Margaret Thatcher's files as Prime Minister, 1984

MT's Prime Ministerial files from 1984 were released at the UK National Archives in Kew on 3 January 2014

Here are uploads of selected secret files from No.10, along with commentary focussing on the coal strike

Hong Kong files are at the end of this page

1984 Oct 12: one last paper, Prime Minister ...

The last paper MT read before the Brighton Bomb at 2.54am, hurriedly initialled minutes before the explosion. It had been faxed from No.10 earlier that evening - see time marker at top left

Shortly after 2.40am on Friday 12 October 1984 MT was finishing her red box at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, working in the sitting room of her suite alongside her Principal Private Secretary, Robin Butler. She had spent much of the day and evening on her conference speech, a business exhausting for all involved. Her husband was already in bed next door. Butler handed her a final paper, on the rather modest topic of what was to become of the Liverpool Garden Festival site when the event was over. Given the lateness of the hour he asked her to look at the paper overnight and give her opinion in the morning, but characteristically she said she would rather get it out of the way so she could focus on the speech, and settled down to read. She marked the document with a red biro then quickly initialled the timed faxed coversheet, in black, before handing it back around 2.54am. Here it is, the image on the left.

Moments later the bomb exploded four floors above.

Had the device been placed a little differently, or been big enough to destroy the structure of the hotel outright, this document might well have been the last thing MT ever read. As it was, the decision to do a little more work almost certainly kept her out of the bathroom, the only part of her suite that suffered damage. And just as it was characteristic of her to clear the decks before preparing for bed, so Robin Butler exhibited a true mandarin's sang froid in making sure the document was safely packed into his briefcase when the room was finally cleared, from where it found its way like any other paper back to the relevant file without so much as a post-it sticker to record its curious history.

Last document MT read before the Brighton Bomb


The miners' strike (in part)

The biggest single bloc of files in the 1984 release, and the most anticipated, relates to the coal strike of 1984-85.

Stories drawing on these files have been splashed in the press and revelations claimed from every perspective. Conspiracy theorists have found support (they always do). But, in truth, this release has big limitations. For one thing, the strike ran on till March 1985, but these files end in November 1984 and we will have to wait another six months for the remainder. The files of other departments on this topic are not yet available and may never be, particularly those of the Department of Energy which was closest to the heat of it all but which has made a poor job of archiving its doings. The Cabinet Office's coal files also appear to have gone astray. And anyone who has read carefully the relevant chapter of MT's memoirs will recognise much of the material, because it was thoroughly worked through during the preparation of the book. There is little that is genuinely new in this release.

There are deeper reasons why these files tell us less than they might. Ministers had a morbid, surely not misguided, fear of leaks on the topic. In past miners' strikes these had sometimes had devastating results, for example during the February 1974 General Election campaign. Accordingly as little as possible found its way onto paper. The strike was managed by a cabinet committee known as MISC101, its members briefed orally at meetings rather than in the normal way for such business, by papers circulated in advance. Discussions of the strike in full cabinet were handled with greater caution still.

Even MISC101 played a limited role, increasingly confined to discussions of presentation rather than substance, an acknowledged 'inner group' meeting to make the key decisions, a group which was fluid and showed over time a tendency to shrink. Ministers as central to the dispute as the Trade and Industry Secretary, Norman Tebbit, and the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, found themselves on the edge of things, with Energy Secretary Peter Walker the only constant.

Like many people at home in front of a tv camera, Walker was an instinctively secretive man. (If there is a paradox there, it is of a superficial kind.) He preferred when he could to handle things in conversation and to deal with the Prime Minister directly, eventually drawing complaint and fundamental questioning from Tebbit on 25 July, warning MT that "on our present course, I do not see that time is on our side". Responding to this one of MT's closest officials, her Economics Private Secretary Andrew Turnbull, told her he suspected "that the problems encountered in MISC101 are borne of anxiety which in turn arises from Mr Walker's understandable desire to play his cards close to his chest". In fact No.10 occasionally suspected Walker of keeping it in the dark, and Walker thought the same of the National Coal Board (NCB), probably with reason. Most surprising of all, MT seems to have censored herself, her trademark annotations on documents noticeably pared back. Where are the 'no no noes', the handwritten comments sometimes not much shorter than the thing she was commenting on? Fortunately, she allowed herself the odd tick or two.

If the inner thinking of central government is sometimes obscure in these files, it is no surprise that we learn very little of the policing of the strike from them, operational decisions being firmly outside the political sphere. Probably we will struggle to find more at this tactical level from any source for a long time to come. And the union side of things is almost completely opaque. We may never get a full picture of this central event in modern British history unless the topic finds an outstanding historian, and soon.

