FEARFUL Britain was going to run out of food and grind to a halt due to a docks strike at the height of the 1984/85 miners’ strike, then-prime minister Thatcher was secretly preparing to use troops and declare a state of emergency, papers released under the 30-year rule reveal.
The 1984 cabinet papers, released to the National Archives, show that Thatcher asked for contingency plans to be drawn up to use troops to move coal stocks, despite official government policy ruling out the use of service personnel.
A separate contingency plan to use troops in the event of a dock strike, codenamed Operation Halberd, had also been drawn up.
The files show that Thatcher and her ministers ‘stared into the abyss’ and glimpsed the possibility of defeat in July 1984, when the dockers joined the miners on strike.
In the face of secret estimates that they would run out of coal stocks by mid-January, then-employment secretary Tebbit wrote a ‘secret and personal’ letter to Thatcher urging legal injunctions be taken out against the NUR and Aslef rail unions who were refusing to transport scab coal.
He warned: ‘In practice, we could not go right up to the brink.’
Thatcher’s own handwritten notes on ‘possible strategies for the coal and docks dispute’ for the 18 July meeting of Misc 101, the special cabinet committee on coal that she chaired, outlines plans for 2,800 troops in 13 specialist teams that could be used to unload 1,000 tonnes a day at the docks, which would require a declaration of a state of emergency to ensure they had access to the port equipment, such as cranes.
Minutes of the meeting say: ‘It was not clear how far a declaration of a state of emergency would be interpreted as a sign of determination by the government or a sign of weakness, nor to what extent to which it would increase docker support for the miners’ strike.’
That weekend the dock strike that had paralysed 61 ports for 12 days was called off.
In October 1984, Thatcher was faced with possible power cuts and a three-day week if the threatened strike by Nacods, the pit deputies’ union, had gone ahead.
When it was called off, the relief in Downing Street was palpable: ‘The news was announced this afternoon and represents a massive blow to Scargill,’ read the ‘secret and personal’ daily coal report for Wednesday 24 October.
Thatcher demanded urgent action after being warned by MI5 in 1984 that the Soviet Union was likely to provide funds for NUM.
Thatcher was told by the then cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, there was nothing he could do about it.
Two weeks later, the Soviet news agency, TASS, reported that the Russian miners had given £500,000 to the NUM strike fund.
Thatcher raised the matter with the Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, during his talks in London. Gorbachev feigned ignorance, but it was enough to prevent any further donations