Twenty-five years on since the beginning of the great miners’ strike of 1984-5, a number of assiduously constructed myths about what took place still have currency in Britain’s capitalist media.
According to then Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a lawless violent miners’ leadership tried to overthrow the elected government and was prevented from doing so.
To more liberal commentators it was sad that so many pit closures took place, so many miners lost their job and so many mining communities were ravaged, but these tragedies were inevitable, given that the National Union of Mineworkers was left friendless because of its refusal to hold a national strike ballot and because its resort to violent mass picketing threatened the rule of law.
The common element at the heart of both these contentions is that NUM president Arthur Scargill is singled out for blame for the miners’ defeat and the subsequent devastation of Britain’s coalfields.
Targeting Scargill personally isn’t just inaccurate. It also ignores the British Establishment’s systematic and long-planned conspiracy to declare war on the working class, to deploy the full panoply of state power against the miners and to smash them as a prelude to the Tory assault on the public sector, including the NHS, local democracy and state education, which would also weigh trade unionists down with punitive legislation.
The early 1970s had seen a number of victories for trade unionism, none more notable than the 1972 and 1974 miners’ pay disputes.
The deployment by then Yorkshire area president Scargill of flying pickets from Yorkshire to close the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham in 1972 has achieved iconic status, but the crucial element in this success was the readiness of tens of thousands of engineering workers to down tools, form up in ranks and march in an impressive display of disciplined working class power to the plant.
Tory prime minister Edward Heath ordered a three-day working week in both disputes and called a snap general election in 1974 posing the spurious agenda of who should be running the country, him or the miners. Voters turfed his government out, returning Labour’s Harold Wilson to Downing Street.
From that moment on, the Tories and the allies in the highest echelons of the state prepared for revenge against the working class, particularly the miners.
Coal was stockpiled, a national police reporting authority was established to co-ordinate deployment of officers and put police forces under overt day-to-day political control, power stations were adapted to use gas and oil and Thatcher’s Tory government, which took office in 1979, introduced restrictions on trade union rights.
It also appointed Ian MacGregor, who had gained a reputation as an axe-man at British Steel, as National Coal Board chairman.
There was a dummy run in 1981, when the threat of strike action was sufficient to halt a number of planned pit closures. The NUM established a national policy that closures should only take place where there was verifiable exhaustion of coal reserves.
That was the basis on which the Yorkshire and Scottish coalfields took action in March 1984, rejecting the planned closure of Polmaise in Scotland and Cortonwood in Yorkshire.
Yorkshire had previously operated an 18-week overtime ban.
The Tories and the NCB wanted to close pits on the basis of what they called economic grounds, which meant short-term profitability. This depended not only on domestic costs but also international coal prices and it ignored social factors.
“This is not just the coal board’s or the miners’ industry but the people’s industry,” said NUM vice-president Mick McGahey, who was also Scottish NUM president.
His Yorkshire area counterpart Jack Taylor said: “Cortonwood is being closed on economic grounds, which is against Yorkshire area policy. We have always said that, if they close a pit on economic grounds, we will take action.”
The NUM executive met, declared both area stoppages official and followed this up by backing strikes in Kent and Durham and ruling that any future area decisions to back strike action would be regarded as official.
By March 12, half of Britain’s 184,000 miners were out and pickets were sent from areas on strike to other coalfields to persuade them to join their comrades in solidarity.
Many answered the call. Nottinghamshire is often spoken of as a “working” – in other words scab – area, but thousands of NUM members there stayed true to their union.
While Yorkshire and NUM members piled into cars and buses to picket in Notts and Leicestershire, thousands of police officers done up in full riot gear and backed by dogs and horses were drafted from non-mining areas, including the Met in London, to the picket lines, using previously unseen levels of violence against NUM members.
They also imposed travelling restrictions on the NUM, sealing off Nottinghamshire and even turning back Kent miners at the Dartford Tunnel on suspicion that they might have been going to Notts and may have planned to commit acts of violence.
Police violence and restrictions on miners’ freedom of movement were compounded by an orchestrated chorus for a ballot from Fleet Street, the government, weak hearts within the labour movement and the anti-strike minority in the NUM.
