The miners' strike, 1984-5: 12 months that shook Britain (part one)

Submitted by AWL on 30 April, 2010 - 3:20 Author: Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas

In the small hours of Monday March 12 1984, hundreds of Yorkshire miners moved across the border from Yorkshire into Nottinghamshire. Their destination was Harworth pit, and by the evening shift they had picketed it out.

Over the next few days, hundreds of Yorkshire pickets came down over the border again and spread out across the Notts coalfield. Their mission was to persuade Nottinghamshire’s miners to join them in a strike to stop the pit closures announced by the National Coal Board chief, Ian MacGregor. Their tactic was to picket Notts to a standstill.

Part two here.
In the great miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, miners had picketed coke depots and power stations. In 1984, for reasons which we examine, it had to be miners picketing out miners. That fact dominated and shaped the course of the strike.

Within hours, 1000 extra police had been thrown into Nottinghamshire against the picketing miners. Within days there would be 8000 extra police — highly mobile, centrally-controlled, semi-militarised police-moving — around the coalfields of Nottinghamshire.

The state had spent a dozen years preparing for this strike and everything had been made ready. Plans to beat mass picketing had been refined; police had been trained; special equipment had been assembled; and a national police nerve centre had been prepared and readied for action.

The Tory government had manoeuvred for years to avoid a premature battle with the miners. In 1981 sweeping pit closures were announced, and then withdrawn when a wave of strikes swept the coalfields. The Tories were determined that the battle would come when the government was ready and thought the time right. In 1981 they weren’t ready. The labour movement had not been softened up enough. So Thatcher backed off from a showdown with the NUM.

In 1984 they were ready. Now they would provoke the miners to fight back by giving them the alternative of surrendering and letting the NCB do as it liked with the industry.

After years of slump and mass unemployment the labour movement was in a weakened condition. Its morale was low, its combativity declining, its leaders more concerned to undercut, sabotage and burke militancy than to fight the Tories. The NUM had been weakened too.

Between the miners’ bloodless victory over Thatcher in 1981 and March 1984, 40 pits had been closed or merged. Morale had been eroded. The closures of Kinneil (December 1982) and Lewis Merthyr (March 1983) provoked only limited local struggles.

Arthur Scargill was elected NUM president in December 1981 with 70 per cent of the vote; but in January 1982 miners rejected a leadership proposal to strike over pay by 55%. In October 1982 61% of miners voted not to strike over pay and pit closures — despite a campaign by Arthur Scargill for strike action. In March 1983, when the strike over Lewis Merthyr began to spread from South Wales, the National Executive Committee called for a national miners’ strike, but 61 % of miners rejected the proposal.

Arthur Scargill repeatedly warned miners that the NCB had a secret “hit-list” of 70 or so pits marked down for closure, but either he lacked credibility with them or the miners no longer had the stomach to defend themselves.

That’s how the Tories read it. So they decided that the time had come for a showdown with the miners.

In September 1983 Ian MacGregor became chair of the NCB. MacGregor had carved up the steel industry for the Tories. In America in the 1970s he had master minded the employers’ campaign in one of the most brutal labour wars of recent American history — the successful war to break the miners’ union in Harlan County. MacGregor was to be the Tories’ pit-butcher and union-buster. His appointment was undisguised preparation, if not an outright declaration, of war.

But was the NUM ready for war? The election for NUM secretary in January 1984 showed only a small margin in favour of the victorious left-wing candidate, Peter Heathfield, over his right wing opponent John Walsh. The miners still seemed in the mood to retreat; the militant leaders of the NUM increasingly out of line with their movement.

So the Tories attacked.

On 1 March, when local management announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire, South Yorkshire miners immediately went on unofficial strike. On 5 March, with half the Yorkshire miners already out, the Yorkshire area council called an official strike from 9 March.

But South Wales miners had come out over the closure of Lewis Merthyr — and Lewis Merthyr had nevertheless closed. More than local action was needed. Miners had been this far towards confrontation before without an all-out fight.

On 6 March the Scottish area council called on Scottish miners to strike from March 9. Polmaise pit had already been out for three weeks against closure .

Now Ian MacGregor took a hand, pouring petrol on the fire. On 6 March he told the NUM that 20 pits would close in 1984, that 20,000 jobs would be cut, and that there might he compulsory redundancies.

MacGregor was telling the NUM either to back off, or to try to stop him closing down 20 pits. The Tories, not the miners, chose this fight. But — after the rejection of their proposal for a national strike over Lewis Merthyr exactly a year before — did the NUM national executive have any alternative but to back off and let the Tory juggernaut roll unopposed over the “uneconomic” pits and coalfields? To their eternal glory they thought they did have an alternative.

On 8 March the executive endorsed the decision of the Yorkshire and Scottish areas to strike, and they endorsed in advance the decision any other area might take for strike action.

Picket or ballot?

Should they have a national ballot? The executive was in the business of mobilising the miners to resist MacGregor’s attack, not out to demobilise those who had decided to act. So the executive voted 21 to 3 against a ballot.

They were 100 per cent right to refuse to go to a ballot at that point. It was the responsibility and the duty of the executive to respond to MacGregor’s attack and to give a fighting lead — not to paralyse the NUM in the face of the challenge thrown down by the Tory hit-man MacGregor.

