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.”
Sir Walter had been asked to update his prediction for power endurance after Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, wrote to Mrs Thatcher expressing his concern that time was not on the government’s side and that come the autumn of 1984 striking miners would be “fortified in their resolve.”
On the basis of coal deliveries from those pits which were operating, Tebbit calculated endurance extended only until mid-January 1985 yet the government could not risk going “right up to the brink” and possibly losing the dispute.
He suggested a series of steps exert pressure on the miners and other unions: announce the closure of particular mines and consider taking out injunctions against the NUM and the two rail unions, the NUR and ASLEF.
“I have no wish to rock the boat, and believe it is essential that we should continue to present our existing public face. But it is just as important that we should be utterly realistic among ourselves about what is actually going to happen.”
Tebbit had retained only one copy his private letter and asked Mrs Thatcher “to ensure no copies are taken within No 10.”
In his presentation reassuring Mrs Thatcher about the steps he had taken to enhance nuclear and oil generation, Sir Walter explained that some nuclear stations were operating beyond their due dates for overhaul and oil-fired stations were operating beyond their rated capacity. By “elaborate subterfuge” the CEGB hoped to cannibalise a station in a strike-bound area to re-start other oil-fired stations.
It had been an “extremely delicate operation” to get CEGB staff to undertake a number of activities but trade union leaders in the power industry had told Sir Walter privately they feared their moderate leadership would be “totally undermined if the hard left leadership of the NUM were successful.”
Tebbit’s anxieties had been fuelled in part by the success of the government’s news management. Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, had been extremely cautious in his public statements. Throughout the early months of the strike he went no further than insisting coal stocks were sufficient for the rest of the year and that there would be no repeat of the power cuts of earlier miners’ strikes.
Even after the Prime Minister had been promised by the CEGB chairman that endurance was safe until June 1985, she and her Downing Street advisers agreed that “in public nothing would be said beyond the fact that electricity supplies could endure well into 1985.”
But the lack of certainty in what the government was saying had its drawbacks. Robin Butler, Mrs Thatcher’s principal private secretary, advised her in late September that the public were beginning to doubt whether the government had the means to defeat Scargill.
If there was a perception that the NUM president was prevailing, people “will be tempted to offer support, albeit reluctantly...a bandwagon could start to roll.”
While the aim of keeping quiet about measures to prolong the endurance of electricity supplies was to ensure they were not frustrated, “this strategy is vulnerable to adverse comment about endurance which is difficult to disprove without revealing our hand.”
Butler thought the single factor that would most effectively demonstrate the government’s ability to survive a long time was showing that “we can and will use the coal stocks at the strike bound pits. Carrying on as before might involve “greater risks of giving the militants the initiative.”
Peter Walker’s almost daily reports to Mrs Thatcher, the cabinet and the ministerial group handling the strike dealt a length with a series of contingency schemes, including an extension of British Summer Time, a temporarily lifting of the Clean Air Act and possible rationing of coal to ensure sufficient supplies for hospitals and schools.
Five months into the strike Walker’s careful manipulation of news reporting about the security of electricity supplies was on the point of being undermined by an unexpected intervention by Sir Terence Beckett, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.
Walker had launched an “energy efficiency campaign” which was actually a covert attempt to conserve coal stocks. Although advertisements promoting the scheme made no mention of the pit strike, it was hoped it would cut coal consumption by up to ten per cent and strengthen the measures to ensure the endurance of electricity generation.
Against Walker’s advice Sir Terence “overtly connected” the campaign to the strike, telling the chief executives of the main energy users that it could make “a crucial contribution to the outcome of the coal dispute.”
Walker had to admit to Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary Andrew Turnbull that the confidentially which he had hoped for had been breached “unhelpfully” by Sir Terence whose action was “likely to blow the cover for the campaign.”
Walker prided himself on his ability to manipulate the news media. He was adept at briefing trusted newspaper editors and to my personal knowledge had succeeded in securing the withdrawal from national newspapers of stories which had appeared in first editions and which he considered were helpful to the government.
Illustrations: Morning Star, 30.3.1984; Sun, 30.3.1984; Financial Times, 2.5.1984; Sun, 16.4.1984