Thirty five years ago, on 5 March 1984, Yorkshire miners walked out on strike against Tory government plans to impose a massive programme of pit closures. They saw it as the first step to a complete rundown of the mining industry.
But there was even more to the miners’ strike. Former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson admitted that Tory preparation for the strike was “just like rearming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s”. They prepared meticulously and ruthlessly – by stockpiling coal, beefing up the police’s powers and introducing anti-union laws – to defeat the miners in 1984 as a means to destroy the working class’s collective strength.
As former political commentator Brian Walden described it the miners’ strike was “a civil war without guns”; an all-out battle between workers and the ruling class.
Thirty five years after the great miners’ strike of 1984-85 its effects still reverberate. Today, many questions still need addressing from the miners’ strike for trade unionists and socialists alike.
The following article by Ken Smith was published on the 20th anniversary of the miners’ strike.
Along the road of discovery the new generation will have to cross some huge dungheaps of disinformation put there by critics of the miners’ stand from Right and Left alike.
The ruling class and their apologists portray the strike as a doomed, futile attempt to preserve a dying industry led by a tactically inept Arthur Scargill.
Michael Ignatieff, seen as a cultural guru by the ruling class in 1984, wrote towards the end of the strike that “the miners’ strike is not the vindication of class politics but its death throes.”
Other critics, like government minister Kim Howells – a former Communist and South Wales National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) research officer for example – have converted to Blairism and disowned their role in the strike.
Even before the strike ended he hauled up the white flag saying: “The state is much better organised for taking on mass pickets than it was in the early 1970s… It is the hardest lesson any workforce has had to learn since 1926. The whole of the organised labour movement has to take a fresh look in future disputes.”
But for Howells, and many like him, taking a fresh look means drawing only negative conclusions, and abandoning the trade union ideals of struggle and solidarity – ideals the miners fought for so valiantly.
Even those on the Left who solidly backed the miners, such as today’s ‘Awkward Squad’, are to this day intimidated by the miners’ defeat; lacking in confidence to launch the kind of all-out struggles like the miners did, to successfully turn the tables on 20 years of mostly uncontested attacks.
The miners’ strike was not only justified – the miners came closer to defeating Thatcher than they knew – but it also holds many vital lessons for trade unionists embarking on new struggles today.
Police a political weapon
THE GREAT miners’ strike of 1984-85 was the longest lasting and most bitter industrial dispute of the second half of the 20th century in Britain. It had a huge impact on virtually every subsequent industrial and political development.
Over 27 million working days were lost in strike action in 1984 (mainly amongst miners). Over 11,300 miners and their supporters were arrested during the dispute. Over 5,600 stood trial and more than 100 were jailed, although 1,504 were released without charge. Over £60 million was raised, according to The Guardian, for the miners, and warehouses full of food and toys were donated to the striking miners and their families.
Seafarers were sacked and railworkers were victimised for taking solidarity action with the miners. Over 700 miners were sacked and not reinstated. To this day the victimisation continues, even in the strangest ways.
In February 2003, ex-NUM official 69-year-old Jock Glen from east Scotland, was summoned to attend a meeting at the US consulate in London over his request for a visa to enter the USA on a family holiday because he was arrested during the miners’ strike 20 years ago.
The Tories later admitted it cost nearly £6 billion to win the dispute, or £26,000 for every striking miner, which they saw as a political attempt to break the power of the NUM. And, from 1985-95 the Tories’ continued war against the miners cost over £26 billion in redundancy and benefit payments, keeping pits mothballed and lost revenue from coal.
Thatcher and her cabinet were desperate for victory and prepared to go to great lengths to try and weaken or destroy the power of effective trade unionism, which they saw as an obstacle to their free-market policies.
For the first time in a post- war national strike the police were openly used as a political weapon. Agents provocateurs and spies were deployed and the state benefits system used to try and starve the miners back.
When Thatcher wobbled
DESPITE THE extraordinary lengths the Tories went to, by October 1984, six months into the strike, the future of Thatcher’s government hung in the balance – when there were less than six weeks’ coal stocks.
The proposed strike by pit supervisors’ union NACODS threatened to close down all working pits in the Midlands at this time. Later, NACODS shamefully called off the strike for a shoddy deal which the Tories later reneged on.
