We all know that Thatcher defeated the miners in 1985 because Meryl Streep told us so. But Maggie’s fight with the National Union of Mineworkers didn’t go without some major hiccups along the way. When the Tories came to power in 1979, they were determined on revenge for the perceived role the miners had in bringing down the 1970-1974 Ted Heath Conservative government. The NUM was seen as the militant vanguard of the labour movement and if it could be cowed, then it would be a lot easier to push through the Thatcher agenda.
The government was determined to reduce subsidies to the nationalised industries, which in those days covered car making, steel, transport, gas, electricity and coal mining – amongst other things. So in 1980, legislation allowed Thatcher to remove operating subsidies from the coal industry. By 1981, the Coal Board was begging for more cash. The response was to announce the closure of 23 pits.
The NUM was led by Joe Gormley, who had been leader of the union in the Ted Heath years, and he demanded a reduction in coal imports and the restitution of subsidies to the industry. In a rare climbdown, Thatcher gave in. This was hailed as her first big U-turn since coming to power. So why did she do it?
You can rest assured it had nothing to do with the persuasiveness of Gormley’s arguments. What has since emerged was the existence of a plan drafted by right wing Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley – called the Ridley Plan. Drafted after the 1974 miners strike, he secretly urged Tories to prepare almost with military precision for a titanic battle with the NUM. Coal stocks would have to be upped, imports of coal increased, money cut off for strikers, etc.
The reality in 1981 was that these preparations were not nailed down. Thatcher needed more time to prepare. And by 1984 – when she announced 20 pit closures – she was ready for the year long battle that ensued.