History makers: striking miners

The revelation that Margaret Thatcher was prepared to send in the troops during the 1984-85 miners' strike is testament to the fortitude and courage of the striking miners.

Thanks to the release of a batch of British government papers from the National Archive, we’ve recently learnt that in the midst of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was ready to declare a state of emergency and send in the army to distribute coal stocks.

It’s a revelation that captures well the mindset of the then Tory government. As Thatcher and her allies saw it, the Miners’ Strike was not just another in a long line of increasingly intractable, acrimonious industrial disputes, to be negotiated away through the dilapidated mechanisms established during the postwar consensus. It was more than that: it was a chance precisely to break away from the postwar consensus, a chance to free up the market from the shackles of trade unionism, an opportunity, ultimately, to defeat the organised working class. It was not at heart an economic dispute at all; it was a political conflict, a war not just between the Tories and the miners, but between classes. The future of society was at stake.

This is why documents showing that Thatcher was prepared to call in the army are not exactly a surprise. Even before the strike started, the government had stockpiled coal in preparation for a protracted confrontation. There would be no concessions this time. When the Miners’ Strike did finally, but unexpectedly, erupt in Cortonwood, South Yorkshire in March 1984, following a pre-emptive announcement of a local pit closure from the South Yorkshire Coal Board - days before the National Coal Board was scheduled to announce 20 pit closures – the government responded with the full force of the state. With the strike quickly spreading nationwide, the police, acting effectively as a national force under the central control of the National Reporting Centre at New Scotland Yard, proceeded to occupy pit towns and villages, set up road blocks, thinking nothing of using force and intimidation. The criminal and civil courts, emboldened by the Tory government’s fresh anti-trade union legislation, were likewise mobilised against the miners. By the end of the strike in March 1985, 11,291 people had been arrested and 8,392 charged with multi-purpose offences such as breach of the peace and obstructing the highway.

Tory ministers were always quite clear about what was going on: they were engaged in a battle with what Thatcher infamously described as ‘the enemy within’. ‘This is not a mining dispute. It is a challenge to British democracy and hence to British people’, declared a Tory cabinet minister in The Times in July 1984. The then chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, later described the planning of the state offensive against the striking miners as ‘just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s’.

And yet despite possessing what the sociologist Max Weber called ‘the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force’, the British state, with Thatcher as its helmet-haired leader, still struggled to defeat the miners. The state had the batons, the horses, not to mention a steroidal police army; it even had the veneer of legitimacy granted by the courts. But what it hadn’t reckoned on was the fortitude, the resilience and the courage of the striking miners, ably backed by family, friends and not a few comrades. Indeed, so indefatigable were the miners that by October 1984, according to the released National Archive papers, the government thought it was ‘staring into the abyss’. It had expected resistance – six months’ worth given the volume of stockpiled coal – but not this much, and not for this long.

Examples of ordinary people displaying the extraordinary courage of their political convictions abound. There was the two-week-long confrontation outside Orgreave coking works in South Yorkshire, where tooled-up police officers, some on horseback, others behind riot shields, fought running battles with pickets in shorts and t-shirts. There was the showdown in Fitzwilliam, also in Yorkshire, where miners, angry at the arrest of a local man, besieged a nearby police station in Hemsworth, smashed in its windows and drove the residing officers, bloodied and bruised, out of town. And there were the myriad, now dimly remembered, acts of kindness and self-sacrifice that allowed the miners to go on fighting despite their wageless, and increasingly benefit-stripped, impoverishment.

So, yes, the Miners’ Strike may have ended in defeat – a political defeat which continues to resound today. But it’s important to remember that the sheer grit and determination of the miners and their families took the unscrupulous might of the British state to the brink of ‘the abyss’.

Too often today, however, the spirit and bravery of the miners tends to be obscured by the left-liberal caricature drawn of Arthur Scargill, the then president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). For Labourites and liberals, the Miners’ Strike, conceived as futile, confrontational and violent, has been presented as little more than an expression of Scargill’s character, his ‘suicidal vanity’, as the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock was to put it over 20 years later. This was not a political conflict, a war between classes, runs this train of thought; it was a personal conflict between Scargill and Thatcher expressed on a national stage. Such thinking ignores the salient facts. It was the miners at Cortonwood who started the strike, not Scargill, and it was the miners, aided by their supporters, who continued the strike into 1985, not Scargill. They were the moving force here, the collective subject of this particular moment in recent history, not Scargill.

Indeed, one of Scargill’s principal contributions – his steadfast refusal to countenance the idea of a national ballot on whether to strike or not – was to hinder the development of the strike. As he and his supporters in the NUM saw it, a national ballot held out the possibility of a defeat, which played into the miners’ enemies hands. Yet by refusing to hold a ballot, the many thousands of miners unpersuaded of the necessity of strike action, especially in the less affected collieries in the Midlands, were left unpersuaded. In this, Scargill showed a lack of faith in both the arguments for strike action and the miners themselves. And this lack of faith was to leave the miners fatally divided.

But at least Scargill recognised that the Miners’ Strike was a political conflict that could not be resolved through formal legal channels. His colleagues in the trade-union and Labour movement were seemingly oblivious to this political dimension. For them, it really was just an industrial dispute to be worked out within the law. At a mass meeting in Aberavon in South Wales on 13 November 1984, the Trades Union Congress general secretary, Norman Willis, decided to criticise miners who fought back with violence.  ‘Violence creates more violence’, said Willis. ‘Such acts if they are done by miners are alien to our common trade-union tradition, however, not just because they were counter-productive but because they are wrong.’

As Willis’s tirade against picket-line violence continued, a group of Welsh miners showed their appreciation by lowering a noose in front of him with a placard that read, ‘Where’s Ramsay McKinnock?’. The allusion to Neil Kinnock was apt. Like Ramsay McDonald, the former Labour prime minister who betrayed his party to gain power as part of the National Government in the 1930s, Kinnock was seen by many strikers as a traitor to the mining communities of which his family was once part. Instead of defending miners’ right to fight back against those who wished to destroy them, Kinnock was content to ‘condemn[...] all violence without fear or favour’. With friends like the TUC and the Labour Party, who needed right-wing enemies?

No doubt the debates about the Miners’ Strike will continue, such was the strike’s lasting effect on the political and social landscape of Britain. But through all this, the heroic efforts of those men and women engaged in a life-or-death struggle should not be forgotten.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

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