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.
What I certainly had not realised at the time was that the longer the media went on sustaining stories about the threat of disruption, the more it suited the Thatcher government. Ultimately the dispute became a trial of strength and the longer it lasted the greater the likelihood of striking miners returning to work and the greater impact of the defeat would be on the wider trade union movement.
Key quote from secret working group
For me the key sentence in the 1983 cabinet records was a quote from a member of a secret Whitehall working group, MISC 57, which was established in 1981 after Mrs Thatcher’s one and only retreat in the face of strike action by the National Union of Mineworkers.
She ordered that preparations should be made to counter the challenge identified by John Hoskyns, the head of her policy unit: “that sooner or later the government would have to face, and win, a major national coal strike.”
Step by step this working group made preparations for the battle to come. Land next to power stations was quietly purchased so as to increase space for stockpiles of coal; power stations were converted to dual-firing so they could run on oil if coal supplies were exhausted.
In January 1983, the then Energy Secretary Nigel Lawson, told Mrs Thatcher he thought the National Coal Board was mistaken in thinking a strike could last two months. He was convinced the government needed to prepare for a much longer dispute and the level of preparation had to be increased.
However, by March 1983, John Vereker, who served on the secret working group, was much more optimistic:
“I am happy to report that this morning we for the first time glimpsed on the horizon the prospect of indefinite endurance, albeit at a very considerable cost for converting the main coal fired power stations to dual firing.
“There is some way to go, but it looks as if we can achieve nine months of endurance at very little cost on top of what we have already incurred, and twelve months’ endurance at an additional cost of £70 million by further coal stocking capacity.”
Mrs Thatcher was re-elected in June 1983 and, bolstered by a massive majority of 144 seats, her government had no hesitation in March 1984 in giving the go ahead for the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor to close twenty pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs, the announcement which triggered the twelve month strike.
Possible of use of troops to move coal
One of the options considered but dismissed during the1983 preparations was the possibility of using troops to move coal stocks. A cabinet office note warned that it would be a “formidable undertaking” and could be risky: to move half a million tons of coal per week continuously for twenty weeks would involve 4,000 to 5,000 lorry movements per day between pitheads and power stations.
Although Mrs Thatcher ruled that such contingency planning should continue, and the use of troops remain an option, she accepted that the “law and order problems” from picketing at power stations as well as the pits would be “enormous” and there was a major risk that power station workers would refuse to handle coal transported by troops.
Once the strike started the task of preventing industrial action spreading to the power stations became a major pre-occupation for the Energy Secretary, Peter Walker, and he ordered the Central Electricity Generating Board to impose the utmost secrecy over the precise level of fuel supplies and the output of individual power stations.
As I explained in my own book on the dispute, Strikes and the Media (Basil Blackwell, 1986) Walker’s priority was to avoid any repetition of the debate about coal stocks which had arisen during the 1974 miners’ strike when industry had been put on a three-day week.
He felt that if accurate information was not made public then any assessments or predictions by the NUM or other independent analysts on the length of time coal stocks would last were than likely to be unreliable.
Information blackout to avoid sympathy strikes at power stations
What is increasingly clear now – in the light of the 1983 cabinet records – is that secrecy about the true position was also necessary in order to avoid the possibility of sympathetic industrial action disrupting the build-up in generation at oil-fired and nuclear power stations. The last thing Walker wanted to do was inadvertently put pressure on either workers at power stations or those miners who had abandoned the strike.
Hence the reason why the Thatcher government was keen to play down the success of the electricity industry and allow journalists to speculate freely on the threat of disruption. We were not alone as a succession of city stockbrokers and academics were also warning of the possibility of power cuts.
If I had known on 26 June 1984 what I know now, perhaps I would not have led my reports that day for BBC Radio 4 with Scargill’s claim that he had received leaked information showing that coal stocks were down to only fifteen million tons and that the government and the CEGB were “preparing for presentation to Parliament emergency measures for power cuts on a rota basis as they go into August and September.”
Walker held his counsel until the ninth month of the strike before finally revealing there had had been no likelihood all along of the lights ever going out. In a New Year message issued on 29 December 1984 that he said he could guarantee there would be no power cuts throughout the whole of 1985.
He had been given an assurance by the generating board that fuel stocks were so plentiful the power stations would be able to step up their use of coal and reduce their oil burn.
The aim was to gain maximum propaganda advantage because the government was predicting that another 15,000 miners were expected to abandon the strike during the first few weeks of the New Year; this would mean that half the men would be back at work and Mrs Thatcher could claim that Scargill had lost.
In the event it was not until 3 March 1985 that a special NUM conference voted to end the strike without an agreement and ordered a return to work.
Perhaps the publication of the 1984 cabinet records – in August next year – might again give me pause for thought and another crisis of conscience!
Illustrations: Daily Mirror 4.3.1985; Morning Star 13.4.1984; Sun 30.4. 1984; Daily Mirror 30.4.1984.