If Britain were engaged in a conventional war, having to respond to an attack, and with battles raging over a wide front, then the Tories, and the Dennis Healey’s and Neil Kinnock’s, would reject with indignation and scorn the idea that a national plebiscite should be held to determine whether the people wanted to fight or not.

They would say that anyone who wanted such a plebiscite intended that the country, and in the first place its “leadership”, the government, should be paralysed, and was, therefore, deliberately or unknowingly, helping the enemy. They would be dead right about that, from their point of view.

The advocates that the NUM should have held a plebiscite instead of immediate action when the Tories unleashed the war they had spent many years preparing against the NUM either wanted the NUM to be paralysed or didn’t care whether it was or not. None of them demanded of MacGregor and the Tories that there should be a ballot to see how many miners voted for pit closures. Neither the establishment politicians, nor the press, expressed indignation in 1977-8 against the introduction of area incentive schemes, despite a national ballot vote against such incentives. They were keen to take advantage of a division among miners which, in part, resulted from those schemes. In the case of Notts, this was a major factor in the strike.

The miners’ NEC refused to let themselves be paralysed. And now that the lines were drawn, the miners responded magnificently. Encouraged by the executive, the strike spread. On 9 March Durham and Kent called area strikes. A South Wales delegate conference recommended that South Wales should strike, but over the weekend of 10th-11th pits in the area decided by about two to one not to strike.

A MORI opinion poll showed 62% of miners wanting a strike.

The Notts delegate conference declined to take action before an area ballot, and the Northumberland and Leicestershire leaderships voted against a strike.

That was the situation on Monday 12 March as flying pickets went into action to make it a national strike and to enforce the area strike decisions. Despite their branch votes, most of South Wales came out immediately. The South Wales miners would prove to be obdurate, solid and immovable throughout the long year of hardship and deprivation that was to follow.

By Wednesday 14 March the NCB admitted that 132 out of 174 pits had been shut. But Notts was the major problem. The Yorkshire flying pickets had some initial successes. When Yorkshire miner Davy Jones was killed picketing at Ollerton, on Thursday 15 March the Notts leaders called an area strike — until the following Sunday.

By Friday 16 March only 11 collieries were working normally, according to the NCB itself.

On Thursday 15 March and Friday 16 March ballots were held in many areas. Northumberland voted for a strike. Right-wing Cumberland, Midlands, South Derbyshire, Lancashire, Notts and North Wales voted not to strike. So, narrowly, did North Derbyshire. On Sunday 18th a Notts delegate conference decided to go back. On 20 March the result of a ballot showed 90% against a strike in Leicestershire.

The miners were split, without a common line. What happened next would be determined by the strength of the picketing by striking miners and their supporters, and by how the miners in areas which voted not to strike would respond when confronted by pickets from the striking areas. The press and politicians set up a tremendous din, telling the miners that they should not strike without a national ballot. The ballot was democracy, and anything else was not democratic.

Newly elected Peter Heathfield put the issue squarely when he said this about the demand for a national ballot: “Can miners in successful areas have the right to vote miners in less successful areas out of a job?” To make a national ballot the essence of “democracy” here was to make democracy into tyranny, and to deny the right of a minority — if miners who wanted to strike were in fact the minority: an opinion poll said that 62% wanted to strike — to defend itself.

The Tories tried to use the framework of the NUM as a straitjacket to imprison miners whose jobs were threatened. They could only fight, these strange democrats said — and not only the Tories, but Kinnock and Hattersley too — if they could get a national majority in the federal union to agree to fight. If they could not, they should lie down and let the Tories walk all over them, smash up their communities and devastate whole areas like Kent and South Wales.

The call for a national ballot was never a democratic demand, but a demand to repress and straitjacket the militants. (Tactical considerations about the ballot are a separate matter).

The provisions about balloting in the new Tory trade union laws are designed precisely to make the unions into machines for repressing militancy. The pseudo-democrats in the Labour Party leadership who joined in the propaganda against the NUM leadership over the ballot stood throughout the miners’ strike — and stand now — on the grounds and within the framework of the Tory anti-union legislation.

Once the militants had struck they had every right to appeal for basic wording class solidarity to other workers — and in the first place to miners. South Wales, which voted not to strike, showed what was possible here.

Or didn’t they have that right? If not, why not? Those who say they didn’t stand yet again on the ground of the new Tory legislation, which forbids “secondary” picketing.

Of course a united NUM would have been better by far. The fundamental thing about the NUM in March 1984 was that it was not united, and nevertheless its leaders and militants had to fight back against the well-timed Tory offensive.

The miners divided

The first part of the miners’ tragedy — and that tragedy would unfold inexorably for a full year until the last moving scenes in March 1985, when singing miners, escorted by their families and by bands, marched back to work — lay in this: that, the NUM being divided, the militant, fighting part of the NUM had to appeal for basic working-class solidarity in defence of their jobs and their communities first to other miners, to members of their own union — and that solidarity was refused them.

Scab miners crossed picket lines, sheltered behind the police, played the media’s game against the strikers, and used the bosses’ courts against their own union and its embattled members and leaders.

The second part of the tragedy was that most of the labour movement did pretty much the same thing as the NUM’s scabs.

Both the broad labour movement and the miners had had some of the fight knocked out of them by the slump and mass unemployment. But more than that was involved in the heartland of scabbing, Notts, where it was claimed they scabbed because they were refused a national ballot.

