How the scabs were ditched, and other dirty laundry of 1989-90

The latest release of cabinet papers gives us a further insight into the secret doings of our ruling class.

Proletarian writers

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Poll Tax Riots, March 1990

Proletarian writers

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Alongside the new year festivities comes an annual political event: namely, the release of old government papers under the 30-year rule,* providing detail and corroboration regarding what many of us knew back then but could not always prove: ie, that the government of the day lied and schemed to serve the best interests of the fabulously rich and powerful 0.01 percent who really rule this country.

Of course, some of the lies and ‘misdeeds’ of our public ‘servants’ are so vile and revealing – about both the doings of these besuited mercenaries and the true nature of the imperialist system they champion – that they will never willingly be brought to light. The cabinet minutes, official notes, other government papers and references that stay permanently hidden are numerous, but even the small glimpses ‘behind the scenes’ contained in the papers we are allowed to view reveal quite clearly that lies and deceit, among many darker activities, are the oft used tools of all bourgeois governments, whether they be made up of red, blue, orange or any other hue of imperialist cut-throats.

Dead end for UDM treachery

So let’s cast out minds back to 1989 and 1990. The miners’ strike of 1984/5 had been lost owing to government-ordered violence on the picket lines and within the towns and villages of the striking miners, and owing also to the utter refusal of the Labour party and TUC to play any really useful role on behalf of the miners, but instead to indulge in indeed much treachery towards the NUM.

The existence and activities of the scab Union of Democratic Miners (UDM), built with government aid in the Lancashire coalfields, where the mass media and social democracy had been working towards an anti-militant miners’ organisation since long before the strike, must also be added to the major causes of the miners’ defeat. This scab union, which had effectively fought for pit closures and mass redundancies in 1984-5, was reaping its rewards by 1989-90 as the pit closure programme, which had been initially targeted on pits where the workforce was represented by the NUM, was now bringing the axe to UDM pits.

Margaret Thatcher is now revealed through released papers to have said: “We have to keep the UDM satisfied. We (and the country) owe a lot to their members.” But the logic of capitalism demanded that these pits now close as well.

The latest release of papers also reveals that the UDM had not only been brought into existence by the government to win the 1984/5 strike and to try to destroy the NUM, but was also to be used to undermine the monopoly of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (Nacods).

In 1988 Nacods, which represented safety-critical grades without whom mines could not operate, was in dispute with the government over a wage claim. A released memo from Cecil Parkinson to Thatcher tells her that British Coal “are anxious to do everything they can to strengthen the UDM’s long-term position” among grades traditionally represented by Nacods. “In particular, they intend to give UDM members the training required to become deputies; and to lay down that in UDM majority pits only members of the UDM deputies branch, when it had been formed, would be accepted as deputies.”

He further wrote: “They [British Coal] do not intend to make these intentions publicly known, at least at this stage, since they would seriously complicate the situation with Nacods. However, in the longer term they will help ensure that the UDM continues to offer substantial advantages to its members.”

Of course, if pits close it doesn’t matter who represents either the miners or the deputies. Too late, many Lancashire members of the UDM saw the trap that they had cheerfully walked into, and the UDM leaders, who had been in personal contact with Thatcher during the setting up of their scab union and after, eventually became detested among their own members.

UDM leader Roy Lynk, awarded an OBE in 1990 for his services to class treachery, would, in 1992, stage a week-long sit-in at the Silverhill pit, claiming in the press to have been “shattered by the government’s callous pit closure plan” and “desperately hurt by the knives in the back from the Tories and British Coal”. But by then his theatricals would no longer help him, and many UDM members ripped up their membership cards and returned to the NUM.

The other UDM leader fared no better. Neil Greatrex was jailed for four years in 2012 for stealing £150,000 from a fund intended to help sick miners. It has to be said that at closed pits where the UDM represented the miners the redundancy payments were generally better than at pits represented by the NUM, but that was the total end value of all the government promises to the scabs: no jobs, no future industry for their children, just a few pieces of silver.

‘I like Germany so much I think there should be two of it’ (Reputed remark of Margaret Thatcher)

For those who think that, because imperialist powers share ideologies and goals, they can therefore live peacefully side by side in friendship while exploiting everyone else, the latest papers show that, at the time following the fall of the Berlin wall, when the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) was being dragged down into what would end up being a painful reunification completely under the diktat of imperialism, we now have confirmation that British imperialism was very uneasy about the reunification of Germany, fearing it might go on to play a leading role in a union of European states.

