A French security agent planted explosives in his country’s London embassy in an effort to embarrass his British counterparts, according to U.K. government files from 1984 released today.
Other previously secret 30-year-old papers published by the National Archives in London show Margaret Thatcher’s government considered mobilizing troops after warnings of defeat in its battle with striking coal miners, with officials advising her they were powerless to stop Soviet money from reaching the miners’ union.
The incident at the French Embassy was described to Thatcher’s Cabinet on Oct. 25, 1984, by Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe. Two days earlier, British police had searched the embassy grounds before a state visit by President Francois Mitterrand and found two small containers of high explosive.
“It had emerged that these were placed there by a French security officer who was in London in connection with the president’s visit, apparently to test the efficacy of British security measures,” according to the minutes of the meeting. “In discussion, it was agreed that the episode was inexplicable.”
The Foreign Office file on the Mitterrand visit is still sealed, so there are few more details on the incident. The minutes do reveal that ministers agreed to seek assurances from the president’s office at the Elysee in Paris that there were no more surprises, especially at Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II was due to host Mitterrand. The French government had at this point neither apologized nor explained.
If the incident sounds familiar, it may be because it was used for a 1987 episode of “Yes, Prime Minister,” a BBC television comedy about a British politician.
There was less humor in the main political story of 1984, the yearlong miners’ strike. When it began in March, over the closing of 20 pits, it pitched Thatcher directly against Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, who declared it a “social and industrial Battle of Britain.”
A decade earlier, an NUM strike had brought down the previous Conservative government led by Edward Heath, and ministers feared a repeat. They had been secretly preparing for such a strike for years, with power stations stockpiling the coal they would need to see them through. In July, though, a national docks strike led to fears over panic-buying of food and concern that the government couldn’t survive a second dispute.
Thatcher secretly summoned ministers to discuss the declaration of a state of emergency and the mobilization of the army to transport goods and coal in commandeered trucks. The meeting quickly agreed their initial estimates of required troop numbers were “far too low” and that a state of emergency might make matters worse.
Though the dockers’ strike ended within a week, some still remained nervous. Trade and Industry Secretary Norman Tebbit warned Thatcher a few days later that time wasn’t “on our side,” with coal supplies to power stations likely to run out in January.
“In practice, of course, we could not go right up to the brink but would have to take measures some time well in advance,” he wrote in a letter marked “secret & personal.” “My own guess is that we may come to that point as early as October. We should be utterly realistic among ourselves about what is actually going to happen.”
Thatcher was reassured by officials that coal supplies could last well into the following year and ignored Tebbit. Her final moment of danger came in October, when the union representing pit safety officers threatened a walkout. That would have closed every mine in the country, even those where those at the coalface were working.
Government staff drew up contingency plans, including a three-day working week of the sort that had ended the Heath government. In the event, that action was called off, and NUM members realized the tide had turned against them. By November, thousands of men were returning to work.
While the NUM was trying to starve Britain of coal, Thatcher’s government was trying to starve the union of money. The union’s assets had been sequestered by a court after Scargill refused to pay a fine, and ministers believed it was being secretly supported from Moscow.
A note to Thatcher told her that the government’s best hope for stopping money was for an NUM courier to be intercepted with “a suitcase full of banknotes.”
Even then, Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong wrote, Customs officials “would have no power to impound the notes, but they would inform the Inland Revenue and the police of any suspiciously large volume of banknotes which they detected. I am afraid this is not certain to yield results, but I am satisfied that it is the best we can do.”