that was broadcast by the BBC and published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

I believed the most important document released by the National Archives in January 2014 was a secret Downing Street document, dated 15 September 1983, which stated that Ian MacGregor “had it in mind over the three years 1983-85 that a further 75 pits would be closed”.

To me this was evidence that Margaret Thatcher misled the country throughout the strike when she and her ministers insisted time and again that MacGregor and the government had only ever considered closing 20 pits.

But the Thatcher Foundation (www.margaretthatcher.org) says the document “established nothing of the kind”: MacGregor did not have a secret hit list of pits for closure and the Prime Minister had not given her approval.

In its analysis of the 1984 cabinet papers, the Foundation has challenged not only my findings but also the conclusions of many other observers, including Labour MPs and the National Union of Mineworkers; they agree with my conclusion that MacGregor’s secret advice in September 1983 that he “had it in mind” to close 75 pits was a highly accurate indication of the restructuring he intended to carry out as chairman of the National Coal Board.

Being asked to apologise for the BBC’s reporting thirty years ago of the 1984-5 pit strike comes as no surprise to the journalists who covered the most divisive industrial dispute of post-war Britain.

To this day miners who took part in the strike accuse the BBC and the rest of the main stream news media of siding with Margaret Thatcher during the year-long struggle in which the South Wales coalfield played a pivotal role.

It was perhaps only to be expected that the bitterness of the National Union of Mineworkers’ defeat at the hands of Mrs Thatcher should resurface during my lecture hosted by Cardiff University (18.11.2014), as it has during other talks I have given in the once mighty coalfields.

Former miners and their supporters from the wider trade union movement accuse journalists of failing to report the true extent of what they contend was police brutality on the picket line and for doing too little to highlight family hardship and for not recognising that the pit villages were in a fight to the finish to maintain the mining communities.

I have already acknowledged my own soul searching: in the final months of the strike broadcasters did become what I call the cheer leaders for the return to work.

After analysing the contradictions and cover-ups exposed in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers about the 1984-5 pit dispute, the National Union of Mineworkers has called for “a full, transparent and open debate” about her government’s tactics during the strike.

 While secret information about the role of the police and security services continues to be withheld from public scrutiny, the union says the men and families affected by the strike will never be able to secure the full truth about the extent of the government’s involvement.

But the consequences of the action taken by Mrs Thatcher and her ministers were undeniable and the time had come for an explanation as to why her government saw fit to “sustain a vicious and brutal attack on hundreds of thousands of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens”.  

Eye-witness statements from strikers, police reports and parliamentary answers have been used with great effect to give added insight to the revelations contained in the cabinet office records.

When pieced together, along with data collected under Freedom of Information and from documents held by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the NUM has produced a compelling account of secret measures taken by both the government and the National Coal Board during the year-long stoppage.

Of the recent run of films and plays scripted around the 1984-5 miners’ strike so far only Pride – and its celebration of the role of lesbians and gays – has succeeded in illustrating what might have been achieved if violence and intimidation had been scaled back in favour of seeking support from the wider community.

If the crossover demonstrated by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners had been replicated with direct help and action from a multitude of pressure groups, Margaret Thatcher might well have been forced to give far greater assistance to the coalfield communities and their hard-pressed collieries.

Sir Tim Bell, her favourite propagandist during the pit dispute, said the Prime Minister had wanted to see the strikers “drag themselves back to work, their tails behind their legs”.

Just like lesbians and gays, the miners were traduced by the national press. In Mrs Thatcher’s opinion the strikers were the “enemy within”. The strike breakers were the heroes and although perhaps not intended, radio and television became a cheer leader as the Conservatives as they condemned the militancy of the strikers for undermining the rule of law.

Many of the events taking place in coalfields around the country to mark the 1984-5 pit dispute are celebrating the outcome of the strike as an unprecedented achievement for the mineworkers: their victory was to have held out for as long as year against Margaret Thatcher’s government and the full force of the state.

Wonderland, Beth Steel’s new play about the miners’ eventual defeat and return to work, is a faithful portrayal of their struggle and will be a source of great pride and encouragement to activists who are determined to seek justice for the mining communities.

From the moment the play opens (at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 July 2014) the audience sense the physical challenge, heat and even brutality of life underground.  The set is dominated by a pit cage; constant crashing and banging along the carriageway to the coalface add to the reality.

The contrast could not be greater when events switch to London and the offices of Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board, and David Hart, the rich, shadowy adviser to Mrs Thatcher.

Beth Steel’s inspiration was that she came from a mining family.  Her father worked as a miner for thirty-five years and she draws on a deep understanding of the family conflicts that arose among men of the Midlands pits as they struggled to come to terms with the strike and then endure months of hardship.

Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers for the 1984-5 miners’ strike have raised as many questions as answers – not least about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police – but once again a missing voice has been that of Arthur Scargill.

Perhaps his absence from the debate provoked by publication of secret government papers was only to be expected given that the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers remains mired in a complex series of financial disputes between himself and the current leadership of the NUM.

In recent years Scargill has refused repeated requests to give radio or television interviews reflecting on his role in the year-long strike and his union’s defeat by the Thatcher government.

His close ally, Ken Capstick, the former editor of The Miner, said Scargill had refused “on principle” to give interviews; they would simply be used to “attack Scargill’s leadership” whereas the cabinet papers had proved yet again the truth of the NUM’s claim that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor intended to close 70 pits and butcher the coal industry.

Capstick’s messages on Twitter give an indication of Scargill’s reasoning for refusing to engage with the news media:

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.

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.