Most of the Notts scabs did not scab because of the ballot, or because of violence by pickets. That was the “good reason”, not the real one. It keyed the Notts working miners into the Tory propaganda offensive against the strikers, and it allowed the scabs to think of themselves as peaceful democrats and not as scabs. The real reason was that they were scared by the daunting battle ahead, they didn’t feel their jobs were threatened, and they had been doing well under the area incentives scheme.

They made a religion of the national ballot because they needed a respect-worthy excuse for refusing to help the threatened miners to defend their jobs and communities.

A majority of both South Wales and Notts voted against the strike. That’s what they had in common in March 1984, though their motives were most likely very different. The magnificent one-year stand that the miners of South Wales can look back on in March 1985 pinpoints where the difference between them lay — in the absence of gut class loyalty among the majority of prosperous, unthreatened Notts miners. Only a minority of Notts miners had the self-respect to stand with their class.

The scabbing in Notts shaped the strike. As well as supplying coal throughout the strike, the “working miners” gave the NCB a powerful hard core of scabs to build on. Without Notts the Leicestershire and other scabs would not have counted for much. When Notts went back to work on Monday 19 March, after one day out, the NCB could claim that 42 pits were working normally.

With the miners split, the fate of the strike would be determined by the outcome of battles on two fronts — the battle of the pickets against the centrally-controlled semi-militarised police, who turned some coalfields into something like police states; and the political battle in the labour movement for solidarity from non-miners. In the battle for solidarity the propaganda front was the decisive one.

Never in the living memory of the labour movement had the police behaved as they did in the miners’ strike. They concentrated in large masses, deployed and controlled from a centre at Scotland Yard. They set up roadblocks to stop Yorkshire miners moving into Notts and Kent miners into the Midlands. They stopped, searched, and arrested at will. They used thuggery and violence on a scale not known in any modem labour dispute in Britain — not even the Grunwick strike of 1977. They behaved as wreckers and bully-boys in certain pit villages as if they were understudying the British army in the Catholic parts of Northern Ireland.

And something else was new — organised scab-herding, on a vast scale backed up by a very loud barrage of propaganda.

Many railworkers and dockers refused to move scab coal. On March 29 the transport workers’ leaders recommended a total blockade of all coal. But decisive solidarity lay in the hands of the power workers and steel workers to give or withhold — and they withheld it. On March 21 the power unions (including the GMBU) advised their members to cross miners’ pickets. Steelworkers, fearful for their industry and bruised and battered from their own 1980 strike, crossed miners’ picket lines.

The propaganda war against the miners was waged fiercely so as to limit and to try to stop workers supporting the miners. Picketing miners who were at the receiving end of the violence that police officials had spent years preparing for were pilloried and denounced as purveyors of mindless and gratuitous violence. Miners fighting for their jobs were denounced as undemocratic because they were on strike without sanction of a national ballot — and those who denounced them were industrial autocrats and dictators who were using massed armies of police to try to force the miners to accept the ruin of some of their communities!

Though the Labour Party gave its support to the miners, the high-profile leaders of the Party hemmed and hawed, joined in the calls for a national ballot — the cutting edge of the propaganda war — and denounced violence, meaning pickets who stood up to the police.

By Monday 26 March, when the NCB claimed that 38 pits were working normally, the strike had reached a steady level. The strike would strengthen slightly after the NUM conference on April 19, but the contours of the battlefield were already visible, the areas of strength and weakness of either side known, the balance of forces stabilised. An unbudgeable minority of miners — the NUM said about 25,000 — refused to strike. Scabbing miners, picket-crossing power and steel workers, and far too limited general solidarity, forced the miners to dig in for a war of attrition. They knew it would take time. They could not have guessed just how long their war of attrition with the Thatcher government would be.

The 1974 miners’ strike lasted just over a month — from 9 February to 11 March. Just over a month after the start of the 1972 strike, Saltley coke depot was closed by mass pickets and the government was on the run. (It appointed the Wilberforce inquiry, which finally brought about a settlement on 28 February. The strike had started on 9 January).

By late March it was already clear that 1984 would be a much longer and more grim affair. Miners talked about “staying out until Christmas”. The Times reported (April 18): “Mrs Margaret Thatcher is willing to spend any amount of money to ensure that the Government is not again defeated by the miners’ union”. Chancellor Nigel Lawson would later publicly explain that the money spent on beating the miners was a “worthwhile investment”. They would spend over £2 billion on it directly, with indirect losses of perhaps another £3 billion [equivalent, as shares of national income and government budget, to about £8 billion and £12 billion today].

But the miners were as determined as the government. Kent area NUM executive member John Moyle voiced their determination:

“No one should be in any doubt about what is at stake in this dispute. We are up against the most basic facts of this government’s philosophy — they care about profits, not people...

“The rank and file will fight on under any circumstances, and they will win. The only question is how long it takes. We are not looking for a victory for the miners, but for the whole working class” (SO 174).

Arthur Scargill appealed to other workers: “Stop merely saying you support us. Come out and join us. We are facing a fundamental challenge to the whole working class, not merely miners. We are facing the organised might of the state machine” (Nottingham, April 14: SO 175).

A Kent miner told SO in mid-March: “Once we’ve got our own people out solid, we’ll go to the rest of the movement and say: give us your support. Let’s have you all out and deal with this government”.

A general strike?

“Yes, if that’s what you want to call it” (SO171).

The pickets never did get the whole coalfield out solid. The scabbing in Notts would be a terrible drag on their efforts to get solidarity from other trade unionists.

