Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Of the recent run of films and plays scripted around the 1984-5 miners’ strike so far only Pride – and its celebration of the role of lesbians and gays – has succeeded in illustrating what might have been achieved if violence and intimidation had been scaled back in favour of seeking support from the wider community.

If the crossover demonstrated by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners had been replicated with direct help and action from a multitude of pressure groups, Margaret Thatcher might well have been forced to give far greater assistance to the coalfield communities and their hard-pressed collieries.

Sir Tim Bell, her favourite propagandist during the pit dispute, said the Prime Minister had wanted to see the strikers “drag themselves back to work, their tails behind their legs”.

Just like lesbians and gays, the miners were traduced by the national press. In Mrs Thatcher’s opinion the strikers were the “enemy within”. The strike breakers were the heroes and although perhaps not intended, radio and television became a cheer leader as the Conservatives as they condemned the militancy of the strikers for undermining the rule of law.

Many of the events taking place in coalfields around the country to mark the 1984-5 pit dispute are celebrating the outcome of the strike as an unprecedented achievement for the mineworkers: their victory was to have held out for as long as year against Margaret Thatcher’s government and the full force of the state.

Wonderland, Beth Steel’s new play about the miners’ eventual defeat and return to work, is a faithful portrayal of their struggle and will be a source of great pride and encouragement to activists who are determined to seek justice for the mining communities.

From the moment the play opens (at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 July 2014) the audience sense the physical challenge, heat and even brutality of life underground.  The set is dominated by a pit cage; constant crashing and banging along the carriageway to the coalface add to the reality.

The contrast could not be greater when events switch to London and the offices of Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board, and David Hart, the rich, shadowy adviser to Mrs Thatcher.

Beth Steel’s inspiration was that she came from a mining family.  Her father worked as a miner for thirty-five years and she draws on a deep understanding of the family conflicts that arose among men of the Midlands pits as they struggled to come to terms with the strike and then endure months of hardship.

Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers for the 1984-5 miners’ strike have raised as many questions as answers – not least about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police – but once again a missing voice has been that of Arthur Scargill.

Perhaps his absence from the debate provoked by publication of secret government papers was only to be expected given that the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers remains mired in a complex series of financial disputes between himself and the current leadership of the NUM.

In recent years Scargill has refused repeated requests to give radio or television interviews reflecting on his role in the year-long strike and his union’s defeat by the Thatcher government.

His close ally, Ken Capstick, the former editor of The Miner, said Scargill had refused “on principle” to give interviews; they would simply be used to “attack Scargill’s leadership” whereas the cabinet papers had proved yet again the truth of the NUM’s claim that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor intended to close 70 pits and butcher the coal industry.

Capstick’s messages on Twitter give an indication of Scargill’s reasoning for refusing to engage with the news media:

Arthur Scargill’s claim throughout the year-long miners’ strike that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor had a secret plan to close 70 pits with the loss of up to 70,000 jobs has been proved correct. 

Cabinet records for 1984 have revealed that within a month of becoming chairman MacGregor was advising the government that he intended to close as many as 75 pits with the loss of 64,000 jobs.

Margaret Thatcher ordered there should be total secrecy about the existence of MacGregor’s personal target for closures. She had been warned by Downing Street officials that under no circumstances should his plans be revealed to the public.

So effective was the subsequent cover-up within Whitehall that MacGregor’s 75-pit closure list was never mentioned again in the cabinet papers nor was it ever referred to during the year-long pit strike.

Because there was no record of MacGregor’s true intentions in government documents which related to the coal board, Mrs Thatcher had no hesitation in authorising an advertising campaign to tell the country that Scargill was lying to his members when he claimed MacGregor wanted to butcher the coal industry and shed 70,000 jobs.

Four months into the year-long miners’ strike, when a potentially disastrous dispute in the docks had opened up a second front against the government, Margaret Thatcher rallied Conservative MPs with her infamous pronouncement that she was ready “to fight the enemy within.”

Her war-like declaration was no slip of the tongue: secret cabinet papers for 1984, released under the thirty-year rule, disclose how she had been fired up to mount a “war of attrition” against Arthur Scargill.

She was convinced the task of defeating the “extreme left” of the British trade union movement was as great as that of regaining the Falkland Islands.

With military precision she secretly ordered the build-up of nuclear and oil-fired generation of electricity to ensure indefinite endurance of power supplies and then bought off sympathy strikes in the docks and on the railways in order to ensure that Scargill was isolated and ultimately defeated.   

Her accusation on 19 July 1984 that striking miners were the “enemy within” mirrored the bellicose language adopted by her closest advisers, who included the former Conservative minister John Redwood, then head of her Downing Street policy unit.