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Release of MT's private files for 1984 - (1) the coal strike

The year following her triumphant re-election in June 1983, MT and her government faced what they had long feared, but hoped to avoid - all-out conflict with Arthur Scargill's miners.

Only one side could emerge with power intact, lending politics during the coal strike a make-or-break quality. Things stayed that way far longer than anyone thought possible, the strike lasting a full, agonising year from its beginning in March 1984.

No one anticipated the other great event of 1984, the IRA's attempt to kill the Prime Minister and as many of her colleagues as they could, using a time-delayed bomb concealed weeks before at the party's conference hotel in Brighton. This conspiracy against the government was the first on such a scale in Britain since 1820. It came very close to success.

We review here MT's personal and party papers on these extraordinary events, now available for everyone to read.

1984-85: background to the coal strike

Since Office
Enemy without - beaten him
& resolute strong in defence
This Enemy within —

(MT's notes for the "enemy within" speech - the next words on the following page are 'Miners leaders')

Policy files on the coal industry in the run-up to the strike were released at the National Archives (TNA) in January 2014. The issues are so complex and controversial that it makes sense to review briefly what TNA’s files revealed before examining the new material being released in Cambridge.

What really lay behind the strike? It is a vital question, because the answer conditions how we read every single document.

The BBC produced an influential report that TNA files showed the government had a secret plan to close 75 pits, instancing the record of a meeting held on 15 September 1983 – a nice detail in the report was that the document was so secret someone even wrote the name of the typist at the top (“typed by Lillian”), shown to the viewer and surely leading many people to feel they have seen the very document. Here it is.

The number 75 has been quoted widely as established fact, often with the implication that the government “had a secret plan to destroy the British coal industry”, in the words of Nick Jones, a former BBC industrial correspondent during the coal strike who helped its current team review the new documents. He went on to write his own account of them, which told of a "cover-up" and a "secret hit list", and assured us that Arthur Scargill had been "proved corect".

If this account is correct, many of the documents released from the secret files must be deliberate falsifications. There must have been a vast, pre-planned exercise to distort the record and deceive posterity, all revealed by a single document - the survival of which itself becomes exceedingly hard to explain, unaccountably overlooked by the falsifiers of so much else.

In fact the document established nothing of the kind. The idea of 75 closures was reported to the meeting by the Energy Secretary Peter Walker as one of Ian MacGregor’s “preliminary conclusions ... although he wished to have a little longer before he was held to any of these”. MacGregor had only just taken over the job and he did not even attend the meeting. He was also quoted as thinking that “the long-term future of the coal industry was, or should be, bright indeed”. Far from endorsing a secret plan to close 75 pits over three years "to destroy the British coal industry", ministers were not asked to reach any decisions at the meeting, nor did they do so, Walker pointedly commenting that “there would be considerable problems in all this”.

Under pressure on this point, the BBC made a qualified retraction, admitting that no single document established the 75 pit figure and retreating to the position that it was all so sensitive you wouldn't expect to find one - although that was precisely what they had claimed of course. They added the point that they had found no “explicit statement disavowing the target”, begging the question why you would expect to find one if that was not the policy? Here is the BBC's online version of their report.

Policy was in fact decided on 19 January 1984 at an equally secret meeting recorded in the same file ("typed by Rosemary" this time), but ignored in the original BBC report. Walker stated that “MacGregor had reconsidered NCB’s strategy and had concluded that the process of run-down ought to be accelerated. This would imply the loss of 45,000 miners over the next two years”. Ministers avoided even talking in terms of pit numbers at this point, because the NUM had already made great play of secret ‘hit lists’ of planned pit closures, but a reasonable assumption would be that this number implied the closure of 40-50 pits.

The goal was to reduce manpower to 140,000 from the existing 180,000, putting the industry on course to break even by 1988. The core of the policy was to close uneconomic pits, the worst of which were making huge losses, and to invest in new, economically efficient ones. To this end Ministers agreed to enhance the existing mineworkers redundancy scheme, particularly to introduce a two year scheme attractive to miners under 50 so as to find enough voluntary redundancies to meet the target. Compulsory redundancies were clearly something ministers were determined to avoid, because it was understood that they would make a strike much more likely.

If this secret plan had gone into effect the British coal industry would still have been by a considerable margin the second largest in the EC after West Germany, and a major supplier to the national grid. The government's programme of future investment in new pits was planned to be double that in the rest of the EC combined, the barely remembered flipside to the never-to-be-forgotten closure plans. Less than a fortnight before the Jan 1984 meeting, Walker announced a £400m investment to mine coal reserves in the Vale of Belvoir, an odd way to set about destroying the industry.

1984 MAR-jul: first phase of the strike

What then do the Cambridge files show? There is a valuable series of briefing letters Peter Walker wrote to Conservative backbenchers periodically throughout the strike, as well as some of MT’s briefings on coal for PMQs. Key themes throughout were that the NCB had no plans for compulsory redundancies, that the Board would only close pits under the Colliery Review Procedure inherited from the previous Labour Government, which had successfully closed pits on economic grounds, and that heavy investment was in train. This was fully consistent with the policy made on 19 January 1984. But it is certainly true that the NCB and ministers had information they chose not to reveal: they focussed talk of closures strictly on the coming year and made no disclosure of MacGregor’s plans to close pits the year following. NCB ads in the press, ministerial speeches and statements in the Commons all took a similar position.

