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.
Were Scottish chief constables prepared “to go as far as their English counterparts to prevent pickets from going to the scene of possible disturbances?”
Her concern was that Scottish police forces were failing to restrain militant strikers who were preventing other men from reporting for work. She feared a repeat of the 1972 miners’ strike when flying pickets led by Arthur Scargill succeeded in closing the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham.
Scotland’s eight pits were regarded by the government as being “notoriously militant”, yet there were doubts in Downing Street as to whether the police response had matched the action being taken south of the border.
What had happened in England and Wales – as the cabinet papers revealed – was that in the second week of the strike Mrs Thatcher told the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor on 14 March1984 that action was being taken to “stiffen the resolve” of chief constables to ensure the police “fulfilled their duty to uphold the law” and end the intimidation.
Within days of the Prime Minister’s intervention police motorway patrols started to stop pickets from travelling to working pits in Nottinghamshire and other Midlands coalfields where coal was still being produced.
Mrs Thatcher’s impatience with the response in Scotland surfaced at a meeting of ministers in Downing Street on 8 May 1984 when she asked the Secretary of State for Scotland to establish whether Scottish chief constables were willing to “take action similar to that taken in England to prevent pickets from going to the scene of possible disturbances”.
Her intervention had the desired effect: ministers were told on 21 June 1984 that 30 men had reported for duty at Bilston Glen, the biggest pit in Scotland.
“If production was resumed and maintained at Bilston Glen colliery it would have psychological significance out of all proportion to the amount of coal produced...it would be the first pit in the notoriously militant Scottish coalfield to return to work.
“There were good prospects of this happening...It was likely there would be serious intimidation of those who showed themselves willing to return to work.
“The chief constable of the area was fully aware of the need to take every precaution against this.”
In another report, ministers were told that 1,300 officers from the Strathclyde force had been deployed at the Ravenscraig steelworks and Hunterston coal and ore terminal.
Between 14 March and 17 May, there had been 514 arrests and action had been taken to “stop busloads of miners travelling to the scene of the picketing”.
The significance of Mrs Thatcher’s interventions in the Scottish policing of the strike was the basis of a presentation at the launch in Edinburgh (10.9.2019) of a new edition of Shafted: The Media, the Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath.
During a discussion that followed, Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament and former chair of the Labour Party in Scotland, who led the campaign for a review into the policing of the strike in Scotland, told the meeting that John Scott QC would be publishing his findings within a matter of weeks.
He said Mrs Thatcher’s papers had confirmed that policing of the strike was controlled in Downing Street and it was inconceivable that this only happened in England and Wales and must therefore have been the case in Scotland as well.
Mr Findlay believed the need for a review in Scotland was self-evident: the largest mass arrest of over 300 men was at Ravenscraig, far more than at the “Battle of Orgreave”, and 30 per cent of all miners sacked by the NCB after police prosecutions were from the Scottish coalfield.
“We now have a centralised police force in Scotland, with only one chief constable, and we have to think through how events would play out today with a centralised Scottish police force.”
Other speakers at the launch of Shafted were the editor, Granville Williams, and Morag Livingstone, who contributed a chapter, “When the long arm of the law overreaches.”
Ms Livingstone is a film make and author and her latest film, Belonging: The Truth Behind the Headlines explores three pivotal industrial disputes, Rupert Murdoch’s move of The Times and Sun to Wapping; the privatisation of the Royal Mail; and the dispute at Grangemouth oil refinery.
Illustrations: Morning Star, 4.5.1984; Daily Mail, 3.5.1984; Morning Star 30.5.1984; Daily Mail, 26.5.1984