The British Miners Strike of 1984-1985 was either an historic struggle between workers defending their jobs and communities against a ruthless right wing government, or a Marxist inspired attempt to subvert the democratic process frustrated by a resolute government acting in defence of freedom.
Having reached its peak in terms of employment and output at the beginning of World War I the British coal industry had been gradually shrinking ever since as the world gradually switched to oil as the fossil fuel of choice. Thereafter the British coal industry lurched from crisis to crisis, inviting various degrees of government intervention, inspiring the General Strike of 1926 along the way.
Generally characterised by poor industrial relations, it is worth remembering the immortal words of the Lord Birkenhead who, having met the union representatives, sighed "I should call them the stupidest men in England if I had not previously had to deal with the owners".
After World War II the Labour government nationalised the coal industry, establishing the National Coal Board (NCB) on the 1st January 1947. However it could well be argued that the principle function of the NCB was one of mananging the decline of the industry. In 1947 there were some 750,000 miners working in over 800 pits, but by 1983 this had shrunk to some 240,000 miners working in around 190 pits. It was also losing money - the 1983 Monopolies and Mergers Commission report into the coal industry had concluded that as many as 75% of all its pits were loss making - and it survived thanks to its annual billion pound plus subsidy from the government. Virtually it's only major customers were the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) which burnt coal to generate electricity, utilising something like 70 per cent of all the coal mined in Britain in the process, and the British Steel Corporation (BSC) which needed coke to feed its steel plants. Both the BSC and the CEGB were similarly nationalised industries, and were largely forced to purchase the NCB's output at negotiated prices that were a further source of subsidy to the industry.
It is the nature of the mining industry that the time inevitably comes when a particular mining operation exahusts its reserves or otherwise becomes uneconomic to operate. As alluded to above, throughout its history the NCB had been steadily closing pits and making miners redundant. For much of its time in power Harold Wilson's 1960s Labour government had been closing pits at the rate of one a week (223 pits closed between the years 1965 and 1970) and the Wilson/Callaghan Labour administrations of the later 1970s had similarly closed some thirty-two pits between the years 1974 to 1979.
In this context the NCB's plans to close a further twenty or so pits in the mid 1980s was nothing more than a continuation of a pre-existing historical trend. Indeed one particularly left wing source offers the opinion that the Conservative government's plans for the industry in the 1980s were "nothing compared to the butchering of the coal industry that took place under the 1964-70 Labour government".
That was however before Arthur Scargill had been elected to the position of president of the NUM. Scargill took the view that there was no such thing as a loss-making mine, only one that had been starved of investment. When questioned by a House of Commons Select Committee and asked what was an acceptable loss, he replied "As far as I can see, the loss is without limit". Scargill promoted the doctrine that mines should only be shut when they were physically exhausted, and that all pit closures for any other reason should be resisted. In this he received some support from his members, as whilst the miners had acquiesced in earlier closure programmes when the economy was operating at 'full employment', the economic conditions of the early 1980s were characterised by rising unemployment and the lack of any apparent alternative employment meant that miners were more willing to 'defend' their existing jobs.
The Immovable Object and The Irresistable Force
First elected to power in 1979 Margaret Thatcher had always been actutely aware of the role that the National Union of Mineworkers had played in the downfall of the last Conservative government, as well as the key role that the miners had played in sparking off the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 that had played such a part in the downfall of the previous Labour administration and her own election to government.
One of the firmly held tenets of Thatcherism was the belief that any solution to the problems faced by the nation required "a complete change in the role of the trade union movement". It had passed a series of Employment Acts that sought to remove the worst trade unions 'abuses' but perhaps most significantly, and unlike every other postwar British government, it simply ignored the trade union movement. It was probably inevitable that the miners, often regarded as the shock troops of organized labour, would clash at some point or other with the the government. At one time it seemed as if a strike would be called in 1981, but the government defused the threat, judging that the time was not right for a confrontation with the NUM.
Thanks most probably to what has since been known as the Falklands factor, the 1983 General Election resulted in a landslide Conservative victory. It was in the aftermath of this victory that Thatcher finally
developed the confidence to tackle the trade unions. Or in Thatcher's own words, "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."
