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40 years ago miners fought the Tories—and could have won

Socialist Worker looks at the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike 40 years on and the lessons for today
Pickets and police battle during the Miners' Strike of 1984 to 85

Miners themselves from police at Orgreave in South Yorkshire (Picture: John Sturrock, Socialist Worker’s photographer at the time)

The Miners’ Strike showed how ordinary people can fight and how they change in the process. On one side stood 165,000 miners, their families and supporters, fighting to defend their jobs and communities.

On the other, stood Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the whole of the ruling class. They were 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 were used to batter the miners. Almost 10,000 were arrested during the strike. National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) members Joe Green and Davey Jones died on the picket lines.

Yet strikers defied the attacks for almost a year and, at crucial moments, came close to winning.

The Tories came to office in 1979 set on cutting back on the welfare state, privatising state-owned industries, destroying the power of unions and allowing the rich to grab even more wealth.

Thatcher tends to be praised for her “determination”. This is a polite term for her class hatred towards workers. In general the feeling was mutual.

Thatcher’s relentless drive to unleash the free market meant confrontations with workers. Her government deliberately allowed unemployment to rise by 250 percent in the first three years of Tory rule. It demoralised working people and partially undermined the ability of unions to fight.

Nicholas Ridley, one of Thatcher’s key ministers, devised a strategy to reduce the unions’ strength. The Ridley Plan meant the government picked off trade unions one by one, starting with those seen as weak—such as steel and health workers—before moving on to more organised groups such as dockers and, ultimately, the miners.

By 1984 they were ready to take on the NUM. Coal was the main source of energy for Britain’s power stations and steelworks. To prepare for battle, the Tories built up coal stocks and ensured the docks could handle major coal imports.

The Tories recruited thousands of extra police and trained them to take on pickets. The cabinet, which had paid financiers Lazard Freres £1.8 million to lure union-buster Ian MacGregor to head the steel industry and smash strikes, now appointed him chair of the National Coal Board.

The day after Thatcher was re-elected in 1983, she appointed Peter Walker as Minister of Energy with the words, “We’re going to have a miners’ strike.”

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.

Cortonwood miners walked out and sent flying pickets to the rest of the huge Yorkshire coalfield, bringing all the pits out.

Rank and file miners took the initiative. Each pit would hold a mass meeting and decide whether to join the strike. If it did, pickets would move on to the next pit. This combined speed with democratic, face-to-face discussion at the pit entrance and voting at mass meetings.

Before long the Kent, Durham, South Wales and Scottish coalfields were out.

The Tories now unleashed state power. The police harassed pickets and stopped them from travelling to other pits. They invaded mining villages and attacked and arrested people.

The Nottinghamshire miners were allowed to go for an area ballot and pickets from the rest of the country were withdrawn. But still some 20 percent of Nottinghamshire miners came out and stayed out on strike despite the propaganda from their own officials, the media and police harassment.

At one point Thatcher planned to send in troops to break the strike. The government also considered declaring a state of emergency. Despite all the myths about it being an “unwinnable” strike, the miners almost secured a victory on several occasions.

A Downing Street report into the strike said how close the government “came to disaster”.

They underestimated the length of time that the miners could be kept out on strike “even on limited supplementary benefit, by a combination of union solidarity and intimidation”.

Thatcher complained early in the strike that cops were reluctant to order the arrest of miners who had committed no crime. It was, she said, “essential to stiffen the resolve of chief constables”. 

The government sent specially-appointed magistrates to get the results they wanted. The Tories gave rail and other workers inflation-busting pay rises in an effort to stop them striking alongside the miners. They panicked when dock workers planned  to walk out, but avoided a strike by concessions and the retreats by union leaders.

In the autumn the Coal Board picked a fight with Nacods, the pit deputies union. The senior supervisors in the pits were unreliable allies and caved in quickly.

The miners tried to hit the industries that depended on coal—particularly steel. The steel workers were demoralised as a result of their own defeat in 1980. Their union, the ISTC which became Community, believed the key to saving the steel industry was collaborating with the bosses. When British Steel argued that enough coal had to be allowed through in order to prevent irreparable damage to furnaces, ISTC and NUM officials did a deal to allow coal in.

Nonetheless the momentum built up from below among strikers, who pushed to stop the delivery of coal, targeting the Orgreave coke depot in South Yorkshire because of its link to steel furnaces in Scunthorpe. Orgreave would be a turning point.

In the successful 1972 miners’ strike, when NUM members on their own could not break the police cordons at Saltley Gate coke depot in the West Midlands, the rank and file called for help. Some 100,000 workers struck in support and 20,000 marched to the depot. It closed.

But pickets who went to Orgreave were left isolated. The police were out in force with horses and battle gear. 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.

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.

At Coalville, in the middle of the working Leicestershire coalfield, no coal was moved by rail for 35 weeks. Print union workers at the Sun newspaper refused to handle a front page that likened NUM president Arthur Scargill to Hitler. Then they closed the paper down for three days after management refused to publish a statement from them in support of the miners.

This solidarity could and should have been the basis for a movement which would have beaten the Tories, seen the miners win victory and driven Thatcher from office. That it didn’t happen was no fault of the miners or those who worked to deliver solidarity.

Yet the TUC and Labour Party leaders did not match this spirit. At its conference in September, the TUC union federation promised to mobilise solidarity action, which worried the government. The union leaders then proceeded to do nothing.

The right wing of the labour movement opposed the strike. The left wing officials said they supported the strike but did not call action necessary to win. And the rank and file lacked the organisation and confidence to act independently of the official machine to do what was necessary.

Labour’s leader Neil Kinnock attempted to distance Labour from its union links, and he was terrified that the miners would win by militant methods.

But he also had to show some support for the miners because of the depth of the backing for their fight among Labour supporters. He therefore equated the Tories and the cops on one side and the miners on the other.

The effect was to gut any support for the strike. As legal attacks on the NUM mounted, leaders of the power station workers’ unions relaxed their “guidelines” against using scab coal, oil and gas. The government got through the winter without blackouts.

Len Murray, then general secretary of the TUC, condemned a series of days of action called by regional TUCs. Thatcher knighted him.

Norman Willis, Murray’s successor, was no better. He spent days in the home of Ian MacGregor drawing up a surrender document to impose on the NUM. Fundraising by Miners Support Groups meant that the strikers continued to hold out and that every miner’s child had a Christmas present.

But increasing numbers of strikers 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.

Thatcher’s victory over the miners did give a boost to ruling class confidence. But despite their re-election in 1987, the Tories stumbled from crisis to crisis. 

For a generation of trade union leaders, and many activists, the idea that strikes didn’t work became entrenched orthodoxy.

This created a vicious circle in which the relative weakness of rank and file organisation that had been revealed by the strike repeatedly allowed the union bureaucracy to prevent the beginnings of resistance developing into a new upsurge. That further undermined workers’ self-confidence.

The lesson drawn by the union leaders and the Labour Party was that it showed that the miners were fighting a hopeless battle. They declared inevitable a defeat they had done nothing to prevent.

Thatcher herself saw it differently and admitted nine years after the strike, “We were in danger of losing everything,” and the strike “could indeed have brought down the government”.

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