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Release of MT's private files for 1985 - (1) end of the coal strike & after

We review here MT's personal and party papers on a difficult year, now available for everyone to read.

In some ways 1985 was the cusp of her premiership. She celebrated her tenth anniversary as party leader in February and, though no one could know it, the half way point of her premiership was reached later that month. Many of the problems that she faced that year remained with her for the remainder of her term - the ERM, the poll tax, European monetary and economic union.

1985 Jan-Mar: THE BITTER END

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')

The year 1985 opened with politics dominated by the unfinished business of the coal strike. That the NUM would be defeated was now widely assumed, but MT’s advisers worried that Scargill might still manage to out-manoeuvre Peter Walker and the NCB to snatch a settlement some way short of total defeat.

David Hart wrote her a long note on 7 Jan, “DOLE NOT COAL”, warning her of the risk and arguing that it was not enough to wait for the strike to collapse as miners drifted back to work. He suggested that NCB withdraw its pledge not to introduce compulsory redundancies and fire anyone still on strike on the first anniversary of its outbreak, even if that meant “one hundred thousand new faces on the dole”. MT prudently kept some distance from Hart, by no means agreeing with everything he wrote, but her officials also warned her that the strike might end well short of victory and that steps should be prepared to increase the pressure on the NUM, counselling that a messy return to work would likely be a better outcome than a settlement negotiated between the NCB and TUC (Wybrew and Turnbull minutes, 1 Mar 1985).

When the end suddenly came, on Sunday 3 March, ministers had to scramble to agree a common line, as shown by a typed update written for MT to await her return from Chequers. She hurriedly jotted down notes for a press conference outside No.10 including a commitment to future investment in coal, as well as the phrase “No compulsory redundancies”, but as things turned out she responded to questions rather than made a statement and did not use the words, intentionally or not. The moment was consciously underplayed, for obvious reasons. As Hugh Thomas wrote to her on 6 March: "Though, of course, we may not congratulate you in public we all do so in private for the end of the strike".

The papers show MT closely involved in the aftermath of the strike. Although its outcome is now seen as decisive, the possibility of another strike was not discounted at the time, MT telling Emanuel Kaye on 7 March: “What a relief it is all over …. We shall rebuild stocks of coal at power stations as a first priority”. Prudently, but also out of a strong sense of debt, she was very watchful of the interests of working miners, who faced some acutely difficult situations as strikers returned to the pits alongside them (see MT to Mrs McGibbon, 27 Aug). She fielded complaints that the NCB was doing too little to protect them from intimidation and process transfers to other pits, to which she had Walker respond (Walker letter Jun 26). Her PPS Michael Alison had the modern Selby ‘super pit’ in his constituency and promoted a scheme to have working miners transferred there en masse to create a counterweight to the militants (Alison minute, 10 Jun). He was told that the NCB preferred to see working miners take redundancy (18 Jun letter). There are interesting minutes on a meeting of the backbench Conservative Energy Committee, 27 Jun addressed by Tony Ellis of the National Working Miners Committee, who told them that the militants had wrested the initiative from the moderates, that Selby was ‘lost’, a “severe handicap during the next strike”. Privately Alison kept in close contact with Michael Eaton, the NCB director who became the public face of the corporation in the later part of the strike.

MT met Ian MacGregor secretly for a four hour conversation over Sunday lunch on 24 March at the Laings, who had a country home near Chequers, her letter afterwards to Lady Laing thanking her for “putting up with us both for such a long time”. This was followed a week later by a buffet supper with some of the leaders of the working miners secretly organised by Woodrow Wyatt (31 Mar).

The NUM itself formally split at a delegate conference 3-4 July, working miners walking out. A new Notts organisation was formed on 9 July. Ministers were careful to keep their distance. Asked by No.10 whether MT could refer to the breakaway union in a speech, Energy Minister David Hunt told Michael Alison best not: “The leaders have continually stressed how vital it is that the Government should not say anything about the new union” (Hunt to Alison, 12 Nov).

Finally there were quiet thank you events for the people who had worked long hours to defeat the strike – drinks for the “coal strike monitoring group” on 6 March, and for senior police too, held under Leon Brittan’s auspices at the Home Office (MT to Brittan, 29 Mar). Apparently there had been plans for a Prime Ministerial meeting with them in summer 1984, “but ACPO [the Association of Chief Police Officers] got cold feet due to fears of over close identification with the Government during the miner’s strike. I understand that ACPO no longer see this as being a problem since the strike is over and since anyway any meeting would take place on government rather than ACPO ground”. [Flesher minute 6 Mar 1985] Even NCB executives got a nice lunch at No.10, on 24 Apr, though there had been times during the last year when MT would have been likelier to give them a piece of her mind than a meal.

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