The BBC was correct to stress how secretive decision-making was on coal strategy. The risk of leaks was plainly seen as unusually high, as might have been their impact had there been any. The Cambridge files, which are more party and personal than concerned with policy, are correspondingly thin until summer 1984, when two events increased the political heat. First, there were the extraordinary battles arising from mass picketing at Orgreave at the end of May and into June. Then in July 1984 the coal dispute spread to the docks, overturning the general assumption that the situation was stable or moving the government’s way.

MT at times introduced conciliatory elements into her discussion of the dispute – for example, in speaking to the Welsh Conservative Conference on 21 June 1984 she personally drafted the section invoking memories of national grieving at the Aberfan tragedy of 1967 (when she had been the relevant shadow minister) and spoke warmly of Jim Griffiths, the “much loved” Labour politician, a former Welsh miner and unionist.  But the atmosphere was heating up, and the rhetoric - hers and others – developed in tandem. Symbolically after delivering the speech she had to cut short her plans in Porthcawl at police request, and even then she was “the unfortunate recipient of an all too well aimed egg”. (The local Chief Constable apologised in person but was told he had no reason to.) Orgreave provoked her to talk of the threat of mob rule – words used also by Walker and taken up by Ingham, who suggested for good measure she promise to preserve the country “from any private army assembled anywhere at any time in this land”.

The dock strike in July triggered serious doubts about a key element in the government’s strategy. MT had been persuaded from the first, largely by Walker, that the NCB and other nationalised industries should not seek to use the government’s own union laws to bring civil actions against the NUM. The fear was that such actions might reunite the NUM by bringing working miners out on strike and persuade other unions to begin sympathy action. On 17 July 1984 MT’s closest adviser on the strike at No.10, her Economics Private Secretary Andrew Turnbull, questioned this vital judgment, commenting on a letter from a self-proposed mediator in the dispute:

On handling, he argues that the Government and the NCB have missed a trick by not invoking the civil law. With hindsight he may be right. If we had known how solid the working miners would be, how much coal could be moved by road and how long the striking miners would hold out we might have come to a different judgment some weeks ago. But that is water under the bridge and the likelihood of civil action is now much greater, particularly if the dock strike is not settled soon.

Many Conservatives at this time criticised the NCB for its poor PR, and MacGregor for his political naivete, MT included, fearing that he might give crucial principles away in negotiation with Scargill. The head of MT’s Policy Unit at No.10, John Redwood, urged her to get MacGregor to appoint an advertising agency and for Conservative Central Office to get more involved. There were unmistakeable signs of backbench anxiety too, “doom and gloom”, reported by John Whittindgale. Even a Labour MP, Willie Hamilton, told MT’s close friend and adviser, Hugh Thomas, that he feared for “the future of democracy because of the politically motivated dock & miners’ strike./ He thought that mining & dock leaders expect & hope for a state of emergency, in consequence of which striking miners will be able to pose as a ‘red guard’ agst [against] an army which will be seduced into mistakes” (17 July). 

1984 jul 19: the 'enemy within'

This phase of doubt and anxiety provided the background to MT’s most famous statement during the strike, her speech to the 1922 Committee on 19 July in which she referred to “the enemy within”. (To make it easier to read, the copy on this site has a transcript by the editor interleaved with the original handwritten notes.)

The speech was expected to reach the public, but she will not necessarily have expected a single phrase to be picked up and achieve prominence. No text was prepared or released and no formal briefing took place either. There is evidence that No.10 regretted that fact, a lobby briefing note on 21 July 1984 attempting to correct the impression that MT meant the phrase to refer to the miners as a whole rather than “the minority of militants”. Briefing for the next PMQs on 24 July also included defensive material on the quotation, albeit in a form designed to take the offensive against Kinnock, always an attractive and readily available move during the strike.

Charles Moore suggests in his biography of MT that her use of the words ‘enemy within’ may have derived from a speech she heard Enoch Powell give in her constituency several decades before. Ferdy Mount has pointed out that Attlee used the phrase in his speech at Walthamstow in September 1950, and in relation to a small Communist minority capturing the trade unions as well. (MT was then Conservative candidate for Dartford and watching her opponents very closely.) But there is a more plausible and personal source. The phrase ‘enemy within’ occurs in John Wesley’s Sermon 13, On Sin in Believers (V2), and also in Charles Wesley’s Methodist Hymnal, where the reference is to human weakness. Indeed, it occurs in two of his hymns.

The hymns of Charles Wesley were more than a musical accompaninent to Methodism: they were at the heart of it. They will have been deeply familiar to MT from her Grantham childhood:

But worse than all my foes I find
The enemy within,
The evil heart, the carnal mind,
My own insidious sin:
My nature every moment waits
To render me secure,
And all my paths with ease besets,
To make my ruin sure.