On the 1st September 1983, Ian MacGregor became Chairman of the NCB transferring from British Steel Corporation, where he had achived some success in 'slimming down' that business and returning it to profitability. It was MacGregor's goal to ensure that the NCB reached break even by 1988. This he believed could be achieved by reducing the workforce by 64,000 over the next three years and reducing capacity by 25 million tons. Although there was a fairly generous redundancy scheme on offer (£1,000 paid for each year worked), the Scargill led NUM refused to countenance any further pit closures. In November 1983 the union began an overtime ban in support of its campaign against closures. But as the overtime ban had failed to change MacGregor's mind Scargill belived that it was necessary to have a national strike in order to resist this latest closure programme. He was however faced with a problem; in order to call a national strike he needed to needed the approval of his members.
Scargill's strike strategy
It is important to understand in this context that the National Union of Mineworkers was a federation, which is to say that it was composed of a number of separate district unions each based on a regional coal field. So whilst there was a national NUM organization there were also quite separate and autonomous regional NUMs.
In order to declare a national strike, Rule 43 of the constitution of the national union required a ballot to be held and a 55% majority majority in favour of a strike. Scargill knew or suspected that he would not be able to win a ballot in favour of a strike on the issue of pit closures. (Two previous national ballots, the most recent in March 1983, had failed to win the required majority in favour of a strike over this very issue.) He thus devised an alternative strategy. Since Rule 41 of the union's constitution allowed the NUM national executive to declare official any strike called in one of its constituent areas, his plan was to allow the more militant constituent unions to go on strike, declare their strikes official, and then endeavour to spread these local strikes nationally.
How the strike began
On the 1st March 1984 the NCB announced its intention to close the Cortonwood Colliery at the village of Brampton near Barnsley in south Yorkshire. The NCB's statement was rather badly worded as it implied that it was seeking to bypass the existing colliery review procedure, whilst Yorkshire was of course Scargill's home ground and conspiracy theorists have suggested that this was a deliberate act of provocation by either the government or the NCB.
In any case, the result was that the miners at Cottonwood walked out, followed by their colleagues at other nearby pits. On the 5th March the Yorkshire NUM executive declared the strike official, citing a ballot held two years previously as justification for its decision. At a meeting between the NUM and the NCB on the 6th March Ian MacGregor confirmed his intention to close twenty pits and the Scotish NUM promptly called a strike from the 12th March. On the 8th March the NUM national executive declared official the "proposed strike action in Yorkshire, Scotland and any other area which takes similar action".
Technically speaking this was not a national strike, which would have required a ballot, but it was the next best thing. (Or worst thing, depending on your point of view.) The threatened closure of the Cottonwood colliery thus provided Scargill with just the casus belli that he needed to begin the strike that he believed was necessary to force the NCB to abandon its closure programme.
The conduct of the strike
"We were ready, by God, we were ready!"
Whereas the government might not have (strictly speaking) wanted a strike, it was more than prepared to fight one if the need arose.
The Ridley Report of 1978 correctly anticipated that any future Conservative government was likely to face a major challenge from a trade union at some point and that the most likely source of that challenge would be the NUM. It made a number of suggestions as to how this threat could be countered, and the truth was that the government had been making plans to withstand a miners strike ever since it had brought off the threatened miners strike in 1981. Nigel Lawson, then Minister for Energy, had from September 1981 begun the task of ensuring that the CEGB stockpiled coal at its power stations. Thus whilst Scargill was telling his members in April 1984 that the CEGB only had eight weeks worth of coal in stock, it actually held some fifty million tons of coal. None of this was particularly secret, as the mountains of coal piled high in front of the power stations were perfectly visible to those who cared to look, but it apparently escaped the attention of the NUM who thus began the strike at something of a disadvantage.
One of the problems that Scargill faced from the beginning was the lack of enthusiasm amongst his own members for any strike action. As noted above he was reluctant to call a national ballot for fear that he would not get the result he desired, and on the 12th April went so far as to veto his own national executive's decision to hold such a ballot on the grounds that it wasn't "necessary". His failure to establish the necessary unanimity amongst NUM members meant that whereas 123 out of 174 pits were closed by the end of March, this also meant that some 30% of the NCB's pits were open for business and producing coal.
