Remembering the Great Miners’ Strike

April 12, 2013

No other event during the reign of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made her as despised as her all-out war on the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984-85. The government's victory over the most powerful battalion in the British labor movement--whose mass strikes only a decade earlier in the 1970s had shaken the political system--shaped all the decades of neoliberalism that followed. After the strike, British socialist and journalist Paul Foot wrote this powerful brief history of the struggle as an introduction to a collection called Blood, Sweat and Tears: Photographs from the Great Miners Strike.

ON MARCH 1, 1984 Margaret Thatcher and her ministers embarked on a class battle. It was to be as tough and crude a class battle as had ever been attempted--even by Margaret Thatcher's beloved Victorians. The Tories were taking on their most formidable and feared enemy: the National Union of Mineworkers.

Coal stocks had been built high. The police force had been reorganized and retrained to break strikes. Oil-fired power stations were taken out of mothballs, and oil ordered far ahead. Secret public opinion polls reassured them that a ballot among all the mineworkers for a national strike would almost certainly be lost (as had ballots three times in the last three years).

Ian MacGregor, a grisly class warrior whose life had been devoted to breaking unions all over the world, had taken up office as Chairman of the National Coal Board. After three years spent halving the workforce of the British Steel Corporation and reducing its unions to quivering servitude, he was ready for his most ambitious mission, to bring the miners to heel. This was to be the final victory over a trade union movement already cowed by the horror of four million unemployed.

Marxist Classics

The closure of Cortonwood, in Yorkshire, was the gauntlet flung down by the government. It was the first pit with coal in it to be closed since the signing of "A Plan for Coal" in 1974; the first of twenty pits to be closed in direct contravention of the agreement; 20,000 jobs were on the line, four million tons of coal capacity was to be taken out.

Reaction was swift. Flying pickets from Cortonwood brought the rest of the huge Yorkshire coalfield to a standstill. Kent followed. Before long, the traditionally militant coalfields of South Wales and Scotland were silent. But in the big Nottingham coalfield, and in most of the smaller, weaker areas where ballots were held, the vote went against. The strike was deprived from the very first day of the unity and solidarity which won the day in the 1970s.

Some 30,000 miners had decided to work. At least 165,000 miners were out on strike, and were clearly determined to stay out for far longer than the most pessimistic Tory had ever imagined.

In the early days, the pickets set out as confidently as they had in 1972 and 1974. They found a different police force, controlled from one "reporting center," using powers which even they did not believe they had: to stop pickets' cars and turn them back, to cordon off whole villages and areas, to arrest at will, and finally to break the pickets by weight of numbers and by force.

Press and television joined enthusiastically in the fray. Their tactic was based on the old demonology. They turned the miners' president, Arthur Scargill, into a devil incarnate. Even A.]. Cook, the miners' leader in the lockout of 1926, had not had to endure the violence and malevolence of the attacks on Arthur Scargill.

The strikers soon discovered that they were much poorer than they had been in 1972 and 1974. The Tories had deducted 15 pounds per week from the already desperately low benefits that their wives and children were entitled to. It seemed as though they must soon break under this pressure. But they didn't. Indeed, as the miners fell back from the battles on the picket lines of Nottinghamshire and Orgreave to protect their own heartlands, the strike seemed to gain a new spirit, a new strength.

WALKING DOWN a road in Upton, Yorks, in September, I stopped to talk to a large miner whose battered car had stopped beside me. I had heard, I said, of the sadness and the wretchedness of the mining areas, so why was he beaming from ear to ear? "I've enjoyed it, me," he declared, and started to explain.

Of course, he and his family had very little money; of course, they were worried by the cold; of course, of course. But life was different. The daily grind had been removed. Decisions--about picketing, about welfare, about the political ebbs and flows of the strike which were on television every day--had to be taken not by someone else, some high-up somewhere, but by themselves. He did not put it quite like this, but he was in charge of his own destiny, and he enjoyed it.

There was change all about. People were changing. In the strength of their collective action, they felt a new confidence in themselves and the people around them. Ideas and prejudices which had been grafted into them like barnacles were suddenly blasted away. The change in themselves was quickly translated into changes in the way they behaved towards one another.

In tradition and in fact, the miner had been the master in his home. The role of the miner's wife was to feed her man, bring up her children and keep her mouth shut. Suddenly, in the most unlikely area, the ideas of women's liberation became reality. Whole communities were suddenly run by women. The strongest, most energetic and most forceful of the support groups were made up, almost exclusively, of women. This led to new relationships in the community and in the home--to new uncertainties, perhaps, but also to new respect.

In the same way, the socialist ideas which inspired people's brains were suddenly resurrected in physical reality. An injury to one was an injury to all. The strong did help the weak, the able-bodied did help the disabled. The seeds of a new society founded on cooperation, common interest and human effort bent to human need were sown in the struggle against the old one.

