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Thatcher, Power and the Lessons of Confrontation

David Bannister

Many words have been written in the past few days since the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, some reflect her perceived greatness and others portray her as a class enemy. I cannot hope to emulate the lyrical heights to which some have soared in the press.  I can, however, look back and reflect on the way she dealt with trade unions and specifically the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s. During that time I was an Industrial Relations Officer in a manufacturing factory situated in the middle of the South Yorkshire coalfield. Friends and neighbours were involved both practically and emotionally in all of the events of that memorable year from March 1984 to March 1985.

I can remember the time when trade unions waged a seemingly continuous guerrilla war with the elected government of the country. In the early 1970s, the miners came out on strike for the first time in almost 50 years. They were led at that time by the avuncular Joe Gormley - later to gain respectability in the ermine of the House of Lords. However, the name on everyone's lips at the time was that of Arthur Scargill. It was Scargill who devised the strike-winning strategy of the "Flying Picket". Highly organised groups of NUM members were bussed from power station to power station preventing the delivery of coal and occasionally other fuels. This precipitated a governmental panic and the national sharing of misery brought about by power cuts arranged by the government to save precious electricity for industry. In 1974, the governing Conservative Party lost the election in humiliating fashion. The party changed its leader and elected one Margaret Hilda Thatcher. Recent TV reminiscences have highlighted some of her personal qualities of which determination and clarity of will were both evident. However, coupled to both of these, Thatcher was a pragmatist: she rarely entered a fight without a reasonable prospect of victory. Her first fight with the miners was in 1981. Arthur Scargill, now the President of the NUM, roused his members with talk of pit closures and job losses. The government postponed the closures and many perceived a government climbdown and NUM victory.

With the benefit of hindsight however, this was a clever tactical decision - never enter a fight without a reasonable prospect of victory. It seemed that Margaret Thatcher, hurt as she remained by the humiliation of the first miner's strike, considered it to be only one battle in the war. It seems that she reviewed the strategy of the NUM - the flying pickets had won the last battle for them and, having backed down on pit closures in 1981, she had allowed them to perceive that they would have an ongoing tactical advantage over the government. Wrong. Between 1981 and 1984 huge strategic stockpiles of coal were built up in power stations - enough to weather a long, long strike. The strike came in March 1984 (probably tactically not a good time as Winter was over and the need for power generation lessens with the Spring). This time, however, there were differences. The NUM did not ballot its members leading to an eventual breakaway of the Democratic Union of Mineworkers whose members continued to work in the Nottinghamshire coalfields serving the government with the tactical advantage afforded by division. The power of 'right on their side' claimed by the NUM was a matter of doubt from the start for many observers of tactics. The strategy of the flying pickets which had worked so well in the 70s had little effect when they gathered outside power stations behind the walls of which were thousands and thousands of tons of stockpiled coal. The answer of the NUM and its leadership when faced with a strategy that didn't work was not to find one that did but rather it was to throw more and more manpower and anger at the picket lines which grew bigger and more aggressive but no more effective.

The epic confrontation lasted a year. What many do not remember is that part way through the year the Association of Deputies - a supervisory union in the coalfields - threatened to join the strike. The government had not anticipated this move and made an offer of negotiation and settlement with the NUM. The NUM refused and persisted with its obstinate but ineffective strategy of picketing. Its opportunity to change an approach which was not working was lost and along with it so was the strike even though it took a further six months before the miners went back to work.

I understand that one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite poets was Longfellow and one of her favourite poems is this one:

"The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
But they while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night."

During the 10 years between the loss of the election in 1974 and the second miners' strike in 1984, Margaret Thatcher was toiling upward in night, considering and consolidating her power, ready for the time when there would be a reasonable prospect of victory. It seems, looking back over those years, that the NUM fell into the trap of believing that if the strategy works once it works always. They refused the opportunity to take a different strategic direction and negotiate and found their power ebbing away as the strike lengthened without any apparent prospect of victory for the union's members.

Whatever we may think of her as an individual, it seems that Margaret Thatcher understood strategy and how to use it to counteract the actions of others. She also understood power and in the dispute with the unions used it pragmatically as the records show she did in other disputes she had elsewhere, notably the EU. I was left pondering on a quote attributed to her: "Being powerful is like being a lady - if you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

'Think on' as we say in Yorkshire.

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