The Tories’ £6 billion battle against the working class
Twenty five years ago the great miners’ strike of 1984-85 started. It was the longest lasting and most bitter industrial dispute of the second half of the 20th century in Britain. It had a huge impact on virtually every subsequent industrial and political development.
Today, with mass unemployment rising and communities facing devastation as a consequence of the capitalist economic crisis, there are many lessons arising from the miners’ strike that can assist those fighting to defend jobs.
The British establishment and their apologists in the trade union and labour movement have always attempted to portray the strike as a doomed, futile attempt to preserve a dying industry, led by a tactically inept Arthur Scargill.
The arguments put forward by critics of the strike in the 1980s and onwards will sound eerily reminiscent to those being put forward by those today who argue that nothing can be done to stop jobs being lost from “dying industries”.
Michael Ignatieff, regarded as something of a cultural guru by the ruling class in 1984, wrote towards the end of the strike that: “The miners’ strike is not the vindication of class politics but its death throes.”¹
Other critics included government minister Kim Howells. He was formerly a Communist and South Wales National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) research officer. He later converted to Blairism.
Even before the strike ended in 1984 he hauled up the white flag saying: “The state is much better organised for taking on mass pickets than it was in the early 1970s… It is the hardest lesson any workforce has had to learn since 1926. The whole of the organised labour movement has to take a fresh look in future disputes.”²
But for Howells, and many like him, taking a fresh look has meant drawing only negative conclusions, and abandoning the trade union ideals of struggle and solidarity – ideals the miners fought for so valiantly.
And many on the left who solidly backed the miners, are even to this day intimidated by the miners’ defeat. They lack the confidence to launch the kind of all-out struggles the miners did, to successfully turn the tables on 25 years of mostly uncontested attacks.
The miners’ strike was not only justified – the miners came closer to defeating Thatcher than they knew – but it also holds many vital lessons for trade unionists embarking on new struggles in the 21st century.
Over 27 million working days were lost in strike action in 1984 (mainly among miners). Over 11,300 miners and their supporters were arrested during the dispute and over 5,600 stood trial. More than a hundred were jailed.
Over £60 million was raised, according to the Guardian, for the miners, and warehouses full of food and toys were donated to the striking miners and their families.
Seafarers were sacked and railworkers were victimised for taking solidarity action with the miners. Over 700 miners were sacked and not reinstated.
To this day the victimisation continues, even in the strangest ways. In February 2003, ex-NUM official 69-year-old Jock Glen from east Scotland, was summoned to attend a meeting at the US consulate in London. It was over his request for a visa to enter the USA on a family holiday – he had been arrested during the miners’ strike 20 years ago!
The Tories later admitted it cost nearly £6 billion to win the dispute, or £26,000 for every striking miner. It was a political attempt to break the power of the NUM. From 1985-95 the Tories’ continued war against the miners cost over £26 billion in redundancy and benefit payments, keeping pits mothballed and lost revenue from coal.
Thatcher and her cabinet were desperate for victory and prepared to go to great lengths to try and weaken or destroy the power of effective trade unionism, which they saw as an obstacle to their free-market policies.
This ideologically driven class offensive graphically showed the short-termist approach of the British ruling class in that it was prepared to destroy a viable and necessary industry – underlined today by the fact that 25 years on there is a renewed attempt to resuscitate an indigenous British mining industry.
For the first time in a post-war national strike, the police were openly used as a political weapon. Agent provocateurs and spies were deployed and the state benefits system used to try and starve the miners back.
Despite the extraordinary lengths the Tories went to, by October 1984, six months into the strike, the future of Thatcher’s government hung in the balance – when there were less than six weeks’ coal stocks. The proposed strike by the pit supervisors’ union Nacods threatened to close down all working pits in the Midlands at this time. Later, Nacods shamefully called off the strike for a shoddy deal which the Tories later reneged on.
So, the NUM had to battle on alone. However, despite the odds, they came within a whisker of winning.
Ten years after the strike, Frank Ledger, the Central Electricity Generating Board’s (CEGB) director of operations, recounted how they had only planned for a six-month strike and that the situation at this time was verging on the “catastrophic”.