But the energy of the strike was still expanding, and it became stronger. On 12 April, the executive faced down right-wing calls for a national ballot, and the right wing Notts area president, Ray Chadburn, emerged from the meeting to tell his members: “Get off your knees and support the strike!”

On 14 April 7000 miners and supporters marched in Nottingham to demand “Police out of the coalfields”. On 16 April a Notts rank and file strike committee was formed. If the scabs in Notts disgraced themselves and the labour movement, the Notts strikers summed up everything alive and good in the labour movement. Led by Paul Whetton and others, they kept the flag of militant labour flying in the Notts coalfield. Intimidated, assaulted, deprived, the hard core never let themselves or the NUM down.

April-May: the strike gets stronger

To stop miners striking the bosses relied, as we have seen, on a vicious caterwauling of propaganda about democracy in general and about a national ballot in particular. The rank and file of the NUM had the chance to reject their NEC’s policy at the NUM special conference which met on 19 April — the first of eight to be held during the strike — lobbied by tens of thousands of chanting, singing, cheering miners. In fact the special conference called on every area to join the strike.

It boosted the strike. Midlands and Notts NUM leaders then declared the strike official in their areas, and more miners stopped work, though in Notts a majority or something near that continued to scab.

There was now a surge of solidarity. The rail and transport unions had promised to boycott scab coal. Railworkers in Coalville, Leicestershire, enforced this boycott throughout the strike, in the midst of the most solidly scabbing coalfield in the country (30 strikers out of 2000 miners). Notts railworkers began stopping coal trains on April 16.

The Labour Party national executive voted on 25 April to support the strike and to ask every Party member to donate 50p a week.

By the end of March, steel production at Scunthorpe had been cut by half, and by early May three major power stations had been taken off the grid — West Thurrock, Aberthaw and Didcot. By massive use of oil, nuclear power, and imported coal, the Central Electricity Generating Board was in fact able to last out the entire strike without crippling power cuts: but that was not at all clear at the time. The strike was making progress, albeit slowly.

From May to August the strike was at its peak. About 80% of miners were out. There was some drift-back in this period (the strike was already a long one by usual standards): but it was marginal. Notts suffered a drift back after the High Court, on 25 May ruled the strike unofficial in the county: by late August only 20% of Notts miners were out, as against maybe 40 or 50% at the peak. In Staffordshire the strike was fraying at the end of May, and over 50% were scabbing at every pit except Wolstanton by early August. Lancashire weakened.

In the vast majority of pit communities, however, the strike was solid, and becoming more determined and confident.

This was a strike in which something in excess of a hundred thousand workers and their families found themselves up against a pitiless, relentless, determined government which had all the advantages on its side; entrenched power and wealth; the police; the deprivation and sometimes hunger that gripped miners and their families a few weeks into the strike. To stay in the fight the miners and their families had to find in themselves reserves of strength, determination, fortitude, and creativity. The mining communities had to rouse themselves completely and throw everything they had into the class war. The strike had to become more than a mere strike. And it did.

The outstanding new thing in the miners’ strike was the involvement of the women of the mining communities .

By early May the pit villages were full of militant women’s groups.

The women’s groups ran communal kitchens or food-parcel centres — and many of them went out on the picket line: that hadn’t happened before. On April 30 there was a 150-strong women’s picket at Thoresby colliery, Notts. They broke through police lines twice, and a local miner commented: “If the women had been there from the beginning, the strike would have been won by now” (SO 177).

Women’s pickets were a regular feature of the strike, and on 12 May the streets of Barnsley were swamped by an exuberant women’s demonstration.

Repeatedly the pit women would cite the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common as an inspiration. Direct links were made between the normally somewhat isolated, conservative, male-dominated pit villages, and feminists who might never before have seen class struggle as anything central to politics.

For a lot of people, the strike shook up their ideas in a way that normally happens only in great semi-revolutionary struggles like a general strike. Opposed to the Tory class-warriors, the police chiefs, the Fleet Street editorialists eulogising the heroic scabs, here at last was something more than the quibbling, middle-of-the-road, trimming whines of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The miners were a pole of opposition, and inevitably they became a magnetic pole of attraction for the oppressed.

Spitting boldly in the teeth of all Tory philosophy, the miners rallied round them all the movements, impulses and rebellions against that philosophy and against the system it defends. The miners inspired and gave focus to an across-the-board challenge to Toryism; and that challenge became an increasing part of their own awareness of the world.

Thatcher did have an “enemy within”! And hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people rallied to it. Many of them were shocked by the Tories’ remorseless drive to compel the miners and their families to let her offer them as human sacrifices to her savage god, Mammon, the god of profit and lucre; and shocked at the will of the police to use any means necessary to beat the pickets. They started to think about alternatives to Thatcherism.

Jenny Dennis, from Kiveton Park, Yorkshire, told SO in November:

“Mining communities are traditionally male-dominated. It’s the men that work and the women that do: having babies, washing and making snap is our lot. Then it changed.

“It was as though we’d been sleeping for hundreds of years. We awoke, we realised a new political awareness:

“Organising food, raising money, speaking. Men have acknowledged that we, as women, are vital to that victory. We’re an active part of that struggle, side by side with our men in the battle’s frontline.

“We are witnessing something amongst the women which I can only compare with the suffragettes. We are living and making history. We won’t return to the status quo. We can’t.

“Personally it has made me realise that not only must we fight our injustice but others too.

