Remembering Britain’s forgotten civil war

The history of the 1984-85 miners' strike has been either rewritten or erased altogether. The miners, and history, deserve better.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

This article is republished from the March 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 remains the most remarkable struggle in British politics during my almost 30-year involvement as a journalist and propagandist. What is even more remarkable is that it has no place in political debate today. Many people have effectively forgotten, and younger generations know little or nothing about that 12-month conflict. The very idea of more than a hundred thousand workers taking part in a strike for jobs that turned into a violent civil war, dividing not only mining communities but the country (my own father spat the word ‘Scargill’ like an expletive), seems so far removed from our current reality that it might as well have taken place not only in another century but on another planet.

Yet as we pass the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the strike, it still matters, and not just for nostalgic reasons. The defeat of the miners by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was a watershed that did much to shape politics as we know it now.

For example, there is much debate about how the current recession might differ from those that went before it. One obvious difference is in the response of those hit by the recession in the UK. There have been mass redundancies, closures, wage cuts and soaring unemployment, with plenty more to come. Yet there have been none of the major strikes and mass demonstrations that marked previous crises, beyond one small confused protest about the employment of foreign contract labour and the plans of a few ‘anti-capitalist’ clowns to run around the City of London on 1 April. Instead people are responding to the recession much more as isolated individuals.

These things are all, in part, a legacy of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, which marked the final defeat of the labour movement and the left in Britain. It was the culmination of a process which meant that, while working-class people still worked and were exploited and made redundant, the working class ceased to exist as a collective force in political life. Understanding that past is important in making sense of the present.

Yet the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the strike, on 5 March, passed with relatively little serious comment. As a young Marxist I spent time in Yorkshire during the dispute, both writing for the next step, newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and trying to organise solidarity action with the strike. As an old Marxist I went back to the north Yorkshire coalfield last month, to discover that not only had all but one of the pits (Kellingley, the Big K) been long since closed and filled with concrete, but that they had been erased from the landscape, turned into country parks and industrial estates and shopping malls and wasteland, as if they had never existed.

It seems as if something similar has been done to the miners’ strike in political terms, writing it out of history with some bizarre consequences. It is slightly surreal, for instance, to hear civil liberties lawyers warn about Britain becoming a ‘police state’ today, 25 years after a paramilitary police army occupied mining communities, arrested 10,000 miners, fought pitched battles, blocked motorways and did much else besides. It was beyond surreal to hear the same warnings about a police state recently given by Stella Rimington, who was the head of MI5 during the state’s war on the miners.

When it is discussed now, the miners’ strike tends to be rewritten from the point of view of today’s preoccupations and prejudices. Thus it is often reduced to an early chapter in the climate change/energy crisis debate, with arguments about whether closing the mining industry was the right thing to do for the environment and whether we now need cleaned-up ‘green coal’ to meet Britain’s power needs.

The energy crisis and the role of coal are important issues to debate today, as readers of spiked and the new book Energise! by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, will know. But it is also important to understand that, at the time, the miners’ strike had nothing to do with any of that. It was not a dispute about energy policy or the environment, nor did it have much directly to do with the economy at all. It was primarily a political struggle between the state and the organised working class, staged by the Thatcher government in order finally to break the power of the traditional labour movement by defeating the strongest of the trade unions. It deserves to be remembered as a civil war, a class war, a battle for power in British society.

The few books that have been published to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary are welcome aids to situating the strike in its proper context. Marching to the Fault Line, written by two Guardian journalists, plots the story of the miners’ dispute with the government from its antecedents in the 1926 General Strike to the bitter end in March 1985 and the pit closures that followed. It marshals familiar facts alongside new information and interviews with the protagonists to detail the twists and turns of the 12-month strike, providing a useful chronological account for those who were there and those who were not. Shafted is a collection of essays, edited by Granville Williams, focusing on what the media did during the miners’ strike, and the subsequent story that it didn’t tell about the devastating impact of the pit-closure programme on the mining communities. It is published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, which worked hard to expose media bias against the miners during the dispute itself.

In Marching to the Fault Line, Francis Beckett and David Hencke reveal that, ‘The great strike for jobs started by accident’. Ian McGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), had planned to tell the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) of his plans to close pits and cut 20,000 jobs on 6 March 1984. He expected that NUM president Arthur Scargill would then call a ballot for a national strike – a vote which, based on recent results, McGregor was confident Scargill would lose. However, on 1 March 1984, the South Yorkshire Coal Board director jumped the gun and announced that Cortonwood pit would close in five weeks time. Yorkshire miners walked out in protest, and soon began the process of picketing-out that spread the strike to most areas of the coal industry. By the time McGregor made his planned announcement, the strike that he expected to forestall had already begun.

