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Thatcher planned to send in troops to break miners

Newly released government documents shed light on secret Tory plans to target miners, Northern Ireland and England’s flood defences, writes Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2365

Police attack the Orgreave mass picket during the Miners Strike

Police attack the Orgreave mass picket during the Miners' Strike (Pic: John Sturrock)


Newly declassified documents reveal that Margaret Thatcher considered sending troops to break the miners’ strike.

The government documents, relased by the National Archives under the “30 year rule”, show plans for the armed forces to ferry coal around Britain.

It was among moves proposed by a secret group, codenamed MISC 57, set up to plan for the 1984-85 miners strike.

In February 1981—less than two years into the government—Thatcher had been forced to cave in to miners’ pay demands. 

Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, urged her to take on the miners. He said, “Events have not challenged the post-war impression of their invincibility, for we have yet to beat a national stoppage”.

So the Tories started to buy land next to electricity power stations—which were nearly all coal-fired—so that coal could be stockpiled to keep them running through a strike.

They also began the expensive process of converting stations so they could run on oil if coal supplies ran out.

MISC 57 discussed using troops to move coal stocks, although officials warned that it would be a “formidable undertaking”.

Formidable

In a memorandum dated October 27 1983, PL Gregson at the Cabinet Office noted, “The law and order problems of coping with pickets not just at the power stations but also at the pitheads would be enormous and would arise from the very outset of the strike.

“A major risk might be that power station workers would refuse to handle coal brought in by servicemen.”

The following day a meeting of senior ministers chaired by Thatcher ruled that planning for the use of troops should continue.

One MISC 57 paper used the language of the Cold War. It stated they were in the “business of deterrence” and that, “The miners must believe in our ability to endure for longer than them, because the limiting factor of our actual endurance in practice cannot precisely be foreseen.”

In January 1983 energy secretary Nigel Lawson wrote to Thatcher, “While the Board are currently thinking a national strike would last for two months, I believe it could well be longer. 

“We would certainly need to be prepared for it to be longer.

“If Scargill succeeds in bringing about such a strike we must do everything in our power to defeat him, including ensuring that the strike results in widespread closures.”

John Vereker, a member of Thatcher’s policy unit who also served on MISC 57, said, “ Embarking upon and then losing a strike is the most expensive option of all.”


War on union membership

Thatcher told Ferdinand Mount, then head of her policy unit, that they should “neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership”. 

She also told him that Norman Tebbit was “too timid” in his approach to the miners.

According to newly released Downing Street papers Thatcher told Mount to keep his trade union reform paper confidential. 

Mount referred to the unions as “a politicised mafia”. 

He wrote, “We must see to it our new legal structure discourages trade union membership of the new industries.”

He said that by the end of the century they also hoped to see “a trade union movement whose exclusive relationship with the Labour party is reduced out of all recognition. 

“This relationship fossilises the Labour party and stultifies the whole political dialogue.”

His demand that trade union members should have to opt in, rather than opt out, of the political levy was regarded as a step too far by Thatcher and Tebbit. 


‘Flood Kent and Essex’

Even small strikes can rattle governments. 

That’s why the Tories drew up plans to flood Essex and Kent during the 1980s.

The plans came after a dock strike in Teesside delayed delivery of the gates of the Thames Barrier.

The plan was to blow up flood defences.

Some civil servants were not keen.

One  newly released document warned, “The last measurement of tidal surge is at Southend, approximately an hour before it would reach central London, but the height of the eventual tidal wave in central London could not be predicted with complete accuracy, and thus the defences could well be blown up unnecessarily.

“There is a major political difficulty in that the Government would have to take responsibility for deliberately flooding Kent and Essex in order to protect central London.”


Tories targeted Greenham Common peace camp 

Thatcher was dismissive of the Greenham Common women’s peace camp. 

It was set up outside the Berkshire airbase following the decision to deploy US nuclear cruise missiles there.

She branded the women an “eccentricity” whose activities had “been inflamed by the media”.


Prison break that nearly won

On 25 September 1983 some 38 Provisional IRA prisoners broke out of HM Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

After the mass breakout of Republican prisoners, Thatcher asked about Britain “tactically withdrawing” because the “supporters of violence” were bound to win.

However James Prior, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, convinced her they should stay.


Israel cleared over massacre

Foreign secretary Francis Pym cleared Israel of blame for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.

Over two days in September 1982, an Israeli-backed militia killed 3,500 people.

Pym said Israel had been guilty only of “incompetence”.


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