Preliminary verdicts on some of the big controversies of the strike?

  • There was no 'hit list' of pits due for closure, as the National Union of Minerworkers (NUM) claimed. But the closure of Cortonwood, which triggered the strike, was privately acknowledged by government to have been mishandled by the NCB, and clearly ministers and officials thought a strike might come sooner or later in any case. They worried particularly what would happen if closure plans could not be delivered without compulsory redundancies, reckoned much more likely to cause a strike than disputes over pay.
  • A big reduction in the size of the industry was planned, but nothing like as great as came about after 1992. Meeting in September 1983 ministers were told that Ian MacGregor, newly appointed to head the NCB, thought the industry could be made profitable if the Board closed around 75 pits over the years 1983-85, reducing the workforce by around 64,000 (from 202,000 to 138,000) and annual output by 25m tonnes. The BBC treated this proposal as a major news story in its coverage of the release, not noticing that it was first revealed in MT's memoirs in 1993; see Downing Street Years p343. Nor did ministers endorse it. In fact Peter Walker expressed doubts as to the impact on particular coalfields and the meeting left the question open. Ministers returned to the question on 19 January 1984, at which point MacGregor was proposing a reduction of 45,000 men over two years. This plan was endorsed, accompanied by a widening of the existing redundancy scheme - already very attractive - to include workers under 50, in the hope that the whole programme could be achieved on a voluntary basis. The note records simply: "Any compulsory redundancies would greatly strengthen the hand of the NUM in calling a strike".
  • It is clear that at the time of the strike the government expected and intended that British mined coal would remain a major energy source for UK power generation, attractive insofar as it helped ensure diversity of supply and came from a domestic origin. Major new investment was planned alongisde closures to open new and more efficient pits. For example, days before the 19 January meeting, two months before the strike, the Board announced a £400m new mine at Asfordby, on the edge of the Vale of Belvoir. The NCB was projected to break even in 1988, though on the basis of assumptions that look rosy from a later perspective. At the time of the strike both government and NCB greatly overestimated the future market for British coal.
  • Was there a secret plan to fight the strike? Yes, but not the infamous "Ridley Plan", named after Nick Ridley - a one page appendix to a leaked document dating from 1978, before the Conservatives even took office. Officials took the lead in framing something much more substantial after the near strike of February 1981, when MT retreated speedily from an earlier confrontation over pit closures when she realised the miners would likely win. They worked though a committee called MISC57, and it should be called "the Wade-Gery plan" if anything, after the Cabinet Office Deputy Secretary who chaired it. Government stockpiled coal at power stations sufficient to ride out a six month strike. The assumption was that the miners would strike following a national ballot and that the strike would be solidly supported within the industry. In fact there was no ballot, the union split and Notts miners continued working. Had they not, the Wade-Gery plan might very well have failed.
  • Was the government pulling the strings of the NCB at every point? Emphatically not, ministers struggled even to extract information from the Board and volunteered as little as they could in return. In fact a constant theme of the papers as the strike went on is the danger that the NCB management would be outmanoeuvred in negotiation by the NUM, concede vital ground and/or allow Scargill to claim victory. Constant efforts were made to toughen its negotiating stance and sharpen its public relations, which ministers thought abysmal. They were comforted though by the fact that opinion polls showed that the NUM was faring far worse with the public, massive majorities rejecting key elements of its stance (eg, at end August 89 per cent thought it should have held a national ballot before striking, 7 per cent not).
  • Why didn't the Conservatives' new union laws play a bigger part? MT was unhappy with one of Peter Walker's key judgments throughout the dispute, that the nationalised industries should not make use of new union laws to make the NUM liable for its action in the civil courts. Walker feared cases of this kind would reunite the NUM, perhaps bringing working miners out on strike in the vital Nottinghamshire coalfield, and win greater sympathy for the miners from other trade unions; her counterview was that the new laws were being made to seem irrelevant while police were being left to bear the brunt, civil remedies taking second place to increasingly massive efforts to enforce criminal law. The Tebbit memorandum on 25 July suggests other ministers shared her view. Walker, however, made a skilful response. That very day he organised a private briefing for MT by Walter Marshall, the head of the Central Electricity Generating Board, a man she much respected. Marshall sketched the potential for the power generators to sit out a much longer strike - well beyond winter 1984/85 - provided that Notts kept working.Whether she thought the timing suspicious or not, MT bought this 11th hour argument: policy continued to give priority to that goal over all else. Tebbit and other ministers were quietly reassured that the numbers added up - though it is notable that after this meeting the Department of Energy's weekly reports on power station endurance contained a health warning against the most optimistic assessments, referring back to Marshall.
  • How then did the NUM end up sequestrated? In the end civil actions using the new union laws did play an important role in ending the strike, instigated by working miners rather than nationalised industries. A key figure in this respect was David Hart, a self-appointed adviser to MT who acted as a go-between with the working miners and Ian MacGregor. Hart is only glancingly mentioned in the official files. How far MT knew about and encouraged this development - whether it was a kind of parallel policy - is an interesting question. Perhaps her private and party papers for 1984 will tell us more when they are released later this year.
  • As the strike entered autumn 1984 the government was becoming a little more confident of eventual victory, but this phase of hopefulness was abruptly ended by crucial mine safety staff, who had their own union, NACODS. To ministerial horror, the NCB gave NACODS an opening to organise a successful strike ballot, a grotesque piece of mismanagement that forced ministers and officials to study the abyss. So much for the theory that ministers controlled the NCB. If Notts coal production had stopped, policy would have had to toughen, whatever the risk. MT's senior official at No.10, Robin Butler, came round to the view that the government might need to do whatever was necessary to demonstrate its ability to sit out even a very long strike. "The single factor which would most effectively demonstrate our ability to survive a long time is showing that we can and will use the coal stocks at the strike bound pits. We would need, of course, to ensure that we could overcome the inevitable physical resistance at power stations". Such a step would have involved a very significant escalation, quite possibly involving the armed forces. A crisis for the government was becoming a crisis for the state itself. In the event the NCB managed to buy off NACODS and the strike was avoided; Notts carried on working.
  • There are a few fragments in the files relating to the role played by the Security Service ('MI5'). There is an account of MT's response to an intelligence report that the NUM was receiving funds from the Soviet Union. There is a strong hint that MT was disappointed at the limited role the Service was playing. Another relates a question asked by No.10, whether an "American lady" had left the country on 8 August? (Who on earth was this?) Christopher Andrew's authorised history of the Security Servive has rather more to say, confirming the impression that the Service only involved itself with reluctance in the dispute, also that Scargill and McGahey's phones were tapped, a fact realised by both men who were careful how they used the phone. Apparently Mrs McGahey was less cautious. If only her Scottish accent had been a bit easier to follow ...