“Because we have lived through media lies we ask ourselves: ‘What other lies have they made?’

“Look at the injustice in Ireland. What really happened in Toxteth? In Brixton? I realise the black community is struggling against injustice.

“After we win we must turn and right other injustices”.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners set themselves up in June, and found miners coming to their meetings, saying things like: “Since the strike their ideas had really changed, and perhaps now the ‘traditional’ labour movement should go to black people and lesbians and gay men to relearn what socialism is all about” (SO 199). But the lesbians and gay men had things to learn from the miners too: the strike drew a class line among lesbians and gays.

Black groups organised to help the miners; and miners came to understand better what black communities feel about police harassment.

Frank Slater of Maltby NUM, (Yorkshire) put it like this:

“What did we do when blacks were being harassed? We said — it’s not us. But we’re ethnic minorities now” (SO 200).

The local miners’ support committees were never anywhere near having the weight, in official labour movement terms, to organise strikes in support of the miners.

Usually they were run by the Labour Left. (The Communist Party organised its own activities, often trying to exclude or suppress more active people to its left. The Socialist Workers Party continued its “splendid isolation”, pouring scorn on the “left-wing Oxfam” and “baked beans brigades” of the support committees, until October, when it readjusted and joined in. Militant [forerunner of the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal] never joined in.)

But, if the support movement was organisationally weak and ramshackle, it was the umbrella for a vast amount of individual activity. Workplace collections, door-to- door collections, street collections, pub collections, football ground collections; benefits, demonstrations, mass pickets; visits from miners, visits to pit villages...

The “Coal not Dole” sticker, the bundle of The Miner, and the collecting bucket became the standard hardware of political life. Hundreds of thousands of people who did nothing more than give donations or wear a badge were stirred and inspired by the miners‘ fight. Labour activists miles from any coalfield found themselves talking, thinking, breathing, living the miners’ strike week after week.

In Basingstoke, Hampshire, for example, the miners’ support committee became the centre of political life. In May Carla Jamison reported on their links with the Notts strikers: “Long after the benefit night was over [one of the Notts women] was still sitting up talking over the issues with the SO supporters she was stopping the night with... It was a great and inspiring weekend for us [the visit of the first strikers’ delegation], and hopefully for the delegation too...

“For us it hadn’t just been a one-off visit, it has been very special and we will hopefully be seeing them again soon... Like Chris Whelan said, they have probably done more for us than we did for them”.

May-July: the strike at its peak

Could the labour movement have been rallied to the miners in sufficient strength to tip the balance against the Tories? Yes they could — if our movement had been headed by leaders who wanted to fight. The response to the local and regional activities called (and inadequately campaigned for) by TUC bodies proves it.

Between 9 May and 13 July there were regional TUC days of action in every major region except the Midlands. Railworkers, hospital workers, council workers, dockers and shipyard workers struck; demonstrations in London and Manchester were up to 50,000 strong. But there was no centrally organised campaign to develop the potential shown by the days of action. Len Murray denounced the days of action in advance. The central TUC leaders stood on the sidelines, sharpening their talons, eyeing Scargill and Heathfield with hatred. But the miners, keeping their distance, had not yet approached the TUC.

It was the miners’ picketing that mainly drove the struggle forward. On 2 May the police (probably exaggerating) estimated 10,000 pickets at Harworth colliery, and on 3 May almost as many at Cotgrave (Notts). On 7 May 1000 miners picketed Ravenscraig steelworks, near Glasgow. On 14 May, 40,000 marched in Mansfield. Between 29 May and 18 June thousands of pickets and police fought battles outside Orgreave coking plant, near Sheffield: coke runs from Orgreave were suspended on 18 June 18.

On 7 June the transport unions agreed not only to boycott coal and coke, but also to block substitute oil movements. On 9 June union leaders Jimmy Knapp and Ray Buckton persuaded railworkers at Shirebrook depot in Notts to follow this policy; by 13 July Knapp could announce that only 10 coal trains were running daily in Britain, out of a normal 356. On 25 June railworkers stopped iron ore supplies to Llanwern steelworks (South Wales); on 28 June, to Ravenscraig.

From early June the Tories became visibly alarmed. They had schemed and prepared for years, waited patiently for the right moment to strike; they had split the miners; they had thrown many thousands of specially trained police at them; they had mobilised the entire press to engulf them in a barrage of lies, misrepresentation, libel and hate-filled propaganda — but still the miners remained in the fight and seemed to be advancing steadily, though slowly. They could fight epic battles like the one at Orgreave, near Sheffield, and hold the cops to a draw, forcing — temporarily — a halt to coke movements there.

Thatcher saw that, like some fabled “British square” of soldiers on the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars, the miners could take a tremendous pounding, stand in a swirl of smoke and shell, and then move forward on the offensive. The Tories had good reason to be worried. So they stepped up the counter-attack.

MacGregor sent a letter to every miner. The NCB talked about organising a ballot over the heads of the NUM.

There was a new and sinister development of police thuggery, directed not against miners on the picket line but against miners and their families in their home villages. Police began to act like a hostile army of occupation in some pit villages.

On the night of 16-17 May, 160 police in riot gear terrorised Thorney Abbey Road, Blidworth, Notts. Annette Holroyd and Pauline Radford told Socialist Organiser what happened:

“They managed to get Terry [Terry Dunn, a Yorkshire picket] over the driveway onto the road and about four or five got hold of his arms and got him into the van.

