How Thatcher plotted our defeat
Granville Williams (ed) Settling scores: the media, the police and the miners’ strike Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, pp139, £6.99
This is the second of my reviews of books published to mark the 30th anniversary of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. It was, in the words of the publishers, put together at “breakneck speed” between November 2013 and February 2014, and consists of 12 distinct subject headings - four of them by Granville Williams, a leading light in the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF).
The others are written by press, TV or radio journalists, a print worker involved in the CPBF and a miner. The journalists pose something of a contrast, ranging from Peter Lazenby, northern reporter with the Morning Star, to Paul Routledge, Daily Mirror columnist, former political correspondent for The Independent on Sunday, ex-labour editor of The Times, and columnist and review writer for Tribune. Paul seems to be desperately trying to rehabilitate himself with the mining communities after having foreworded his own book on the strike with an apology to the queen for having disagreed with her opinion that the strike was “all the work of one man”. I do not know if he has ever apologised to the 187,000 strikers and their families for that apology ...
The main stimulus for the appearance of Settling scores was the release of cabinet and other government papers under the 30-year rule. These led to the BBC’s Inside out programme of October 22 2012 and the discovery of doctored police evidence used in the Orgreave trial. There seems to be a direct link between the Orgreave fabricated evidence and the culture of impunity and deception which quickly re-emerged at Hillsborough within the same police force and under the same command and direction.
These revelations prompted activists among the National Union of Mineworkers and women’s support groups to launch the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign - aimed at winning a public inquiry into the events at Orgreave and by implication into policing during the 12-month strike. The working class backlash to the eulogising of Margaret Thatcher, prime minister during the strike, following her death in April 2013, not to mention the craven press coverage and outrage, added a further stimulus. Finally, and most interestingly in terms of this book and new material, was the publication of the first set of 1984 cabinet papers.
Nick Jones, BBC industrial and political correspondent between 1972 and 2002, a radio reporter during the strike and author of a number of books, does a good job of analysing what the released papers reveal.
The first of these concerns the deliberate government misinformation (and plain lies): despite public denials of any ‘hit list’ of mines to be closed and despite assurances concerning the impact on jobs and communities by the ‘minimal closure programme’, National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor had in fact revealed such a list to Peter Walker, secretary of state for energy, six months before the start of the strike. There were actually 75 pits on the hit list that was said to be an invention of NUM president Arthur Scargill. The document is in fact quite specific in its details: “... two thirds of Welsh miners would become redundant, 35% of miners in Scotland, 48% in the north-east, 50% in South Yorkshire and 46% in South Midlands”.
The papers also show that Thatcher was acutely aware of the need to maintain the deception and misinformation, in that she instructed Walker not to copy the document or circulate it and Peter Gregson of the cabinet office advised that it should not be referred to as such, and only non-recorded, oral briefings should be given.
It is now established that Thatcher and her government deployed every arm of the state to combat the miners and undermine the strike. Two of her ‘policy unit’ plans were unfolded in July 1984. Policy unit chief John Redwood recommended use of the law against secondary action and picketing and a conjoined attack on NUM funds. So-called “working miners” - ie, blacklegs - were primed to go to court and challenge the NUM’s description of the strike as official.
Thatcher herself had clearly been heading the attempt to avoid having to fight on two fronts at once - militants in other strategic unions were trying to coordinate their own action with that of the miners. Firstly Thatcher prevailed upon British Rail to make an increased offer to the rail unions in May 1984. Secondly she informed the cabinet that the national dock strike must be settled at all costs - the National Dock Labour Scheme was guaranteed (only until after the miners had been defeated, of course). It should be noted as an aside here that, had the Immingham dockers refused to unload coke and iron ore onto scab lorries brought in to break a solidarity rail blockade after the signing of this agreement, we would have been on the road to a sensational victory. But the Immingham men defied their own union policy and broke the blockade - something which the government staked everything on.1
The papers reveal the degree to which Thatcher’s advisers - possibly even more rightwing and belligerent than herself - direct the war. Here are four statements by Redwood:
- “You cannot follow a strategy of encouraging a war of attrition … and of trying to find a fudged formula ... go back to the original strategy of a war of attrition, where the perceived way of the strike ending is for miners to go back to work” (July 13).
- “Speedier use of stipendiary magistrates and of legal processes, so that pickets can see their comrades being prosecuted and punished quickly for criminal offences … Examining the possibility of mounting a conspiracy charge against union leaders inciting pickets to violence” (August 29).
- “Encourage NCB to extend its threat of dismissal to all those not only convicted of criminal damage against Coal Board property, but also those convicted of serious offences against persons on picket lines or NCB property” (September 21).
- “It is vitally important the NCB should sack any miner convicted of violence against fellow NCB employers or property” October 3).
One could add in regard to this last instruction that conviction was not necessary: only the charge was enough. Which led after the August village police occupations and police command HQs being established at pit heads, to managers pointing out militants and leaders on picket lines for snatch squads to target in the inevitable conflict at the gates and on the streets.
Routledge in his section of the book highlights the cabinet instruction to the Association of Chief Police Officers - which had launched a de facto coup against police committee control and regulation, and established a national police force to conduct its war against the NUM - that it should adopt “more vigorous interpretations of their duties”. He suggests, for instance, “stopping the movement of pickets and fitting up miners at Orgreave”.