However in defiance of Scargill's wishes, nine constituent unions did hold strike ballots. Eight out of nine voted against strike action, and out of the 70,000 miners given the opportunity to vote on the strike issue, 50,000 voted against striking. Not that such expressions of the will of individual NUM members necessarily mattered that much. Whilst the South Wales NUM voted against industrial action, flying pickets were soon able to close the South Wales pits in defiance of the ballot. Such tactics however failed to make much impact in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, simply because the vote against the strike in that area had been so overwhelming. Flying pickets sent across from Yorkshire had a hard time closing any of the Nottinghamshire pits and began to resort to violence and intimidation to get their message across.
Indeed the strike soon became characterised by a level of violence beyond anything that had previously been experienced in a British industrial dispute. Although the level of violence was inevitably exagerated by the media (which naturally focussed on the more newsworthy aspects of the strike) and by the government for its own propoganda purposes, there was undeniably a considerable amount of both verbal and physical intimidation directed at miners who defied the strike and continued working. The most extreme example of such violence occurred when a taxi driver named David Wilkie was killed in South Wales by a three foot concrete post thrown off a motorway bridge by striking miners for the crime of driving a working miner to work.
The government's response was to set up a National Reporting Centre, which co-ordinated police action during the strike. Police resources were therefore organised at a national level and given the job of preventing pickets from blockading working pits. Tales have since emerged of involvement by the security services in penetrating the NUM, and athrough many of these are the product of paranoia, it is very likely that there were informants active within the NUM who were able to provide intelligence regarding the movements of the union's teams of flying pickets, who often found themselves being intercepted enroute and prevented from reaching their targets. The co-ordinated police action was largely successful in frustrating the striker's attempts to close the pits that remained open, and as a result of the police actions a total of 11,291 people were arrested, of whom 8,392 were charged with an offence, mostly for obstruction or for breach of the peace.
Perhaps the most public demonstration of violence was the so-called 'Battle of Orgreave' of the 18th June 1984 when 5,000 miners clashed with a similar number of police officers in an attempt to stop supplies leaving the Orgreave coking plant in south Yorkshire. The significance of Orgreave was that, back in 1972, Arthur Scargill, then a minor official in the Yorkshire NUM, had employed the same tactic of the 'mass picket' to blockade the Saltley Gate coke plant in Birmingham. In 1972 the police had closed the gates fearful of the public disorder that would otherwise result and Scargill achieved his objective. In 1984 the police stood their ground and kept the plant open.
The failure of Scargill's mass pickets to repeat the success of 1972 became symbolic of the failure of his whole strike stategy. What had worked in the 1970s, failed in the 1980s, against a government who had learnt the lessons of past struggles and was now determined to use all the resources at its disposal to defeat him.
As the strike wore on there were various attempts to achieve some kind of settlement and talks about talks; at one time Robert Maxwell even offered his services as a mediator. Throughout this time the government appears to have been concerned that the NCB might go soft and achieve some kind of compromise deal with the NUM. Their concerns appear to have been misplaced as Scargill was just as pig-headed and obstinate as his opposite number Thatcher. Along the way the Notinghamshire miners became so disillusioned with the NUM that they abandoned their afiliation and set up their own rival union the Union of Democratic Mineworkers.
There were however a number of occasions when it seemed as if the miners might have some hope of success. On the 9th July 1984 the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) called a National Dock Strike on the issue of an alleged breech of the National Dock Labour Scheme rules, but it only lasted ten days as its members proved less than enthusiastic. A further threatened national stock strike also foundered for similar reasons, but the most serious threat to the government's position emerged on the 15th August 1984 when the NCB issued a circular which threatened members of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Servicemen (NACODS) with the loss of pay if they failed to cross NUM picket lines. As a result, in September 1984 NACODS voted 82.5% in favour of their own strike which would, had it taken place, have closed virtually every pit in the country. But after some prodding by the government the NCB withdrew its circular and in October NACODS agreed not to call a strike.
Thanks to the preparations put in place by the government and the output from the Nottinghamshire pits the strike failed to bite. The power stations kept running, the steel furnaces kept burning. Most importantly the CEGB managed to keep the power flowing throughout the winter of 1984-85. Helped by the relatively mild winter there were no power cuts and Walter Marshall, then head of the CEGB became confident that with the output from the Nottinghamshire pits that it would be possible to carry on almost indefinitely. It became apparent that the strike was not going to have the desired effect and the gradual return to work that had been taking place prior to the Christmas of 1974 accelerated in early 1985 and on Wednesday 27th February it was announced there were now more miners at work than there were on strike. A few days later on the 3rd March 1985 a NUM delegate conference voted by 98 to 91 to return to work and abandon the strike, despite Scargill's insistence that they should fight on.
