Blog post

The Enemy Within: Thatcher takes on the miners

Seumas Milne 9 April 2013

The virulence of the denunciations of Scargill and the miners during and long after the 1984–5 strike went far beyond the established boundaries of modern-day mainstream British politics. It reached a peak in the summer of 1984, when the Prime Minister compared the struggle with the miners to the war against the Argentine junta over the Falklands/Malvinas islands two years earlier. ‘We had to fight an enemy without in the Falklands,’ she declared at a gathering of Conservative back- bench MPs. Now the war had to be taken to ‘the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty’. A few months later, Margaret Thatcher would return to her theme in the Carlton Club, the clubland temple of High Toryism:

At one end of the spectrum are, the terrorist gangs within our borders and the terrorist states which finance and arm them. At the other are the hard left, operating inside our system, conspiring to use union power . . . to break, defy and subvert the laws.

Her senior ministers were no less extreme. Thus Leon Brittan, the Home Secretary responsible during the strike for overseeing Britain’s largest and longest-running police mobilization ever, fulminated:

Mr Scargill does not just hate our free and democratic system and seek to do everything he can to discredit and damage it; he also feels equal hatred and contempt for those miners whose servant he is meant to be but whose tyrant he has become.

The message conveyed by these remarks by Thatcher and Brittan was unmistakable, down to the use of the words ‘conspiring’ and ‘subvert’: this false prophet and his bands of untamed red guards and coalfield sans-culottes should be treated as outlaws. They were enemies of the state. By branding the miners ‘the enemy within’, the Prime Minister was giving a calculated signal of unambiguous clarity to all government agencies that the gloves should come off in the war with the NUM.

The private instructions were inevitably more explicit. One police chief constable recalls being formally warned by a senior Home Office official early on in the dispute of the Prime Minister’s frustrations at what she saw as official pussyfooting in the coalfields. She was, he was told, ‘convinced that a secret communist cell around Scargill was orchestrating the strike in order to bring down the country’, and that infiltration and intelligence-gathering needed to be sharply stepped up to prove the conspiracy. The NUM found itself facing the concentrated power of the state in an unprecedented form. And the much- reported nationwide police deployment, the 11,000 arrests, the roadblocks and large-scale use of force by the police were only the public face of the covert campaign – which increasingly came to guide and dominate the tactics used to try and break the miners’ resistance. [...]

It was against this background that Margaret Thatcher authorized ‘special measures’ by the security services against Scargill, Heathfield and their core supporters towards the end of the 1980s, and that the media and legal barrage was launched in March 1990. There was much speculation in the early stages of the Scargill Affair as to why so much attention was being focused on a broken union, whose leader was a ‘dead duck politically’, a man who had ‘slid to the very periphery of events’. In reality, there was more than a little wishful thinking in such triumphalist claims. Not only was the miners’ underlying industrial clout far less affected by their decline in numbers than generally understood. But, for the Tory Prime Minister in particular, the survival of ‘King Arthur’ – albeit scarred, bloodied and presiding over a much-diminished kingdom – was a permanent affront and a constant reminder of a job uncompleted. [...]

The campaign was a bizarre, almost surreal, episode which revealed much about the way British public life works: its double standards and workaday corruption; the myriad ties and connections which allow different parts of the establishment to move in tandem as soon as the need arises; the comfortable relationship between sections of the Labour hierarchy and the government and security apparatus; the way politicians, gov- ernment and its various agencies, newspapers, broadcasters and professionals feed off the same political menu as if to order. It also served to highlight, in exemplary fashion, the political venality and pliability of the bulk of the British media. [...]

The use of informers, infiltrators and provocateurs; pre- meditated police violence; attempted frame-ups; bugging and surveillance on a heroic scale; the spending of billions of pounds on facing down the strike and then on forcing through large- scale pit closures: none of this commanded any public con- sensus. But, of course, the maintenance of absolute secrecy around such activities in the interests of ‘national security’ prevents any testing of opinion or accountability of those responsible. It may be no surprise that the Tory government and its footsoldiers used any and every means to break the miners’ union – the only serious force to stand in the way of the Thatcherite ‘counter-revolution’. But such an assault had nothing whatever to do with the defence of democracy. Indeed, it represented the very opposite.

An edited extract from The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners by Seumas Milne

Filed under: thatcher2013