Nick Jones

Trade Union Reporting

A declaration of a state of emergency and possible use of the armed forces were just two of the options considered by the government when dockers stopped work in support of mineworkers during the 1984-5 pit strike. But what gave Margaret Thatcher the greatest personal re-assurance was the elaborate and secret action taken in the generating stations to guarantee uninterrupted power supplies. 

At a Downing Street meeting in late July 1984, Sir Walter Marshall, chairman of the Central Electricity Generation Board, described to the Prime Minister the type of “elaborate subterfuge” which he was confident would ensure that power supplies would be guaranteed for a year at least.

He said a safe date for endurance was June 1985 but the generating board’s target had stretched to November 1985, far in advance of Arthur Scargill’s claim that power cuts would take effect from the early winter months of 1984.

Sir Walter’s confident prediction of what almost amounted to indefinite endurance was based on the success of secret moves to increase electricity output at nuclear stations and to convert to burning oil instead of coal. His projection depended on maintaining output in the Nottinghamshire coalfield and the other pits which were still working; “very little else mattered.”

In her memoirs The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher said Sir Walter’s determination to avoid power cuts “raised my spirits enormously.” She explained the significance of his calculation that June 1985 was a safe date for endurance: “We had reached what was for me a very important moment in the history of the strike, though this was something which very few people knew about at the time.”  

Margaret Thatcher must have finally got the measure of Arthur Scargill’s intransigence over pit closures when she read the management’s internal account of the first futile negotiations between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board.

Her 1984 cabinet papers include a heavily underlined account of Scargill’s dramatic standoff with the NCB chairman Ian MacGregor eleven weeks into the year-long pit strike.

After the collapse of the talks, held on 23 May 1984, there was an immediate hardening in the advice being given to Mrs Thatcher; she was informed there was no chance of settlement with “a fanatic like Scargill”.

A week later, after the miners’ president had been arrested for obstruction during the Battle of Orgreave, the Secretary of State for Energy Peter Walker told Thatcher “Scargill was aiming at mob rule.”

 The previous week Scargill had emerged from the NCB’s headquarters to tell waiting reporters the first round of talks over MacGregor’s demand for the closure of 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs had been “a complete fiasco.”

Ed Miliband’s first set-piece speech since the worsening disagreement over trade union financing of the Labour Party – and then the House of Commons’ “no” vote to military action against Syria – is likely to dominate news coverage of the annual TUC conference in Bournemouth.

But while the prospect of Miliband having to fraternise with union leaders like Len McCluskey (Unite) and Paul Kenny (GMB) will command the attention of reporters, photographers and television crews, those journalists with an interest in business and union affairs should not lose sight of looming industrial confrontation in two key public services. 

News media coverage will portray the trade unionists’ annual get together (September 8-11), and Miliband’s speech (at 11.30am on September 10), as a dress rehearsal for what some commentators are predicting will be an even sterner test of his leadership later in the month at the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton.

A focus on party politics rather than employment issues will disappoint officials at Congress House. Nonetheless the TUC conference will be an important rallying point for both the Fire Brigades Union and the Communication Workers  Union which are both gearing up for industrial disputes which will be fought out via a propaganda blitz in the news media and not just on the industrial front line.

Journalists who reported the bitter year-long confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill will find they were well and truly duped if they care to examine newly-published cabinet records for 1983 which finally reveal the true extent of secret preparations for a possible miners’ strike.

Worse still the correspondents will realise that for much of the time during the 1984-5 pit dispute they were doing the government’s bidding by speculating about the impact of falling coal stocks and the threat of power cuts.

What the news media did not know at the time was that as early as March 1983 Mrs Thatcher had been assured that so much progress had been made in secretly  converting coal fired power stations to oil that the Central Electricity Generating Board was almost on the point of guaranteeing “indefinite endurance”.

Those two words – “indefinite endurance” – meant that however long the pit strike lasted the lights would not go out.  Tactically it gave Mrs Thatcher immeasurable strength and helped to explain why her government was only too happy to allow the news media to carry on highlighting Scargill’s dire warnings of disruption to electricity supplies.

