Rather than shedding tears for Mrs.Thatcher, Tory Ministers should apologise for their coalfields’ legacy

by Michael Dugher

With the release of the cabinet papers on the 1984 miners’ strike, one of the more shameful chapters of our history has once again been exposed – and it’s time today’s Tory ministers apologised for the sins of their fathers.

Yesterday cabinet papers from 1984 revealed that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government did have a secret hit list of pits earmarked for closure.  Despite denials by the then government and by the National Coal Board, we now know that Tories planned to close 75 mines at the cost of some 65,000 jobs.

The papers also revealed that the previous Conservative government did seek to influence police tactics and put pressure on them to escalate the dispute.  Government ministers at the time pressured the Home Secretary, Leon Britton, to ensure chief constables adopt a “more vigorous interpretation of their duties”.

Shockingly, the cabinet papers also show that the Tories were willing to go as far as declaring a state of emergency and deploying the Army in order to gain victory over the striking miners and the unions – confirmation that it was a central tenet of government policy to regard tax-paying, law-abiding colliery workers, locked in struggle to defend their jobs and their way of life, as (to use that awful phrase of Margaret Thatcher’s) “the enemy within”.

Far from viewing people from these coalfield areas, such as in Barnsley where I represent, as ordinary, decent, hard-working people employed in a valuable and vital part of our economy, they presented the striking miners as dangerous ‘revolutionaries’ to be defeated. It is extraordinary to think that a British Prime Minister would seriously consider deployment of the British Armed Forces against ordinary British communities to further her domestic political ends, but this is the ugly truth of the Thatcher administration.

These newly released cabinet papers reveal the true scale of the previous Conservative government’s dishonesty in maintaining that the strike was simply an industrial dispute based on economics. This glimpse into the reality of the attitudes and ambitions of Thatcher and her Ministers shows that, far from the government of the day being neutral, they took a calculated political approach guided by a determination to close the pits as a way of destroying the coalfield communities once and for all.

This proves what we knew at the time: this was all about the worst kind of politics – about divide and rule, and a systematic attempt to destroy an entire industry and a way of life. This may not be a surprise to those of us who witnessed at firsthand what was going on in places like South Yorkshire during the strike, but that makes it no less shocking.

This resulted not just in the politicisation of policing, the fracturing of communities and a culture of fear, but a bitterness and a lasting social damage which has blighted those parts of the country for years to come – and which are still being felt today. Consider the perverse situation where in 2012 the UK consumed 64 million tonnes of coal but had to import 45 million tonnes into Britain because we don’t mine enough of our own.  Try explaining in coal-rich South Yorkshire the economics of importing coke from Australia to the UK.

The devastating legacy of the pit closures is still being felt, despite all the regeneration and economic progress made in the coalfield areas.  It is estimated that in Barnsley alone, 32,000 more jobs are needed just to reach the national average for employment density. Average weekly earnings need to increase by £59.50 just to reach the national average.  Today, long-term unemployment has increased 88% in Barnsley in the last 24 months.

Rather than shedding tears for Margaret Thatcher, Conservative ministers today should consider how they can make amends for their appalling legacy in the coalfields. The language of “the enemy within” may have gone, but the divide and rule politics of today’s Tories remains, combined with a race-to-the-bottom economics based on low paid, insecure work and unemployment for the many – in the vain hope that by just looking after a privileged few at the top some opportunities and wealth might ‘trickle down’ to those at the bottom.

Current Conservative ministers should also respond to Labour’s call for an inquiry into claims that South Yorkshire Police manipulated evidence during the miners’ strike. The Home Office has so far refused to comment as the Independent Police Complaints Commission has spent the past year working out if it has the necessary powers and resources to look at what happened at Orgreave. A proper investigation might go a little way to rebuild public confidence.

This Christmas break I took my two daughters to the fabulous National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield. As I took them down that pit on a guided tour of the history of coal mining – an industry that had employed many of their ancestors from my own family in the South Yorkshire coalfield – it struck me that this was largely all that was left: a wonderful 71 year old former miner now working as a tour guide in a museum stuffed with fascinating exhibits from our past, but ancient history perhaps to a couple of six and eight year olds. With the release of the cabinet papers from 1984, one of the more shameful chapters of that history has once again been exposed – and it’s high time today’s Tory ministers apologised for the sins of their fathers.

Michael Dugher is Member of Parliament for Barnsley East and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office


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10 Responses to “Rather than shedding tears for Mrs.Thatcher, Tory Ministers should apologise for their coalfields’ legacy”

  1. If @MichaelDugherMP wants an apology for the closure of coal mines, he should start with Wilson, who closed more mines than Thatcher, see guyfawk.es/1lGtjj3

  2. Forgot to mention the 29 pits which were closed under the Labour government Dugher was part of 1997 – 2010. Is he going to apologise?

  3. John says:

    When Kim Howells admitted 10 years ago,that he’d sent the miners to the bridge, who threw the brick off that Killed Taxi driver David wilkie, and then on hearing it happened ,he went back to his office shgredded evidence who was there, maybe Labour Shadow cabinet ministers should apologise,for that cover up,

  4. John P Reid says:

    I note this Article is also On Labourlist, which is where it should belong.

  5. Robert says:

    I am actually old enough to remember the coal strike and I would not argue with most of this article. It does not, however, mention the disastrous leadership of the NUM. Scargill had already lost ballots for strike action, so he decided not to hold a ballot and the strike was doomed when that decision was made.

    Another important point is that leaders of the NUM often referred to bringing down the democratically elected Tory government. They then complained when the government treated them like revolutionaries. What did they expect?

  6. swatantra says:

    Durgher has done a similar article on LabourList.
    Times change. Coal is no longer King, and Miners no longer live like nabobs and rule the roost..

  7. southern voter says:

    I too am old enough to remember the miners’ strike.
    Labour moderates wanted Scargill to hold a strike ballot.
    The Labour party and Kinnock were put into an impossible
    situation by the NUM leadership.
    Had the striking miners goals were achieved there was a real chance there
    would have been blackouts and the lights going off
    up and down the country.
    The government of the day did what it had to do to ensure
    the lights stayed on.

  8. Danny says:

    An anti-Thatcher article on Labour Uncut? Not the smartest idea.

  9. John reid says:

    Don’t worry Danny, they’ll be more articles pointing out that Ed view of just waiting for the Tories to lose is wrong, any you can criticise them when they appear.

  10. John PReid says:

    Michael dugher has emailed all labour members congratulating the. On the donations we’ve given the party over the last year,and has now asked for some more,I wonder how many labour members angry at our own party for spending money we didn’t have in the late 2000’s which has seen this recession be worse than it need be,feel obliged to give to our party additional money,

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