3 Jan 2014

Thatcher vs the miners: official papers confirm the strikers’ worst suspicions

Amid the cooled air of a vault at the National Archive I trace my finger across Maggie Thatcher’s handwriting, in the margin of a typewritten note marked Secret.

She’s scribbled: “13 RoRo, 1,000 tons a day, 50 lorries a day…”

If you think destroying some of Britain’s most cohesive communities was a great achievement, then these jottings are a token of genius. They reveal Mrs Thatcher engaged in battle micro-management worthy of a Monty or Wellington.

The documents show the Conservative government was, in the middle of the miners’ strike, facing defeat.

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Coal stocks were plummeting and – alongside the miners – the dockers had gone out on strike. So in July 1984, cabinet documents released today show, the government seriously considered calling in troops to move coal.

They thought, as Conservative policy chief John Redwood put it, the National Coal Board (NCB) was “crumbling”. In a powerfully worded, single-copy letter, Redwood warned Thatcher that the far left was engaged in a revolutionary strategy to “destroy” the government.

The cabinet had, the minutes show, from the very beginning, pressured police to get tough on the pickets, and complained that local courts were dragging their feet in the processing of those arrested.

So what’s new?

The miners strike is today depicted as one of those “inevitable” events that history is littered with: a doomed workforce staging a last ditch battle in the face of progress.

If you were there – I was – it was more complicated.

At the time the government depicted the conflict as one between miners and the National Coal Board, with the state neutral, simply enforcing the law.

“Violence will not succeed for the police and courts will not bow to it. They are the servants not of government but of the law itself,” Mrs Thatcher said in her Mansion House speech that year.

The documents reveal this was a fiction.

During the first few days of the strike, on 14 March 1984, ministers pressed Home Secretary Leon Brittan to get chief constables to adopt a “more vigorous interpretation of their duties”. A clampdown followed that prevented pickets reaching the working coalfields of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire in large numbers.

Miner's Strike

The miners at the time claimed the policing was politicised. The records show it was.

Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, was criticised afterwards for beginning a conflict he could never win. So the revelation that he was on the point of winning – or at least achieving a messy compromise – in July 1984 is an important addition to the record.

With the dockers on strike, and the NCB “crumbling”, it took Mr Redwood’s intervention to stiffen the cabinet’s position.

As Mr Redwood put it: you can’t offer a fudged ending by negotiations and at the same time pursue a strategy of defeating the miners through a “war of attrition”.

The Redwood memo frames the dispute in a whole new way: he says the extreme left is mounting an extra-parliamentary challenge, with a “revolutionary strategy”. I asked Mr Redwood whether this language was justified in secret, official advice from the Downing Street policy unit. He said:

“I think that language captured how the government felt about it at the time. It was certainly what the prime minister herself believed. And in some of the other documentation I demonstrated there were groups involved in the miners’ strike who had a wider political purpose.

“Of course quite a lot of them decent mineworkers very worried about their jobs, and I understand that but there was another element in this strike as well.”

Everybody knew the stakes were political — miners had effectively brought down Ted Heath’s government ten years before, and union militancy had crippled the Callaghan Labour government in its last months.

The use of troops to move essential goods was seriously considered, as was the declaration of a state of emergency – and changing the law to enable this. That would have seriously escalated the conflict.

As they mulled what to do the cabinet was shown an opinion poll, which had been done in secret. There is no evidence as to who had commissioned the poll.

It asked not whether troops should move “essential goods”, but whether they should be deployed “to see the coal moved” to steelworks and power stations. Though the poll showed majority support for the government’s line, it was strongly – 71% – against the use of troops.

Mr Redwood told me: “I was very much against using the army. I was trying to calm things down – I said it’s not that extreme.”

In the end, the dockers were persuaded to call off their strike. Mrs Thatcher’s annotation of the documents shows her considering a payment of £35,000 per man for those who would take redundancy. This is the point at which she is enumerating RoRo ferry and lorry numbers, and tonnages, scribbling the names of “moderates” in the transport union who would presumably be contacted to cool things down.

None of those I’ve spoken to who were involved in the strike are surprised at the revelations. It is what they suspected, in the face of denials at the time.

Mike Simons, a film-maker working on an oral history of the strike, entitled (Still) The Enemy Within, says:

“None of it surprises me. Anyone in the government’s position would do exactly the same. What surprises me is that they wrote it down so clearly and I think future governments probably won’t write down what they’re doing in such a clear manner.”

Paul Symonds, a miner at Frickley Colliery during the strike, says:

“One lesson is this: they were much better organised than we were. Don’t trust them is the lesson. Don’t trust anything that they say.”

It’s an attitude towards government that is common now, but was not common then.

The strike was a turning point in post-war British politics. It divided not only the labour movement and the mining communities, but the Conservative party as well.

Much of the story has come out in memoirs. But the truth on paper still has the power to shock.

The sight of a British prime minister calculating ferry numbers, lorry numbers and tonnages to defeat a strike will certainly surprise anybody who took at face value her claim to be simply a bystander.

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