Striking miners were not only defeated on the picket line – as a result of unprecedented policing – but also in a highly-effective propaganda war.  Journalists never like to find that their reports were based on a misconception but that was certainly the case in the pit dispute when we reported on falling coal stocks and the potential for power cuts.

Margaret Thatcher’s demolition job on the industrial might of the British trade union movement helped to generate not only an economic revolution but has also contributed to a transformation in the way the news media reports the world of work.

Journalists who covered the big industrial disputes of the Thatcher decade ended up writing themselves out of the script and by the late 1980s financial news from the City of London had increasingly taken the place of reportage about employment issues and union affairs.

Millions of days a year were being lost through strike action during the 1970s – an era of union militancy which culminated in the so called “winter of discontent” of 1978-9 – but by the end of her Premiership stoppages were a fraction of what they had once been.

Slowly but surely the unions’ strike weapon had been emasculated. Strike ballots were required by law; walk-outs were no longer possible on a show of hands in a car park; flying pickets and secondary action had been outlawed; and most importantly of all a union’s assets were at risk if there was “unlawful” action, as the NUM President Arthur Scargill discovered to his cost in the 1984-5 pit dispute.

Scargill, like other union leaders of his era, had grown used under the previous Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan to employers giving way but Mrs Thatcher, backed by a largely supportive national press was able to prove that the disputes of the 1980s would be won or lost not just on the picket line but also on the back of public opinion and much of the media’s coverage was turned against the unions.

One survivor of the Thatcher decade whose voice was not heard reflecting on the death of the former Prime Minister was that of Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during the fateful pit dispute of 1984-5.

Scargill, now 75, has refused all requests to comment on Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership and his epic struggle with her government. However hard the news media might try, the former NUM President has no intention of assisting journalists to put a post-Thatcher spin on the devastation suffered by the mining communities.

His former wife Anne Scargill had no hesitation in describing how she felt "really, really happy" on hearing the news of Lady Thatcher's death: "She has smashed our communities...she was evil...she has closed our manufacturing industry, she has closed our mines; we are short of fuel, she was intent on smashing the trade uions and she in the end smashed the country."

But from the miners' leader himself there has been no reaction. Comments on his name on Twitter were not found to have been verified and it was left to miners' leaders in the former coalfields to defend the strike.  

The lack of response on Scargill's part is not unusual. In recent years he has rarely answered reporters’ questions and made a point of not talking about either himself or his health; he does appear occasionally in public at miners’ events and has also been engaged in a protracted court case over his continued use of a union owned flat in London’s Barbican.

I could not help but reflect of Scargill’s  absence  as I spent two hours on the BBC’s local radio circuit the morning after her death (9.4.2013), giving interviews to the local radio stations serving the former coalfields of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. The presenters told their listeners Scargill had rejected all requests for interviews and they asked me why.

Personally I was not at all surprised by Scargill’s response. There was no way he was going to be tempted to dance on Lady Thatcher’s grave because he knew he would be forced to try to defend the strike he led, his union’s crushing defeat and the subsequent devastation of the mining communities.

Margaret Thatcher’s decade in power resulted in an economic revolution in the United Kingdom...and also changed the face of the British news media. So successful was she in defeating the trade union movements and in privatising the nationalised industries that a band of reporters who had once ruled the roost ended up writing themselves out of the script. 

The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents? is the title of the book I published in 2011 charting the demise of the journalists who had hogged the headlines for decades but who then disappeared almost without trace from the reportage of daily news.

Their downfall was not simply the result of the dramatic decline in the number of all-out strikes but also the corresponding and spectacular growth of the City of London and the emerging dominance of financial news.

Margaret Thatcher’s step-by-step assault on trade union power and the break-up of loss-making nationalised industries had terrible consequences for Britain’s industrial heartlands: empty factories, mass redundancies and an unemployment rate that topped three million left terrible scars, not least in the mining communities ravaged by pit closures.

