Thanks to the release of a batch of British government papers from the National Archive, we’ve recently learnt that in the midst of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was ready to declare a state of emergency and send in the army to distribute coal stocks.
It’s a revelation that captures well the mindset of the then Tory government. As Thatcher and her allies saw it, the Miners’ Strike was not just another in a long line of increasingly intractable, acrimonious industrial disputes, to be negotiated away through the dilapidated mechanisms established during the postwar consensus. It was more than that: it was a chance precisely to break away from the postwar consensus, a chance to free up the market from the shackles of trade unionism, an opportunity, ultimately, to defeat the organised working class. It was not at heart an economic dispute at all; it was a political conflict, a war not just between the Tories and the miners, but between classes. The future of society was at stake.
This is why documents showing that Thatcher was prepared to call in the army are not exactly a surprise. Even before the strike started, the government had stockpiled coal in preparation for a protracted confrontation. There would be no concessions this time. When the Miners’ Strike did finally, but unexpectedly, erupt in Cortonwood, South Yorkshire in March 1984, following a pre-emptive announcement of a local pit closure from the South Yorkshire Coal Board - days before the National Coal Board was scheduled to announce 20 pit closures – the government responded with the full force of the state. With the strike quickly spreading nationwide, the police, acting effectively as a national force under the central control of the National Reporting Centre at New Scotland Yard, proceeded to occupy pit towns and villages, set up road blocks, thinking nothing of using force and intimidation. The criminal and civil courts, emboldened by the Tory government’s fresh anti-trade union legislation, were likewise mobilised against the miners. By the end of the strike in March 1985, 11,291 people had been arrested and 8,392 charged with multi-purpose offences such as breach of the peace and obstructing the highway.
Tory ministers were always quite clear about what was going on: they were engaged in a battle with what Thatcher infamously described as ‘the enemy within’. ‘This is not a mining dispute. It is a challenge to British democracy and hence to British people’, declared a Tory cabinet minister in The Times in July 1984. The then chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, later described the planning of the state offensive against the striking miners as ‘just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s’.
And yet despite possessing what the sociologist Max Weber called ‘the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force’, the British state, with Thatcher as its helmet-haired leader, still struggled to defeat the miners. The state had the batons, the horses, not to mention a steroidal police army; it even had the veneer of legitimacy granted by the courts. But what it hadn’t reckoned on was the fortitude, the resilience and the courage of the striking miners, ably backed by family, friends and not a few comrades. Indeed, so indefatigable were the miners that by October 1984, according to the released National Archive papers, the government thought it was ‘staring into the abyss’. It had expected resistance – six months’ worth given the volume of stockpiled coal – but not this much, and not for this long.