How far was Thatcher prepared to go?

SOLOMON HUGHES uncovers secret documents which reveal how frightened ministers were at the prospect of Nacods members joining the ’84-5 miners’ strike. This article originally appeared in the Morning Star.

A FORMERLY secret file confirms that the Thatcher government did seriously consider using troops during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

The file is an inch-thick bundle of Home Office papers bound in an orange cardboard file marked “secret” in large bold letters.

In April 2014 the Home Office said it would release the file “in the very near future,” but it kept it hidden until last month.

The file shows Thatcher’s government was alarmed by a potential strike by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (Nacods) in October 1984, eight months into the miners’ strike.

Nacods represented pit deputies — specialist managers who had important safety duties in the mines. In September that year Nacods voted by 81 per cent to join the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) on strike.

Papers planning for a possible Nacods strike make up a big wodge of the file. Safety rules meant that a Nacods strike would close many more pits.

A file, headed “Secret,” from October 19 says: “We are making arrangements in the Police Department to obtain an assessment by Thursday evening next week from the CCU, Energy, Employment and Defence, in consultation with us and the police, of what is likely to happen next Thursday if the Nacods members take industrial action.”

The CCU — the Civil Contingencies Unit — was central to this cross-departmental planning.

The note says that “we also need to obtain with the CCU an assessment of how and where troops might be used, whether to undertake work that can keep coal supplies moving or in aid of the police.”

Leon Brittan was the chair of the CCU. It was run by “Brigadier Budd,” sometimes referred in the papers as simply “The Brigadier.”

The papers say that “the current formal assessment of the use of troops is that it is not a practical proposition, but that seems to be on the basis of maintaining full supplies to all consumers.”

This opened up the possibility of a plan to use troops in some other way — but “if a plan were to be drawn up, MoD would be in the lead.”

A Ministry of Defence representative at the meeting “may be able to say more about this.”

A second paper fills in the problems. It says: “The present Cabinet Office assessment, contained in the ‘Civil Emergencies Book,’ is that the use of servicemen to transport coal [from collieries to power stations] is not a practical option…”

“It would be difficult to organise a sufficiently large fleet of vehicles” to supply all power stations and “such action would be likely to lead to demonstrations and violence at picket lines and might cause sympathetic industrial action in other industries.”

While the plans said No to troops trying to get coal from the pits to all power stations, the government was considering using troops in some other way.

The papers say: “If a plan were to be drawn up for the use of troops in the coal industry,” the MoD would take the lead “under the CCU umbrella. It would require the approval of ministers before troops could be introduced.”

Under the authority of the CCU there were meetings described in another secret paper as helping to “focus the minds” of chief constables about the need to prepare to “move numbers of policemen around the country” during a Nacods strike.

The papers show that under the CCU officials considered five possible scenarios.

The “worst possible scenario” was “all Nacods members out. No pits working. Train supplies stopped. Utilities run on own stocks only, for limited period.”

Other scenarios which kept some pits open were also seen as difficult, so “some Nacods members working” might actually be “the most difficult for police” because they would have to choose which pits to police.

The prospect of “all Nacods members out, but working miners qualified to carry out inspection duties” could also “cause the most disruption” because “of the possibility of Nacods picket lines and because getting NUM members to perform these duties was bound to raise the temperature of the dispute.”

The Home Office preparations were so cross-departmental that they even looked at how a Nacods strike would affect benefits for strikers and their families.

Though these are Home Office files, they also include a letter marked “secret” from secretary of state for social services Norman Fowler to energy secretary Peter Walker about “the consequences that will ensue as far as social security benefits are concerned” if the Nacods strike went ahead.

At that time strikers could not claim benefits, but some of their families could — subject to a £15-a-week deduction because their spouses were on strike.

Fowler’s letter says that other miners would be subject to the no-benefits-and-£15-deduction regime if Nacods went on strike — even formerly working miners who were laid off rather than going on strike.

The government seemed content with this harsher benefits stance, even for the laid-off non-strikers.

The issue of benefits was so important that Fowler says: “I am sending a copy of this to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Employment and [Cabinet Office permanent secretary] Sir Robert Armstrong.”

Even though the Home Office has no benefits responsibility, the Home Office file contains two more letters on miners’ benefits — including a letter to No 10 about the 35,000 (out of 138,000) strikers’ families who received supplementary benefit.

The year-long miners’ strike became a war of attrition, with miners and their families surviving on money and food collected in solidarity with the strikers.

The government’s cross-departmental co-ordination on the strike meant that the department in charge of policing the strike was also interested in what benefits were going to the strikers’ families.

In the end, despite the strong mandate, Nacods leadership did not join the strike. Looking at these papers shows that the Thatcher government finally won the strike, but it was a close-fought battle.