The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Thatcher miners
Miners and Maggie
In 1981, the miners won – but not in 1985

The Lady was not for Turning – except when it came to the miners in 1981. Everybody remembers the defeat of the miners strike in 1985 after a year long battle between the government and mining workers. But four years before, Thatcher had caved in to the National Union of Mineworkers because she wasn’t quite ready for that fight. It was in effect a U-turn and an embarrassing early climbdown to union power. But, the Prime Minister was choosing her battles carefully and that year saw Britain mired in recession and the inner cities exploding into an orgy of rioting. So – taking on the NUM could wait.

That said, it was a pretty comprehensive retreat for the government. NUM demands to reduce the imports of foreign coal and to reinstate £300m of subsidies to the government controlled National Coal Board (NCB) were agreed. This move by Thatcher flew in the face of the 1980 Coal Industry Act, which was in part intended to put limits on the amount of money that could be borrowed by the NCB. But she retained her twin goals in the back of her mind to close pits and crush the NUM.

DISCOVER: Britain in the era of nationalised industries

Nicholas Ridley and the miners

For the Tories, the need to bring the NUM to heel was personal. The union had played a leading role in bringing down the Tory government of Ted Heath in 1974. Under the Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan that followed, one right-wing Conservative MP close to Thatcher, Nicholas Ridley, worked on a plan to destroy the NUM. It was, in effect, a battle plan. The logistics of a future showdown between a Conservative government and the NUM were mapped out. The Tories would never again blunder into a dispute with the miners but pick their moment very carefully with all contingencies catered for.

That included building up coal stocks, increasing imports, use of non-union lorry drivers, cutting off union funds and creating a riot police capable of tackling a war-like industrial dispute. The only comparable kind of thinking on the other side of the political divide would have been on the revolutionary Marxist Left – groups like the Militant tendency. This was a calculated preparation for class war on a grand scale. There can be little down when you read the Ridley report that Thatcher both anticipated and embraced what any Marxist would have called class war.

But she would wait for her second term in office to press the green button. In the first term of Thatcher’s reign, she still had to strengthen her grip on the party, all the levers of power and the country. After two years of recession by 1981, there was open speculation about a coup from the likes of Michael Heseltine or as The Economist put it, a concerted attempt by the Tory aristocratic old guard to ‘bell the cat’. These were dangerous years for Thatcher. If she had taken on the NUM in 1981, she could very easily have gone the way of Ted Heath.

Joe Gormley to Arthur Scargill

The NUM in 1981 was led by Joe Gormley, a wily old fox. He’d started out as a militant miner but evolved into a cunning strategist. He used the unions firebrands to scare the government of the day into concessions without unleashing them. The 1974 dispute that brought down Ted Heath left miners as the best paid industrial workers in the UK. Gormley had been able to flex the muscle of the miners so effectively because coal provided most of the energy for British homes and industry at this time. The industrial action by the NUM led to Heath having to declare a Three Day Week in Britain to conserve electricity and coal stocks. I still remember going to the public library one evening as a child and the shelves of books were lit by candles. Yeah…combustible books….naked flames…. Health and safety? Nah, this was the 1970s

In 1974, Gormley presided over a union representing quarter of a million miners. It takes your breath away now. But the mining industry was enormous. And for over a century, jobs in mining had put food in mouths. Many of my Irish relatives in my great-great and great-grandfather’s generation went to work in the mining industries of Scotland, the north-east, and over in the collieries of West Virginia in the United States. One of my cousins, P.F. Gatens, became a leading union activist in West Virginia speaking alongside the legendary organiser Mother Jones in the early 20th century.

Gormley was part of that generation of union leaders who were part of the tripartite system of running industry where government, unions, and bosses met to manage the economy. That system was coming to an end. Thatcher was making that clear by degrees. And on the Left, there was a parallel movement away from the post-war consensus towards the belief that society/capitalism had to be transformed/overthrown. Gormley’s generation would accuse the radical and revolutionary Left of provoking the Tories into ever more draconian measures – but this failed to grasp the underlying ideological commitment of Thatcher and the likes of Nicholas Ridley and Keith Joseph to fundamentally remodel Britain.

The question for them was about power. And who would wield it. To break union power, the NUM had to be smashed. But Ridley counselled the right time and battle conditions – terrain if you want. The conditions were not right in 1981. But they were in 1984.

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