Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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.”  

Margaret Thatcher must have finally got the measure of Arthur Scargill’s intransigence over pit closures when she read the management’s internal account of the first futile negotiations between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board.

Her 1984 cabinet papers include a heavily underlined account of Scargill’s dramatic standoff with the NCB chairman Ian MacGregor eleven weeks into the year-long pit strike.

After the collapse of the talks, held on 23 May 1984, there was an immediate hardening in the advice being given to Mrs Thatcher; she was informed there was no chance of settlement with “a fanatic like Scargill”.

A week later, after the miners’ president had been arrested for obstruction during the Battle of Orgreave, the Secretary of State for Energy Peter Walker told Thatcher “Scargill was aiming at mob rule.”

 The previous week Scargill had emerged from the NCB’s headquarters to tell waiting reporters the first round of talks over MacGregor’s demand for the closure of 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs had been “a complete fiasco.”

Ed Miliband’s first set-piece speech since the worsening disagreement over trade union financing of the Labour Party – and then the House of Commons’ “no” vote to military action against Syria – is likely to dominate news coverage of the annual TUC conference in Bournemouth.

But while the prospect of Miliband having to fraternise with union leaders like Len McCluskey (Unite) and Paul Kenny (GMB) will command the attention of reporters, photographers and television crews, those journalists with an interest in business and union affairs should not lose sight of looming industrial confrontation in two key public services. 

News media coverage will portray the trade unionists’ annual get together (September 8-11), and Miliband’s speech (at 11.30am on September 10), as a dress rehearsal for what some commentators are predicting will be an even sterner test of his leadership later in the month at the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton.

A focus on party politics rather than employment issues will disappoint officials at Congress House. Nonetheless the TUC conference will be an important rallying point for both the Fire Brigades Union and the Communication Workers  Union which are both gearing up for industrial disputes which will be fought out via a propaganda blitz in the news media and not just on the industrial front line.

Journalists who reported the bitter year-long confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill will find they were well and truly duped if they care to examine newly-published cabinet records for 1983 which finally reveal the true extent of secret preparations for a possible miners’ strike.

Worse still the correspondents will realise that for much of the time during the 1984-5 pit dispute they were doing the government’s bidding by speculating about the impact of falling coal stocks and the threat of power cuts.

What the news media did not know at the time was that as early as March 1983 Mrs Thatcher had been assured that so much progress had been made in secretly  converting coal fired power stations to oil that the Central Electricity Generating Board was almost on the point of guaranteeing “indefinite endurance”.

Those two words – “indefinite endurance” – meant that however long the pit strike lasted the lights would not go out.  Tactically it gave Mrs Thatcher immeasurable strength and helped to explain why her government was only too happy to allow the news media to carry on highlighting Scargill’s dire warnings of disruption to electricity supplies.

Striking miners were not only defeated on the picket line – as a result of unprecedented policing – but also in a highly-effective propaganda war.  Journalists never like to find that their reports were based on a misconception but that was certainly the case in the pit dispute when we reported on falling coal stocks and the potential for power cuts.

Margaret Thatcher’s demolition job on the industrial might of the British trade union movement helped to generate not only an economic revolution but has also contributed to a transformation in the way the news media reports the world of work.

Journalists who covered the big industrial disputes of the Thatcher decade ended up writing themselves out of the script and by the late 1980s financial news from the City of London had increasingly taken the place of reportage about employment issues and union affairs.

Millions of days a year were being lost through strike action during the 1970s – an era of union militancy which culminated in the so called “winter of discontent” of 1978-9 – but by the end of her Premiership stoppages were a fraction of what they had once been.

Slowly but surely the unions’ strike weapon had been emasculated. Strike ballots were required by law; walk-outs were no longer possible on a show of hands in a car park; flying pickets and secondary action had been outlawed; and most importantly of all a union’s assets were at risk if there was “unlawful” action, as the NUM President Arthur Scargill discovered to his cost in the 1984-5 pit dispute.

Scargill, like other union leaders of his era, had grown used under the previous Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan to employers giving way but Mrs Thatcher, backed by a largely supportive national press was able to prove that the disputes of the 1980s would be won or lost not just on the picket line but also on the back of public opinion and much of the media’s coverage was turned against the unions.