Britain: ‘A civil war without guns’ – the miners’ strike 40 years on

Miners' strike. Photo: Dave Sinclair

‘Coal not dole’ was the cry across Britain as 180,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 180 pits began walking out on strike in March 1984.

It became a long, bitter industrial dispute – a whole year – fought with enormous courage and elan by miners, the biggest workers’ struggle for generations. Fought not only against the publicly owned National Coal Board (NCB) but, as miners increasingly realised, the whole British capitalist state that had been mobilised to attack them.

The NCB, pushed by Thatcher’s Tory government, had provocatively announced a programme of pit closures. Miners, one of the strongest groups of trade union-organised workers, struck to defend their pits, their industry, their communities and whole way of life.

From the first walkouts in Yorkshire, the strike spread across the coalfields of Britain and posed a major threat to the Tory government. 80% of energy came from coal. As railworkers refused to move coal stocks, the threat arose of ‘the lights going out’.

It’s laughable to hear Tories today claim ‘green’ credentials for ‘taking Britain off coal’. The truth is, this was a brutal battle by the bosses prepared to smash an industry to subdue the working class so they could let their free market rip across Britain.

‘Coal not dole’ was the miners’ slogan because Thatcher had unleashed mass unemployment as a weapon. The Tories were destroying publicly owned industries, steel, motors etc and much of Britain’s industrial base. They hoped to smash the trade unions.

Mass unemployment created fear and desperation. News bulletins reported thousands more job losses daily. Incidentally, the Tories covered the cost of unemployment by ‘selling off the family silver’ (public industries), a process continued under Blair. Today we are being ripped off by private firms in water, gas, electric, telecoms, post, rail, and so on.

The defeat of workers in this period cleared the way for modern bosses’ Britain, where we see the widest gap in wealth and incomes seen by any living person. It was a political watershed.

A decade earlier, the miners had brought down a Tory government. In the 1972 strike – involving the ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’ where 15,000 mass pickets, including thousands of local engineering workers, closed a vital coke depot – the miners defeated Heath’s government. When Heath, punch drunk from other defeats, called a rematch in 1974, he called an election saying: “It’s me or the miners.” It wasn’t him! A Labour government was returned, the bosses were fuming.

As economic crisis gripped and bosses sought to attack workers’ living standards, strengthened trade unions resisted with growing militancy. Labour could only restrain them for a couple of years. Thatcher was elected as the bosses’ agent in 1979 and the capitalist class set about a major assault on the working class.

The attack was well prepared. They passed anti-union laws; including enforcing postal rather than workplace voting so the Tory press could interfere in union elections. They didn’t attack all industries at once, but one by one picked workers off. They would have noted the failure of the leaders of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to coordinate any response.

The Tories longed for revenge on the miners and nearly staggered into a major strike in 1981. But, as ‘wildcat’ strikes raced across the coalfields, they retreated. They were not yet fully prepared to face this strong group of workers.

Miners worked in a tough environment and were tough men. Their very work brought strong comradeship and discipline (and humour!); many had served in the armed forces.

The government built up coal stocks, arranged more coal and fuel imports for power stations, did deals with right-wing union leaders, beefed up and incentivised the police (many of whom to this day question their role in the strike), organised a force of non-union lorry drivers to move stocks and slashed benefits strikers and their families were entitled to.

Growing tensions

Tensions grew through 1982-83 as government plans began to emerge. Rallies in towns and villages nationwide saw NUM President Arthur Scargill and other leaders begin to rouse miners to the coming challenge. Although the initial NCB announcement targeted 20 pits for closure, it was clear it would be many more.

Late in 1983, the NUM organised an overtime ban to reduce coal stocks by winter 1984. But the Tories moved quicker.

That nearly 200,000 workers, with huge support amongst the working class, would strike for a year seemed unimaginable beforehand. At the time, many on the left argued that miners had been ‘bought off’ by those new inventions: lager, TV & videos and Ford Cortinas! They’d never strike. Militant, the Socialist Party’s predecessor, resisted these arguments. We were one of the few organisations politically prepared for the strike.

We saw young miners in particular play a magnificent role. As one said: “They threw down the gauntlet, we picked it up.” Despite repression and suffering government attempts to starve them back to work, the miners showed great determination and initiative, and raised millions of pounds in solidarity from the public.

Miners and their families were proud people. The idea of ‘begging’ went against the grain. But realising the dispute wouldn’t be short, the younger men and women’s support groups rose to the occasion, travelling the length and breadth of Britain and internationally, raising solidarity and financial support at factories and on the streets. They toured railway lines, winning support from train drivers to stop coal moving, picketed coal stocks, power stations as well as pits.

Huge rallies took place at NUM HQ in Sheffield. At the same time, the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC) organised a conference of over 2,000 shop stewards to mobilise rank-and-file support and push for solidarity action across the trade union movement, calling for a 24-hour general strike against the government.

The dispute was clearly central to the future of organised workers nationwide. A miners’ victory would be in the interests of all. But from the trade union tops, little beyond words and donations came.

There was also resistance to the strike in some areas, particularly Nottinghamshire. The NUM was a federated union, made up of different areas with different numbers of pits and ease of obtaining coal. This had its negative aspects. A recently introduced productivity scheme reinforced the potential division between areas, some earned much more from it than others, and some areas were less threatened by closures than others.

Pithead ballots were organised on an area, not national basis. A previous ballot seeking industrial action over pit closures was won in Yorkshire, Scotland, south Wales and Kent, but not in Nottinghamshire or the Midlands, for example.

In itself this was not a shock, the union had never won a ballot over this issue. But, as the threat to the industry became clearer, support for action was growing.

