After 30 years the recent past becomes History, and the frenzied debates of contemporary journalism give way to the calm impartiality of the scholar. The fog lifts and we can finally see earlier events in their proper perspective. That, at least, is the impression created by the National Archives’ regular release of government documents under the ‘thirty years rule’. As cabinet papers and ministerial correspondence enter the public domain, it appears that we can finally get to the ‘truth’ of what happened and learn the ‘real’ motives behind official policies.
The opening of files about the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike at the start of this year prompted a rash of reports about ‘secret’ proposals to close pits and confidential plans to deploy troops to move coal stocks. Last week, the Labour MPs Michael Dugher and Lisa Nandy launched a Justice for the Coalfields campaign and argued that the revelations from the archives meant that David Cameron should apologise for the Thatcher administration’s conduct of the strike. It was ‘shocking’, Dugher insisted, that ‘far from being neutral as was claimed at the time… the government took a deliberately calculated political approach guided by a complete hostility to the coalfield communities.’ Cameron’s response was belligerent, arguing that it was Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, who should apologise, not the government. There seems little prospect of compromise here.
It’s one thing asking for an enquiry into the specific issue of police behaviour during the violent clashes outside the Orgreave coking plant in June 1984. It’s quite another expecting an apology for what most Conservatives continue to regard as one of Margaret Thatcher’s main triumphs: the taming of union power. Dugher and Nandy’s request is, of course, as much about current politics as about attitudes to the past. But the focus on ‘secret’ plans is not very helpful. The miners’ strike was a public and political battle whose symbolic importance was well understood at the time. With her rhetoric of the ‘enemy within’, Thatcher’s position was hardly hidden. Releases of government papers are unlikely to alter radically our views of the strike. Historians, for their part, are as interested in the social and economic impact of pit closures on local communities, and in how experiences and memories of the strike have shaped class, gender and regional identities, as they are in rewriting the political narrative of the crisis.
What the request and its rejection really revealed, though, is that attitudes to the 1980s are, if anything, only becoming more polarised. The 1980s are, in a sense, the new 1960s. Discovering someone’s position on the political and social shifts of the 1960s – decensorship, the counterculture, the changes to the regulation of sexuality – used to be one of the best ways of understanding their world-view. Now, talking about the 1980s is one of the best ways of placing someone politically. Margaret Thatcher’s death reminded us of the visceral responses she continues to provoke. Her defenders and enemies can barely comprehend each other. The economic crisis since 2008 has undermined New Labour’s attempt to soften the edges of Thatcherism with an appeal to social justice, and many of the key issues of the 1980s – the size of the welfare state, growing inequality, the relationship with Europe – are back at the top of the political agenda. On these issues, as on the miners’ strike, both sides remain convinced of the correctness of their views. With such a gulf, there is no room for apologies. Revelations from the archives won’t change that.
Adrian Bingham is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield specialising in 20th-century Britain and the popular press. He is also involved with the Stories of Activism project, and is a Senior Editor of History & Policy. You can find Adrian’s other History Matters blogs here.
Header image: Strike rally in London, 1984 [Wikicommons]
Inset image: Strike picket in South Yorkshire, 1984/5 [Wikicommons]