MARGARET Thatcher’s government secretly considered declaring a state of emergency during the height of the miners’ strike in 1984 and, months later, was desperate to stop cash from the Soviet Union reaching miners, according to newly released files.
Amid fears union action by dockers and miners could destroy her government, Mrs Thatcher considered mobilising the military and commandeering trucks to move food and coal.
It was probably the closest she came to defeat in her battle against the miners, but the scheme was never implemented after the dockers’ action petered out.
The extraordinarily bitter confrontation between the Conservative government and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its left-wing president Arthur Scargill was one of the defining episodes of the Thatcher era, provoking strong feelings that had not lessened when the former Prime Minister died in April last year.
Last night Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the NUM, said: “These files highlight the lengths Mrs Thatcher would go to. It wasn’t an industrial dispute, it was a political dispute.”
John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said: “It’s no surprise, but we live in a democracy and one of the hallmarks of democracy is that people are free to withdraw their labour. The government wanted to make it a political dispute and that’s fundamentally wrong – politicians should keep out of such disputes.”
By the summer of 1984, both sides appeared locked in a war of attrition, until early July when the escalation of a dispute at Immingham docks appeared to offer the miners a breakthrough.
With the Ministry of Agriculture warning of panic-buying of food if the docks strike took hold, Mrs Thatcher summoned key Ministers to discuss declaring a state of emergency, according to papers released by National Archives.
It was quickly agreed that an initial assessment that 2,800 troops could move 1,000 tons of goods a day using around 50 lorries was “far too low” for what was needed, and Ministers feared calling out the Army could make matters worse.
Nevertheless, officials continued to dust off plans which suggested 4,500 military drivers and 1,650 tipper trucks would be needed to keep coal supplies moving.
On July 18, Armed Forces Minister John Stanley reported the Ministry of Defence was reassessing its contingency plans.
Three days later the dock strike was ended. While the immediate crisis appeared to be over, Trade and Industry Secretary Norman Tebbit wrote to Mrs Thatcher on July 25 expressing concern that coal supplies were set to run out by mid-January.
But, having been assured that power supplies could be maintained, Mrs Thatcher, who had ordered the covert stockpiling of coal stocks at Britain’s power stations, stuck to her guns.
In November that year Ministers were alerted by MI5 that cash from the Soviet Union was reaching striking miners, amid reports some £500,000 had been raised to support the strike.
But even though the union’s assets had been sequestered by the courts after Arthur Scargill refused to allow it to pay a £200,000 fine for contempt, Mrs Thatcher was told there was little the authorities in the UK could do and the best they could hope for was that an NUM courier might be picked up by Customs trying to enter the country with “a suitcase full of bank notes”.
The Thatcher papers: Page 8; Comment Page 12.