BBC News - 5 Mar 04

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 24 May 09)

Ian MacGregor: Coal Warrior

BBC News, Friday, 5 March, 2004, 16:21 GMT

Ian MacGregor was one of the major protagonists during the strike.

The Scottish-born industrialist Sir Ian MacGregor was one of the key figures in the miners' strike of 1984.

He and National Union of Miners (NUM) leader Arthur Scargill could hardly have been more different.

During the course of the year-long dispute, they had several attempts at negotiating a settlement but they disliked each other strongly and all their meetings came to nothing.

When Sir Ian took over at the National Coal Board in 1983, the miners' leaders had a good idea what to expect.

Industry Cuts

He later described how Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself asked him to take the job.

He was three weeks short of his 71st birthday when he became chairman.

Mrs. Thatcher admired his record at British Steel where he had improved efficiency and cut tens of thousands of jobs.

Mr MacGregor believed that much of British industry was hopelessly uncompetitive.

Born in Kinlochleven in the West Highlands, he spent most of his working life in the United States and when he returned he brought a hard-nosed management approach to the coal industry in Britain.

Arthur Scargill and Ian MacGregor did not see eye to eye.

From the start, Mr MacGregor took the view that pits whose production costs were too high would have to close.

He expected resistance from the NUM but did not think Mr Scargill would press for a strike in the spring when the peak of winter demand for coal had passed.

On 6 March 1984, Mr MacGregor and his team explained to the unions that they planned to cut four million tons of coal production.

It would mean the closure of 20 pits and the loss of 20,000 jobs.

Six days later, the strike began.

Mr MacGregor was determined to win, although he did find aspects of the confrontation distasteful.

Media Problems

Mr Scargill called him a geriatric American butcher, he was manhandled on a colliery visit and he did not perform well on radio and television.

That awkwardness with the media gave rise to one of the strangest and most memorable incidents in the whole strike.

It happened at the Norton House Hotel on the outskirts of Edinburgh near the airport.

It was September - the mid-point of the dispute - and secret talks had been arranged between the coal board and the miners' leaders.

But the venue leaked out and a handful of journalists gathered on the driveway outside.

A car appeared on the long tree-lined avenue which leads in from the main road - a familiar Jaguar, belonging to Mr MacGregor.

Plastic Bag

As the car drew up, he picked up a green plastic bag from the passenger seat and stepped out, placing the bag in front of his face.

Peering out through the handles, Mr MacGregor walked silently into the hotel with the bag tight across his face.

He seemed to be trying to deny the photographers a picture but instead he gave them an unforgettable one.

It was an image which dominated the news that night and the following morning, the man at the centre of Britain's bitter strike hiding behind a green plastic bag.

Mr MacGregor may not have been comfortable with the media but he was not deflected from his plans for the coal industry.

After a year the strike collapsed and, later, he was knighted.

Sir Ian, who died from a heart attack in 1998, dedicated his 1986 autobiography to "The many coal miners who had the courage to stand up for their rights and the managers who supported them".