Each January 1st, British Government files more than thirty years old are released to the public at the National Archives in Kew, London. Selected key documents relating to the last months of the Heath Government are available to read on-line exclusively on www.margaretthatcher.org, with the permission of the National Archives.
4 January 2005: release of 1984-85 documents under the Freedom of Information Act, 2000
On January 4 the National Archives released more than 50,000 files less than thirty years old under Britain's new Freedom of Information (FOI) regime, including material from the archive of the National Coal Board during the bitter, year-long miners' strike of 1984-85.
Selected documents from the miners's strike are available on-line below.
1973 November 16-17: Heath's last summit with President Pompidou
Released only this year, the records of Heath's final summit with the French President, Georges Pompidou, show the scale of his ambition to recast British foreign policy in a European, rather than an Atlantic, mould. (The documents derive from PREM 15/2093.)
Heath's relationship with Pompidou was crucial to his foreign policy. Their summit in Paris, in May 1971, had cleared the way for British membership of the European Economic Community. Any major British initiative within the Community required French agreement as a practical necessity.The many files of briefing and preparation for this meeting are reminiscent of those prepared for meetings with US Presidents.
The records of these conversations show Heath pressing Pompidou to make rapid progress on a number of issues at the Copenhagen European Council the following month. Pompidou's responses were cautious, hinting at French and German reservations.. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Council proved a disappointment to the British Government.
1974 February 18: Helmut Schmidt admits British budget contribution to EEC "unfair"
During the February 1974 General Election, the terms of British entry to the European Economic Community were sharply criticised by Labour, which promised "re-negotiation" if elected.
Britain's heavy net contribution to the EEC budget was the crux. Although the Heath Government defended its record in public, a remarkable letter from a senior Foreign Office official in Brussels shows that other European governments were already being pressed privately by Britain to revise the budget settlement.
The letter describes a dinner of European Finance Ministers at which Helmut Schmidt, later German Chancellor, admits that the British were paying too much and expresses a readiness to look again at the terms of entry.This discussion took place a full ten years before the question was settled at the Fontainebleau European Council of June 1984.
1984 January 11: NUM hugely exaggerated impact of overtime ban, judging from the National Coal Board's internal figures
At the end of October 1983 the National Union of Mineworkers began an overtime ban, anticipating the strike soon to come. NUM leaders claimed publicly that the ban was having a massive impact on coal stocks and on the profitability of the publicly-owned coal industry, the National Coal Board (NCB). The NCB denied it, but understandably released no exact figures as to coal stocks at pits and power stations.
So who was in the right? Finally, the NCB's own figures are available to check the claims (file reference COAL 31/352).Coal stocks fell only 2 per cent between 31 October and 11 January, a rate so low that it would have taken twenty years to exhaust the coal in NCB's own yards. And the NCB's were not the only stocks. Power stations had been building up coal reserves for years and had enough to maintain production for six months even without further deliveries from the pits. (In fact, during the overtime ban weekly deliveries were 1.4 million tons.)
The financial impact of the ban was also hugely exaggerated by the NUM, while the miners themselves had lost more than £33 million in wages over the nine weeks of the ban.
1985 February 12-20: NCB negotiations with NUM curtailed by Government
In the last fortnight of the strike, with the NUM's defeat imminent, the NCB management entered into a negotiation with the union through the offices of the TUC, to the dismay of the Government which had deep doubts as to the tactical skills of the NCB and preferred to see the strike collapse.
The file from his office archive (COAL 31/438) show that the NCB chairman, Ian MacGregor, personally drafted an agreement for transmission to the NUM (the handwritten note at the beginning of the file extract is his). The Energy Secretary, Peter Walker, was appalled to discover what MacGregor was doing and wrote a stinging letter to make his point. MacGregor's ill-advised draft was revised a week later.
The strike ended with the union unilaterally returning to work.
1984 June: mole leaked NUM secret papers
Press coverage of releases on the miners's strike ("Pit mole betrayed striking miners"):