Nicholas Jones’s chapter on the cabinet papers, ‘Thatcher and the police’, is perhaps one of the most revealing. The strike was only one week old (and pushing all before it) when Thatcher personally intervened to “stiffen the resolve” of chief constables, who she believed were failing to provide police protection for blacklegs. MacGregor had gone whinging to Thatcher, complaining about the ease with which pickets had descended on working coalfields and closed them down. Similar complaints from Peter Walker had forced her to confess that she feared Scargill was about to repeat the miners’ success of 1972, when flying pickets plugged the gap in the blacking of scab fuel at Saltley Gate and defeated the government, in turn breaking its central ‘income policy’ strategy.
Clearly chief constables had weighed up the priorities for each force in order to decide which areas demanded the greatest deployment. Ensuring one scab gets to work in a strike-bound village might not be anywhere near the top of the pile from their point of view, when they are faced with a high crime rate or an important criminal investigation. The cabinet papers for 1984 reveal that Thatcher berated police chiefs - she was “deeply disturbed” by the mass pickets sweeping the country. Within four days of her intervention police nationwide were mounting road blocks and stopping the movement of miners’ cars hundreds of miles from their destination on the basis that a “breach of the peace” was “likely to occur” (we should note that the mass movement of English Defence League supporters to attend demonstrations, where such a breach of the peace is almost inevitable, has not been met by road blocks and the turning back of cars or buses).
At another ministerial meeting home secretary Leon Brittan reported that 7,245 police officers were on duty in Nottingham purely to keep the county’s mines working. The option of deploying police officers from various parts of the country by army helicopters was also discussed.
Two months into the strike, the lord chancellor, Quintin Hogg, reported that there were concerns about the cases being presented to the courts by police in Nottinghamshire. By May 1984, over 900 arrests had been made in the Nottingham coalfield and Hogg advised Thatcher that the chief constable had “expressed reservations about the quality of some of the evidence upon which the arrests have been made, and for this reason is anxious for dates [for court proceedings] not to be fixed too soon”. Later the same day, however, Hogg’s letter was ‘amended’, to the effect that the chief constable was “anxious lest delay causes the quality of evidence available to deteriorate”. In fact it was the first version that was accurate - the chief constable himself stated that the quality of evidence to be presented to the courts could be highly significant in view of continued demands for inquiries into police activities during the strike. This was to prove highly prophetic, given the collapse of the Coal House and Orgreave trials, where police evidence was shown to be fabricated.
I noted earlier how the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) had simply ignored elected council police committees, to which they were supposed to be accountable. When critical police committees in the strike areas tried to pull the police into line through their budgets, the government simply switched to directly funded police operations. For example, Orgreave was part of the thoroughly left-Labour South Yorkshire County Council, with its mining councillors. They passed a resolution that the Orgreave plant should cease operation for the duration of the strike and withdrew the authority of the chief constable to use his discretion to fund policing there. So Leon Brittan and attorney general Sir Michael Havers took covert steps to ensure the treasury would make good any funds required.
Thatcher was on the brink of bringing in the army to move strike-locked stocks of coal at pit heads and power stations. It was a high-stake strategy - there were warnings of the possible consequences in terms of solidarity action and public disorder if strikers and their families confronted the armed forces on British streets.
All documents relating to MI5, MI6, GCHQ, etc have been withheld. Despite this a few references to the security services have survived, indicating that their involvement was discussed. For example, it is clear that covert action was taken to try and stop the transfer of funds to the NUM from abroad and then, when that failed, to monitor them, along with the movement of all NUM officials leaving the country with the intention of gaining international support.
In discussing the social implications of Orgreave Ray Riley refers to the 1981 Acpo conference. When the chief constables met in a private session to discuss “public order”, among the guests of honour were the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Hong Kong police’s infamous riot control unit. From this session emerged the Community Disorder Tactical Operations Inter- Force Working Group, specialising in the use of riot control and public order techniques. This developed the tactic of provoking fear and apprehension in a crowd, and produced the 1983 public order manual deployed during the Orgreave siege. All this was revealed by NUM defence lawyers in the riot cases brought against 96 victims of the police terror at Orgreave on June 18 1984.
Settling scores may be short, but it is an explosive exposition, drawing out the hidden truths revealed by the cabinet papers. It makes you wonder why all those civil libertarians and establishment politicians who beat their chests over the liberty and democracy and fair play are not demanding action over such wanton abuse of state power or complaining about the obviously partisan intervention by institutions which are supposed to be separate from government. But the cabinet papers have produced hardly a whimper, despite their revelation of bare-faced lies and the manipulation of state bodies which profess impartiality and the upholding of ‘checks and balances’.
I have only one criticism, and it is the same as the one I made in last week’s review,2: it is asserted that the Orgreave debacle was caused by steelworkers stabbing us in the back by using scab coke. The claim is almost word for word the one made by Mark Metcalf in Images of the miners’ strike. To be honest, this had been my assumption also until I actually researched the process of events which led to Orgreave. Nothing excuses the police ambush and horrific actions nor the fact that steelworkers accepted coke that had been smashed through picket lines past the bloodied heads and beaten bodies of miners’ pickets. However, it was Arthur who tore up the otherwise sound agreement to keep their furnaces intact using coke delivered by union train drivers, in return for not producing steel. This led us into a double trap: (1) the Orgreave ambush; and (2) allowing the solidarity non-steel policy to be torn up, thus opening the scab floodgates.
But this common mistake does not in any way detract from the value of the book, which I wholeheartedly recommend.
1. The NUM had perhaps overestimated the degree of solidarity and union culture among Immingham dockers. A full discussion of this is contained in my book, Ghost dancers (Hastings 2010). The dock strike was one of three occasions when the miners’ strike came within a whisker of winning.
2. ‘Inspirational collection’, March 20.