So, the NUM had to battle on alone. However, despite the odds, they came within a whisker of winning. Ten years after the strike Frank Ledger, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) director of operations, recounted how they had only planned for a six-month strike and that the situation at this time was verging on the “catastrophic”.
Former CEGB chairman Sir Walter Marshall spelt out what this meant: “Our predictions showed on paper that Scargill would win certainly before Christmas. Margaret Thatcher got very worried about that… I felt she was wobbly”.3
Thatcher confirmed this herself nine years later: “We had got so far and we were in danger of losing everything because of a silly mistake. We had to make it quite clear that if it was not cured immediately then the actual management of the Coal Board could indeed have brought down the government. The future of the government at that moment was in their hands and they had to remedy their terrible mistake.”
Ultimately, the key factor that defeated the miners was not their lack of militant spirit in facing the most sustained vicious state onslaught on them and their families; nor was it lack of support from the wider ranks of the working class or even the mistakes that some NUM leaders made at national and area level – although some were of fundamental importance at later stages of the strike.
The crucial factor in the strike’s ultimate defeat was the treacherous, cowardly role of the trade union and Labour leaders, who consciously sabotaged the possibility of miners’ victory.
After Labour’s 1983 election defeat right-wing trade union leaders were pursuing a policy they called ‘new realism’ – code for retreating in the face of the class enemy without firing a shot in retaliation.
Labour leader Neil Kinnock was also afraid of a rising tide of militancy in the event of a miners’ victory, and he didn’t want to see militancy pay, particularly not if he was prime minister.
They used the absence of a national miners’ ballot and the fact that a section of miners were still working to turn their back on the 130,000 miners who were striking.
They refused to deliver the effective solidarity action that could have brought the miners victory; a victory which would have benefited the whole working class against the detested Thatcher.
THE miners’ defeat, along with the economic upswing of the late 1980s, set in motion a complex and difficult period in Britain, consolidating a massive shift to the right at the top of the labour movement.
Labour and trade union leaders meekly accepted anti-union legislation and generally abandoned any pretence of struggle against industrial run-down and privatisation.
It was a bitter blow for those miners and their families who struggled. Their jobs are gone for ever and their communities turned into industrial wastelands with social devastation following for many.
Had they won, the whole course of history would have changed. Thatcher and her government would have resigned and most likely a Labour government would have come to power.
The pit-closure plan would have been dropped and, under pressure from a confident working class, even a Kinnock Labour government would have had to carry through some measures in favour of the working class, perhaps being compelled to abolish the Tory anti-union laws.
The miners’ strike politicised a generation of young socialists. Over a quarter of a million school students went on strike just a month after the strike, inspired by the example of the miners and led by Militant supporters. It also temporarily produced a massive shift to the left on many issues in society.
Immediately after the strike, Tory ministers privately fumed at how little goodwill their victory had brought them:
“For months after the strike was over, ministers often alluded in conversation to the strange ingratitude of the British public…When the strike ended there was no full-throated roar of approval of the kind which had been heard, almost universally, when the Argentineans surrendered in Port Stanley.”5
Had the miners not struggled as they did, many other anti-working class measures would have been introduced earlier than they were.
But, eventually, dizzy with her own success, Thatcher began a policy of deindustrialisation of British industry and further impoverishment of working class and middle-class people.
Lessons of strike
FOR A new generation of union activists the strike’s real lessons now need to be drawn out, as after 20 years there are new signs of militancy, witnessed in the firefighters, postal and other disputes of 2003, displaying once again the type of militant, fighting spirit that the miners embodied.
There has been, despite the retirement of NUM leader Arthur Scargill, talk of the re-emergence of ‘Scargillism’ – it was one of the first lines of attack against the firefighters in their dispute. Unfortunately, it was not a label that fitted well on their national leaders; especially not FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist.
The new generation of union members are not as intimidated by the anti-union laws brought in by Thatcher, and invoked ever since as reasons for not striking.
Unfortunately the Left leaders still won’t address crucial questions arising from the strike such as the role of mass picketing; democracy and leadership within the trade unions; the state; how to organise solidarity action; the role of Left leadership; what economic alternative should trade unionists and socialists put when an industry is claimed to be declining and crucially what programme and strategy for the trade unions is applicable today.
New generations will return to the lessons of the strike to ensure they are better equipped to win their own industrial battles and succeed in the socialist struggle to change society.
