By Sheila McGregor
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The strike that could have beaten Thatcher

This article is over 7 years, 10 months old
Thirty years on from the 1984-85 miners' strike most commentators, including many on the left, claim the power of the state made defeat inevitable. But Sheila McGregor argues we could have won but for betrayal by trade union officials and Labour leaders.
Issue 389

They fought for a year as the police occupied their villages, blocked roads and tunnels to stop them picketing, and surrounded working pits to stop them approaching. Miners and their wives faced gratuitous violence ranging from pickets’ cars being smashed up to attacks by police armed with drawn truncheons, horses and dogs. Miners faced individual arrests and mass arrests. The courts were used to give bail restrictions banning miners from going to picket pits and to sequester NUM funds so as to limit the ability of the union to function.

It was a fight to the finish as prime minister Margaret Thatcher conducted a war against the miners and their families in a bid to destroy their union. The prize they coveted was the intimidation of the whole trade union movement through a spectacular defeat of the National Union of Miners (NUM).

The miners had defeated the ruling class twice, once in 1972 when their strike drove a coach and horses through the pay policy of the day, and then again in 1974 when Tory prime minister Ted Heath decided to call an election on who should run the country – and lost. The Tories never forgot and never forgave. They wanted to defeat the miners in open battle, so they prepared for a strike. As Thatcher’s chancellor Nigel Lawson recalled the preparations, it was “just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the late 1930s”.

One of Thatcher’s ministers, Nicholas Ridley, was the architect of a strategy based on simple principles. Only take on one group of workers at a time to avoid solidarity between workers. Introduce anti-union laws to tie unions in ballots in order to slow action, stop secondary action and allow for the fining of unions and the sequestration of its funds. And change welfare legislation to deprive strikers and their families of social security support.

When it came to preparations to take on the miners, they built up coal stocks, diversified the provision of power, organised pools of lorry drivers to move coal and established a National Reporting Centre at New Scotland Yard to coordinate police intervention. The police were given an additional 11,000 officers trained in riot control.

Ian MacGregor, one of those behind the sacking of convenor Derek Robinson in 1979 from Longbridge, a key car plant in Birmingham, and then butcher of the steel industry in 1981, was appointed chair of the National Coal Board (NCP) in September 1983. The day after Thatcher was re-elected in 1983, she appointed Peter Walker, a veteran of the 1972 days, as Minister of Energy with the words, “We’re going to have a miners’ strike.”

So when battle was finally engaged with the shock announcement of the closure of Cortonwood colliery on 1 March 1984, the Tories were embarking on civil war. A special cabinet committee met twice weekly to ensure centralised coordination.

A year later the Tories had won. Most people argue that there was no way the miners could have won against the power of the state. Many argued the same in 1985. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) argued, and still argues, that we could and should have won.

The miners and their wives organised and fought back with huge physical, mental and emotional courage and extraordinary resilience. Tens of thousands of socialists and union activists rallied to their cause organising solidarity action, collections, rallies and demonstrations. British society became increasingly divided between those who supported the strike and those who didn’t. Despite the propaganda on the BBC and other TV networks and in the daily press taking up Thatcher’s mantra that they were “the enemy within”, support for the strike never dropped below a third of British society.


As the year progressed, the miners’ strike became a cause celebre internationally as socialists and trade unionists elsewhere understood the significance of the battle being fought out in the mining communities. The idea we could not have won is risible. But we have been suffering the consequences of defeat ever since. So we need to spell out clearly what went wrong and how we could have won – to make sure we win in future.

We are not alone in thinking the miners could have won. The cabinet papers released earlier this year point to the fear in government that they were about to lose in July and August 1984. Revealingly, just before the end of the strike Ned Smith, the NCB’s industrial relations director for much of the year, explained on Channel 4 news on 4 February 1985, that the turning point for the Tories was not the scabbing of the majority of miners in Nottinghamshire, but the failure of the TUC to stop the movement of scab coal and oil.

As the SWP’s Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons wrote at the time, “The trade union leaders’ betrayal of the miners had ensured the strike’s defeat… The strike’s defeat was more than a tragedy. It was a crime.”

So how did we get from 1972 when coal did not move to 1984-85 when it did? When rank and file solidarity across the working class movement brought victory in 1972 but did not occur on a wide enough scale in 1984-85? How come the NUM, led by Joe Gormley, a right wing president, won in 1972 and lost under Arthur Scargill, a fearless class fighter?

The key question running through the strike, through all its highs and lows, was the role of the trade union bureaucracy, including inside the NUM, and the dependence of the rank and file on the bureaucracy compared with 1972 and 1974.

