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Category: Trade Union Reporting
Marching to the Fault LineBy Francis Beckett and David HenckeConstable £18.99

Review  by Nicholas Jones

If a campaign ever has to be mounted to safeguard the access which has been established under the Freedom of Information Act, then this book should cited as evidence.  It reveals in the cold print of Whitehall documents the alarming lengths to which Margaret Thatcher went to mobilise the forces of the state against the National Union of Mineworkers in what is now remembered as the Great Strike of 1984-5. Secret memos to the Prime Minister, minutes of cabinet committees, letters from secretaries of state, police statistics and a host of other official records were trawled over by the authors after they succeeded under FOI in gaining release of the documents from the Cabinet Office and the National Archives.

 

 

Journalists who reported the pit dispute, and who have tried in the intervening years to piece together what happened behind the scenes in Downing Street and Whitehall, have always suspected as much. We knew all along that extraordinary measures were taken by the government to thwart the strikers but when so much was done covertly, and when the precise details were kept secret, the chance now to follow the action, step by step, through the words of Thatcher’s advisers, makes a riveting read. Some of the key civil servants of the period, such as Andrew Turnbull (then Thatcher’s private secretary, later Blair’s Cabinet Secretary) were interviewed for the book.  I suspect, reading between the lines, they might well have helped to guide the authors towards the documents which would be worth requesting under FOI and which would be the most revealing.  If my suspicions are correct it is another reason to cherish FOI: when senior civil servants retire they still know where the bodies are buried and can sometimes be persuaded to assist investigative journalists.   What is certainly the case is that the documents which have been released confirm my own conversations with civil servants, police officers and managers of the National Coal Board.  While on the one hand there was considerable unease within the civil service about Thatcher’s conduct and the policing of the dispute, there was equally a shared determination within the government and the forces of law and order to keep the lights burning and to stop the country being paralysed by the strike. Although the Cabinet Office refused an FOI request to give details of the secret cabinet committee which Thatcher established in 1981 -- three years before the strike -- in order to prepare for another possible miners’ dispute, the authors did get access to the extensive and forthright advice given to the Prime Minister by Peter Gregson, the senior civil servant who chaired the committee and who had responsibility for the coal industry.  Among the steps taken in readiness for a strike were the preparation of coal-fired power stations to burn oil, the revival of Scotland Yard’s national reporting centre, plans for mutual aid between police forces and the strengthening of anti-strike laws. In 1984, following the closure of the Cortonwood colliery and the day after the strike went national, Gregson advised Thatcher to ensure the CEGB implemented the plan to increase its oil burn – “net additional cost of maximum oil burn is £20 million a week” -- because the “endurance” for coal stocks “suggested months and weeks, not a year”.  Later there is correspondence about the need to raise electricity tariffs to meet the extra cost but it was decided the position would be reviewed “at the end of the strike”.  An indication of the extent of the covert co-operation between the NCB and Police is given in records obtained under FOI from the National Archives which show that the North Notts Mining Board kept a daily tally of pickets and police. A Home Office document revealed that by May 1984, Nottinghamshire Police were spending an extra £2million a week, including £1.8 million on overtime. In another secret memo written in July 1984, Gregson gives a report on the number of miners going back to work and he warns Thatcher that the NCB must not be seen to be “assisting or encouraging” moves to establish a breakaway union.   Cabinet papers for August 1984 reveal the extent to which the Prime Minister’s press secretary Bernard Ingham was working behind the scenes on media co-ordination. The agreed line on Arthur Scargill was to pose the question: “What more does he want? A blank cheque from the taxpayer?” In responding to Thatcher’s determination to appease the pit deputies’ union NACODS, the NCB was instructed to pay the men even when they were unable to work because of picketing, so long as they had tried to get to work.  During the final flurry of abortive talks, when Thatcher met the TUC, Gregson put forward a “suggested game plan” for the Prime Minister. A series of confidential Treasury estimates dealt with the escalating cost of the strike, finally put at nearly £2.75 billion. But every effort was made to mask the true cost and a secret Treasury minute advises ministers to avoid being drawn on the 1985-6 figures and suggests instead the cost should not be disclosed until “the budget next year or at some other time when it might be drowned out by other news”.     Under the thirty-year rule for releasing cabinet records, secret documents about the strike were not due to have been released until 2014 but thanks to Freedom of Information much of the data is now in the public domain at a time when many of the principal players are still alive and can be questioned about their conduct.END