These changes burst out of the mining areas. Through the summer and autumn of 1984 they started to infect and inspire hundreds of thousands of people who had called themselves socialists, but had begun to give up hope. Into every crack and crevice of the Labour movement came the black-and-yellow slogan COAL NOT DOLE, waking and inspiring all but the most somnolent and sectarian fossils.

At the start of the strike, all donations were collected by the union officials and sent off to the areas or to the national solidarity fund. By the late autumn, the vast mass of individual donations went to individual pits, through the "twinning" of union branches, Labour Parties, even street committees with pits and villages. The miners and their families moved out of their areas, while supporters from outside moved in. New friendships sprouted, spawning new solidarity.

IN AUGUST, September and October, the strike held; utterly and incredibly solid.

For a time, the government wavered, only to realize that another defeat by the miners, when all the odds were for the government, might threaten "civilization as we know it." New pressure was brought on the stumbling MacGregor to stand his ground.

Tim Bell, personal adviser to the prime minister and managing director of Saatchi and Saatchi, the advertising agency which had spurred the Tories to office in 1979, joined a new advertising agency which was promptly granted the entire anti-strike account of the National Coal Board. David Hart, an imbecile property tycoon and right-wing fanatic, was authorized by MacGregor to start up and fund a "Working Miners Committee" from the dregs of the strikebreakers. In four days of advertising in Tory papers, Hart's "Committee" raised more than 100,000 pounds.

Newspapers, television, police, even Special Branch joined the growing campaign to push the miners back to work. As miners started to go back in big numbers, in November, Coal Board executives predicted an end to the strike by Christmas.

The ratchet slipped a notch; then held again. The support groups mobilized a huge effort over Christmas. Every miner's child enjoyed their Christmas--some say more than ever before. As the New Year started, after nine months of strike, there were still 130,000 miners out.

Still the miners held out. The bitter cold of January did not bring the power cuts. The oil-fired power stations, at full blast, could light, heat and power the homes and industries of Britain as long as the crucial 50,000 tons of coal a week came in from Nottingham. Instead, the cold was just another new misery to add to poverty and hunger.

The Coal Board and the government had been certain that the strike would peter out in January. But it went on and on. Each week cost the government another 40 million or 50 million pounds in unbudgeted spending. When, in the first week of March 1985, the flow back to work had become too strong to resist, and the miners were finally starved back to work--together, without formally conceding surrender, their heads held high. They had been on strike for a full year, the longest mass strike in all British, European or American history.

ONE OF the most remarkable pictures in this book shows the faces of the miners in the cage on the first day back. It shows how quickly the change which had worked such wonders in the strike worked the other way as soon as the strike was over. The men are, once again, caged. Their expressions are depressed and bored. The miners were subject once again to the Coal Board's commands and its instructions. The cage was bad enough, but worse would probably follow. There was only one thing worse than having a job; not having one.

Outside the pits, the mood shifted in the same sudden way. The end of the strike led to a collapse of aspirations and morale among its supporters. Neil Kinnock, the head of the Labour Party, who had been attacked in almost every local Labour branch in the country for his weasel words about the strike, suddenly became "the only hope." Labour and Communist Party members returned to their party organizations and their enervating or ideological priorities.

People who had supported the strike to the hilt, including even some miners' leaders, started to say that the strike had been a mistake, that it would have been better if it had never happened, that it was all the fault of Scargill and Benn, that it would have been better to have had a ballot and lost than to have gone through a "year's hell" for nothing.

These arguments were enthusiastically rehearsed by the trade union leaders who had spouted great rhetoric at the TUC, but had organized nothing to campaign for the miners in the places it mattered most: the power stations, the haulage depots and the docks; by local miners' leaders, who showed such lack of confidence in their own rank and file, and hugged the strike close to their short-sighted strategy, never once unleashing the potential for leadership which was there in the newly awakened rank and file; and by the Labour politicians who never missed a chance to fasten on the weakness of the miners' case, rather than its strength, for rotten long-term electoral advantage. Such people were delighted to greet so many converts from direct action to the pillars in the cloud in the shape of a possible Labour government at least three years away.

As the ranks of the doubters grow, as their arguments become more and more fashionable, the real friends of the miners must fight all the harder for the memory of the strike. We must remember that it was a hundred million times better to have fought, even if the strike's aims had not been achieved, than not to have fought at all.

For the first time in five years, Thatcher's government was stopped in its tracks for a full year. It was forced to fall back on the crudest class bludgeons in its "objective" state machinery. We must remember the potential for change which the great strike represented. We must remember that the strike fell short of its aims not because it happened, nor because it was led by extremists, nor because a ballot wasn't held, but because the other side was better organized and better prepared than ours was; and that therefore next time we must be better prepared.

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