I was recently involved in a Twitter thread concerning the use of troops during the miners’ strike. It has long been rumoured that Thatcher sanctioned the use of the army and that squaddies were dressed in police uniforms and let loose on picket lines, to aid in crushing the strikers.
I think the first thing we ought to ask, when considering the question, is why such a tactic might have been favoured by the Tories and in asking the question we are immediately presented with some difficulty in providing a reasonable and plausible answer.
Firstly, we need to understand the role of the police during the dispute. As I wrote in my book on the strike…
The Metropolitan Police Force was hated with a passion throughout the County, earning a reputation for thuggery and violence that outstripped that of any other Force, against frequently stiff competition. Often behaving more like ‘Casuals’ football hooligans than upholders of the law, the Met regularly issued beatings to Nottinghamshire miners and would then affix little stickers to their victims bodies, which read, ‘I’ve met The Met.’ A quaint custom not reserved for just Nottinghamshire miners. Dave Douglass says, “We used to park our cars outside the villages we were picketing so as not to have them attacked by scabs. More than once we returned to wrecked cars and the stickers ‘I’ve met the Met’ stuck on them.” Why the Metropolitan Police were even in Nottinghamshire, in the first place, over a hundred miles from London, was one of the most contentious aspects of the dispute. The origins of their deployment in other Forces’ jurisdiction, like so much else in the Government’s handling of the dispute, lay in the Ridley Plan. The creation of the National Reporting Centre (NRC) was central to dealing with policing in the coalfields. Operating from a room on the thirteenth-floor of Scotland Yard, its purpose was revealed, by Douglas Hurd, to Parliament on 5th April 1984. “Arrangements for a national reporting centre were first made in 1972. Its main purposes were and are to help in the national co-ordination of aid between chief officers of police in England and Wales, under section 14 of the Police Act 1964, so that the best use is made of manpower and to provide the Home Secretary with information, in the same way as he receives reports from individual chief officers, to help him discharge his responsibilities for law and order.”
This bland description, while accurate, was hardly the full story. In reality, the NRC became the management body of an effectively national police force, as the paramilitary wing of the Conservative Party. In seeking to combat picketing and deal with an industrial dispute in this way, rather than by simply applying civil law, the Police UK-wide, enthusiastically spearheaded by the Met, became a partisan body, forcibly imposing acts of political policy rather than simply upholding the law. Hurd continued, “Since 14 March this year, the centre has co-ordinated the responses to requests from chief officers for assistance from their colleagues in policing related to the miners’ dispute.”
Numbers of police, resources, intelligence, funds and equipment were all made available to the police without limits. It’s difficult to see why Thatcher would need to use the army to bolster the – at the time – forty-three separate constabularies which were coordinated as a national force.
Secondly there has been, to date, not a single verifiable and documented case of any member of the armed forces being deployed in such a fashion. I interviewed over a hundred participants in the strike for my book, covering every single area of involvement from striking and working miners, police officers, NCB personnel to journalists and politicians and of those who’d heard the rumour no one could state that they had first-hand proof of such an action. Accounts from these people are purely anecdotal and, invariably, second and third-hand. Along the lines of, “my mate said…” and “… I knew this bloke who said…”
The large numbers of police used during the strike presented logistical problems for local authorities and there are documented instances of police being billeted at TA and regular army barracks. Perhaps the rumours started there? Additionally, it was very common for police officers to remove their ID numbers from their uniforms but it seems more likely that this was to prevent violent and corrupt officers from being identified, rather than any sort of indication that such people were soldiers in disguise, as was the common assertion during the strike.
We know that police spies, agents provocateurs, Special Branch officers and MI5 agents were all used to combat the strikers and evidence has emerged to confirm such actions. But of soldiers dressing in police uniform we have yet to see even a single shred of real proof.
Following the release of cabinet papers on January 3rd, 2014, we know that Thatcher was considering using the army in line with the recommendations made in the Ridley Plan, to move coal, breach picket lines and so on, but this would have been an overt action with armed forces in their own uniforms and acting with official state approval.
Of course, the use of soldiers dressed as police officers is certainly possible and one shouldn’t, for even a second, doubt that the Tories would have baulked at such a tactic had they deemed it necessary. There is no question that the prime minister would have ruled such a move either in or out based on any legal or ethical grounds; it would have been a purely tactical and strategic decision. But, personally, I don’t think it happened.
I’d still be very interested indeed in looking at any accounts people might have on this question, so please contact me if you feel you have something interesting to share.