Former chairman of the CEGB, Sir Walter Marshall, spelt out what this meant: “Our predictions showed on paper that Scargill would win, certainly before Christmas. Margaret Thatcher got very worried about that… I felt she was wobbly”.³
Thatcher confirmed this herself nine years later: “We had got so far and we were in danger of losing everything because of a silly mistake. We had to make it quite clear that if it was not cured immediately then the actual management of the Coal Board could indeed have brought down the government. The future of the government at that moment was in their hands and they had to remedy their terrible mistake.” 4
Ultimately, the key factor that defeated the miners was not their lack of militant spirit in facing the most sustained vicious state onslaught on them and their families. Nor was it lack of support from the wider ranks of the working class or even the mistakes that some NUM leaders made at national and area level – although some were of fundamental importance at later stages of the strike.
Trade union and Labour leaders
The absolutely crucial factor in the strike’s ultimate defeat was the treacherous and cowardly role of the trade union and Labour leaders, who consciously sabotaged the possibility of a miners’ victory.
Right-wing trade union leaders after the 1983 Labour election defeat were pursuing a policy they called ‘new realism’ – code for retreating in the face of the class enemy without firing a shot in retaliation.
Labour leader Neil Kinnock was also afraid of a rising tide of militancy in the event of a miners’ victory, and he didn’t want to see militancy pay, particularly not if he was prime minister.
They used the absence of a national miners’ ballot and the fact that a section of miners was still working, to turn their back on the 130,000 miners who were striking. They refused to deliver the effective solidarity action that could have brought the miners victory – a victory which would have benefited the whole of the working class against the detested Thatcher.
The miners’ defeat, along with the economic upswing of the late 1980s, set in motion a complex and difficult period in Britain, consolidating a massive shift to the right at the top of the labour movement. Labour and trade union leaders meekly accepted anti-union legislation and generally abandoned any pretence of struggle against industrial run-down and privatisation.
It was a bitter blow for those miners and their families who struggled. Their jobs are gone for ever and their communities turned into industrial wastelands with social devastation following for many.
Had they won, the whole course of history would have changed. Thatcher and her government would have resigned and most likely a Labour government would have come to power.
The pit-closure plan would have been dropped and, under pressure from a confident working class, even a Kinnock Labour government would have had to carry through some measures in favour of the working class, perhaps being compelled to abolish the Tory anti-union laws.
The miners’ strike politicised a generation of young people – over a quarter of a million school students went on strike just a month after the strike, inspired by the example of the miners and led by Militant supporters (forerunners of today’s Socialist Party). It also temporarily produced a massive shift to the left on many issues in society.
Immediately after the strike, Tory ministers privately fumed at how little goodwill their victory had brought them:
“For months after the strike was over, ministers often alluded in conversation to the strange ingratitude of the British public…When the strike ended there was no full-throated roar of approval of the kind which had been heard, almost universally, when the Argentineans surrendered in Port Stanley.” 5
Had the miners not struggled as they did, many other anti-working class measures would have been introduced earlier than they were.
But, eventually, dizzy with her own success, Thatcher began a policy of deindustrialisation of British industry and further impoverishment of working class and middle-class people.
For a new generation of union activists, the real lessons of the strike now need to be drawn out. After 25 years, there are new signs of militancy in Britain and internationally, displaying once again the type of militant, fighting spirit that the miners’ struggle embodied.
The new generation of union members are becoming less intimidated by the anti-union laws brought in by Thatcher and invoked ever since as reasons for not striking. Today’s trade union leaders, unfortunately even the majority of those claiming to be on the left, still fail to address crucial questions arising from the strike.
These include the role of mass picketing, democracy and leadership within the trade unions, the state, how to organise solidarity action, the role of Left leadership, what economic alternative trade unionists and socialists should put when an industry is claimed to be declining and crucially, what programme and strategy for the trade unions is applicable today.
New generations will return to the lessons of the strike to ensure they are better equipped to win their own industrial battles and succeed in the socialist struggle to change society.
But, the most important lesson the miners’ strike taught the generation who lived through it and is still applicable today, is that it showed the willingness of working-class people to struggle and try to change society. That willingness and anger has intensified in the struggles since. What has been lacking however, is a mass party and leadership capable of taking workers’ struggles to victory.