The second is perhaps more powerful still, a call to battle rather than a dark fear, in a hymn called None Is Like Jeshurun’s God (Jeshurun is a Hebrew word for Israel):

God is Thine; disdain to fear
The enemy within:
God shall in thy flesh appear,
And make an end of sin;
God the man of sin shall slay,
Fill thee with triumphant joy;
God shall thrust him out, and say,
Destroy them all, destroy!

Interestingly Labour did not challenge her use of the phrase in the House of Commons. And whatever his reservations about the way it was initially understood, a few days later Ingham urged that she redeploy it during the censure debate of 31 July 1984, albeit with the connection to militancy spelled out. “They are running out of white flags along the Walworth Road already [Walworth Road was the location of Labour's headquarters]. There will be flags galore for the militants within, as well as for the enemy without. Appeasement has found its natural home” [Redwood draft, quoting Ingham, 23 July]. In the speech as delivered, it is telling that MT borrowed the thought, but chose not to reuse the exact words:

There is only one word to describe the policy of the right hon. Gentleman when faced with threats, whether from home or abroad, and that word is appeasement. He will live to regret it. It is no policy for Britain.

1984 mar-dec: david hart, the working miners, strike violence

Not only did MT have doubts about her own government’s policy of discouraging use of the civil law against the NUM - as well as doubts about Peter Walker and, increasingly, Ian MacGregor - she was never comfortable relying wholly on the official machine for advice and information.

The strike created an unusual opening for freelance political action, one glimpsed and grasped energetically by David Hart, a charismatic and wealthy property developer who had been on the edge of her world for some years. Memoranda and letters from Hart survive in the Thatcher papers from this period, sometimes persuasive, always provocative. In style they bear comparison with Alfred Sherman’s - Hart’s analysis shared with his a kind of Manichaean quality, trading in brutal power politics of a kind Whitehall did not do. A good example was a note he sent MT three weeks into the strike calling it “The Inevitable Conflict”, telling her that “there has, sooner or later, to be an all-out attempt by the Union Movement to engineer and win a confrontation with the government”, which would be highly personal, “a strike against you”. Of Scargill as an enemy he commented drily: “You couldn't have found a better man”. Later he told her: “There is an enemy within. We are at war” (“Winning the war against Scargillism”, 18 September 1984). 

The problem is that one can only trace the pattern of their dealings in outline – the substance is frustratingly obscure. Her engagement diary shows that there at least three meetings between them during the strike (6 Aug, 29 Aug, 11 Spt). There were certainly phone calls and contact through intermediaries, particularly via MT’s Political Secretary, Stephen Sherbourne (see 28 Spt minute).

Was MT pursuing a kind of parallel policy through Hart designed to encourage civil action against the NUM and so undermine Peter Walker’s? It is possible, but unproven from these papers. Hart well understood that his role was to be ‘deniable’, to say and do things that she could not and his submissions to her obviously reflected this fundamental constraint. She surely encouraged his efforts to organise and fund working miners in legal actions against the NUM. Hart became a close though not uncritical adviser to MacGregor and he was one means by which MT kept a wary eye on the NCB boss.

But she certainly kept a degree of distance from Hart, particularly from anything he might do that would give her Energy Secretary too good a ground for complaint against her. Thus Hart could not become a back channel to MacGregor. He was asked not to visit No.10 or to come to the conference hotel. Walker was the responsible minister, and more than that, he was a man too clever - and at this point, too important - to be safely undermined.

One should not assume in any case that David Hart was the only outsider whose views MT wanted to hear. She read with care very different advice she was receiving from Jack Peel, the former textile union leader who had taken a job with the EC – the self-proposed mediator mentioned above by Turnbull.  And she had another insight into MacGregor’s thinking from Tim Bell, who became an advisor to the NCB. She saw as much of Bell as Hart in 1984, and knew him better.  

MT had some direct contact with the working miners – she met with a group of wives on 18 September – but she never made the kind of visit that Hart advocated “walking the streets of the villages where the intimidation is at its worst”, warning her that she was being criticised for ‘aloofness’. She watched closely all the same. On 4 September Ingham sent her a huge dossier of press stories of strike violence and intimidation which she read and marked, many of the stories still uncomfortable to read, a reminder that the scenes of thousands of police battling mass pickets at Orgreave were not the beginning or the end of it. For example, there was the terrifying but entirely forgotten attack on the NCB office at Doncaster by a thousand pickets on 26 June - office staff, many of them women, running the gauntlet and suffering beatings, stoning, threats of all kinds.

Private polling of public attitudes to the strike at this time produced very supportive results for the government. In fact the numbers are simply crushing: material from Central Office sent to Sherbourne on 3 September showed 94 per cent opposed to the miners’ tactics. More than 70 per cent thought the strike political, including 67 per cent of trade union members.

The consistency of the hostility towards the strike is such that there can be little doubt that Mr Scargill and his colleagues have completely forfeited the sympathy of the great majority of the public and trade union members.
Disapproval goes almost across the board, whatever the question.

All this material fed into the machine in preparation for her conference speech, due for delivery in Brighton on Friday 12 Oct 1984 - a date long in the diary, and not only her diary, as it turned out.

Documents

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