By Cathy Nugent
On 1 March twenty years ago British miners embarked on a tremendous year-long battle to save their jobs, their communities and, as it turned out, the entire industry. They also fought the Thatcher Tory government for the whole of our class. The miners were absolutely right against those union and Labour leaders who portrayed their intransigence as irrational.
The miners fought and lost. Their defeat was far from inevitable. Decisive solidarity from the rest of the labour movement could have ensured a victory for the miners. That is the tragedy of the miners strike and it is a tragegy for us all. It is better to fight and lose than to have never fought at all. The miners knew that. The trouble is, the leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party didn't. They supported the miners lukewarmly and in words, and did not mobilise.
The result has been grim. We have had twenty years of decline in the labour movement, with some solid struggles along the way, but only now beginning to bottom out.
Since 1985 few books have been written about the miners' strike. Yet it was one of the most important events in Britain of the last fifty years. Perhaps it is an experience that is too painful - especially for those who backed the miners' cause - to revisit.
The year long strike was full of lessons in class struggle, and not just the necessity of solidarity. Lessons such as: tactics in strikes, including general strike action; about working class democracy; about building bridges in the working class to overcome division and oppression; about the rights and wrongs of union leadership; about how the full force of the state's power is used against the working class in serious struggle.
For the next year Solidarity will be re-telling the progress of the strike in each issue and highlighting some of the hundred and one lessons of the dispute. The miners' strike was a powerful, never-to-be-forgotten experience for anyone who participated and lived through it as a partisan activist. Interviews and personal accounts will convey some of that.
We start with a little background to the dispute.
When the miners' strike began, there were over 181,000 miners in 170 deep mine pits. By 2002 there were just 8,000 miners in 17 pits. Many villages have lost their source of employment. Entire regions once built on the industry - Durham, South Wales - have undergone a profound transformation.
The Tories set out to destroy the coal industry because, in their political dogma, it was an 'out moded" part of British industry. Their core strategy was a highly organised attack on the unions, which they saw as responsible for the long-term profit-problems of British industry.
Out of government in the mid-70s, the Tory party had undergone a change of leadership and political direction. Under Margaret Thatcher, the Tories embraced neo-liberalism, monetarism and authoritarianism. The new thinking was reflected in a plan written by Nicholas Ridley in 1977.
In the Ridley Plan, the union the Tories most wanted to beat down was the National Union of Mineworkers. The miners had made fools of Ted Heath's Tory government of 1970-74. They had won a massive pay rise in a strike in 1972 and helped to wreck anti-union legislation. In 1974, during another miners' strike, Heath went to the polls on the slogan 'Who rules, us or the unions'? Ted Heath lost the election.
The Tories knew they had to prepare the ground to beat the miners: build up coal stocks, make plans to use lorries to transport coal, and re-organise the police so that it would be more effective when used against strikers.
After their election the Tories picked off groups of workers one by one: the steel workers, train drivers over flexible rostering, health service workers, the print workers in dispute at the Warrington Messenger.
In that dispute the newspaper's owner, Eddie Shah made the first successful use of the new laws against trade-union solidarity which the Tories were introducing piecemeal.
In each of those disputes the TUC failed to stand up to the government, as if they could not see how serious Thatcher was about attacking the unions. Yet the Tories' broad political intentions were not a secret.
The Tories were careful not to take on the miners too soon. In February 1981 they announced a number of pit closures, but withdrew their plans when strikes hit the coalfields. Still, between 1981 and March 1984 some 40 pits were closed or merged and 41,000 jobs were lost.
In July 1982 the National Coal Board admitted they were undertaking a 'searching financial review' of 30 or so pits; by November leaked reports suggested that 75 pits and 50,000 jobs were under threat; bigger cuts were announced later. The NCB had a strategy of concentrating everything on high-tech super-pits - like Selby in North Yorkshire - and scrapping the so-called 'uneconomic' pits. The meaning of the term 'uneconomic' would be fiercely debated during the months of the dispute. But the surest consequence of the NCB's definition of 'uneconomic' was that communities in Wales, Scotland and Kent could go rot!
By now the miners were well aware of the bleak future the Tories had planned for them. They knew they were fighting for the future of the entire industry. Yet when NUM's leader Arthur Scargill repeated the claim of a secret "hit list' of 70 or more closures, he was told he was 'scaremongering'.