But, the most important lesson the miners’ strike taught the generation who lived through it is the willingness of working-class people to struggle and try to change society. It is still relevant today.
That willingness and anger has been reflected in recent struggles, what has been lacking however, is a mass party and leadership capable of taking workers’ struggles to victory.
Women In The Strike
“You’ve Got To Understand You’re At War”
WOMEN PLAYED a vital role in the strike.
SUE ALBERRY from Clowne, a North Derbyshire village with half a dozen local pits explains how the local Women’s Action Group supported the strike.
OUR GROUP of miners’ wives and other local women gave out 300-400 food parcels every week until the end of the strike. The Parish Council let us use an empty shop and we visited local picket lines early in the morning with a soup run.
When we needed to feed pickets, there was no electricity or hot water in our strike centre, but we were given camping stoves, gas lamps tables and forms and we were soon cooking 200-500 breakfasts a day. We started a two shift-system – one week picketing, one week in the centre.
A local shopkeeper gave us buckets of hot water from his shop, another gave us bread rolls. The butcher wouldn’t give us anything and his shop was boycotted for years afterwards.
The centre helped keep up morale. A young miner who’d come back from Orgreave, wearing just one trainer and shaking with fear, said: “They’ll bloody kill us. It’s insane. Why are they doing it?” I told him: “You’ve got to understand you’re at war now.”
We were followed by police and had our phones tapped. Once, two plainclothes police came into the centre eating fish and chips, pretending to be pickets. But no pickets could afford fish and they were wearing brand new Hunter Wellington boots! I politely confronted them, got £3 for their cups of tea then told them to get out.
In the school summer holiday we supplied hot meals for the kids. We found clothes, prams and cots for babies born during the strike. At Christmas we organised a party at a local pub with a striking miner as Santa – all the kids got a small present.
The hardest part was when they went back to work. We marched back with them, heads held high because we did what was right. I felt proud to have been part of this strike.
Workers Helped Us But TUC Didn’t
STEVE MINNEY, a striking miner in 1984 and a member of Nottinghamshire National Union of Mineworkers brought the NUM’s fraternal greetings to this year’s Socialist Party conference. He told us:
“Trade unionists supported our battle, especially the dockers and the NUR [the railworkers’ union]. That’s why most coal to power stations had to be transported by road by haulage firms using non-union drivers.
“Internationally the NUM got support from both American and Russian miners and from French trade unions. Unfortunately, Britain TUC only offered support not action… Nationally, the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock was an insult. Kinnock only attended a picket line towards the end of the strike. You can see the natural progression of Kinnock’s Labour Party to the Labour Party under Blair today.”
Month By Month
NCB confirms 49 pits will close due to ‘exhausted reserves’.
5 – Yorkshire miners stop work over proposed accelerated closure of Cortonwood and Bulcliffe Wood. Yorkshire NUM calls total stoppage from 12 March.
6 – Scottish area NUM calls strike from 9 March.
8 – NUM national executive declares strikes in Yorkshire and Scotland official, and any other area “which takes similar action”.
19 – NUM special delegate conference supports action in all British coalfields. Resolutions for a ballot overwhelmingly rejected.
29 – 5,000 pickets at Orgreave. Riot police deployed for the first time.
30 – Arthur Scargill arrested at Orgreave.
6 – 10,000 pickets at Orgreave: 93 arrests; 73 police and hundreds of pickets injured.
18 – 7,000 pickets take on 4,000 police in the Battle of Orgreave.
South Wales NUM fined £50,000 for contempt of court, refuse to pay.
1 – Mass demonstration outside South Wales NUM in Pontypridd against threat of sequestration.
16 – £707,000 seized by sequestrators from South Wales NUM accounts.
1-5 – Labour Party conference backs the miners.
4 – NUM fined £200,000 for contempt.
25 – Proposed Nacods strike over colliery closure review procedure called off.
25 – Sequestrators appointed to seize NUM funds.
13 – TUC general secretary, Norman Willis, confronted by hangman’s noose at miners’ rally in South Wales.
14 – Energy minister, Peter Walker, rejects further talks.
20 – NUM accepts review procedure as agreed by Nacods and asks for talks with no preconditions.
3 – NUM special delegate conference votes 98-91 to return to work without an agreement or amnesty.
5 – Miners return to work behind brass bands, with their supporters.