As another year ends, another set of selected cabinet papers from 30 years ago has been released, revealing just some of the lies that were told to workers back then.
In 1984, when the government of the late and unlamented Margaret Thatcher was running a ‘profitability’ review of coal pits in Britain in order to provoke a battle with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the prime minister claimed that at most 20 pits would close and that these were all unprofitable. Arthur Scargill, then president of the NUM, said that the government had a list of over 70 pits that they wanted to close and warned that the NUM would fight all closures.
In a display of extreme understatement, when covering the release of the 1984 cabinet papers, BBC reporter Nick Higham observed: “Newly released cabinet papers from 1984 reveal mineworkers’ union leader Arthur Scargill may have been right to claim there was a ‘secret hit-list’ of more than 70 pits marked for closure.”
Any way you choose to read the released cabinet papers, they clearly reveal that Ian MacGregor, the US job destroyer put in charge of the National Coal Board (NCB) by the Thatcher government, had a list of 75 pits to be closed. There is no ‘may have been right’ about it – Scargill was not only right about the scale of closures but came uncannily close to the exact number of pits in Thatcher’s sights!
The relevant document, minutes from a meeting of 17 September 1983 attended by seven government ministers including the prime minister, which was marked, “Not to be photocopied or circulated outside the private office”, reveals quite starkly that the government was intent on butchering the coal industry as a prelude to privatisation and to destroying the most advanced section of the trade-union movement – the NUM.
This is important as the Thatcher government always denied that there was a plan to run down the coal industry. She even denied that the government was involved in the dispute in any way at all, claiming that all decisions regarding the NCB’s long-term strategy and day-to-day plans were made by MacGregor.
This clearly was not the case, however, as these hitherto secret minutes show. The discussions of ministers regarding the closure plan state that it had: “gone better this year than planned: there had been one pit closed every three weeks and the workforce had shrunk by 10 percent”.
Further: “Mr MacGregor had it in mind over the three years 1983-85 that a further 75 pits would be closed … There should be no closure list, but a pit-by-pit procedure.” The minutes end with the ominous words: “It was agreed that no record of this meeting should be circulated.”
It is to their eternal credit that the majority of miners in this country believed their union president over the prime minister and the NCB management and were prepared to fight, not only for their own jobs but for the interests of the entire British working class.
The defeat of the year-long strike that started 30 years ago was to lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, as well as the loss of millions of pounds’ worth of national assets in pits, machinery and exploitable coal. It also saw the destruction of thousands of marriages and the permanent division of many families.
The strike cost the blood, broken bones and liberty of many pickets, and even the lives of two Yorkshire miners. Joe Green and David Jones were both struck down on picket duty, without their killers ever facing any charges.
The class war is real
The 1984/5 miners’ strike was class war, but it was only no-holds barred on one side. The ruling class, through its government and its police/army (miners also faced soldiers in police uniforms on the picket lines), was prepared to go to any lengths to win the battle, while the miners and their supporters were being held back, sabotaged and openly opposed by the Labour Party and many trade-union leaderships.
Free movement on the roads was constantly denied to pickets by police forces throughout Britain, with beatings, arrests, and smashed cars and buses a real prospect for those who tried to get to picket lines. Many pit villages were under police occupation, and whole streets were often closed down with no movement allowed while a scab was escorted to or from work.
The courts, obviously ‘independently’ and with no instructions from the government(!), sequestered the NUM, which meant that all the union’s funds and assets were frozen and therefore could not be used.
The Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), also ‘independently’, just happened to rule that striking miners could claim no benefits for themselves as it was up to the union to pay them strike pay – which, of course, it was in no position to do since its funds had been sequestered.
It was these and other such brutal tactics that plunged strikers’ families into intense hardship, contributing, for example, to many marriage breakdowns, whilst it also steeled many more – as is always the case with hardship in struggle.
The miners were not left to starve, however, for the women of the pit towns and villages organised kitchens and mass dining facilities, usually in miners’ welfare clubs. The women also manned the picket lines and attended rallies and demos, standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and taking an equal part in the organising and all other facets of the struggle.
The Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) groups were also backed up by Miners’ Support Groups in many towns and cities, which collected much-needed money and food.
There were also some principled trade-union leaders who called on their members not to cross picket lines and to give financial support. A couple of unions and other bodies in Britain and abroad gave huge interest-free cash loans to the NUM to make sure it could operate, and the ‘secret’ government papers reveal that customs, Special Branch and MI5 were all put on alert to try to catch anyone carrying the large amounts of cash that were a lifeline for the NUM and the mining communities.
The men and women who carried these plastic bags full of cash, and who hid them in all kinds of unusual places, ran the risk of arrest and imprisonment – not to mention the risk of being robbed in the streets. They deserve special praise and, so secret were their identities kept that none of them were ever caught. Even now, 30 years on, the identities of very few of them are known.
International support for the striking miners was massive and messages of support and cash flooded in from all over the world, including a huge convoy of container trucks carrying food from French unions. There was also food and cash donated from Soviet workers, but Thatcher’s new friend and traitor to the international working class, Gorbachev, was busily blocking these donations from getting to where they were desperately needed.
The released cabinet papers also show us that the miners were within a hair’s breadth of winning a few times and in July 1984, when the dockers went on strike and refused to handle the foreign coal coming in, the government considered using troops to get the much-needed fuel (stocks were really low at that point) into the country.
In the end, however, it was thought that such a move might alienate energy workers and turn them towards militancy. The energy workers were of paramount importance to the government, and the treacherous leaders of their unions (the EETPU and AUEW) played a crucial role in keeping their members at work and denying any support to the miners.
In amongst the papers released this year can be found Thatcher’s scribbled calculations of coal needed and how much could come in on ferries, by lorry and so on – proving once again that not only were the government directly involved in this struggle, they were actually making all the decisions, even down to minor ones.
That said, even the combined power of Thatcher, the police and the courts did not defeat the miners – that distinction goes to the Labour Party and the TUC, which both worked so hard to undermine solidarity actions and paint the miners in general and the leaders of the NUM in particular as the cause of ‘picket-line violence’. Now, of course, the released papers once again show what we already knew 30 years ago – namely, that the government had instructed the police to ‘get tough’ with strikers and their supporters.
As ever, there are important lessons for our class to learn from this year’s released papers. For a start, it must be crystal clear by now that any bourgeois political party, whether in or out of power, will be against workers when they are fighting the bourgeois state.
The instruments of the state – that is, the police, army, judiciary and so on – will all be used against us if we stand up for our rights, and the ruling class will not adhere to any of the rules or laws that exist only to give them a façade of neutrality.
The media will always to their utmost to whip up hysteria against struggling workers through lies and distortions, and will also attempt to create divisions in our ranks. But if we stay united; if we accept and understand that the struggle is political and don’t try to hide from this fact; if we can keep unity of purpose, then we stand a very good chance of not only winning a dispute but also of moving the struggle on in a revolutionary direction.
Meanwhile, one can only wonder at the apparent shock in some quarters at the revelations that illustrate the same points every year.
Do we really have to wait a further 30 years to understand that the attacks on Syria were promoted, funded and armed by the British and other western governments, for example? Do we really need to wait that long to understand that today’s attacks on workers’ benefits and services are being carried out to protect the profits of the rich during this worst-ever crisis of overproduction?
There is more than enough evidence of all these things today – just as there was plenty of evidence about the truth of the miners’ strike for those who wanted to see it 30 years ago. The capitalist class pursues its own interests ruthlessly and with no regard for the laws of the land or the rules of fair play. It is long past time that we did the same if we don’t want to remain merely their outraged and downtrodden victims.