New detail revealed in Thatcher's strike-busting strategy

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Rob Evans, an investigative reporter for the Guardian newspaper in London. He co-wrote a recent article on a newly-revealed part of the British coal miners' strike of 1984. Turns out then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to great lengths to prevent funds collected by miners in the Soviet Union from reaching the striking miners in the United Kingdom.

MARCO WERMAN: Mention miners to people in Britain, and they're likely to recall the coal miners' strike of 1984 and 1985. It was a defining moment in British history. And much like the air traffic controllers' strike here in the US in the early 80s, it was an event that significantly reduced the power of labor unions. The strike began with workers rising in opposition to government plans to close 20 mines and shed 20,000 jobs. In the other corner, the conservative government of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was a champion of the free-market and determined not to let the strike succeed.

MARGARET THATCHER: This strike is not of the government's making. No government has done more for the mining industry than this one. No government has ever had such good plans for the future of coal as this one. Whether it be in [SOUNDS LIKE] pay, whether it be investment, or whether it been compensation for voluntary [INDISCERNIBLE] and that is well known in the industry.

WERMAN: The stand-off was long and violent, with frequent clashes between police and picketing strikers. Thatcher eventually won, using her full government powers to crush the miners' union. In the middle of the struggle, the union had its funds frozen by a judge. Union leaders were desperate for money to pay the striking workers and fund their pickets. Sympathetic miners in the Soviet Union wanted to help. That's the focus of a recent article in The Guardian newspaper in London. Rob Evans is one of the authors, and Rob, what did you uncover about this effort by Soviet miners and the Thatcher government's reaction to it?

ROB EVANS: We had a long battle actually lasting five years to essentially get the papers held by the Prime Minister's office on how they ran the strike. These have shown one incident that happened in the strike when Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then the second in command of the Soviet Union, he had authorized quite a large donation to help the striking miners in Britain.

WERMAN: How big a donation and what would that money actually have done to help the miners in Britain?

EVANS: It was about a million dollars. And it would have helped fund the strike because this is an all-out war really when it came down to it. At the time, the miners in Britain had had their assets seized by the courts and they were no longer in control of their own funds. The British miners asked the Soviet miners to help them and the Soviet miners actually dug into their pockets and gave money to help their striking comrades.

WERMAN: What's interesting is not so much the good will from the Soviet miners reaching out to miners in the UK, but really the length that you found Prime Minister Thatcher went to stop the money getting through because the miners in the UK never got that money, did they?

EVANS: Yes. I mean what happened was there was a clash basically because the Soviet miners had of course raised rubles. They were useless because you had to convert them into hard currency. At that time, the Soviet Union was still a Communist state and you had to have official government permission to make that conversion into hard currency. And what had happened was that Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in effect running the Soviet Union at that time, had given his permission for that conversion to take place. But what happened was that Margaret Thatcher's government heard about this and they went ballistic. They weren't happy at all because she was doing all she could to crush the miners and here was a very sizable donation that was being made to the miners by the Soviets. And that she immediately employed all her diplomatic pressure that she could muster in order to stop the Soviets giving that cash.

WERMAN: Right, and this is 1984. A very delicate time. Remind us, Rob, what was going on? Kind of the backdrop to all of this.

EVANS: At this time, both Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev were beginning to establish a better working relationship. Margaret Thatcher was fairly seen to famously declare that I like Mr. Gorbachev. He's a man I can do business with. You know the Cold War was beginning to end and the relations between East and West were being transformed. And then suddenly into this comes this question of the money for the miners and essentially what happened was that Margaret Thatcher made a protest known and Gorbachev sacrificed the interests of the miners and said, no actually we aren't going to send this money anymore.

WERMAN: Well, Rob, let's just say that million dollars from the Soviet's had made it through to the National Union of Mineworkers in Britain. Could it have changed the outcome of the strike?

EVANS: It would have been useful and also it would have been a sort of political message. It would have [SOUNDS LIKE] buoyed out the morale of the miners and when you're in a strike basically 80% of the battle is about morale. It could have played a part not only in sort of a material way, but also have given the striking miners more heart.

WERMAN: Rob Evans, an investigative journalist with The Guardian newspaper in London. Thanks so much for your time, Rob.

EVANS: You're welcome.