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.
Divide and Conquer is the apt title of the union’s detailed appraisal of the tactics deployed by Mrs Thatcher to defeat the miners and their communities.
Although the government told the public that the dispute was for the industry to settle, the NUM says her papers exposed “the secret and covert operation that was being executed behind closed doors” by some of the most senior figures in the Conservative Party.
By dividing the union and its members into two separate groups – the “moderates” and the “militants” – the government were able to secure a political victory.
The NUM and its leaders were “consistently branded liars by the government, the NCB and most section of the press and media” but the cabinet office records showed that there were plans as early as September 1983 to close 75 pits and make around 64,000 miners redundant.
Despite assurances that every man who wanted to stay in the industry would be allowed to keep his job, the government and NCB acknowledged there would eventually be a need for compulsory redundancies.
“The cover up of the plans was so effective that ministers were prepared to lie to both Parliament and the country about the circumstances within the industry. Mrs Thatcher went to the extent of authorising a letter from the chairman of the NCB to the homes of every miner, encouraging them, through attrition to return to work.”
The NUM is highly critical of the failure to release some documents relating to the role of the security services and the police which have been withheld by the National Archives.
Cabinet records for 1985 are due to be released before the end of the 2014 but the union deplores the fact that the public do not have full access to information relating to the strike.
“There are some documents relating to ‘intelligence’ that were retained from the released documents, along with evidence of informants within the trade union movement.”
A paper released under Freedom of Information from the files of the former NCB chairman Ian MacGregor suggests one of Mrs Thatcher’s aides, the publicist Tim Bell, had a contact within the TUC, although there was no indication whether this was from within the staff of Congress House or one of the trade union leaders associated with the work of the TUC. The note says:
“Tim Bell called: His informant at the TUC has confirmed what you said, i.e.: 1, They are trying to stop NACODS from settling; 2, They are trying to rewrite the peace formula to accommodate Scargill.”
A well-publicised but unsuccessful attempt was made by the TUC general secretary Norman Willis in October 1984 to persuade the pits deputies’ union NACODS to delay accepting the NCB’s formula for independent pit reviews so as to allow negotiations for a wider agreement taking in the NUM.
But the NUM President Arthur Scargill rejected the formula agreed at the conciliation service ACAS. Willis and other union leaders had been in private discussions with government ministers in an attempt to resolve the strike and the fact this was being relayed to Ian MacGregor is no great surprise.
Nonetheless the NUM’s research has only served to underline the fact that although highly revealing, the cabinet records do not tell the full story of how Mrs Thatcher and her ministers mobilised the full force of the state in their determination to defeat the pit strike.
Divide and Conquer: A forensic analysis of the 1984-5 cabinet papers in relation to the miners’ strike, National Union of Mineworkers.