“Everyone asked why they were arresting him. They refused to give an answer and said, ‘We don’t have to tell you’.

“Then they chucked him in the van and all the men ran up to the van but they slammed the doors in their faces. One of the lads said, ‘Come on, take me. If you’re going to lift him you should lift the lot of us’. They just drove straight off.

“I went over to see my baby-sitter. She was terrified. It was my house just next door. I asked her what was the matter. She said, ‘There’s been five or six policemen knocking on the door, and asking questions: Where’s my dad? Where’s my husband? Where is everybody?’

“I calmed her down and by then there were thirteen or fourteen police vans out in the road. There were policemen lined up across the road. I’ve never seen so many policemen — hundreds of them.

“I was terrified, as was everyone else. I kept clinging hold of my husband so he wouldn’t go through the gate. If they went through the gates they’d get lifted.

“All the men said, “What are you doing here? We’re not causing any trouble”. The police said they’d had a report about a disturbance they need at least 13 police vans to check out a disturbance, 160 police in riot gear!

“The union official said he saw another 20 vans in the next street waiting to come round.

“I feel the police wanted all the Yorkshire lads to go over the gate into the road and get into a riot with the police, and then they’d do them all for rioting.

“It was definitely an act of deliberate provocation”.

The tone of Tory denunciations got more and more shrill and hate-filled, until, on July 19, Thatcher denounced the NUM as “the enemy within”, a domestic equivalent of the Argentines she had fought in the Falklands war. Other Tory speakers followed up the attack, and the Times editorialised: “There is a war on”.

On 13 June, with the battle of Orgreave still in full swing, Arthur Scargill had set out an expanded set of demands for the strike, including a four-day week. By 25 June, Tony Benn was calling over the heads of the union leaders for other workers to strike immediately alongside the miners, and the next day in Parliament Labour MP Martin Flannery spoke of an “inexorable march towards a general strike... now under way”.

Tony Benn was right to appeal over the heads of the union leaders for workers to back the miners. But that it was Benn the MP who did it was also the measure of the weakness of the official trade union leadership.

The NUM special conference on 11-12 July was jubilant, endorsing Scargill’s expanded demands and approving a rule change which could be used to discipline scabs.

Miners had a right to be proud of what they had so far achieved against great odds. They knew that if they could build on what they had done, and develop from where they were, then they could win. But the miners could not themselves do it — they could not at will generate the irreplaceable help of others in the labour movement. They didn’t get the help. And the Tories counterattacked, putting the miners on the defensive.

South Wales NUM funds seized

The forward-movement phase of the strike ended on 1 August, when the High Court ordered the seizure of the South Wales NUM’s funds. The union had defied an injunction against picketing granted to two haulage firms.

The Tories were upping the stakes. The seizure of a trade union’s funds was a matter for the whole labour movement, not for that trade union alone. It was an attack on the whole labour movement — and only the whole labour movement could hope to confront and beat the government that stood behind the courts.

Miners occupied the area NUM headquarters and demonstrators gathered outside to hear area president Emlyn Williams explain what the labour movement needed to do: “We hope trade unions will show solidarity with the miners, and as of today through -out the country there will be a general strike” (SO 190).

Arthur Scargill called on the TUC for physical support. But nothing happened.

As Socialist Organiser commented: “The startling thing about the savage fine on the South Wales NUM is that the other unions haven’t come to their defence. The cry for a general strike should have rung through the labour movement at every level. Instead we have a numb silence at the top” (SO 191).

After all the clamour and the uproar of the summer, suddenly there was numb silence. Some days later, Ron Todd of the TGWU did start talking about plans for a “big bang” of trade union solidarity, but nothing came of that. The same numb silence would happen again, and more damagingly, in November, after the central NUM funds were sequestrated, and in December after a Tory lawyer was declared “receiver” of the NUM’s finances.


Just a week before the seizure of the South Wales funds, Notts striker Paul Whetton had observed this “numb silence” in microcosm. He told an SO meeting in Ollerton:

“I spoke with Dennis Skinner in Basingstoke, and of course everyone was clapping and cheering everything Dennis Skinner said.

“Dennis Skinner made the point that we were begging not only for money and for food, but for solidarity action. He said: there is nothing to stop you taking action now. [And the applause stopped].

“People were taken right up to the edge of it, and when it was put point-blank to them, they hesitated and drew back. That’s a natural reluctance. They fear the machinery of the state, they fear the machinery of the employers and all the rest of it” (SO 189).

So, by failing to respond to the seizure of funds, the movement went into retreat, and the miners began a new phase of their war of attrition with the government — the phase in which the balance, inch by painful inch, was turned against them.

The sceptics and defeatists will say: the NUM leadership should have known in advance that it would go like that; the labour movement was in no condition for an all-out fight. Some of them — like the Socialist Workers’ Party — will add that nothing better could have been expected from the TUC.

When something has already happened and is now history, then it naturally seems in retrospect to have happened inevitably — it seems that all the pieces fell into place as they had to in the circumstances. But that is to substitute hindsight for an examination of the actual course of events. There was nothing inevitable about the isolation of the miners.

At a number of points dotted across the middle of 1984, great possibilities for broadening the struggle came into existence, before vanishing unrealised. The most important of these were the two dock strikes, but there were others. The leaders of the NUM tried again and again to link up with other workers and broaden the struggle. Again and again they appealed for solidarity, to the broad labour movement or to particular groups of workers.

