The death of Margaret Thatcher has provoked a huge reaction. Amid all the tributes and eulogies, pop songs and death parties, one aspect of her reign has been neglected: Thatcher’s moments of vulnerability.
Almost from moment of her election as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was one of the most divisive figures in modern British history. A YouGov poll after her death found that half of the public thought she had been a good prime minister, while exactly a third said she’d been a bad one (the figures were the same two years ago).
The poll found that her strength was regarded as her most striking characteristic. The top three qualities she was believed to possess were: she ‘stuck to what she believed in’ (72%); she was ‘strong’ (66%); and she was ‘decisive’ (59%).
Thatcher relied heavily on her ability to intimidate others, both within government and outside it. Like leaders before and since, she cultivated an air of unstoppability, of invulnerability. This was a weapon in itself.
In reality, Thatcher and her administration were far from irresistible. One of her government’s key victories was the defeat of the national union of mineworkers in 1984-85. The NUM had brought down the government of Thatcher’s predecessor as Conservative leader, Ted Heath, with two national strikes in 1972 and 1974.
The received picture of the strike of 1984-85 is that the prime minister was ruthlessly determined and unstoppable and the strike was hopeless.
This picture was exploded by Seumas Milne 10 years later in his classic exposé, The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners (Verso, 1994).
Milne discovered that the miners actually came closest to victory in the autumn of 1984, when pretty much everyone on the political scene had written off the strike.
Thatcher had backed down in 1981, avoiding a strike by the NUM, because coal stocks were low, giving the NUM leverage. For the strike in 1984, she had ordered stocks to be built up over the previous 18 months. Nevertheless, by the autumn of 1984, effective picketing and solidarity action meant the remaining stockpiles could not be moved around, and there was a serious risk of power cuts. Frank Ledger, operations director of the central electricity generating board (CEGB), later described the situation then as verging on the ‘catastrophic’.
Secret internal forecasts at the time predicted that the NUM would win the strike ‘in the autumn or certainly before Christmas’, in the words of Walter Marshall, then head of the CEGB. Meeting Thatcher at the time, he described her as ‘wobbly’ when she told him that she would have to send in the troops to move the coal. He believed this would have triggered an immediate strike by power workers and persuaded her to hold off.
The coal board then managed to bribe some workers to move some coal.
At almost the same moment, Milne points out, the management of the coal board almost lost the strike by stumbling into a dispute with the pit deputies union (responsible for safety underground). Management ordered NACODS members to cross NUM picket lines at strike-hit mines. They refused and balloted in September on industrial action – 83% voted to join the NUM on strike at the end of October 1984.
Thatcher later explained on television: ‘We had got so far and we were in danger of losing everything because of a silly mistake.... the actual management of the coal board could indeed have brought down the government.’ If NACODS had gone on strike, the few pits that were still operating would have had to close down for safety reasons, cutting off coal supplies and triggering power cuts.
As it was, the NACODS strike was mysteriously called off with only 24 hours to go. (Milne reports suggestions that some NACODS officials were bought off with promises of jobs and pensions deals.)
In other words, there was nothing inevitable about Thatcher’s victory over the miners, and the strike was, as Norman Tebbit said years later, ‘a close-run thing’.
Part of Thatcher’s legacy was a general sense of defeat among progressive movements including the trade union movement.
That sense of defeat was unwarranted and remains unwarranted. There was nothing inevitable about Thatcher’s victories, and there is no reason why her policies cannot be rolled back by concerted effort.