Union membership topped twelve million in the final year of the Wilson-Callaghan government but it was the prolonged strike action of the so-called “winter of discontent” in 1978-79 which paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s general election victory.

Perhaps it was always going to be only a matter of time before an online insurgency combined with direct action forced the government to retreat on a key employment issue and in the process comprehensively upstage the trade union movement.

In the face of a hostile campaign which succeeded in alarming and embarrassing major employers of young people such as Tesco, Burger King, Waterstones, TK Maxx and the Arcadia group, the Minister of State for Employment Chris Grayling had no alternative but to execute a swift U-turn.

Campaigning to stop the removal of social security benefits from 16-24 year olds who dropped out of a voluntary work experience scheme was a cause which union leaders should have championed from the start but their pitiful record in recruiting youngsters employed in fast food, retailing and other service sector jobs had left the field wide open to the political activists behind groups like the Right to Work campaign.

By trying so belatedly to climb aboard the civil disobedience band wagon, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain’s largest union Unite, only underlined the dramatic upstaging of the union movement by a host of direct action groups which use the internet, social networking, messaging and the like to put the frighteners on major employers. 

Their online campaigning – for example by accusing Tesco of taking advantage of “slave labour” – was an illustration of the way the front line for industrial action has been transformed by the ability of activists to mobilise support, whether for a Twitter campaign against Tesco or a protest sit-in at McDonald’s in Whitehall.

After fifty years as a reporter and then broadcasters there is no doubt in my mind as to who were my two most intransigent interviewees: the Reverend Ian Paisley and Arthur Scargill. 

In the 1970s, as a correspondent reporting the Northern Ireland Troubles, I frequently interviewed Paisley, especially during the two week strike organised by the Ulster Workers’ Council which brought down the 1974 power-sharing assembly and executive. Paisley had championed the mobilisation of Protestant power station workers to bring Northern Ireland to a halt.

A decade later I faced an equally defiant– but eventually unsuccessful – Arthur Scargill as he led the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1984-5 strike against pit closures.

I could not help thinking of Paisley, lying in the Ulster Hospital being treated for a heart problem, as I listened to Scargill speaking in Birmingham at a rallyto commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Saltley Gates on February 10, 1972.

The Battle of Saltley Gates, outside the Saltley coke depot, was a demonstration of the power of the flying picket, the industrial muscle which Scargill mobilised to a devastating effect and which proved so strong that the then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was forced to concede a 27 per cent pay increase for the mineworkers.  

One of my first assignments with the BBC was reporting the rota power cuts of 1972 and their alarming impact was a foretaste of the disruption that Northern Ireland faced in 1974.

Four decades later Scargill told the rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Saltley demonstration that although he was older he was just as determined, ready and willing to lead a “British spring” to bring down capitalism and create a fairer system of socialism.

Blanket coverage of the withdrawal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was another graphic illustration of the dominant position of financial news in today’s 24/7 media environment.  But for once there was – at least to begin with – a level playing field.

By using a government website to make the declaration that the Honours Forfeiture Committee had made its decision, Downing Street circumvented the anonymous briefings which drive so much of the financial news agenda.

A statement was posted on the Cabinet Office’s website at 5pm (31.1.2012) stating that it would be announced in the London Gazette that the knighthood conferred on Goodwin had been “cancelled and annulled”.  The scale and severity of his actions as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland made it an exceptional case; he had brought the “honours system into disrepute.”

Headlines on the front pages of next day’s national newspapers denounced Goodwin in the lurid terms which have dogged him for the last four years – a level of abuse which has placed “Fred the Shred” on a par with the former mineworkers’ president Arthur Scargill who was turned into a similar hate figure thirty years ago.

From the very moment Goodwin was forced to resign in 2008 after RBS had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, he was subjected to a sustained campaign of press abuse, the kind of blanket character assassination not seen since the 1980s when the trade union leaders who stood out against Margaret Thatcher had their reputations trashed by the tabloids.