On 9 May Arthur Scargill appealed to railworkers, then due to start an overtime ban on 30 May: “If ever there was a time to join with this union, to come out on strike... now is the time”.

In the event the NUR [forerunner of RMT] and ASLEF settled for a miserable 4.9% rise. Paul Foot later printed documents in the Daily Mirror showing that Thatcher had instructed the British Rail bosses to make whatever concessions were necessary to avoid a “second front” with the railworkers.

Why was solidarity inadequate?

But the most dramatic point in the struggle to broaden the front came in July, when the dockers came out on strike on 9 July. Mrs Thatcher must have remembered the fate of Edward Heath.

Dockers struck against the use of non-dockers to unload iron ore for Scunthorpe steelworks at Immingham. The fire had jumped from the miners to the dockers.

Britain’s dockers are in trouble. Shifts in trade patterns have redirected traffic away from the old ports and into new ones where dockers do not have the job security long ago established in the older ports and enshrined in the National Dock Labour Scheme. One Tory minister said openly in mid 1984 that the Dock Labour Scheme should be scrapped. The jobs of many dockers were — and are — under threat.

On the docks, as in the mines, the basic issue was jobs. Here were ready-made fellow-fighters for the miners. And dockers had the power to close down Britain very quickly. Within weeks of a solid docks strike the Tories would either have to surrender or use troops — and that would have escalated the conflict further.

Competent leadership could have welded the dockers to the miners in a common fight for jobs. The dockers’ leaders, whatever good intentions they may have had, bungled it.

The TGWU did not even formulate clear demands for the strike. The basic demand should have been extension of the National Dock Labour Scheme to the new, unregistered ports.

When the strike was on, Socialist Organiser called for the creation of joint action committees of dockers and miners. But the NUM did not make much initiative to link up with the dockers. It was difficult for the NUM. The leaders of the TGWU were protesting that their dispute was quite separate from the miners’, and would not have welcomed any such initiative.

On 19 July anti-strike lorry drivers threatened violence against dockers in Dover, where the strike was shaky anyway, and the dispute collapsed. The press that had been screaming against “violent” miners either gloried in the threats against the strikers or reported this in a matter-of-fact way: the police had no comment! Instead of organising flying pickets, the mighty TGWU crumbled.

As we have seen, solidarity also failed in the steel industry. The steel unions had been unresponsive from the start. When the NUM and the rail unions applied their blockade in June, Tommy Brennan, convenor at Ravenscraig, said he would work with scab deliveries of coal and iron ore. Peter McKim in Llanwern said the same. ISTC [steel union] general secretary Bill Sirs, according to the Financial Times (2 July), “sounded almost like a British Steel spokesman “.

From late June British Steel started running huge convoys of scab lorries into Ravenscraig and, especially, from Port Talbot to Llanwern. Miners’ picketing in Port Talbot soon tailed off, and was token at Ravenscraig. The steelworks kept running at full, indeed increased, production.

Many miners were critical of the area NUM leaders on this. In South Wales, for example, where area president Emlyn Williams had publicly criticised Arthur Scargill’s effort to mobilise for Orgreave, Mark Thomas of Penrhiwceiber NUM told Socialist Organiser:

“The leadership [of South Wales] — or the majority of them — are failing to give us a determined lead. This comes out most notably in the way they have handled the steelworks situation and the scab miners at the Point of Ayr colliery in North Wales. Increased picketing is not only essential to win the dispute but key to keeping the membership involved. Many people have drifted off, not because they have lost interest, but because of the token nature of the activity we are involved in.

“There are 4000 steelworkers at Llanwern. Not all of them can be Bill Sirs fans. [There should be] a regular bulletin attempting to speak inside the plant, leafleting of the pubs and clubs in the area...” (SO 187).

Stopping steel would have been difficult with the best tactics from the NUM, given the steel unions’ attitude and the steel workers’ recent experience. But some of the NUM leaders were so overwhelmed by the difficulties that they practically gave up.

In rail and docks, too, problems of leadership had combined with problems of confidence among the rank and file.

Having seen the miners on strike for four months, railworkers, dockers and steelworkers knew what was involved in a serious battle with the government — the risk of months of deprivation, legal threats, police violence. The prospect was especially daunting in the steelworks, where the workforce was a shattered remnant, reduced in numbers by a half since 1980.

Railworkers and dockers were still often willing to take a stand for principle: to show solidarity when they were asked to handle coal. But to link their fate more fully with the miners in an indefinite strike? There was, in Paul Whetton’s words quoted above, “a natural reluctance”. London dockers, for example, told SO that they just did not believe that the extension of the Dock Labour Scheme could be won under a Tory government.

In addition to all this there was the deadening effect of the Labour Party’s role in the strike. The Party rank and file were with the miners. Labour Party activists, premises and equipment were involved in the miners’ strike to a degree probably not seen in any dispute since the 1920s. The National Executive Committee backed the miners and called for a levy to support them. Conference condemned police violence and defied Kinnock’s request to condemn pickets’ violence.

But what most people saw, courtesy of TV, was the public weaseling of Kinnock, Hattersley and others. We should not underestimate the role played by this in dampening the spirits of the labour movement.