Selected documents on the strike

We are uploading a large selection of documents to our site database where they can be searched in any manner of ways. Uploading takes time and is not yet complete, but more than 500 are already there. Most of the documents in the coal strike files are being uploaded into the site database.

Documents on the strike, 1984


Whole files on the strike

You can also read in full the coal strike files from which the selected documents are taken. These are already uploaded, exactly as they appear in the reading room at Kew. They are big files and depending on your connection will take a while to download:

PREM19/1329 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 8 [1983 Jun 23 - 1984 Mar 30] 74MB
PREM19/1330 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 9 [1984 Apr 3 - May 31] 68MB
PREM19/1331 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 10 [1984 Jun 1 - Jul 18] 67MB
PREM19/1332 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 11 [1984 Jul 19 - Aug 31] 68MB
PREM19/1333 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 12 [1984 Sep 2 - Sep 20] 64MB
PREM19/1334 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 13 [1984 Sep 21 - Oct 19] 86MB
PREM19/1335 Nationalised Industries (Financial position of the coal industry) Part 14 [1984 Oct 20 - Nov 20] 73MB
CAB130/1228 Official Committee on coal, 1983 (MISC57) [1983] 37MB
CAB130/1260 Official Committee on coal dispute, 1984 (MISC57) [1984] 26MB
CAB130/1268 Cabinet Committee on coal dispute, 1984 (MISC101) [1984] 78MB

1984: Hong Kong & other files

Over the next few days we will be uploading more files released by TNA on 3 January 2014, including material on the the US.

Here are the massive Hong Kong files, covering the period up to the initialling of the British-Chinese agreement in September that became the Joint Declaration. The signature of the Declaration in December will be covered by files in the next release, due this summer.

PREM19/1262 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 11 [1984 Jan 3 - 31] 116MB
PREM19/1263 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 12 [1984 Feb 1 - Mar 30] 160MB
PREM19/1264 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 13 [1984 Apr 2 - 30] 104MB
PREM19/1265 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 14 [1984 May 1 - Jun 30] 139MB
PREM19/1266 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 15 [1984 Jul 2 - 31] 98MB
PREM19/1267 Hong Kong (Future of) Part 16 [1984 Aug 1 - Sep 25] 148MB
CAB148/241 Defence & Oversea Policy Committee of Cabinet (Sub-Committee on Hong Kong - OD(K)) [1984 Jan 11 - Sep 12] 31MB
PREM19/1402 USA (visit of Mrs Jeane Kirkpatrick to UK) [1984 Mar 23 - Oct 16] 14MB