In 1972 the miners’ strike was run from below, not by union officials. The strike was characterised by: flying pickets; coordinated and targetted picketing and rank and file solidarity from other trade unionists. The turning point came at Saltley Gate coke depot in the West Midlands, with the attempt to stop the movement of coke.

When the miners on their own could not break the police cordons and close the depot, Scargill went to the AUEW engineering union East Birmingham District committee and told them, “I don’t want your pound notes. Will you go down in history as the working class of Birmingham who stood by while the miners were battered down or will you become immortal? I do not ask you – I demand you come out on strike.”

Two days later 100,000 workers struck in support of the miners and 20,000 marched down to Saltley Gate depot. It closed.

The strike won because rank and file miners approached other workers in other unions for support. They were able to explain how a victory for them would break the pay policy and open up the possibility for other groups of workers. They could also rely on the deeply held principle of respecting picket lines. The workers they appealed to had the confidence to act without a union official. Rank and file elected shop stewards had the confidence of their members and they had the confidence to act irrespective of the union bureaucracies.

By 1984 this confidence among a whole layer of shop stewards and rank and file workers throughout the trade union movement had been seriously eroded, including inside the NUM. The process was multi-facetted, but in brief outline involved the erosion of the close link between shop stewards and rank and file members through changes in pay schemes and the introduction of full-time trade union convenors, and the fear of unemployment flowing from the severe recession of 1981.

In addition, the Social Contract introduced under the Labour government in 1974-79 led to the isolation of groups of workers taking strike and the development of mass scabbing in certain industries, such as the car industry. A strategy of looking to the election of left wing officials to lead unions, embraced by the Communist Party and the Labour left, led to the atrophy of bodies such as the Barnsley Forum, which had led the flying pickets in 1972.

The defeat of the steel workers in 1980, the printers’ union in 1983 and the abolition of trade union organisation in the GCHQ spy centre in 1983 fed both fear and demoralisation. By the time the 1984 strike started, much work needed to be done for the rank and file to win. Sections of rank and file miners and fellow trade unionists showed they knew what to do and were willing to do it. But this time they did not have the same organisation on hand to deliver and therefore became dependent on the union bureaucracy for support.

Time and again the rank and file surged forward giving a lead, only to be held back, sometimes thwarted but more often left in the lurch. Key points in the strike show the difference this made to the outcome.


The strike started and was spread from Cortonwood throughout the country by rank and file miners taking the initiative to fan out across the coalfields. 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 decision making in mass meetings.

As the strike rolled out, the call for a national ballot was taken up by right wing officials in the NUM, particularly in Nottinghamshire, and amplified in the media.

The arguments against were simple: no one has the right to vote someone else out of a job; the NCB and the bosses don’t ballot for the acceptability of closures and redundancies; and the mass meetings which allow for debate and open voting are a far superior form of democracy than individuals voting in their own front room.

The Tories saw the chance to divide the union and sent in the police to occupy the mining areas and block access to the pickets. Unfortunately, the Nottinghamshire miners were allowed to go for an area ballot and pickets from the rest of the country were withdrawn. All would not have been lost. 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.

Had strikers from other parts of the country been encouraged to continue going to pit villages to talk to miners and their families about the Tory plans for pit closures and privatisation, had they been sent to mass meetings at every pit, armed with leaflets clearly explaining that only national strike action could save the pits, there would have been a fighting chance that all the Nottingham pits would have come solidly out on strike.

The deal done by area officials stopped that. Scargill went along with it and the rank and file picketers did not have the level of organisation and political independence to defy the orders. Relying on the ballot was a disaster, leading to Nottinghamshire continuing to work.

Once it was clear the national strike was on, even without the Nottinghamshire coalfield, attention turned to making the strike effective by hitting the economy hard. The strike had started in the spring not the winter, so stopping the movement of coal was crucial. If the steel industry could be closed down, then that would stop the car industry and other industries dependent on steel. Here there were several interrelated problems.

The steel workers were demoralised as a result of their own defeat in 1980. Their union, the ISTC, a right wing outfit at the best of times, 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, the ISTC appealed to the NUM area officials to allow coal in. The NUM officials failed to argue the link between a miners’ victory and saving the steel industry, and did deals to allow coal through.

Fortunately, the momentum built up from below among active strikers, who pushed to stop the delivery of coal, targetting the Orgreave coke depot because of its link to steel furnaces in Scunthorpe. Scargill understood that closing Orgreave could be a turning point, just as Saltley Gate had been in 1972, and put out a call to build up the pickets there.

The important thing to have done would have been to concentrate all the miners’ pickets from throughout the country on Orgreave. Even if the build-up of pickets failed to close the depot, it would have been possible to go to the engineers and other unions in nearby Sheffield and Rotherham to call for solidarity action. Towards the end of May it looked as if this might happen. Unfortunately, the area officials in South Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire refused to back the call.