‘Targeting Scargill personally … ignores the Establishment’s conspiracy to declare war on the working class.’
The hope was that a combination of economic hardship already suffered by many strikers and their families would dovetail with the selfish attitude of those in Leicestershire who had been promised job security by dint of the planned Vale of Belvoir development and the Nottinghamshire men whose pits had easily accessible and vast coal reserves.
Kent miners, whose area posed difficult geological conditions, marvelled that their Nottinghamshire colleagues were able to walk upright to the face, prompting the cynical comment that “the only time that they have to get on their knees is to speak to the boss.”
Such has been the acceptance over the past quarter-century of the supposed need for a ballot that it may be difficult to believe now that this never really posed a problem for solidarity campaigners. It was only ever raised by people who were opposed to the strike anyway.
McGahey referred to a “new industrial disease of ballotitis” to refer to this feverish demand for a vote, insisting that his members would not be “balloted out of our jobs.”
He and others also suggested that, if the government was so keen on people voting, it should drop its plans to abolish the Greater London Council and the six metropolitan authorities.
Kent NUM president Malcolm Pitt pointed out that 85 per cent of miners had voted with their feet and insisted that the prime task was to “turn back the tide of unemployment and police terror.”
The right-wing members of the NUM leadership who echoed media demands for a national vote had already demonstrated their contempt for a national pithead ballot that had rejected local incentive schemes. They ignored the decision and introduced the divisive concept of piecework into their areas.
There can be little doubt that, if the NUM had allowed itself to be cajoled into balloting and voting Yes to strike action, the anti-strike minority would have demanded area ballots and then individual pit ballots and, if outvoted, would still have scabbed.
Labour Party and trade union critics of the mineworkers’ leadership, including some who were gung-ho for the strike at the onset, have criticised Scargill for his alleged refusal to bargain, insisting that this or that settlement was available and that seasoned negotiators from outside the NUM had secured an acceptable form of words with MacGregor or other NCB officials.
There were any number of such “compromises” cobbled together, but they all either ignored the key NUM demand for no closures except on exhaustion grounds or were vetoed when presented to Thatcher.
The Tory government, as the tribune of the capitalist Establishment, was determined that there should be no compromise. It wanted total victory. It wanted to crush the NUM and trade unionism generally.
“We understood the Conservative government’s determination to use the state machine against us. In order to dismember the welfare state, they had to break the trade union movement and they needed to break the miners first,” said McGahey.
The Tory government played for high stakes. It could have lost the strike. At times, coal stocks were dangerously low, the pressure on the police was palpable given their transformation into a brutal occupation army, counties complained of the strain of policing costs, but the failure to generate sufficient solidarity action tipped the balance against the miners.
And even when the pit deputies’ union NACODS, whose members were safety-critical, voted overwhelmingly for strike action in October 1984, this decision was immediately undermined by the Notts and Midlands areas who refused to abide by the 82 per cent majority.
Scargill had recognised early in the strike that “the miners cannot win this dispute alone.”
When the Morning Star turned over its front page to the NUM on March 28, as it did on other occasions, the miners’ leader declared: “The NUM is engaged in a social and industrial Battle of Britain” and he warned presciently that the international price of coal could “go through the roof tomorrow” and that the “situation in the Middle East is highly volatile.”
Families that have suffered rocketing fuel bills in recent years may reflect on the long-term costs of the dash for gas, reliance on Middle East oil and the destruction of Britain’s efficient and reasonably priced deep-mine coal industry.
Worse than that, the wave of individualism proclaimed by the Thatcher government, exemplified by the scabs who put short-term gains before class solidarity, opened the way to new Labour and its abandonment of the working class.
The Great Strike will be commemorated in many ways this year, but the finest way to pay tribute to the striking miners, the Women Against Pit Closures and the legions of NUM supporters is to continue to rebuild those labour movement traditions of solidarity, peace and socialism in opposition to the discredited dogma of neoliberalism and imperialist wars.
John Haylett was editor of the Morning Star newspaper from 1995 to 2008. He is now the paper’s political editor.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star.
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This post was written by John Haylett