A recent Freedom of Information Act disclosure has revealed that Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the trade union movement in the 1980s was all down to a spelling mistake by a junior civil servant.
It transpires that there was a long standing Conservative plan to smash the French onion market, and the original submission to ministers was delivered in admirably succinct terms. The original plan intended only that the government should ‘defeat the trade onions’. At the time this was an important agricultural battlefield between southern England and France. The ‘trade onions’ was the commercial term for the market dominating French onion market.
Tragically, a junior civil servant in one of his first dictations misspelt onion. His coded shorthand added further damage to the message: his repeated use of the term ‘NUM, NUM’ was meant to express his appetite for English onions, but was misinterpreted to refer to the National Union of Miners.
The misleading proposal was taken as Conservative fact and the devastating impact of events in 1984 still reverberates today. The ‘trade onions’ actually benefited from the events, as in 1984 anarchic groups proposed that the government could be brought down by the mass consumption of electricity at coordinated times in the day. It transpired that many people chose to fry onions on an electric hob, thus increasing demand.