Inevitably the closures and sackings after 1981 had caused demoralisation in the industry. Would the miners be ready to fight when the Tories started to step up their campaign by announcing further closure plans in March 1984?
It did not look as if the miners were in fighting mood. In January 1982, miners had 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.
In September 1983 the government had appointed a new boss for the National Coal Board. Ian MacGregor was an American who had a record of cuts at British Leyland (when he was a Labour-appointed boss at that nationalised car company), and later at the British Steel Corporation.
At the end of September the NCB rejected a pay claim of 5.2% outright. They would make no agreement until "over-production of high cost capacity" had been eliminated and the 'uneconomic pits' had been closed.
On 21 October 1983 a NUM Special Delegate Conference agreed to fight pit closures "other than on grounds of exhaustion" and job losses. They agreed an overtime ban which was to stand even in those pits that were working during the strike.
On 1 March local management announced that Cortonwood Colliery near Rotherham in south Yorkshire was to be closed. Miners in south Yorkshire immediately went on unofficial strike. That strike was later made official. Other areas began to come out. The great strike had begun.
In the drama which we will follow four themes shaped the course of events. First, and most important the fortitude of the miners and their families.
A majority of miners stayed solidly behind the strike for an entire year. The courage that required people to face up to the poverty, injustice and violence that was done to them was quite stunning.
Second was the division between miners and mining areas. Some areas were reluctant, slow, or opposed to coming out because they saw their jobs as safe - an assumption that proved to be false.
Miners in areas that had more productive coal seams, areas like Notts, had done well out of a long-standing incentive scheme.
Even so it was a minority in the country who scabbed and even in Notts, at the peak of the strike, close to half of the miners were on strike.
Of course the Tory press, the police and the government did everything in their power to exploit the divisions. Some leaders in the labour movement increased those divisions by making noise about the fact that the miners union had not held a ballot over strike action.
The press blamed 'barmy' Arthur Scargill, but in fact rank and file miners voted not to have a ballot. Whatever the tactical rights and wrongs or how you see it in restrospect, the people who made a fuss at the time, were either scared of the militancy of the dispute or actively wanted to sabotage the strike.
The third theme was how the British labour movement failed to make effective solidarity with miners.
Notwithstanding the efforts of many rank and file workers, when union leaders, like those of the railworkers and dockers, faced national battles of their own they failed to open up a decisive 'second front' against the Tories.
When the funds of the NUM were frozen by a High Court judge - a quite audacious ruling class attack on the trade union movement - the TUC and other trade unions failed to come to the NUM's aid.
The left was not guiltless in this respect. In Liverpool a Militant-dominated Labour council (Militant was the forerunner of the Socialist Party), had promised to confront the government over cuts.
Coming to power in May 1983, they started a very impressive campaign among council workers and the local community. But at the peak of the miners' strike that campaign was left to dissipate, while the Militant leaders of the council did a deal with the Tories. They got a little extra money to see them through to the next year.
The fourth theme was the appalling, but highly instructive, extent of ruling class brutality during the strike. The Tories' brazen determination to see the rule of the market over the lives of working class people defended and extended was encapsulated in the image of a policeman's truncheon beating down on the head of a woman trying to call for an ambulance.
For the Tories, the miners were scum... the 'enemy within'. For hundreds of thousands of people, many active in politics for the first time, the miners' strike was a call to solidarity that could not be ignored.
The political aftermath of the miners' defeat has been immense. Despite a truly heroic battle by the striking miners and immense sympathy from other groups of workers, the Tories won. They were able to go on to make a far-ranging programme of privatisation and enforce anti-union laws which outlawed effective trade unionism - the right to strike and take solidarity action - in this country. The defeat of the miners has been a heavy burden on the labour movement, one which some craven trade union leaders have exploited to the maximum.
New Labour arose out of the defeat of the miners strike. Tony Blair's clique remains bedazzled by the success of Thatcher. Labour's leader at the time of the strike, Neil Kinnock organised witch-hunts and 'reforms' which prepared the ground for Blair. Kinnock failed on every single count to do his elementary duty to our people, those who were fighting to preserve the soul of the labour movement.