The lessons of the 1984-5 miners' strike

Submitted by AWL on 24 June, 2014 - 5:41

This a welcome re-issue of a booklet published shortly after the miners’ strike by Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Workers' Liberty). Alongside the original articles and illustrations there are updates and a new introduction.

As a compact but highly readable account of the strike and the lessons to be drawn from it, I can recommend Class Against Class unreservedly. The reader is taken through a, more-or-less, blow by blow narrative of the strike with many eye-witness accounts from NUM activists and their supporters. The important debates that raged at the time are all discussed in depth.

Much of the analysis and reportage not only stands the test of time but, just as important, conveys to the reader a strong sense of what it was like to be involved in the biggest industrial dispute in Britain since 1926. In this respect it is a valuable text for younger readers. It is astonishing to think (at least for me!) that if you are 40 years old you would only have been ten at the time of the outbreak of the strike.

In the section “The story of the strike” the reader is taken through the history of the dispute, including the preparations made by the government, police and the NCB to take on the miners, particularly in light of the earlier climb down by the Thatcher government in 1981. Some thorny issues are tackled here: why was solidarity lacking from the other major trade unions and the controversy over the hotly debated question of whether or not there should have been a national ballot.

The central role of women in the strike is discussed in “Issues and experiences: with a number of eye-witness accounts from women who were centrally involved in building up the various women’s support groups.

The “Lessons for our movement” are discussed in the final section and this is followed by some additions for the 2014 edition. Finally, there is an appendix discussing “The National Union of Mineworkers, Stalinism, and Solidarnosc”. All in all then, a very comprehensive document and an extremely useful introduction to the strike and the issues it raises, very few of which have gone away.

On the issue of a national ballot. Class Against Class argues strongly in support of the striking miners, pointing to the way in which miners, as it were, voted with their feet rather than lose the impetus and dynamism that the strike obviously possessed in its early months. For the majority of strikers, clearly, a ballot was simply seen as irrelevant.

The tactic of sending flying pickets into Nottinghamshire and other areas was working well and by 14 March (only 13 days after the NCB had announced the closure of Cortonwood) 132 out of 174 mines were shut down and it was usually the case that working miners, when confronted with the arguments of pickets, responded in the traditional manner and did not cross the picket lines. The Thatcher government, clearly alarmed, sent in massive numbers of police which, over a period of time, effectively sealed off Nottinghamshire.

Class Against Class, given that it mainly consists of reprints of articles written at the time and, no doubt, often in haste, is very much of its time but this is not a bad thing. The editor has wisely made a decision not to try and encompass all the developments, twists and turns, in the last 30 years since the strike ended. Nevertheless, some developments are worth pursuing despite their being outside the immediate 1984-5 framework.

In March, I attended the memorial meeting for the two Yorkshire miners killed in the strike, Davy Jones and Joe Green. This event is held every year at the Barnsley Headquarters of the NUM and acquired particular poignancy this year as it coincided with the 30th anniversary of the strike.

Arthur Scargill was in attendance but it was noteworthy (and significant) that he remained a peripheral figure being greeted by only a few of those attending. He was not addressed or greeted from the platform, though as Honorary Life President of the NUM it might be expected, as a courtesy if nothing else, that his presence would be acknowledged. Scargill, once the hero of the miners, now cuts a rather sad, isolated figure and this is a complex post-1985 story.

At the risk of paraphrasing, Karl Marx once wrote that the great figures of history appear first as tragedy and then as farce. However, if the outcome of the 84-5 strike can be regarded, at one level, as a tragedy, then Scargill’s post-85 trajectory can only be viewed as an even deeper tragedy.

His post-1985 decision to try and build a political organisation — the so-called Socialist Labour Party — turned out to be a disaster and created nothing more than a pathetic, personal bandwagon which spluttered briefly before the wheels fell off. Riddled with Stalinist politics and practice and some of the worst sectarianism imaginable it has no meaningful existence today.

Scargill continues to maintain the fiction of a miners’ international organisation, having broken with the existing international, although he and his small group of collaborators dotted around the world don’t appear to do very much. If they do it is well-hidden.