To rally around the miners and against Thatcher, the movement had to have the feeling of being a movement, the feeling that it could win, that its leaders wanted to win and would fight. It had to have its leaders saying, with political boldness to match the boldness of the NUM’s industrial challenge to Thatcher: “there is an alternative to Thatcher”. The leaders had to say it, mean it and fight for it, and in the first place back those already engaged in the fight against Thatcher.

A politically confident movement could have boosted the industrial solidarity by countering the fears, depression and hopelessness that held back many workers from acting who sympathised with the miners. Kinnock and his team played a fatal role here. Instead of creating a movement against the Tories around the miners, they made the emergence of such a movement impossible. They acted like acid corroding the links and sinews of the movement.

The leadership could have swayed it. A leadership which puts the issues squarely and is visibly prepared to fight to the end can rally the faint-hearted. In the charged atmosphere of summer 1984, there was a lot of potential militancy that could be rallied.

The union leaders were inadequate, too.

The ISTC leadership was positively opposed to a struggle. Having sabotaged the steelworkers’ chance of saving jobs in their industry in 1980, Bill Sirs now preached no option except the strictest co-operation with management to preserve “viability”.

The TGWU leadership had made some gestures towards supporting the miners. The ineffectiveness of its boycott on coal movements by road was partly due to the inherent difficulty in organising an industry like road haulage, with a multitude of small employers. But TGWU Scottish secretary Hugh Wyper is reported to have sent 52 union cards to scab drivers at Yuill and Dodds, the main firm involved in taking supplies into Ravenscraig. On payment of a £10 fine, the scab drivers had full union membership restored.

And the way the TGWU leadership ran the docks strike was a disaster.

In July, and again in August-September, when there was a second docks strike, the TGWU did not even put forward any precise demands for the strike. It argued that the disputes had nothing at all to do with the miners. Nobody believed them, least of all the dockers whose solidarity with the miners had triggered the dispute. Many other dockers — men who could have been won to a fight which linked their own threatened jobs to the miners’ fight for jobs felt they were being manipulated.

In November, TGWU members struck again, at Austin Rover: the union leadership supported them, after a fashion, but did nothing at all as the AUEW and EETPU [forerunners of Amicus] pressurised the strikers back to work. When the High Court fined the TGWU for supporting that strike without a ballot as prescribed by Tory law, the union leadership again opted for masterly inaction. It didn’t pay the fine, nor did it organise any action in defence of the union .

The TGWU leadership, in other words, did not fight to raise the confidence of their members. They reflected the lack of confidence, in the debased form of bureaucratic cowardice; and thus became a factor against action.

The rail union leaders likewise. They gave official support to a boycott of coal movements, although the militants in the front line of that boycott — as at Coalville — were highly critical of the lack of support from the leadership against British Rail harassment. But when they had a chance of going out in front themselves — over pay in May, and again over workshop closures in September — they shrank back.

If the NUM had had leaders like the rail unions or the TGWU, let alone the unspeakable Sirs, then the miners themselves would probably never have had a national strike.

As Dennis Skinner told Socialist Organiser in July: “I don’t think the NUM would be on strike now if it hadn’t had some very competent leadership” (SO 188).

The truth, as Dennis Skinner put it, is that only competent leadership got even 80% of the NUM out. The basic difficulty was not this or that tactical device, but that in the political and industrial situation of March 1984 the odds were extremely daunting.

At the start of the strike (editorial of March 29) Socialist Organiser had said bluntly: “The strike cannot be won in the pits”. Solidarity was irreplaceable. And on April 4 John McIlroy wrote: “It would be self-deluding to pretend that today’s miners’ strike is anything but an uphill struggle. The miners are divided. The price is now being paid for the weaknesses of the past period. Conditions are very different from those prevailing in the victorious struggles of the early 70s”.

The editorial of 19 April added: “Only a general strike can stop the Tories. The alternative is to let the miners get mauled in a strike that could stretch into next winter”.

Miners understood this too. No wonder sections with weak area leadership and more apparent security from closures — like Notts — were not keen to go on strike.

The wonder is not the weaknesses of the strike, but its strength — the stubborn courage with which the miners defied all the iron laws and the iron fists of this soulless government of exploitation and repression.

It is true that the NUM paper, The Miner, which had the job of rallying, encouraging and fortifying the striking miners, sometimes gave an impression of over-confidence, as if victory would be certain if only the miners stuck firm for a few weeks. But Arthur Scargill, in an interview on June 15, made it clear that he had a lucid view of the odds .

“Faced with the Coal Board’s closure plan, the progressive elements in the NUM discussed two options. One, you accept the plan and allow pits to close. Alternatively you fight it. If you fight and you have lost, at least you fought it...”

It is this combination of realism with willingness to stand on the line which raised Scargill — and the other NUM left-wingers — head and shoulders above the other leaders of the trade union movement. And Scargill consistently did what was necessary in the situation.

“If I am the last person left rejecting the closure plan, then that will be my position. If I am right, I’ll stick there. I don’t know how some people can fudge and compromise on... a principle” (Financial Times, 15 June).

And right from 14 April onwards Arthur Scargill appealed repeatedly and urgently for other workers to strike — both through their union leaders and over their heads.

He was not able to do more than make appeals. Scargill’s great predecessor as NUM leader in the 1920s, A J Cook, was a leading figure in a cross-union rank and file movement, the so-called “Minority Movement”, as well as being the miners’ president. He thus had an organisation to campaign for solidarity in other unions. Scargill had no such organisation: one major lesson from the strike must be the need to build a new Minority Movement.

Part two.

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