Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Nicholas Jones at Hatfield pit, near Doncaster, which ceased production in July and is currently being dismantled and its shafts sealed.“If only”…if only there had been a deal in the 1980s the coal industry might have survived, says Nicholas Jones, who was a BBC labour and industrial correspondent during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

I returned to Yorkshire for BBC Newsnight to report on the industry’s final demise, and to visit the UK’s very last deep mine that is still producing coal, but only for another few weeks.

Deep mining of coal will cease by the end of the year when the Kellingley pit near Castleford closes in early December.

As I stood in the yard, looking across as coal poured from the pit shaft conveyor, I was almost lost for words, sensing that an historic moment was only weeks away.

“I can hardly believe it…” were my opening words as I described the imminent demise of the Big K, the Yorkshire super pit that once employed 3,000 men, and was the biggest deep mine in Europe.

Margaret Thatcher’s 1985 cabinet papers about the 1984-85 miners’ strike were a revelation for Nicholas Jones, as he explained when giving the annual lecture at the commemoration meeting to mark the death of two Yorkshire miners killed while on picket duty.

After a wreath laying ceremony, Jones told the gathering at the Barnsley headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers that he had been misled and that an award winning programme was based on inaccurate information.

Jones, who was named the 1986 Industrial Journalist of the Year, asserted in his BBC Radio 4 programme Codename Tuscany that it was confidential advice from European banks that allowed the courts to seize the miners’ missing millions.

But Mrs Thatcher’s papers have revealed that in fact it was tip-offs from the Security Service MI5 – based on telephone taps and surveillance – that enabled the sequestrators Price Waterhouse to take control of £8.7 million deposited in banks in Luxembourg, Zurich and Dublin without the NUM’s knowledge.

Jones said his experience in being misled during the strike – as had also happened over denials of a secret hit list for pit closures – had made him all the more determined to unlock the secrets of the strike.

David Hart, a shadowy financier who secretly helped the working miners to start crippling legal action against the National Union of Mineworkers, had almost unlimited access to Margaret Thatcher during the 1984-5 pit strike. 

But in the final month of the dispute the Prime Minister was advised to sever her contacts with Hart because news of his role was leaking out and on the point of becoming an embarrassment to the government.

Behind the scenes Hart was passing on instructions to the National Coal Board’s chairman Ian MacGregor and this had angered the Secretary of State for Energy, Peter Walker, who complained to Mrs Thatcher.

Walker’s disagreements with MacGregor over his management of the way the Coal Board was dealing with the strike became increasingly acrimonious after acceleration in the return to work.

At one point the Energy Secretary wrote to Mrs Thatcher accusing MacGregor of being “dishonest” in his pursuit of a vendetta against NACODS, the union for pit safety supervisors.

But it was the Prime Minister’s encouragement for the secret activities of the working miners’ shadowy Mr Fixit that prompted Walker’s first complaint.

So many telephones were being tapped during the 1984-5 miners’ strike that the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong became so alarmed that he took immediate steps to ensure that no mention was ever made of the extent of the eavesdropping.

Margaret Thatcher’s success in hushing up the bugging of phones by the Security Service MI5 is finally revealed in her 1985 cabinet papers released by the National Archives.

Action to prevent public disclosure of the role of intelligence officers was personally approved by the Prime Minister. 

At one stage government-appointed lawyers were on the point of being advised to be prepared to withdraw legal action over the hunt for the miners’ money if awkward questions were asked in court.

Armstrong’s intervention in February 1985 to ensure a cover-up over the role of the Security Service in the pit dispute was highly significant given the events that were about to unfold.

Later that same year, in a Channel 4 documentary, the former MI5 intelligence officer Cathy Massiter blew the whistle. She revealed there had been illegal bugging of the telephones of political and human rights campaigners during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Throughout the year-long pit strike Arthur Scargill and other leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers always believed their phone calls were being intercepted and their movements closely monitored.

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.”