During the Spanish miners’ strike in 2012, I had the pleasure and honour to be centrally involved in the Spanish Miners Solidarity Committee here in the UK — the only body officially recognised by both the main unions in Spain (the Commissiones Obreras [CCOO] and the Union Generale de Trabadaores [UGT]) for the purposes of collecting money and raising solidarity. During this period I did not, once, come across any mention or evidence of activity in support of the Spanish miners from Scargill and his “international”.

The way in which he became embroiled in a court case (against the NUM) to maintain his right to a flat in the Barbican in London says much about the Arthur Scargill of today. As to the rights and wrongs of this case (which, it has to be said, was decided in favour of Scargill), I make no comment but it is indicative of the gulf that now exists between himself and the remains of the union he once led.

All this could be dismissed as just a footnote in history, after all the NUM now, sadly, has only a few thousand members and the mining industry in the UK is a mere shadow of its former self. Yet it is all, in various ways, related to an issue that Class Against Class raises on a number of occasions — the question of leadership in the trade union movement.

Scargill, along with Peter Heathfield and Mick McGahey, is quite rightly praised for his leadership of the union during the strike, his refusal to accept a grubby compromise (which would have suited the likes of Neil Kinnock), his inspirational speeches and his utter dedication to the miners’ cause. Yet, there were times when it seemed as if it was one man against the government and the NCB.

A personality cult had developed around Scargill, even before the strike, and it was a cultishness that he did little to discourage. It was rare, for example, that someone other than Scargill was interviewed by the media and although Scargill was a consummate performer in front of the cameras and interviewers seldom got the better of him, there was rarely a sense of collective leadership (at least on our TV screens). Heathfield and McGahey, despite their prodigious qualities often appeared as “bit players” in support of the “main act”.

Class Against Class makes the point, quite correctly, on a number of occasions that the leadership of the NUM was way ahead of much of the rest of the trade union (and Labour Party) leadership some of whom actively stabbed the NUM in the back, yet Scargill’s behaviour, although by no means a major issue, nevertheless had consequences that were, at times, quite serious.

One aspect of the Scargill personality cult, for example, was his tendency to surround himself with those who agreed with him: the NUM’s Press Officer, Nell Myers, the editor of The Miner (previously editor of The Yorkshire Miner) Maurice Jones (a Stalinist albeit of a somewhat watered down variety) and Scargill’s “personal adviser” Frank Watters. Mention must also be made of another one-time Scargill favourite — the Executive Officer Roger Windsor who it turned out was almost certainly working for MI5 or MI6 in some capacity.

Did the fact that Windsor was yet another “yes man” mask his activities on behalf of the state? One can speculate on this but the point, surely, is that leadership has to be collective however charismatic certain individuals may be and it must be a critical leadership, constantly examining its decisions and debating issues to the full, not a “one-man show”.

As Class Against Class points out the miners had to contend with any number of enemies, not least of which was a viciously hostile media.

It would be difficult to think of another industrial dispute, at any time since the onset of the industrial revolution, when so many lies have been told about a particular group of workers and their supporters. And, as everyone knows, the lies did not finish when the strike ended.

The Daily Mirror and The Cook Report on TV hounded both Scargill and Peter Heathfield over allegations (all subsequently shown to be utter fabrications) that they had used strike funds for their own personal ends. Yet when a miners’ leader was jailed, in April 2012, for embezzling funds there was little coverage of this, certainly in the national media (The Independent was one notable exception).

The person concerned was, however, a member of the scab “union”, the UDM. Neil Greatrex, the former President of the UDM, was found guilty of 14 charges of theft having stolen almost £150,000 from the Nottingham Miners Charity Home. As I write I suspect he is counting the days to the end of his four years sentence. Savour this information, if you didn’t already know about it, alongside the article “The fate of the pet pig” contained in Class Against Class and you have the perfect obituary for the UDM.

There is much more that could be said about Class Against Class both as a record and analysis of the strike and a tribute to those who participated. Although the political landscape has changed dramatically since 1984-5 there is still much to be learned from these pages even if the triumph of the Thatcherite “free market” and neo-liberalism means that it is unlikely we will ever see the likes of such a strike again.

There will be other strikes, other battles, whatever form they may take, and it is certain the spirit and example of 1984-5 will continue to inspire and teach.

• John Cunningham is a former miner from south Yorkshire.