But while the NCB and the Tory government might have been taken by surprise, they were well prepared for the fight – unlike the miners’ union.  Right from the start, observe Beckett and Hencke, ‘The military precision at local and national level to deal with the picketing made the NUM look positively amateurish’.

Having stockpiled coal and chosen its moment to pick the fight, the Tory government deployed every arm of the state machine against the striking miners – from the police and the civil and criminal courts, to the secret services and the social security system, which cut welfare payments to strikers. Some claim that the army were also involved in the picket line battles.

The most remarkable role was played by the police force, which batoned away forever the civilised ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ image of the British Bobby. Under Thatcher’s instructions, the Association of Chief Police Officers activated the National Reporting Centre to coordinate action against the strikers – effectively creating a centralised national police force, something that was not supposed to exist in Britain. They bent, broke and invented the law to suit the needs of the government in the dispute. The level of violence that resulted was unheard of in British industrial disputes. I recall one veteran of the left arguing at the time that, to have any chance of success against the paramilitary police army, the miners would need to have been training in battle formation on local football fields with baseball bats and helmets before the dispute began. But such things were entirely alien to the staid bureaucratic traditions of British trade unionism. When the police launched their assault on the strike, many miners fought back with tremendous spirit, ingenuity and courage. But they were no match for the well-prepared state machine.

There were three phases of the police war on the miners’ strike. In the first, they massed to close the border to Nottinghamshire and prevent miners from other areas, notably Yorkshire, picketing the working pits. In the second phase, the authorities staged the Battle of Orgreave, a fortnight of clashes outside a coking works between an army of baton-wielding, shield-beating riot cops and the irregular forces of thousands of pickets dressed in shorts and t-shirts.

In the third phase, after the defeat at Orgreave, the demoralised strikers retreated to picket their own pits to try to stop other miners returning to work – where, notes Marching to the Fault Line, ‘the police followed them, very much like a victorious army’. It was during this late stage of the strike that some of the bloodiest violence ensued, as police sealed off pit villages and ran riot through local pubs and streets and homes in a way that few people witnessed and many would not have believed possible. Yet still the miners resisted, as in the Siege of Fitzwilliam, when it seemed an entire community rose up and drove the riot police out of their north Yorkshire pit village. I sat in court during the trial of some of the Fitzwilliam lads, as witnesses gave evidence that the police had handcuffed young miners to lampposts in front of their lines, to discourage stone throwing. They were sent to jail anyway.

Throughout this campaign, much of the national media acted as the propaganda wing of the police and the government. Shafted highlights the infamous episode at Orgreave, when the BBC News edited the film of the clashes to make it appear that the miners had charged first and the police had responded – the reverse of the truth. The BBC insists that it was an honest mistake. Shafted also republishes the John Harris photos, of a charging riot cop on horseback batoning a female photographer, that became for many on the left a defining image of the dispute. Only one national newspaper published it at the time. (Some of us, however, also felt that the emphasis many on the left placed on that picture captured a problem with their image of the strike, depicting the miners and their supporters as helpless victims more than combatants.)

As Shafted emphasises, the media played a crucial role in the dispute and the battle for hearts and minds across Britain. It is also important to avoid the temptation to impose our own media-obsessed political culture on the past. News coverage does not determine the outcome of a real political struggle in the real world. The striking miners fought on despite the overwhelming hostility of the media, because they had a cause and solidarity of their own. The flipside of this, as noted in Shafted by Paul Routledge (The Times’ industrial correspondent during the strike, whom Beckett and Hencke report secretly donated £5,000 to the NUM), is that, ‘The theory that good public relations can win struggles was put to the test in the ambulance workers’ dispute of 1989-90, and found wanting’, as the health unions ‘won the PR campaign but lost the war’ because the Tory government was stronger.

In the miners’ strike, the real balance of forces on the ground was tipped overwhelmingly in the government’s favour by the split in the NUM, as most Nottinghamshire miners continued to work and produce coal through the dispute. The divisions made the war on the miners almost a foregone conclusion. To turn the old chant around: the miners disunited were always likely to be defeated.

Scargill and the NUM executive refused to hold a national ballot. Because Thatcher and her allies used this as a weapon to accuse the NUM of flouting democracy, mention of a ballot became anathema to many striking miners. Yet as we in RCP argued with them at the time – much to the horror of Scargill’s loyal cheerleaders on the left – only a rank-and-file campaign to win a national ballot held the potential to unite the miners and win. Scargill, however, always seemed to trust his rulebook more than his rank-and-file members, and would not countenance taking that chance. So the divisions deepened and became more bitter – and remain so to this day. There were indeed hardcore scabs in Notts. There were also many ordinary miners unpersuaded by the NUM leaders’ arguments, who became scapegoats for a wider failure of leadership.

