Twenty five years ago Britain was convulsed by a major battle that had massive implications for the future.
On one side stood 165,000 miners, their families and supporters, fighting to defend their jobs and communities.
On the other, stood Margaret Thatcher and the whole of the ruling class, determined to crush the most powerful group of workers in the country and unleash free market policies on the whole of society.
The might of the state and the media was used to crush the miners. Yet the miners defied the attacks for almost a year and, at crucial moments, came close to winning.
The Miners’ Strike showed how ordinary people can fight those who rule our world, and how they change in the process.
The Tories came to power in 1979 set on cutting back on the welfare state, privatising state-owned industries and destroying the power of the trade union movement.
They developed the Ridley Plan to take on the unions one by one. By 1984 they were ready to take on the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Coal was the main source of energy for Britain’s power stations and steelworks at the time. To prepare for battle, the Tories built up coal stocks and ensured the docks could handle major coal imports. They made sure that oil and nuclear power stations were ready to handle extra demand for energy.
The police were trained to break strikes. Union-buster Ian MacGregor was appointed chair of the National Coal Board.
The strike began on 1 March 1984 when the Tories announced a programme of pit closures, starting with Cortonwood in the militant south Yorkshire area.
Thatcher and her allies hoped that if there was a strike it could be defeated within weeks. The miners’ response shocked them.
Cortonwood miners walked out and sent flying pickets to the rest of the huge Yorkshire coalfield, bringing all the pits out.
Before long the Kent, Durham, South Wales and Scottish coalfields were also brought to a standstill.
The Tories unleashed the full might of the state. The police harassed pickets and stopped them from travelling to other pits. They invaded mining villages, and attacked and arrested people.
The miners tried to hit the industries that depended on coal – particularly steel.
Miners and the police clashed at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire from the end of May through to mid-June, when isolation and the scale of the police violence forced pickets to call off the protests.
The media launched a full-scale attack on the miners, denouncing their picket line “violence”. The BBC re-edited a film of the Battle of Orgreave to make it appear that the pickets had launched an unprovoked attack on the police, when in fact it was the other way round.
Despite the grim situation, miners and their families gained a new spirit and strength from the dispute.
Life during the strike was very different. People were changing and feeling a new confidence. Deeply ingrained ideas and prejudices began to fall away.
Women came to the fore. Many miner’s wives ran communal kitchens, demonstrated, picketed and organised solidarity. The huge support for the miners from black, Asian and immigrant communities, and from LGBT people, broke down barriers and challenged prejudices.
Working people in Britain and across the world rallied to the miners’ cause, raising money and solidarity.
Yet the TUC and Labour Party leaders did not match this spirit. At its conference in September, the TUC promised to mobilise solidarity action, which worried the government. It failed to materialise.
At crucial moments, steel, docks and the pit deputies’ unions had the opportunity to strike, but their union leaders backed down.
Labour’s leader Neil Kinnock was attempting to reshape his party. He wanted to distance it from its union roots, and he was terrified that the miners would win by militant methods.
But he also had to support the miners because of the depth of the backing for their fight among Labour supporters. This balancing act was worse than useless in the heat of the struggle.
Fundraising by the Miners Support Groups meant that the strikers continued to hold out and that every miner’s child had a good Christmas.
But increasing numbers began to drift back to work as the hardship became too much.
An NUM delegate conference narrowly voted to go back on 3 March 1985. The strikers marched back to work together after taking part in the longest mass strike in British history.
Commentators still repeat the myth that the miners were fighting a hopeless battle. Some people even say that the defeat shows that it is not possible to fight and win ever.
But at several points the government feared that it had lost.
Thatcher herself admitted nine years after the strike that, “We were in danger of losing everything,” and that the strike “could indeed have brought down the government.”
The miners could have won – but the leaders of the labour movement let them down. We need to learn the lessons for the battles of the future.
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