By Simon Basketter
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Archived records show the fragility of the “Iron Lady”

This article is over 13 years, 1 months old
The Tories were determined to fight for the interests of their class in 1980—but they were also scared of resistance.
Issue 2233

The Tories were determined to fight for the interests of their class in 1980—but they were also scared of resistance.

That’s what new documents released under the 30 year rule by the National Archives reveal.They 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 cuts.

A Treasury paper by economic adviser Douglas Hague from January 1980 put this position: “We must, quite simply, begin to dismantle the public sector as we know it.

“We must raise productivity where we can and abandon activities entirely where we cannot.”

Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet drew up proposals including charging for visits to GPs and cutting pensions. The Tories even considered a poll tax to replace income tax.

But they were all nervous of people fighting back. Ministers dropped the plans after deciding they could provoke riots.

The experience of the Bristol riot in April, when people fought back against police oppression, showed that their fears could become reality.

Home secretary Willie Whitelaw said in response, “The pressure to hold a public inquiry into every controversial matter affecting the police ought to be resisted,” because it would lead to the force being pilloried.

A key part of the Tories’ plan was their scheme to take on the trade unions, which were the main obstacle to their policies. Plans for attacks on trade unionists were clear in a cabinet document on the trade union laws, which wanted “to change the balance from workers to management”.


In January 1980 Thatcher began her onslaught by attacking the steel workers.

But the response shook the government to its core.

There was a militant all-out strike, the first for 50 years in the industry. Mass pickets closed down the steel plants. Over 200,000 workers took part in a solidarity strike across Wales.

There were spontaneous occupations of British Steel’s offices in Sheffield. Workers mobilised flying pickets to stop the movement of steel.

The strike pushed the government into crisis. Half of it wanted to back off.

Most accounts of the strike stress Thatcher’s resilience and refusal to compromise. This is true.

But the documents show that Thatcher was nervous enough to propose paying off the steel workers to settle the dispute.

Thatcher was disappointed with the ability of management to take on the workers. The strike was defeated in the end not by the government but by the determination of the union leaders not to win.

After the strike, Thatcher brought in Ian MacGregor, an American union buster, who shut down steel works before moving on to take on the miners.

The documents also reveal that the government responded to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by arranging within weeks to arm “the Afghan resistance”.

Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, met Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security advisor, in Paris to discuss the plans.

Armstrong said that the US wanted to support refugee camps in Pakistan as they were being used as bases by guerrillas opposing the Soviet invasion.

Armstrong said, “If one of the objectives of the West in this crisis was to keep the Islamic world aroused about the Soviet invasion, that would be served by encouraging a continuing guerrilla resistance.”

Sir Robert said that “so long as Afghans were ready to continue guerrilla resistance, and Pakistan was prepared at least to acquiesce in Pakistani territory being a base for such activity, the West could hardly refuse to provide support, where it could do so with suitable discretion”.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence was eager to promote the export orders of cluster bombs.

There were concerns, however, of selling too many cluster bombs in the Middle East—in case it upset Israel.

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