Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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.”

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.

January 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. A new book, FOI 10 years on: freedom fighting or lazy journalism (Abramis) is due to be published in February 2015).Nicholas Jones explores the errors of judgements that led to self-inflicted humiliation, and that culminated, after four years’ prevarication, in calamitous repercussions for confidence in the political process.

British politicians have continued to pay a heavy price for the House of Commons’ wilful obstruction of the disclosure required by the Freedom of Information Act.  An explosion of public anger in May 2009 that followed revelations about the way Members of Parliament had abused their expenses, and in some cases even defrauded the taxpayer, was far greater and lasted far longer than would probably have been the case if the Parliamentary authorities had started answering journalists’ inquiries as soon as the Act finally took effect in January 2005. The lesson of the Westminster expenses scandal is that if a managed release of information is rejected, and then subsequently thwarted, journalists will always try to retaliate and that illicitly-acquired data can invariably find a buyer in today’s competitive media market place.