The failure of thousands of miners to back the strike also made it almost impossible to organise effective solidarity action amongst other groups of workers – although there were many remarkable examples of support. Shafted republishes two memorable front pages from the Sun, both dated 15 May 1984. The first, as prepared for publication, shows Scargill photographed at the moment his arm was raised in a ‘Nazi-style’ salute to cheering miners, with the headline ‘MINE FUHRER’. The second, as finally published, carries no picture or headline but this statement: ‘Members of all the Sun production chapels refused to handle the Arthur Scargill picture and major headline on our lead story. The Sun has decided, reluctantly, to print the paper without either.’

The class conflict and national trauma of the miners’ strike present such a contrast to the bland, ideology-free politics of today that it might seem incomprehensible. One way some try to make sense of it is by projecting backwards the current obsession with personality politics, to claim that in the end the way the dispute went resulted from a personal squabble between Thatcher and Scargill, both of whom are now widely discredited figures. This does a serious disservice to all concerned, most importantly to the miners.

Beckett and Hencke tend towards such a view, concluding that the prime minister and the NUM leader were both like blundering First World War generals who did great damage to their own sides. The typical Guardian-style implication of this comparison is that it would have been better if the unpleasantness could have been avoided and everything sorted out via civilised negotiation and compromise between more reasonable figures.

But the history of real conflicts cannot simply be ironed smooth 25 years later. The conflict was political, not personal. It was a war, but the trouble was that only one side’s leaders seemed fully to grasp that fact. As Tory cabinet minister Peter Walker spelt out in The Times in July 1984, so far as the government was concerned ‘we are facing a challenge to our whole way of life… This is not a mining dispute. It is a challenge to British democracy and hence to the British people.’ Shortly afterwards, Thatcher compared the miners to the Argentine forces in the Falklands War, branding them as ‘the enemy within’.

On the other side, meanwhile, the leaders of the trade union movement and the Labour Party, along with liberal voices such as the Guardian, equivocated, and insisted it must be treated as a normal industrial dispute, and condemned the violence of the pickets at least as loudly as that of the police. It was no contest. Beckett and Hencke recall with horror the occasion when Norman Willis, the useless lump of a TUC general secretary, condemned picket-line violence at a Welsh miners’ rally, only for a symbolic noose to appear above his head, lowered from the roof. But that was what it meant to miners engaged in a life-and-death struggle for their jobs and communities, and how badly they felt let down by their supposed allies.

Whatever any of us thinks of Thatcher now, at the time she delivered a victory for her government and British capitalism, whilst many around her wavered. Defeating the labour movement and shifting the balance of forces in society was arguably Thatcher’s one real achievement in office, paving the way for all that has followed in politics and economics. The fact that neither the Tories, New Labour or their capitalist allies proved capable of replacing the old industries such as mining with anything more than a paper-thin prosperity bought on the never-never does not alter the facts about who won 25 years ago.

As for Scargill, he had many faults – but intransigence and a refusal to give in were not among them. He was the only national labour leader to recognise the political and class character of the conflict, at least rhetorically. Yet away from the rousing rhetoric of his rally speeches, he remained too closely wedded to the NUM tradition of tying miners’ interests to that of the coal industry to make a coherent case, too much of a rulebook-waving bureaucrat to unite and mobilise the rank and file effectively, too trained in the tramline Stalinist attitudes of ‘forward ever, backward never’ to confront the real problems that mounted up during the dispute.

But contrary to what is often claimed, to quote one chapter heading in Shafted, ‘It wasn’t all about Arthur’. It wasn’t Scargill who started the dispute, but Yorkshire miners who walked out in response to the threat of pit closures. It was not Scargill’s intransigence that prolonged the dispute, but the resilience of striking miners – and of the support groups run by miners’ wives – and their refusal to give in to the Tory government.

No doubt there are many lessons to be learned from the defeat of the miners’ strike – not least about the spirit and the strength of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and the importance of political leadership. But the fact that they – we – lost does not mean it was wrong to fight when the alternative was to surrender. (And it was not lost on the ex-NUM militants that the strike-breaking in Nottinghamshire and the formation of the scab Union of Democratic Mineworkers failed to save the Notts coalfield from devastation either, once they had served their purpose.)

As one former Yorkshire miner told me last month, speaking for many that I have met since the strike: ‘I don’t think we could have gone back with any dignity at any time. So it was all out, it was out to the end, win or not. To do a year on strike was not easy, I don’t want to look back with rose-tinted glasses. But given the chance I’d have done exactly the same, I’ve no regrets at all. I just wished that we’d lamped a few more Bobbies.’

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

Marching to the Fault Line, by Francis Beckett & David Hencke, is published by Constable. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Shafted: the Media, the Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath, edited by Granville Williams, is published by Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the March 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.


To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today