Yesterday the media took me on a trip down memory lane. The past is a different country. 1984 was a year of struggle. Mr Scargill forced through a miners’ strike seeking to stop the Coal Board closing pits when they judged them to be uneconomic. Mrs Thatcher saw the challenge as a continuing one from the Union movement to an elected government.
It is difficult from today’s vantage point when there are different demons and tensions, to remember the intensity of the fears and worries on both sides of the Union dispute. Union action had prevented the 1960s Labour government from reforming industrial relations as they saw fit, and had helped speed the end of that government. A miners’ strike had finished off the Conservative government of the early 1970s prematurely. Finally, public sector unions brought down the Labour government of the 1970s, ending its authority and its mandate through the winter of discontent, 1978-9. Margaret Thatcher had no wish to confront the miners, and backed down from doing so in her first Parliament as PM. By 1984 she decided there was no choice but for an elected government to make a stand against union power. If the choice was Mr Scargill dictating terms or the elected government making judgements, most people knew where they had to stand.
In my role as her Chief Policy adviser I sought to prevent the use of troops to move coal or otherwise be involved in civil matters. I advised to keep the Cabinet out of negotiations with the miners. The dispute had been framed by Mr Scargill, who insisted the Coal Board should have no right to close pits on economic grounds, and by Mr Macgregor, the Coal B0ard Chairman, who insisted management had to be able to manage the industry as they judged right. I felt that if Cabinet members became involved in detailed discussions between employer and miners it could intensify the bitterness of an already very bitter dispute and lead to more muddle and threat for the country. The issue of closing uneconomic pits was not one for politicians, who rightly delegated commercial decisions to the NCB. My hope was enough miners would see that Mr Scargill had chosen the wrong issue at the wrong time of year to inflict another defeat on the Coal Board and indirectly on the government. Instead the bitterness increased as some miners went to work and others did not.
I was able to offer some help to the government as they sought to keep the lights on, by working with the electricity industry to maximise the use of nuclear and oil to reduce the claim on coal stocks. I wanted to avoid a three day week or mass lay offs of people in other industries owing to a shortage of power. There were enough miners families in misery without plunging many more workers into the same situation. The sad truth of the industry was a long continuous decline under Labour and Conservative governments. 410 pits were closed between 1960 and 1971-2, mainly under Labour.
At the end of the dispute I tried to get the government to offer the miners the right to work a pit the Coal Board claimed was uneconomic for themselves, as I was suspicious about some of the pits the Coal Board wished to close. I wanted a magnanimous aftermath. John Moore the privatisation Minister worked up some proposals but they got into the press before they were fully thought through or cleared with the PM, so the whole idea was lost. It was not until I was in the Cabinet myself that I was able to help one group of miners do just that, at Tower Colliery. They demonstrated that free of Coal Board control it was possible, at least in their case, to run the pit for longer .
During 1984 I offered Mrs Thatcher direct advice on a wide range of domestic topics, sending her papers to help with each day’s meetings when she was in London. . It is curious that the memo I wrote which has excited attention was not designed for the PM herself, but for the Policy Unit members. It was a fairy tale version of what I thought would happen to the Stock Exchange once the government told them they needed to reform themselves and remove their restrictive practices. The official advice I gave on the topic does not seem to have seen the light of day, probably because it was not written mainly for fun as the fairy story had been.
Peter Oborne in his column has referred to the absence of a piece of advice on the main privatisation programme. The principal paper which got Mrs Thatcher interested in a substantial programme was retained by her and not filed with the official papers as she liked the paper I wrote and wanted to keep it as a reference. It has found its way into the Churchill College archive in Cambridge directly from her own papers. There was plenty of other advice offered by myself and other Policy Unit members on the general privatisation programme. but that will need researchers to find it amidst the voluminous papers of a busy government.
I see that in Scotland there is criticism of so called “secret cuts” to the Scottish block grant. There were no secret cuts. The Treasury proposed a cut on the grounds that Scotland got favoured treatment, which the Prime Minister rejected. The Scottish block grant that was agreed was reported and debated fully in the normal way!