Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Margaret Thatcher’s interventions to strengthen police tactics during the 1984-85 miners’ strike have been well documented, but her official papers reveal she put pressure on police forces in Scotland as well as in England and Wales.

Revisiting her cabinet papers is timely given the imminent publication of John Scott’s review into the impact of policing on community relations in the Scottish coalfield.

Scott’s review was established by the Scottish government in June 2018 to re-assess the “unprecedented strain” placed on policing and community relationships and the “extremely challenging situations” faced by individual officers.

My own re-examination of the Thatcher cabinet records underlined yet again how the government’s public stance – that “no instructions” were issued to chief constables during the strike – is contradicted by the content of secret and confidential documents.

Two months into the strike, at the height of picketing in Scotland, and after violent scenes outside the Ravenscraig steel works, the Prime Minister wanted some immediate answers.

“Don’t panic” is the advice to car workers from Len McCluskey, the Unite union general secretary, as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt step up their Brexit No Deal preparations, amid further evidence of the precarious nature of the British automotive industry.

In response to questioning on the Andrew Marr Show (30.6.2019) about warnings that jobs and investment in the car industry could take a 20 per cent hit in the event of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement on October 30, Mr McCluskey insisted six times that there was no need for car workers to panic.

But when Marr pointed to a YouGov opinion poll of trade union members that showed that 65 per cent of Unite members wanted to remain, Mr McCluskey denied that was the case.

While post-Brexit job losses continue to mount in the wake of the accelerating downsizing of the British car industry, the workforce lacks the support of a coherent or cohesive voice speaking up on their behalf.

Motor manufacturing is just one of many industrial sectors where employees are being let down by the failure of the labour and trade union movement to mount a vigorous campaign to safeguard future employment.

Instead of a jointly agreed strategy identifying where jobs are being lost – and then explaining how they might be protected – the largest unions seem to have coalesced around the fallback position of simply rejecting a no deal exit rather than facing head on the impact of Leave or Remain.

Uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union is without doubt the greatest current threat to job prospects in the automotive sector and a wide range of other industries.

The sight of Labour MPs from former mining constituencies expressing a readiness to accept cash for their localities in return for a vote in favour of Brexit is a haunting reminder of how easily the Conservatives bought off miners in the past.

Offers of ever-higher redundancy payments enticed many miners back to work during the 1984-85 pit strike, and finally it was these cash incentives that helped secure Margaret Thatcher the victory she craved.

Almost a decade later, when Michael Heseltine pushed through the massive 1992 pit closure programme, he was convinced the £1 billion he had secured for redundancy pay-offs would again prove irresistible – and he was proved correct.

Once again, we see how the offer of Conservative cash – this time for investment within their constituencies – is again proving all-too tempting.

John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, in Nottinghamshire – a constituency that he says was “devastated pit closures” – is the most vocal supporter of Theresa May’s ploy of offering cash investment opportunities to former mining areas in recognition of Labour MPs voting in favour of her EU withdrawal agreement.

The 31 pit closures announced in October 1992 were a point of no return for the British coalfields, the eventual death knell for deep mining and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

A botched announcement, a Tory party revolt, and an embarrassing U-turn for John Major only months after being re-elected Prime Minister, did bring about a temporary reprieve, but the closures went ahead, ready for a slimmed down British Coal to be privatised.

There was a public outcry that had shocked the Prime Minister: 200,000 people marched through London in protest, and the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was hailed a hero.

Cabinet papers revealed confidential Downing Street memos that contained excoriating criticism of the then President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, for mishandling public sympathy for the miners, and for allowing accusations of a government “betrayal” of men in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, who had stayed loyal to Margaret Thatcher in the 1984-85 pit strike.

After the shock announcement of the closures, and news that a pay-off for the 30,000 redundant miners would cost £1 billion, Major was forced to order an immediate inquiry into energy policy.