Tom Watson is one of Westminster’s Rottweilers, a man whose reputation goes before him. It takes a brave and resourceful politician to take on the might of the world’s most powerful media mogul Rupert Murdoch, helping expose alleged criminal behaviour amongst some of the Aussie tycoon’s underlings.

Since his election as West Bromwich East MP in 2001, he has never been afraid to put his head above the parapet, and in 2006 he resigned from his junior Ministerial position after publicly calling on Tony Blair to stand down.

He has backed some excellent causes, in his first year in Parliament demanding a ban on album sales of the convicted sex offender Gary Glitter (presumably on the grounds of Glitter’s execrable music as much as his revolting crimes) and demanding pardons for soldiers executed for alleged cowardice in the First World War.

He has risen to high rank in the Party without necessarily losing his humanity. If you check out his website, there’s a very moving tribute to well-known West Midland journalist Dave Lawley, who tragically died at the age of only 61 before Christmas. It says much about Mr Watson that he took the time to pen such a eulogy.

Now Mr Watson has stepped into the line of fire again by suggesting that the Tories should apologise for Margaret Thatcher’s role in the miners’ strike of 1984-85.

His call follows the release of secret papers which reveal that Thatcher had considered calling out troops at the height of the strike, drawing up plans for thousands of service personnel to move supplies of food and coal around the country by the truckload.

He says: “They said the miners’ strike was an industrial dispute and that the Government was neutral. And these papers have revealed that, actually, it was a political project.

“They did try to define miners as the ‘enemy within’ and they were using the apparatus of the state to influence the police and possibly even to bring in the army. This was one of the biggest state lies of industrial history and Conservative Ministers should apologise for what was done in their party’s name.”

This is tub-thumping stuff, even nearly 30 years down the line from Britain’s last great industrial dispute. But to suggest that the Government scrupulously adopted a ‘neutral’ stance to a year-long strike by employees of a state-owned organisation crucial to the energy needs of the country is laughable.

The miners’ strike of 84-85 was never ‘only an industrial dispute’ in much the same way as phone-hacking is not simply about trying to gain a few more readers in a cutthroat media world by cutting a few corners.

The Murdoch empire – or a small former part of it – is on trial for allegedly breaking the law by using criminal methods to snoop on innocent victims. Tom Watson has done more than most to bring the alleged perpetrators of such activities to trial.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
 

But three decades before some of Murdoch’s men were apparently busy hacking phones, the National Union of Mineworkers was hell-bent on destabilising a much wider cross-section of society than merely upsetting the sensibilities of society barflies like Hugh Grant.

Mr Watson conveniently omits to mention the political backdrop to the fight between Scargill’s NUM and the National Coal Board/Government.

Ten years before the 84-85 dispute, Ted Heath’s Conservative Government had been brought to its knees by the NUM following two national strikes called in the early 70s in pursuit of substantial pay claims. The country suffered power cuts and three-day weeks in the depths of winter.

The NUM victory over the man they called the Grocer ushered in years of union dominance, unlawful strikes, secondary picketing and routine disruption to everyday life.

Fleet Street was held to ransom by print unions whose members were happy to sign into work as Michael Mouse of Sunset Boulevard before hugely lucrative Saturday night shifts. Some signed the roster and then went off to drink the night away.

The UK newspaper industry in the 70s was a sobering metaphor for a cloud cuckoo land economy at the mercy of a few power-crazed renegades masquerading as responsible union officials simply seeking the best deal for their members. Times Newspapers – then owned by the Canadian Thomson family before the aforementioned Murdoch muscled in – shut down for a year over the right to manage their business.

In much the same way, love or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher was elected in May 1979 on a national mandate of who runs Britain – the Government or the unions. The year-long miners’ dispute was her Waterloo – and Arthur Scargill suffered a Napoleonic defeat to Thatcher’s Wellington over a strike by his beloved NUM which had never gone to a national pithead ballot.

Mr Watson is far too shrewd an operator not to realise, nearly 30 years on, the political implications of what a victory for Scargill would have meant for this country. To this very day, many ex-miners recognise that the Barnsley firebrand took on a battle he could never hope to win, not simply against a beleaguered nationalised energy provider but against the full might of 10 Downing Street. It’s called politics, and politics is frequently a very dirty game.

Mr Watson, who happily makes enemies of ruthless tycoons like Murdoch, should appreciate that truth more than most.