Thatcher even privately spoke of bringing the Soviet Union onside as a counter to a united Germany, much to the horror of the USA! According to a written reply, regarding an upcoming major speech that Thatcher was to make, Alan Clark, the defence procurement minister, told her that the new era of a “Thatcher-Gorbachev axis would be as important for the 1990s as the Thatcher-Reagan axis was for the 1980s. The friendship of a new Russia will be of immense value in offsetting German ascendancy, in controlling muslim irredentism and in defending the west against the … prospect of Sino-Japanese aggression” – a message that obviously sat well with Thatcher’s own thoughts.

This should not be read as either Thatcher or Clark going soft on communism, however. Rather, they both recognised what Gorbachev was and where he was taking the Soviet Union.

One of the newly released files contains a memo to Thatcher recounting a telephone conversation with US president George HW Bush in early 1990 showing how the British attitude was perceived by the Americans. President Bush was “very worried” by German-British relations and extremely troubled by the British PM’s suggestion that the Soviet Union could be bought into an ‘entente cordiale’, because the US always considered the Soviet Union to be “a deeply hostile power”.

Bush “could not conceive how you could think of the Russians as possible allies against Germany”, foreign policy adviser Charles Powell wrote to Thatcher.

Poll tax blues

Another great event of the time. which eventually helped eject Thatcher from office, was the introduction of the hated poll tax – a tax on people, rather than property, that did not even pretend to take into account any ability or otherwise to pay.

For example, a council house with six adult occupants would pay far more than a mansion with two people living in it. This iniquitous tax aroused such hatred that a demonstration in Trafalgar Square protesting against its introduction, on 31 March 1990, turned into a riot after some heavy handed policing. The resistance also included a heavy and protracted attempt by demonstrators to get into Downing Street, which saw some terrible violence meted out by the Metropolitan police.

Minutes of a confidential meeting three days afterwards show the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Peter Imbert, explaining to Thatcher that about 40,000 poll tax protesters had turned up in Trafalgar Square in line with police expectations. However, “What had been completely unexpected was the degree of violence used. Some of his officers came close to being murdered,” claimed the confidential minutes of the meeting. Hundreds of people were injured, quite a few of them policemen, as the demonstrators fought back and gave a good account of themselves, while 339 protesters were arrested.

Thatcher asked Imbert if there was a case for barring future demonstrations from Trafalgar Square. He said that he would apply for a ban if a similar poll tax demonstration were to be proposed in the near future.

The next day, Westminster council offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of one young man who was filmed while he smashed a wooden stave through a police car window. The council also called on the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, to expel two Labour MPs, George Galloway and Dave Nellist, who had given support to the demonstration and were also refusing to pay the poll tax. (Both Nellist and Galloway were in fact expelled from Labour in later years – Nellist for his support of the Militant tendency and Galloway for his opposition to the Iraq War.)

The Labour party and TUC duly proceeded to put on a great public display of wailing and lamentation over the use of violence against the police and property, both public and private, and were accordingly given yards of space in the newspapers to admonish those terrible poor people who had been misled into thinking that breaking laws could stop the violence and misery that the poll tax was going to impose on them.

Another set of voices was also lifted up against the poll tax though – from longstanding Tory voters who wrote letters such as one in the files by a correspondent calling himself ‘Dreams of Delight’ of Great Snoring, Norfolk, who accused Thatcher of being a dictator because he and his kindalso faced the prospect of their rates bill doubling under the poll tax.

This revolt in the Tory shires, along with the Trafalgar Square riot and other fight-backs such as the militant campaigns of non-payment in working-class areas, would do more to seal Thatcher’s fate in the November 1990 leadership contest than all the Labour party petitions and peaceful TUC marches up the hill and down again. As well as stoking the divisions within her party over Europe, Thatcher had managed to unite against the government the broad masses of poor along with much of the middle class. For the ruling minority of ultra-rich it was time for her to go, and go quickly.

Shoot to kill

Another released paper reveals that a 1988 peaceful intrusion into the nuclear submarine HMS Repulse, while it was docked at the Faslane base on the Clyde, drew the following remark in the subsequent cabinet meeting from the PM: “I am utterly horrified. Examples of slackness in sensitive matters keep coming to light. I must have an urgent report. We could have been put in grave danger.”

The ‘rules of engagement’ at the base were altered to make it permissible to open fire on demonstrators who trespassed if the guard believed that there was a risk of sabotage.

* In 2013 the government started a change towards releasing records when they are only 20 years old, instead of 30. During 2013 the National Archives received records from 1983 and 1984, and in 2014 records from 1985 and 1986. Two further years’ worth of government records are being transferred to them each year until 2022 when we will receive the records from 2001 and 2002.