As the Yorkshire walkouts spread, within a week 80% of miners nationwide were on strike. But scenes in Notts were difficult. Large pickets from other areas – along with Notts strikers – sought to picket out working pits. This physical challenge meant some still working dwelt on the idea that others were trying to force them on strike, rather than facing up to the threat to their industry and union.

In contrast, at Littleton Colliery, Cannock, Militant already had members. Seeing events in Notts they decided to organise the Cannock lads to shut their own pit before outside areas arrived. They organised a shift walkout and, as they prepared to picket the next shift, pickets arrived from Wales. They were welcomed as support, but told that the local lads would do the picketing and talking to the incoming shift. Within a couple of days, only three or four were left working.

Had such a left network been encouraged in the NUM, scenes across the Midlands may have been different.

National ballot

The lack of a national ballot was used as an excuse by some, including by some inexcusable trade union leaders, for not organising solidarity action.

In fact, a national ballot would have been won comfortably, removed excuses and strengthened the fight. But already 86% were on strike against the baying of media, bosses and Tory and Labour politicians for a ballot. In many eyes, the strike was already on and dramatically affecting production. They weren’t going to be dictated to by the likes of these.

Prominent football figures like Brian Clough and Jackie Charlton came out for the miners. Nottingham Forest fans took abuse as scabs at matches they attended.

Ian MacGregor, Thatcher’s American puppet boss of the NCB, declared that he “wanted to hear from the women”, hoping they’d push their men back to work. He received a resounding response as miner’s wives groups sprang up everywhere declaring “They shall not starve”, cadging food for food kitchens and attending picket lines.

Meanwhile, the police – now organised as a national militarised force – increased their aggression, making thousands of arrests to deplete picket lines. Backed by courts, they restricted picketing rights and used roadblocks across the country. They restricted movement even in workers’ own towns. One Cannock lad got a week’s gaol (and criminal record) for walking to get a pint of milk for the strike centre, deemed to have crossed a quarter-mile restriction by ten yards.

There have rarely been more phone taps! And we saw huge TV and media propaganda. If you believed their daily reports of miners going back to work, 1 million of the 180,000 miners had gone back!

Then TV outdid itself with its distorted coverage of the Orgreave mass pickets – a battle set up by government and police chiefs, with riot police and cavalry charges against workers. Truly, we were seeing a ‘civil war without guns’. 55 miners were threatened with life sentences for riot, until police were found to be lying in court.

The strike moved through summer. Thatcher farcically claimed she wouldn’t intervene, but we saw police and dark agencies working for government increasingly organising returns to work. As one ‘superscab’ later admitted: “I knew they had lots of money, political money.” They organised the National Working Miners Committee, and later assisted the UDM (Union of Democratic Miners – sic) to undermine the NUM.

She outrageously declared the miners to be “the enemy within”, starkly revealing the truth of class society under capitalism, and insulting many men who had served their country.

They launched a legal assault on the NUM. Declaring the strike ‘illegal’, they sought to ‘sequestrate’ (steal) all the union’s funds. The TUC had a Congress decision to organise general strike action if any union faced sequestration under Tory laws, but didn’t act when the NUM was attacked.

But coal stocks were still falling, and miners anticipated ‘General Winter’ helping their action take effect. By autumn, the Tories feared losing. Especially when pit deputies’ (supervisors without whom no pit could operate) union NACOD voted by over 80% to strike in October. Thatcher’s government was hanging by a thread. Electricity bosses estimated “Scargill would…win by Christmas.”

But their threatened strike was shadily called off with meaningless promises. The miners entered winter feeling more isolated, especially given the lack of TUC action and the betrayal of Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, who didn’t want to see militancy pay. Later rewarded with a peerage, he was to repeat this with Liverpool City Council the following year.

All ‘torture’ victims have their thresholds; as a miners’ mum put it: “Not everybody was strong enough”. Despite widening social support for the miners, such as from Pride and others, there was a drift back to work at end of 1984 and early 1985. So, in March 1985, the NUM voted 98-91 for an organised return to work.


The strike had cost the Tories a fortune, but they had inflicted a serious defeat on a strong group of workers. Afterwards, demoralisation was exaggerated – and became an excuse for inaction by trade union leaders.

Within five years, 18 million people defied the law refusing to pay their Poll Tax and brought Thatcher crashing down. A great win, but not one that compensated for the miners’ defeat.

There was devastation in villages as closure programmes rolled on, but miners also rebuilt their strength in pits. At Littleton, where a large majority were back at work by March and the UDM had a base, a walkout when ‘12 monthers’ were picked on was joined by nearly every miner. The desire to reunite was strong and the NUM quickly became dominant again.


The Tories denied a mass closure programme. But the reward for those fooled by their lies was to see 90% of pits closed within ten years. The UDM was exposed but had done its damage. But most decisive in the defeat of this historic strike, where workers showed their capacity to struggle to the end, was that this was not matched by Labour and TUC leaders.

For Marxists, it has many lessons for the future and in understanding how the working class ‘moves’. It also revealed how reactionary ideas are washed away in struggle.

A couple of young miners in contact with the National Front were offered money to attack a pre-strike Militant meeting in Cannock. On hearing that a miner was speaking, they refused. Later, one was collecting in London and saw how many black workers were donating. As he told them about the demonisation of miners in the media, they’d smile and say: “We know, we suffer it all the time”. The scales came off his eyes and he phoned us excitedly to tell us. He joined Militant and supports us to this day.

Had the miners won, the whole free-market Tory project would have been challenged. The working class, inspired to take up struggle, would have put the end of the Tories in sight. The push to create ‘New Labour’ (which Thatcher described as her greatest achievement) would be reversed. British history could have been very different.

Which is why Militant fought with every sinew to help prosecute the dispute, during which 500 miners joined us as the events of the strike revealed the true character of capitalism and failure of the labour movement’s leaders.

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March 2024