Documents released by the National Archives at Kew, west London, show the extent of the planning by Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government for the decisive showdown with the miners which helped define her political legacy.
The papers show that ministers and officials repeatedly warned that a confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its left-wing leader, Arthur Scargill, was inevitable.
Mrs Thatcher, who had been a minister in Edward Heath’s government in the 1970s when it was brought to its knees by a miners’ strike, was only too well aware of the stakes involved.
In February 1981 – less than two years into her premiership – she had been forced to cave in to the NUM’s pay demands, aware that the government was unprepared to withstand a prolonged conflict. Behind the scenes, however, a secret Whitehall working group – codenamed MISC 57 – was established to lay the ground for the battle to come.
Plans were set in train quietly to purchase land next to electricity power stations – which were nearly all coal-fired – so that coal could be stockpiled to keep them running through a strike.
The group also began the expensive process of converting stations to dual-firing so that they could run on oil if coal supplies were exhausted. MISC 57 discussed using troops to move coal stocks, although officials were unenthusiastic, warning that it would be a “formidable undertaking”.
In a memorandum dated 27 October 1983, a PL Gregson at the Cabinet Office noted: “To move half a million tonnes of coal per week – twice as much as was transported by road during the rail strikes earlier this year, when power stations were not picketed – would involve 4,000-5,000 lorry movements per day between pitheads and power stations continuously for 20 weeks. The law and order problems of coping with pickets not just at the power stations but also at the pitheads would be enormous and would arise from the very outset of the strike.
“A major risk might be that power station workers would refuse to handle coal brought in by servicemen in this way.”
The following day, however, a meeting of senior ministers chaired by Mrs Thatcher ruled that, while they might be able to rely on existing coal stocks in the early stages of a strike, planning for the use of troops should continue.
“It was agreed that it might be necessary to examine more radical options for extending endurance, including the use of servicemen to move pithead stocks to power stations by rail and road,” the minutes noted.
As the government moved towards the general election of 1983, preparations for an expected conflict over its programme of closing pits considered uneconomic was stepped up.
In January 1983, energy secretary Nigel Lawson said while the National Coal Board (NCB) was still not yet confident of winning a strike, they needed to be ready for a decisive showdown after the election.
“While the board are currently thinking a national strike would last for two months, I believe it could well be longer. We would certainly need to be prepared for it to be longer,” he wrote in a memorandum to Mrs Thatcher.
“If Scargill succeeds in bringing about such a strike, we must do everything in our power to defeat him, including ensuring that the strike results in widespread closures.”
His view was echoed by John Vereker, a member of Mrs Thatcher’s policy unit who also served on MISC 57, although he was far from sanguine about the outcome. He wrote: “It does seem considerably less likely that we could bring the Coal Board anywhere near breakeven without winning a strike, and that of course carries the major risk that embarking upon and then losing a strike is the most expensive option of all.”
Two months later, however, in a memorandum dated 11 March 1983, he was much more optimistic. “There is some way to go, but it looks as if we can achieve nine months of endurance at very little cost on top of what we have already incurred: and twelve months’ endurance at an additional cost of £70 million for further coal stocking capacity.”
IT WAS the moment the fabled partnership between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan almost hit the rocks.
The US invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 came as a bitter shock to the Prime Minister, who was appalled at the US military intervention in a Commonwealth state. Official papers show how the president gave her virtually no time to object before committing US forces. The crisis erupted when a group of what Mr Reagan referred to as “leftist thugs” seized control of the island.
At 7:15pm on 24 October, Downing Street received a cable saying he was giving “serious consideration” to a request from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to intervene and asking for Mrs Thatcher’s “thoughts”. She was composing her reply when at 11pm a second telegram was sent saying he had decided to “respond positively” to the request.
Hague ‘gimmick’ dismissed
William Hague’s first attempt to enter the world of Whitehall politics was blackballed by Margaret Thatcher, newly-released government papers reveal.
Mrs Thatcher had been among those cheering the future foreign secretary when, as a 16-year-old schoolboy, he delivered a barnstorming speech that took the Conservative Party conference by storm.
However, the then prime minister was rather less impressed when – as a 21-year-old Oxford graduate – he tried to secure a prestigious posting as special adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Papers show she angrily blocked the move, denouncing it as a “gimmick” and an “embarrassment” to her government.
“When I spoke to you less than three months ago we were all enjoying the warmth and fellowship of a family Christmas. Our thoughts were concentrated on the strong links that bind each generation to the ones that came before and those that will follow. The horrors of war could not have seemed more remote as my family and I shared our Christmas joy with the growing family of the Commonwealth.
Now this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds.
I have never forgotten the sorrow and the pride I felt as my sister and I huddled around the nursery wireless set listening to my father’s inspiring words on that fateful day in 1939. Not for a single moment did I imagine that this solemn and awful duty would one day fall to me.
We all know that the dangers facing us today are greater by far than at any time in our long history. The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology.
But whatever terrors lie in wait for us all the qualities that have helped to keep our freedom intact twice already during this sad century will once more be our strength.
My husband and I share with families up and down the land the fear we feel for sons and daughters, husbands and brothers who have left our side to serve their country. My beloved son Andrew is at this moment in action with his unit and we pray continually for his safety and for the safety of all servicemen and women at home and overseas.
It is this close bond of family life that must be our greatest defence against the unknown. If families remain united and resolute, giving shelter to those living alone and unprotected, our country’s will to survive cannot be broken.
My message to you therefore is simple. Help those who cannot help themselves, give comfort to the lonely and the homeless and let your family become the focus of hope and life to those who need it.
As we strive together to fight off the new evil let us pray for our country and men of goodwill wherever they may be.
God Bless you all.”