In the summer of 1983 the newspapers were filled with the rumour that the new Chairman of the National Coal Board would be Mr Ian MacGregor. MacGregor had been head of the US mining company Amax which, after its strike-breaking activities at the Belle Ayr open cast mine in Wyoming, was described by the United Mineworkers as the ‘leader of anti-union activity throughout the nation’. McGregor was subsequently invited by Eric Varley to join the Board of British Leyland where he built on his reputation for toughness. Then as Chairman of the British Steel Corporation, he extended this image and became identified as the man who most clearly represented the economic arm of Thatcher’s political philosophy. Both companies, under his guidance, were cut back, and over half their labour force paid off. On the Durham coalfield the idea of MacGregor moving across to the National Coal Board dominated conversation in the Clubs, in the Union Offices and on street corners. Most people thought the appointment unlikely: ‘I don’t think they’ll do it. It would be so provocative, let’s face it. I don’t think the ncb would want that and I can’t see MacGregor wanting it—why would he want to come in here and take on Scargill?’ But he did. He took the appointment and to many people this put the writing on the wall. One man put it like this:
I think if I had to put a date or a time on when I decided that Scargill was right it was when Thatcher appointed MacGregor. Let’s face it, we knew then. It was obvious we were either going to have one hell of a fight or go the way of the steelworkers.
John Cummings, the Leader of Easington District Council, and Secretary of the Murton Lodge of the Durham Mechanics, agreed:
What you have to do when you come up against an opponent is to question his motivation—what makes MacGregor tick, what does he get out of life? He’s seventy-two, he doesn’t live with his family, he clearly doesn’t value the human things in life. What is his motivation? And I think his motivation is power and to use it by breaking the independence of the British trade union movement. That’s what he tried to do at British Leyland where they sacked
MacGregor’s appointment set the scene. This was the context of political and union discussion across the coalfield in the autumn of 1983. It was this which convinced people—churchmen, traders, office workers—that the East coast of Durham could end up like Consett, the desolated steel town. For the miners the reaction of the new chairman to their pay claim simply confirmed their worst suspicions. Bill Stobbs, the Chairman of the Easington Lodge and a newly elected representative on the Union’s National Executive Committee, recalls:
It was my first meeting with them, and I remember thinking that if our members could see the contempt shown by the Board for their Union representatives we would be on strike tomorrow! The Union presented a detailed case (in line with resolutions passed at our Annual Conference in Perth) and the Coal Board asked for an adjournment. After half an hour they returned; all our claims were turned down flat. In response they produced a bombshell—a 5.2% wage increase linked to an agreement on the closure of uneconomic pits! So much for the caring Coal Board.
The overtime ban followed. Supported by every area at a National Delegate Conference, it went into effect on 1 November 1983. It bit into production—but the Coal Board’s attack on ‘uneconomic pits’ continued. In Scotland, Monkton Hall was scheduled for closure, followed by Polmaise; in Durham, the New Herrington pit and then Sacriston; in Yorkshire, the bombshell of Cottonwood. All of this was placed in a national context by the National Coal Board in its meeting with the trade unions on 6 March 1984. Four million tonnes of capacity to be cut; 20,000 jobs to go. Over a third of the cuts to come in the North East.