Why the Miners Lost
One of the main reasons why the NUM lost the strike, and for this Scargill must face the accusation of being the stupidest leader in the history of British Trade Unionism, is that he began the strike in March, at a time when the demand for both coal and the electricity produced by coal-fired stations was heading for its seasonal low. This more or less guaranteed that the miners would have to remain on strike for at least nine months before their action had any effect. Scargill also committed the cardinal error of failing to secure the support of all his members and split the union. But then such was Scargill's idiosyncratic view of democracy that he was, as one contemporary account put it, the kind of leader that "would have serious reservations about balloting his members on so much as the siting of a disease-resistant elm, in case his own views on horiculture did not prevail."
His refusal to call a national ballot demolished whatever claims he had to democratic legitimacy and fatally undermined his attempts to win public support for his cause. Whereas the public had been broadly sympathetic to the miners in their fight for higher wages in the early 1970s, a decade later public opinion had moved against the trade unions since the Winter of Discontent (which why a lot of people had voted for a Conservative government in the first place). The mob violence at Orgreve and revelation in October 1984 that the NUM were in receipt of funds from Libya all helped to ensure that public opinion remained unsympathetic to Scargill's cause.
Although the Trades Union Congress made sympathetic noises they were never prepared to provide any practical support, largely because most union leaders disliked Scargill even more than the government did. There were even some unions most notably the power worker's union led by Ian Hammond, who quite happily provided the government with whatever assistance they could to defeat the strike. Indeed the power workers made a crucial contribution to the Government's victory by ensuring the continuity of the electricity supply from the generating plants. Neither was the Labour Party a source of much comfort to Scargill and his supporters. Their newly elected leader Neil Kinnock was by inclination similarly unsympathetic to hard left rable-rousers such as Scargill. The old sentimental attachment between the Labour Party and the coal miners prevented him from condemning Scargill's brutish and undemocratic tactics in the way that he would have liked and thus he largely kept his mouth shut throughout the strike.
But of course, the principal reason why the miners lost was that they picked an enemy that was tougher and more determined than they were.
The Significance of the strike
It had been the conventional wisdom was that Britain could only be governed with the consent of the trade unions. The Miners strike of 1984-85 served to dispell any such notions and no one had any doubt who governed Britain in 1985.
In her memoirs Magaret Thatcher gave the chapter on the miners strike the title of 'Mr Scargill's insurrection'. This might appear a little extreme until one considers Scargill's publicly expressed views on his tactics during the 1972 strike;
We took the view that we were in class war ... We had to declare war on them and the only way to declare war was to attack the vulnerable points ... the power stations, the coke depots, the coal depots, the points of supply ... We wished to paralyse the nation's economy
In the Morning Star of the 28th April 1984 Arthur Scargill proclaimed that "the NUM is engaged in a social and industrial Battle of Britain" and during the strike he repeatedly announced his intention to "roll back Thatcherism". It is very probable that his goal was to repeat the success of the 1973-74 strike in bringing down the government. Thus there was always a political dimension to the strike, indeed it was a fairly commonly held view amongst the radical left of the time that mass industrial action by the working class was a necessary and essential part of the process of ushering in the socialist revolution. Or as one particular left wing source puts it; "Had the miners won, then 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." A view, which even if half true, provides all the justification necessary for the actions taken by the government to defeat the strike.
There is almost a sense of shock that pervades many of the left wing accounts of the strike, as if the Thatcher government in some way 'cheated' by deploying all its considerable powers to defeat the strike. The lesson to be learnt is that if you set out to fight a class war and to paralyse the nation's economy, do not be surprised if just occasionally the other side actually fights back.
To the radical left this was the 'Great Strike', to be analysed and explained away by 'if only' statements and excused with claims that it 'radicalised' people. But it led many more on the left to question their commitment to 'extra-parliamentary action' (as it was often quaintly termed at the time. It was Scargill's defeat that gave Kinnock the courage to begin the assault on the Trotskyite left within his own party. As Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle were later to write, "The romanticism of the class struggle was dealt a fatal blow by the tragic tactical incompetence and subsequent humiliation of Arthur Scargill in the 1984-85 miners' strike." And thus New Labour was born.
