Mrs Thatcher vs the Miners review — Punch and Judy politics: that’s the way to do it

Mrs Thatcher vs the Miners
Channel 5

It barely needs stating that Margaret Thatcher was a cunning operator, but last night’s Mrs Thatcher vs the Miners demonstrated, in almost a step-by-step way, everything about why she was an unbeatable opponent in her prime. For all his chest-beating and blazing oratory, Arthur Scargill stood next to no chance against a paragon of obduracy, who must have been a damn good chess player too.

Looking back at the miners’ strike of 1984-85 four decades on, it is clear that Thatcher was always in charge of the battle. Foreseeing war with the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), she planned everything: stocking up at coal stations ahead of strikes, changing the law so picketing at power stations would be outlawed, rearranging police forces in preparation for a crisis that was little short of civil war.

Neil Kinnock was among those pointing this out here, although anything approaching admiration was counteracted by complete disdain for both sides: “Thatcher and Scargill deserved each other. Absolutely nobody else deserved either of them.” Just for a moment it was back to the good old days of Punch and Judy politics.What was most interesting about this excellent if all-too-brief crash course was the point about how Thatcher “controlled the narrative”. She understood the power of media perception in a way Scargill didn’t. He forbade cameras on the picket side of the conflict, which was not a smart move. It meant the news footage at the battle of Orgreave would only be from the police’s point of view, making the miners look like the aggressors.

To Middle England, the crisis became “miners’ violence versus law and order”. This simply couldn’t happen today. With smartphones and social media, the outrage would be all about police brutality and social injustice. The moral high ground has shifted.

Stylistically, the programme-makers resisted not just the use of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1984 hit Two Tribes, but also that increasingly irksome habit of clips of the interviewees straightening their ties and so on before making their contributions.

And while things were balanced, the most piercing comment was not about Thatcher’s guile in pitting miner against miner, but from a former NUM president, Ian Lavery MP. “How dare a prime minister call my parents, my workmates, the ‘enemy within’. How dare she do that?” he said, and it’s clear the anger of whole communities is as raw as an open wound, 37 years on.