(This month marks the 30th anniversary of the date on which the 1984/85 Miners’ strike began. This article was originally published in the3towns.com on March 7 2009, marking the strike’s 25th anniversary).
I should probably declare an interest before we go any further. In fact, I should declare two interests: firstly, I loathe and despise Margaret Thatcher and everything for which she stood; secondly, for generations members of my family were coal miners. So, don’t expect a dispassionate account of the Miners Strike of 1984-1985.
The strike, which commenced 25 years ago this week, was begun to save 20,000 miners jobs, which the Thatcher Conservative Government was prepared to see lost in its drive to close what it considered was 20 ‘uneconomic pits’.
There probably was a case to be made for rationalisation and modernisation within the coal mining industry, but that was never more than a passing consideration for Thatcher and her government. The Tory prime minister’s motivation was two-fold - the short-sighted belief that closing pits would save money (the long-term cost of dole money and reduced tax revenue apparently never registered) and her determination to take-on and break the power of Britain’s trade unions.
History now shows the Thatcher government had planned in advance for a prolonged strike by Britain’s miners: some coal-burning power stations were converted to burn oil, coal was stock-piled for months before plans for pit closures were announced, and the transporting of coal was moved away from unionised British Rail to non-unionised independent road-hauliers.
It was also significant that the government finally provoked the miners into industrial action in spring 1984, with the prospect looming of better weather and reduced demand for coal to heat the nation’s homes.
Arthur Scargill, then the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), has been proven to have been exactly right in what he said at the time - that Thatcher’s actions were designed, not to improve the mining industry in Britain but to destroy it. Scargill warned that the 20 pits earmarked for closure would be just the beginning, and what Thatcher wanted was for every British pit to be closed, with the country’s needs being met by cheap imported coal from mines where health and safety issues were not serious considerations and where miners were paid a pittance.
However, while Scargill called it right in relation to what lay behind the government’s actions, he was to play into Thatcher’s hands in terms of public relations with his refusal to call a national ballot to endorse strike action. Instead, Scargill argued that a series of regional ballots, endorsing strike action at a number of local pits, amounted to a national legitimisation of the miners’ industrial action.
The ‘regional ballots’ argument was portrayed in Britain’s right-wing media as the NUM being afraid to consult its own members and, therefore, that the strike had no legitimacy and was illegal.
Allowing the conflict to be driven by Thatcher’s agenda also meant the miners were called out on strike at a time when the government knew it had stockpiled enough coal to last for a year. Again, Scargill played into the hands of the Tories.
That said, there can be no doubt that the miners were right to defend, not just their jobs but their very way of life and the continued existence of their communities.
Anyone who was around at the time will never forget the scenes at picket lines around the country, and how Thatcher politicised the role of the police. No-one who witnessed mounted officers riding into groups of striking miners with batons flailing could ever again look at the police in the same way. Obviously, miners retaliated, but the police, by their actions, were seen to be firmly on the side of the Tory Government.
There were many instances where police officers removed their identification numbers so it would be extremely difficult to pinpoint individuals responsible for assaults on miners. Pickets were also goaded by some police officers waving their pay slips - the message being that the police were enjoying inflated wages thanks to the overtime they were getting from policing the strike, while miners and their families were living on the meagre rations provided from the union’s strike pay and public donations.
Meanwhile, Thatcher increased the tension by referring to striking miners as “the enemy within”. Just two years after Britain had fought a war against Argentina in the Falkland Islands, Thatcher went on national television and said, “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”.
Then, on the day after some of the worst clashes between police and miners, at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire, Thatcher made a speech in which she said, “I must tell you that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. It must not succeed. There are those who are using violence and intimidation to impose their will on others who do not want it.” She was right, but it wasn’t the miners who were using violence and intimidation to impose their will on others, it was the police, acting on the orders of the Thatcher government.
With no pits existing in the local area [North Ayrshire] by the 1980s, the immediate impact of the strike on local people was limited, but I do remember miners’ wives setting up a stall in Dockhead Street in Saltcoats on most Saturdays throughout the dispute. Local people showed their support by throwing money into buckets and making donations of food, such as tins of soup and bags of tatties.
I also remember going with a few of my friends to join miners picketing at the Hunterston ore terminal, where British Steel was bringing-in coal and transporting it by road to the Ravenscraig steel plant. Dockers - my father included - had supported the miners and refused to unload imported coal, but Hunterston was a non-unionised port.
The clashes at Huntertson were not on a par with those at many picket lines in England and Wales, but there were still hundreds of arrests.
Years later, in conversation with Colin Fox, now co-convener of the Scottish Socialist Party, we discovered that we had both been part of the picket at Hunterston. We hadn’t known each other at the time, but it was amazing how our recollections were so similar - including sunbathing on the grass embankments in-between attempting to stop the convoys of lorries going into and out of the Hunterston site.
Today, I still can’t see a Yuill & Dodds lorry without feeling an almost overwhelming sense of loathing. For me, and so many others, the haulage company will forever be the scabs that moved the coal for Thatcher.
Of course, history now tells us that, after a very long year of bitter disputes, violence and communities torn apart, Thatcher won and the miners were forced back to work. However, the reality is that no-one won. The miners returned to work with dignity, but Scargill’s prediction was to be fulfilled and, ultimately, the British mining industry was destroyed. Look at the decay and social decline that now exists in virtually every former mining community across the country and tell me that Britain benefited from the miners being defeated.
Police forces across Britain would also never be the same in the aftermath of the miners strike. The police had been politicised and had been used as a tool of the state. The general public had seen the police use excessive levels of violence against ordinary working class people: the result of which was that the public image of the police would never be the same again.
Thatcher claimed victory and was buoyed by the conflict, which saw her go on to implement the right-wing, free market agenda that decimated manufacturing industries in Britain. Thatcherism destroyed so many lives and communities, and introduced the financial spivs and speculators that now, 25 years later, have brought the country to its knees.
There were no winners from the 1984-1985 strike, but the miners at least fought for a worthy and honourable cause - the right to work, to earn a wage and to support their families. They were decent men and they deserved better than to be made pawns in the ideological crusade of a despicable woman who, if the place exists, will certainly rot in hell.