By George Bailey
1 New Statesman, 14 December 1984
2 Daily Mail, 21 January 1984
3 Interviewed on a Channel Four Dispatches programme in 1994
4 The Enemy Within, Seumas Milne, Verso, London 1994, page 17
5 Hugo Young, One of Us, Pan edition, London 1993 page 375
What happened when
NCB confirms 49 pits will close due to ‘exhausted reserves’.
March 5 – Yorkshire miners stop work at proposed accelerated closure of Cortonwood and Bulcliffe Wood. Yorkshire NUM calls total stoppage from 12 March.
6 – Scottish area NUM calls strike from 9 March.
8 – NUM national executive declares strikes in Yorkshire and Scotland official, and any other area ‘which takes similar action’.
April 19 – NUM special delegate conference supports action in all British coalfields. Resolutions for a ballot overwhelmingly rejected.
May 29 – 5,000 pickets at Orgreave. Riot police deployed for the first time.
30 – Scargill arrested at Orgreave
6 – 10,000 pickets at Orgreave: 93 arrests; 73 police and hundreds of pickets injured.
18 – 7,000 pickets take on 4,000 police in the Battle of Orgreave
South Wales NUM, fined £50,000 for contempt of court, refuse to pay.
1 – Mass demonstration outside South Wales NUM in Pontypridd against threat of sequestration.
16 – £707,000 seized by sequestrators direct from South Wales NUM accounts.
1-5 – Labour Party conference backs the miners.
4 – NUM fined £200,000 for contempt.
25 – Proposed Nacods strike over colliery closure review procedure called off.
25 – Sequestrators appointed to seize NUM funds.
13 – TUC general secretary, Norman Willis, confronted by hangman’s noose at miners’ rally in South Wales.
14 – Energy minister, Peter Walker, rejects further talks.
20 – NUM accepts review procedure as agreed by Nacods and asks for talks with no preconditions.
3 – NUM special delegate conference votes by 98-91 to return to work without an agreement or amnesty.
5 – Miners return behind brass bands with their supporters.
Civil war without guns
In 2004, Ken Smith, a member of the Socialist Party’s national executive, wrote a book about the miners’ strike: Civil War Without Guns. The following extracts from an introductory chapter put the strike into the context of Thatcher’s war against the organised working class.
Before the miners began their action, the Tories had massacred jobs across British industry.
Steelworkers had embarked on a 13-week strike in 1980 after a ballot but – because their leaders crumbled before the Tories – over 80,000 jobs were lost in British Steel within three years.
From Thatcher’s election in 1979 to the start of the miners’ strike, 1,600 jobs were lost every week in Britain with hardly a squeak of resistance from some union leaders.
Even in the coal industry, where miners had shown themselves prepared to fight, over 100 jobs were lost every week as unemployment soared to over three million.
From the Tory general election victory of 1979 onwards, prime minister Margaret Thatcher had been gauging the temper of the British working class and in particular the willingness of the trade union and Labour leaders to struggle against the social counter-revolution she was embarking upon.
Before the miners’ strike there had been a number of occasions where the proclaimed defiance of the union leaders against everything Thatcher stood for had proved to be rhetoric: such as attacks on trade unionism in the car industry, the defeat of the 13-week long steel strike in 1980 and the union leaders’ inability to deliver the threat of general strike action when the anti-union laws were first used against the print workers’ union from late 1983 to early 1984.
But, all of these were only partial stages in Thatcher’s plan to weaken or destroy the power of the workers’ organisations, which stood in the way of her carrying through a shift in the balance of power in favour of the bosses…
Whatever the background and outcome to their struggle the miners had no option but to fight in 1984 against the rundown of their industry.
Had the miners not done so then the Tory pit-closure programme would have proceeded much more rapidly and many other anti-working class measures would have been introduced earlier than they were.
Their stand has been historically vindicated. Amongst the miners and the general public, particularly after the Tories’ second wave of pit closures was announced in 1992 against a huge public outcry, there was an overwhelming recognition that they were right to fight.