Everyone remembers the arrival of Mrs Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street, and many point out that (ironically, we are to understand) one of the most pugnacious Prime Ministers of the century made a point of quoting the famous prayer of St Francis, which begins “Lord make me an instrument of thy peace”, and goes on, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.”
It has been suggested, in view of the miners’ strike, and, also of her role in the Falklands conflict, that she wasn’t much of an instrument of peace. I was on her side in both conflicts (not just Galtieri but even more Scargill had to be beaten): and in the end, relations with the trades unions were improved, and strikes immensely reduced (the Argentines were also, as a by product of her victory, liberated from the military junta). And in both conflicts, she did not pick the fight: she was responding to the aggression of others: not just General Galtieri but also Arthur Scargill—for it was he personally, by inaugurating an unofficial strike without balloting his members, who took on Thatcher, not the other way round.
Certainly, she thought it possible he might do so, and prepared herself carefully for battle in a number of ways, especially by building up coal stocks at the power stations: this time, she was determined to win: and what else could she do? It was Scargill’s intention to bring down her government, just as the miners had brought down Ted Heath’s. There are some battles that have to be not only fought but won.
But let me concede, for the sake of argument, that she was politically divisive. So wasn’t it a bit ironic that she should quote that famous prayer of St Francis on her first day in office?
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. It’s important to remember that there is more to that prayer of St Francis than just the opening petition; there are three more petitions, arguably close to the heart of the Thatcherite agenda: “Where there is error, may we bring truth; Where there is doubt, may we bring faith; and, where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Obviously, St Francis didn’t mean the word “faith” to be given a political meaning. But it’s absolutely understandable that Mrs Thatcher should. Think where this country was, politically, in 1979. We were widely known, throughout the world, as the “sick man of Europe”. National self-confidence was at rock bottom. The economy was a basket case. The trades unions had virtually run the Labour government she had just defeated, and almost ruined the country in the process. The dead were unburied. The country was knee-deep in uncollected garbage.
Mrs Thatcher believed that the country had been run since the war on the basis of a political error that had brought the country to almost to total ruin: the error that government should run everything. She believed in the opposite: that was her truth. So her first aim was to replace what she believed to be error by her idea of truth: to shrink the state, to liberate the markets and with them the creativity of the private sector. She was also determined to restore our faith in ourselves, to drive out the national self-doubt that had paralysed the country for so long, to bring, quite literally, hope where there had been despair. The defeat of Galtieri and Scargill were the iconic victories in that struggle: but they were not the only victories. I remember it all well. Suddenly, one day, we were no longer the sick man of Europe.
And while we are about it, let us hear no more about Mrs Thacher’s destruction of the coal industry and of all those mining communities. As John Phelan pointed out in an article published last year (from which most of the figures which follow are taken), jobs in mining were lost under Labour in numbers that dwarfed anything under Thatcher.
264 pits closed between 1957 and 1963. 346,000 miners left the industry between 1963 and 1968. In 1967 alone there were 12,900 forced redundancies. Under Harold Wilson one pit closed every week.
1969 was the last year when coal accounted for more than half of Britain’s energy consumption. By 1970, when the Heath government was elected, there were just 300 pits left – a fall of two thirds in 25 years.
By 1974 coal accounted for less than one third of energy consumption in Britain. Margaret Thatcher’s government inherited a coal industry which had seen productivity collapse. Nevertheless, it made attempts at rescue. In 1981 a subsidy of £50 million was given to industries which switched from cheap oil to expensive British coal. So decrepit had the industry become that taxpayers were paying people to buy British coal.
The Thatcher government injected a further £200 million into the industry. Companies who had gone abroad to buy coal, such as the Central Electricity Generating Board, were banned from bringing it in and 3 million tonnes of coal piled up at Rotterdam at a cost to the British taxpayer of £30 million per year.
By now the industry was losing £1.2 million per day. Taxpayers were subsidising the mining industry to the tune of £1.3 billion annually.
One could go on: the point is that it was mostly not Mrs Thatcher who phased out the coal industry. Arthur Scargill had far more to do with finally finishing it off by his cynical attempt to use the miners politically to bring down the Thatcher government.
When he failed, there was an overwhelming feeling throughout the country that we had finally been liberated from the tyranny of generations of overmighty union bosses, of whom he was the last. Scargill retired to a penthouse apartment in the Barbican (I sometimes saw him, hanging around in the Barbican tube station, on my way to work at the Catholic Herald).
Mrs Thatcher would have continued what Harold Wilson had started: but it would have been done more gently if Scargill had not mounted his frontal assault, on her and on the country. Having beaten the Argentines in battle, she now took on vigorously what she rightly described as “the enemy within”—not the miners themselves, but Scargill’s NUM, a very different thing.
She had to win, outright, for all our sakes. Probably any other Tory Prime Minister would have panicked and looked for a compromise: and Scargill would have won, again. It does not bear thinking about.
And all this is to say nothing about her contribution to the end of communism (see Frances Phillips’s excellent post) —her contribution to which was acknowledged again yesterday by Lech Walesa, who described her (not for the first time) as “a great person”.