Socialist Worker

Released 1981 documents reveal Tory panic over strikes and riots

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2283

'Deeply worried' by strikes and riots – Thatcher lied over Irish hunger strikes – The secret war in Afghanistan – Arms to Egypt

Deeply worried

In the face of riots and strikes the Tory government was nervous, divided and demoralised – in 1981.

That’s what government documents released by the national archives reveal about Margaret Thatcher’s first Tory government.

The standard version of the period is that Thatcher toughed out the weakness of the cabinet to push through her agenda of attacks on ordinary people.

There is some truth in this. Yet the newly released papers show that governments aren’t as confident in private as they can appear in public and that resistance, and the fear of it, can stop them.

On 8 July Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s spin doctor, told her, “The consensus can be summarised in two words: ‘Deeply worried’.”

Ingham worried about “the certainty of much worse unemployment figures, and very much worse youth unemployment”. Stagnant growth and public sector strikes aggravated his fears.

Ingham even feared that “what the Royal Wedding will bring to unrelieved gloom will be reduced by industrial action and the national atmosphere soured.”

The twin issues of riots and the threat of public sector strikes shook the government.

John Hoskyns, head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, wrote to chancellor Geoffrey Howe on 9 July telling him: “We should try – implicitly and subtly, not very obviously – to link in people’s minds the moral similarity between high pay claims demanded with menaces and other forms of anti-social behaviour, including rioting and looting.”

The cabinet constantly discussed detailed accounts of pay claims, which industrial disputes were settled and which were heading to strikes.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) threatened to strike. Thatcher capitulated.

One secret document on the NUM includes an analysis of the key figures in the union. It includes then president Joe Gormley and the man identified as his most likely successor, Arthur Scargill.

The document notes that the NUM does not have “a well planned subversive strategy”. But it adds that the lack of such a plan “gives no ground for comfort” as “Scargill will look for opportunities to confront the government”.

Thatcher spent the next three years preparing to take the miners on: Her government stockpiled coal, devised schemes to smuggle strategic chemicals into power stations, and infiltrated MI5 spies into the miners’ union.

The Tories also started the process of introducing anti-trade union laws.

A newly released file includes a green paper on trade union legislation reform and the ministerial responses to it.

The comments from various ministers lay out their enthusiasm for attacking closed shops [automatic union membership] and secondary solidarity industrial action.

They also wanted to force unions to hold secret ballots and intervene in union constitutions.

The urban uprisings that spread across Britain that year confused and shocked the government too.

Most of its response involved throwing money and equipment at the police and talking tough.

For instance, when Thatcher met people in Liverpool she was shocked at their hostility to the police. The Archbishop of Liverpool raised concerns over police racism with her. She replied that she was not concerned “about the colour of people’s skins” and condemned the rioters as criminals.

Minutes from a cabinet meeting on 9 July 1981 recorded a discussion of the underlying causes of the disturbances. They said, “attention was drawn to the number of young people, many West Indians, who felt no loyalty to society and resorted to crime.”

Ministers bemoaned how many had taken advantage of the riots to go on looting sprees. The minutes read, “The riots and their aftermath had revealed an alarmingly widespread lack of moral sense.”

They add, “Much responsibility also lay with the parents who failed to exercise adequate control over their children.”

The rest of the blame lay with television. “The generation of young people now growing up were habituated to watching television for many hours every day, and there was good reason to fear that television had undermined the traditional disciplines of family life” the memo read.

Michael Heseltine, the environment secretary, wrote a document “It took a Riot” and lobbied for money to be spent in Liverpool following the Toxteth riots.

Chancellor Geoffrey Howe opposed him, saying, “It would be regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.”

With patrician contempt he added, “I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline…is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our resources in making water flow uphill.”

Cabinet minutes report that police were to be provided with new helmets, fire-proofed clothing and protected vehicles. The cabinet also made available armoured cars, water cannons, CS gas and rubber bullets. Police said they didn’t need them – but agreed not to say this in public.

The secretary of state for defence, John Nott, agreed to make army camps in Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire and Shropshire available to hold prisoners.

The minutes note, “It might have been necessary in any event to use such camps because of the extreme pressures on the prison system. But he thought it good tactics to make the decision known in the context of the riots.”

Thatcher lied over Irish hunger strikes

Irish Republican prisoners went on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. They were incarcerated for resisting both British rule and discrimination against Catholics.

Their hunger strike was in protest at the conditions they faced in jail.

After 66 days Bobby Sands was the first of ten hunger strikers the British government allowed to die.

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher denounced Sands as a “criminal” and “terrorist” on the day of his death.

In public, she insisted she would not bow to the demands of republican prisoners for political status.

But Thatcher’s secret attempts to end the IRA hunger strikes are revealed in official documents.

The government sent messages to the IRA leadership through a secret intermediary promising concessions if the hunger strikes were called off.

By the beginning of July, the pressure on the prime minister was intense.

Four hunger strikers had died, and before his death Bobby Sands had been elected as an MP in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.

Thatcher authorised a message to be sent setting out the concessions her government would make if the strikes ended.

The Tories, and Thatcher in particular, consistently claimed that the government would not negotiate with “terrorists”.

Yet Thatcher clearly took a close interest in the process. The draft messages in the files includes a series of detailed amendments, in her handwriting.

The hunger strikes carried on for another three months, during which five more prisoners died.

The files show just how anxious ministers were to try to end the hunger strikes, discussing British withdrawal as they faced “an erosion of international confidence in British policy.”

They agreed there was “a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal” among the public, but ministers believed that “civil war and massive bloodshed” were likely to be the outcome.

Predictably they also discussed intravenously force feeding the hunger strikers but the files record, “If intravenous feeding led to all the protesting prisoners coming out on hunger strike the authorities would be faced with the enormous task of sustaining them by such methods indefinitely.”

The secret war in Afghanistan

Newly revealed documents detail Britain and America’s involvement in Afghanistan following the Russian invasion of 1979.

Foreign Office documents are censored and pages have been removed.

But a top secret memo headed “Publicity for the resistance in Afghanistan” from the foreign secretary’s private secretary in September 1980 reveals the government’s involvement.

It wrote of training and equipping 26 cameramen to be sent into Afghanistan to “take films of Russian atrocities and military activities.”

The first batch of film was handed to the BBC. The clips were also syndicated “indirectly” through a company called Visnews and appeared around the world.

Ahmed Gailani, a royalist member of the Mujahideen who headed a group called the national Islamic Front of Afghanistan, visited Britain in August 1980.

A letter from Lord Carrington to the Cabinet’s Overseas Defence Committee said he had asked for anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons and ammunition for small arms.

Britain did eventually become involved in secretly supplying limpet mines, Blowpipe anti-aircraft weapons and other equipment.

Arms to Egypt

Officials briefed Margaret Thatcher that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was “the coming man” but “no intellectual” before he made a visit to England and emphasised the potential for arms sales.

Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary, wrote to Thatcher pointing out that Mubarak had “on a number of occasions expressed a wish to visit the Farnborough Air Show…and retains considerable interest in Egyptian arms purchases.”

“His affable exterior evidently conceals a degree of ruthlessness since it seems likely that he has conducted some successful political infighting to maintain his position.

“Nevertheless his reputation is free of any taint of corruption or malpractice and he is not thought to have made many enemies.”

The officials were pleased to note that, “Despite his long previous association with the Russians he … appeared eager to improve relations with the Royal Air Force and to buy British equipment,” the briefing said.

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Fri 30 Dec 2011, 15:00 GMT
Issue No. 2283
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