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Secret documents reveal Tories' fears over miners

Newly released documents show how the supposedly invincible Thatcher government reeled from the impact of strikes, writes Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2385

Women in Yorkshire block the entrance of a miners pit during the 1984-85 strike

Women in Yorkshire block the entrance of a miners' pit during the 1984-85 strike (Pic: John Sturrock)

Margaret Thatcher and the Tory cabinet spent most of 1984 trying to convince each other they could win the Great Miners’ Strike.

At one point Thatcher planned to send in troops to break the strike, according to newly released government papers.

The strike began in March 1984 and did not end until 1985. 

Behind the scenes a secret Whitehall working group—codenamed MISC 57—had been established to lay the ground for the battle. It was founded in 1981 after Thatcher had been forced to give into a miners’ pay demand. 

But papers from 1984, released by the National Archives, show that for all the years of stockpiling and planning ministers were panicked.

They considered declaring a state of emergency when faced with the prospect of a national dock strike while the miners were still out.

The scheme was never implemented after the dockers’ action petered out after less than two weeks. But it shows how worried the supposedly invincible Tories were. 


One official wrote that the Tory attack on the miners was “a unique opportunity to break the power of the militants in the NUM”.

At the same time John Redwood, then head of the Number 10 policy unit, warned the bosses’ National Coal Board’s position was “crumbling”.

“The Left’s aim is to pave the way for the ultimate defeat of the government by destroying its policies and its credibility,” he wrote in a memo to Thatcher. “Its purpose is to oppose and destroy.”

Redwood tried to steel government nerves bemoaning the “extreme left’s revolutionary challenge”. 

He suggested that “there is only one thing worse than presiding over industrial chaos and that is giving in to industrial muscle over unreasonable demands.” Thatcher underlined the sentence three times in biro.

One secret document on coal stocks pointed out that “asute picketing could cause serious disruption at a large number of sites”.

On 16 July the Ministry of Agriculture warned of panic-buying of food if the dock strike took hold. Thatcher summoned a meeting of key ministers to discuss the declaration of a state of emergency under the Emergency Powers Act.

“It was not clear how far a declaration of a state of emergency would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, nor to what extent it would increase docker support for the miners’ strike,” the minutes noted.

Thatcher and the cabinet had constant reports of coal stocks and number of strikers. She rewrote letters to workers in other industries urging them not to support the strike—and others to scab miners’ wives.

The papers are pitted with denunciations of “mob rule” and a constant search for new laws to push back picketing and make the miners’ action harder.

Cops 'increased tensions' during strike

In November 1984 two Home Office civil servants reviewed police tactics during the strike. 

They concluded that stopping coachloads of striking miners on their way to mass pickets and turning them back was counter-productive.

“Turning them back may merely send them to other destinations to demonstrate, rather than deterring them from attending a picket line at all,” they wrote. And once they had been diverted the cops might not know where they were.

The documents also reveal concerns with how the cops were being received in the local communities.

According to the report the police “Metropolitan PSUs were valued in violent confrontations but at other times... their attitudes were thought to be harder for local people to identify with and so perhaps more likely to lead to an increase in tension.”

There was a 'hit-list' of pits

Papers from 1984 reveal that mineworkers’ union leader Arthur Scargill was right to claim there was a “secret hit-list” of more than 70 pits marked for closure.

The government and National Coal Board said at the time that they wanted to close 20. 

There was an agreement in government to shut 75 pits by the following year, and cut 64,000 jobs—but that no list of which would close should be issued.

The meeting was told the National Coal Board’s pit closure programme had “gone better this year than planned, there had been one pit closed every three weeks” and the workforce had shrunk by 10 percent.

Coal board boss Ian MacGregor now meant to go further. As a result, two-thirds of Welsh miners would become redundant. A third of miners in Scotland also lost their jobs and almost half of those in north east England. 

And add to this half in South Yorkshire and almost half in the South Midlands. The entire Kent coalfield would also close.

The final paragraph of the document read, “It was agreed that no record of this meeting should be circulated”.

NUM union leaders were spied on

The Tories seem to have been very well informed about what was going on at the top of the NUM union.

For example one note reads, “Nine members of the National Union of Mineworkers met in secret today, called for an urgent meeting of the full executive and urged all miners who had voted against the strike to return to work immediately.”

Tories plotted attacks on union rights

The secret documents also show that after the Battle of Orgreave the Tories considered taking out an injunction against all secondary picketing.

This is when supporters picket a location that’s not directly connected with the strike. 

No. 10 bemoaned that, “The common law offences of riot and unlawful assembly are antiquated and being indictable it takes time to get people to court.”

Government considered a three-day week

Another crisis for the Tories came with a threatened walkout by safety supervisors in the pit deputies’ union, Nacods.

The files show that worried officials drew up plans to conserve supplies.

They also considered the imposition of a three day working week.

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Background Check
Tue 7 Jan 2014, 16:54 GMT
Issue No. 2385
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