Scargill and the pickets who had gone to Orgreave were left isolated. The police were out in force with horses and battle gear. Scargill himself was arrested and the battle was lost. It was one of the turning points, pushing the strikers onto the defensive.

In the major ports dockers were covered by the National Dock Labour Scheme and no one was allowed to handle goods in the docks unless they were part of the scheme. Three such docks, Port Talbot, Immingham and Hunterston, were used to supply iron ore to British Steel.

The registered dockers blacked the handling of iron ore at Hunterston, and British Steel retaliated by threatening to use ISTC members and lorry drivers to move the iron ore, breaking the National Dock Labour Scheme agreement. The dockers’ union, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), threatened a national strike but then a local deal was made to allow the scabbing to occur and the dockers to be given alternative work.

At Immingham the train drivers refused to move the iron ore to Scunthorpe and British Steel tried to mount a scabbing operation with lorries. The dockers refused to scab on the train drivers and walked out on strike. The TGWU called a national strike on 9 July. At first it was solid. Unfortunately, the Dock Labour Scheme did not apply to docks such and Dover and Felixstowe, and union leaders failed to raise the demand for an extension of the scheme to all dockers as part of the strike.

There was hardly any involvement by rank and file dockers in the strike and no attempt by the union officials to build up mass pickets. On 19 July lorry owners stormed Dover docks. Instead of immediately organising pickets of miners and dockers to face down scab lorry owners, the strike was allowed to collapse. A further dock strike at the end of August likewise went down to defeat.

Pits could only run with pit deputies and overmen. Nacods pit deputy union members were responsible for all health and safety underground. If they struck, working pits in Nottinghamshire would have stopped. Although not out on strike, they were able to refuse to cross picket lines and still get paid. In mid-August the NCB ripped up that agreement and then docked the pay of 3,000 men “for not making sufficient effort to get into work”.

Pit deputies

The Nacods executive balloted for all-out strike winning 82.5 percent support for action. Although MacGregor had provoked the strike, the Nacods leadership wanted a way out, the TUC pressurised them into continuing talks and behind the scenes the Tories put on pressure.

The union was offered a worthless “deal” o call off the strike. With the strike off, the High Court ordered the sequestration of the NUM’s funds. The threat of the deputies to strike had made the government panic and fear defeat, but in their hearts most workers know it is unwise to rely on solidarity from the foreman.

A key part of the Tory strategy had been to build up the role of nuclear power and dual use power stations, switching from coal to oil to prevent power cuts. The Central Electricity Generating Board bought the equivalent of one-third of OPEC’s oil production to implement this strategy. It switched to coal from opencast mines workerd by TGWU members. This scabbing operation have been stopped.

The TGWU could have organised meetings for opencast miners about the importance of the strike and instructed their members not to increase output. They could have done the same with oil tanker drivers. The TGWU, and the GMBATU (now GMB) with members inside the power stations, could have instructed them to refuse to cooperate with the switch to opencast coal, or the increased use of oil in power stations.

There were instances of solidarity action, but the unions failed to throw their full weight behind them. They feared the sequestration of funds more than the consequences of the miners’ defeat. These obstacles could have been overcome, at least partially, if the miners themselves had been mobilised to go and talk to power station workers and drivers about the need for solidarity. The earliest Scargill went to meet shop stewards in Yorskhire power stations was in January 1985.

Throughout the course of the strike there were points when action by other workers could have turned the tide. And it was clear that blacking of scab coal and oil by lorry drivers, steel workers and power workers could have brought victory.

Such action only requires meetings and low level picketing backed up by strike action if management decide to victimise someone. Would it have been possible to get such solidarity after the undermining of workers’ confidence and shop stewards’ organisation?

Several elements suggest it would have been possible. There was serious blacking action taken by pockets of workers. The support for the miners grew throughout the year with more and more collections, twinning of workplaces with pits, days of action and demonstrations. All sorts of barriers were broken down with solidarity from the growth of the miners’ wives organisation, gay and lesbian groups, among others.

What was lacking was a clear argument about the need for collective action to win. Instead, while the miners were getting battered by the police, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock attacked violence “on all sides”.

The right wing officials hated Scargill and all he stood for and opposed the strike. The left wing officials said they supported the strike but did not carry out the 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. Tragically for the miners and the entire working class movement, Scargill might have understood the need to fight and how to win, but without the network of 1972 he was paralysed.

When Karl Marx argued that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, it means exactly that. We have to build the kind of organisation able to lead in struggle, alongside the officials if they are with us and against them if they are not.

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