Mining bosses planned 75 pit closures, secret documents from 1984 reveal

Hatfield Colliery, Stainforth, Doncaster
Hatfield Colliery, Stainforth, Doncaster

Cabinet papers released today from 1984 reveal coal bosses had planned to close 75 mines over three years, before the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

The government and National Coal Board said at the time they wanted to close 20. But the documents reveal a plan to shut 75 mines over three years.

The miners’ strike began in March 1984 and did not end until the next year.

Previously confidential files released today by the National Archives reveal there was an agreement in government to shut 75 pits by the following year, and cut 64,000 jobs.

A document, marked “Not to be photocopied or circulated outside the private office”, records a meeting attended by seven people, including the prime minister, chancellor, energy secretary and employment secretary, at Downing Street

The meeting was told the National Coal Board’s pit closure programme had “gone better this year than planned and ‘there had been one pit closed every three weeks” and the workforce had shrunk by 10 per cent

The new chairman of the board, Ian MacGregor, now meant to go further.

A document states: “Mr MacGregor had it in mind over the three years 1983-85 that a further 75 pits would be closed... There should be no closure list, but a pit-by-pit procedure.

“The manpower at the end of that time in the industry would be down to 138,000 from its current level of 202,000.”

As a result, two-thirds of Welsh miners would become redundant, a third of those in Scotland, almost half of those in north east England, half in South Yorkshire and almost half in the South Midlands. The entire Kent coalfield would close.

The final paragraph of the document read: “It was agreed that no record of this meeting should be circulated.”

A week later another document written by a senior civil servant suggested the same small group should meet regularly in future, but that there should be “nothing in writing which clarifies the understandings about strategy which exist between Mr MacGregor and the secretary of state for energy”.

The documents also revealed Mrs Thatcher secretly considered calling out the troops at the height of the strike amid fears union action could destroy her Conservative Government.

Government papers from 1984, released by the National Archives, show ministers were so concerned at the outbreak of a national docks strike while the miners were still out, they considered declaring a state of emergency.

Plans were drawn up for thousands of service personnel to commandeer trucks to move vital supplies of food and coal around the country.

Another crisis for the government came in October with a threatened walk-out by the pit deputies union, NACODS. Without the men responsible for pit safety, those mines which had refused to join the strike and had carried on working would have to close, once again threatening coal stocks.

The files show that worried officials drew up contingency plans to conserve supplies, including - chillingly for the Tories with memories of the 1970s - the imposition of a three-day working week.

But when the NACODS action was called off, it was clear the dispute with the NUM had reached a turning point, as disheartened miners began the slow drift back to work.

On November 20, the government’s daily coal report noted that since November 5, 10,442 men had returned to the pits.

“There can be no better evidence that Mr Scargill’s case is failing,” it declared.

It is also revealed the Government was desperate to stop cash from the Soviet Union reaching the striking coal miners, according to newly-released Government papers.

Official files from 1984 released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, show ministers believed hundreds of thousands of pounds were being channelled to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from Moscow.

But even though the union’s assets had been sequestered by the courts after its president, Arthur Scargill, refused to allow it to pay a £200,000 fine for contempt, officials admitted there was little they could do to stop the flow of roubles.

Mrs Thatcher was told the best they could hope for was that a NUM courier might be picked up by Customs trying to enter the country with “a suitcase full of bank notes”.

Minsters were alerted by MI5 to the Soviet financial lifeline for the miners in early November 1984. A few days later the Soviet news agency TASS reported publicly that £500,000 had been raised to support the strike.

Although the money was supposed to have been donated by Russian miners, the Government had little doubt that the funds could only have been transferred abroad with the approval of the Soviet authorities.

But despite the sequestration order, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong was forced to admit to Mrs Thatcher that there was little the authorities in the UK could do.

“There are no powers which could be used to prevent the transfer of funds from abroad to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) or to somebody nominated to receive them on behalf of the NUM in this country,” he wrote in a memorandum dated November 5.