The post strike coal industry
Since the conclusion of the strike the British coal industry continued its seemingly inevitable decline. Following the privatisation of electricity, the 'dash for gas', with North Sea gas instead of coal being used increasingly to generate electricity, resulted in a collapse in demand for British coal that forced the Major government into a further closure programme in 1992. The rump of the industry was privatised in December 1994 by means of a trade sale to R.J.B. Mining. Since known as UK Coal is still struggling to break even despite the recent rise in energy prices. With the recent closure of the Selby complex, there remain only nine working pits left in Britain.
Many have interpreted the subsequent fate of the British mining industry as providing evidence that Scargill was right in assertions that the government had a secret agenda of destroying the industry as an act of revenge. In truth the government's intentions were for market forces to be allowed to determine the fate of the industry as with any other. (Which of course in practice may well have amounted to much the same thing.) It is notable that the subsequent post 1997 Labour administrations have made little effort to 'revive' the coal industry.
If anything, Scargill's militancy became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the 'dash for gas' of the later 1980s was also motivated by the desire of the privatised power generation companies to acquire sources of fuel that were not subject to the whims of Arthur Scargill Esquire and Co.
Of course the people that paid the price for the strike were the ordinary miners and their families, many of whom spent a year without pay and with nothing to show for their sacrifice. There were even those who had, in the heat of the moment, lobbed half a brick at a lorry driving through the picket lines, and so found themselves with a criminal record and sacked by the NCB; and there are, to this day, families where father and son have not spoken for twenty years or more having been on opposite sides of the strike.
1. The Ridley Report
Nicholas Ridley was the chairman of the Conservative party's policy group on the nationalised industries. His report, which was leaked to The Economist and published on the 27th May 1978 under the headline Appomattox or Civil War, made a number of suggestions as to how a future coal strike might be defeated. These included; building up coal stocks; making contingency plans for the import of coal; encouraging haulage companies to recruit non-union drivers to help move coal; introducing dual coal/oil firing in power stations; establishing a mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against picketing and changing the welfare system to cut off 'the money supply' to strikers. Which, of course, is exactly what the government subsquently did in 1984.
Technically speaking the NUM's use of flying pickets was illegal, (which had been outlawed by the Employment Acts of 1981 and 1982) but although very early on in the strike the NCB had won a court injunction against the practice of secondary picketing this was never pursued by the NCB. In fact, at no time during the dispute did either the government or the NCB make any use of the 'anti-union' legislation passed by the Conservative government.
A case brought by a private haulage contractor lead to the South Wales NUM being fined £50,000 for contempt of court in June 1984 which led to the sequestration of its assets in the following month. At around the same time, on the 7th August 1984, two Yorkshire miners took their union to court over its failure to hold a ballot over strike action. (Scargill suffered the embarassment of being served a writ on the floor of the Labour Party Conference that year.) On the 10th October both he and the union found in contempt of court and fined £1,000 and £200,000 respectively, not, as many assume, for failing to obey any legislation passed by a Conservative government, but for failing to observe their own union's constitution.
3. The Libyan connection
On the 28th October 1984 The Sunday Times revealed that the NUM had made an appeal to Libya for support and that, under the alias of 'Mr Smith', Scargill had visited Paris where he met a Libyan trade union official. (Or the nearest that Libya could get to a trade union official since Colonel Gadaffi had actually abolished trade unions on coming to power in 1969.) An intermediary by the name of Altaf Abassi later handed over £163,000 in cash. It was later revealed by the Daily Mirror in March 1990 that much of this money was used to pay off the mortgages of certain high ranking NUM officials including Scargill himself. Although Scargill denied these allegations, and was cleared of any impropriety by an internal NUM inquiry, the evidence seems pretty clear that this is exactly what happened.
- Roy Hattersley, Fifty Years on (Little Brown and Company, 1997)
- Socialism today Revisiting the miners’ strike
- TUC History Online
- Miners Strike 1984
- Keith Harper, Spectre of Scargill, ghost of 1926, September 4, 1984
- David Hencke and Rob Evans, Revisiting the miners’ strike
- History of the NUM : 13 - The Great Strike