Socialist View - Spring 2004
"The ruling class have thrown down the gauntlet, and not just to the miners. This is a political challenge to the whole labour movement. The Tories intend, if they can, to smash the miners today to pave the way for a merciless attack on all other workers tomorrow. All workers must fight shoulder to shoulder with the NUM"
the miners' strike 1984 - 85
It's 20 years since Margaret Thatcher went to war against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The British Miners' strike of 1984 - 1985 was one of the most important industrial struggles in post war Britain.
By Fiona O'Loughlin
The miners were the most militant section of the working class and the most hated by the ruling class. The Tories had a plan to massive reduce public spending and to decimate Britain's traditional manufacturing industry. Thatcher understood that if the miners could be defeated then the rest of the trade union movement in Britain would be easier to deal with.
The ruling class spent years preparing to beat the miners. Nigel Lawson the former Tory chancellor admitted that the preparation for the strike was "just like rearming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930's." They wanted revenge for the defeat of the Heath government by the miners in 1974 and they had not forgotten the role of the miners in the 1926 General Strike. In 1981 attempts were made to close a number of pits including some in south Wales. Welsh miners walked out and sent flying pickets to other coalfields. Within a day a national coal strike was on the cards. The Tories would have been beaten if the strike had gone ahead. Thatcher urged caution and they backed down. The time was not right for an all out assault on the NUM.
The preparation for the dispute and the methods employed by the Tories against the miners were unprecedented in British history. Thatcher fully utilised the police, the secret service, the courts and the millionaire press in their year long war.
A plan drawn up by Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley was implemented. The Ridley Plan advocated the stockpiling of coal to sustain supplies throughout a long strike; a shift away from coal to oil in a number of power stations; the beefing up of the powers of the police to deal with strikers and changes in the law to weaken the power of the unions particularly in relation to secondary picketing.
Coal supplies had been stockpiled at pitheads and power stations for years. The government appointed Ian McGregor as chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB). A well-known right winger and anti trade unionist, he moved to the mining industry after cutting 100,000 jobs at British Steel.
On 1 March 1984, NCB announced the closure of Cortonwood Colliery and 20 other pits. This was the opening shot of an all out attack on the miners, their families and their communities.
Working class solidarity
From the outset the miners' strike received enormous support from the working class internationally. From Australia to South Africa, financial support flooded in. In Ireland, the Scottish miners were "adopted" by the North and the south Wales miners by the South. More money was raised in Ireland per head of the population than even in Britain. In Northern Ireland support for the miners came from both sections of the community and cut across the sectarian divide. In Dublin, one old aged pensioner put a tenner in a collection tin to repay the miners for the support they had given to the working class of Dublin during the 1913 Lockout.
Support from the British working class was phenomenal with over £1 million donated per week to the strike fund. Food collection points were set up outside supermarkets in working class areas, as the slogan "Dig deep for the miners" was taken to heart. The working class got behind the strike and saw it for what it was - a class battle, with them on one side backing the miners and the ruling class led by the Tories and the most hated woman in Britain Margaret Thatcher on the other.
In the mining communities women played a fundamental part in the strike. As women were radicalised by the dispute, they organised into committees. Initially they concentrated on organising the practicalities of feeding whole communities in military style operations setting up and running food kitchens. But they quickly moved from these tasks to all out involvement in the strike alongside their husbands, partners, sons and brothers. The miners women's support groups organised speaking tours, participated on picket lines and marches. Without the support network organised by the women the strike would not have been able to continue as long as it did. Many of the women radicalised by the events of the strike are still playing an active part in the labour movement today.
Prior to the strike many had predicted that the miners would never go on strike again. History has made fools of those who argued this nonsense. The miners and in particular the young miners made huge financial and personal sacrifices, risking their lives, as they gave their all to protect and defend their jobs and communities.
The courts and the police
A key moment in the dispute was when the courts imposed a £200,000 fine on the NUM and the assets of the South Wales NUM and the NUM nationally were sequestered. These attacks by the state should have been met by the calling of a 24-hour general strike by the TUC; in the event they did nothing.
Thatcher and her cabinet sanctioned MI5 infiltration of the NUM and its leadership, sending an NUM official to Libya to get funds for the dispute from Gadaffi, in an elaborately planned "black ops mission" to discredit the union.
A virtual civil war raged in the mining communities as the police laid siege to towns and villages. The military style deployment of the police, stationed in army barracks, was on a scale never seen in Britain. Over 20,000 extra police were shipped in many of them from the London Metropolitan Police. No expense was spared. In the 12 months of the strike the government spent £6 billion to defeat the miners.
The police were fully equipped with riot gear, horses, dogs, helicopters and even spotter aircraft. It was openly spoken of how the tactics adopted by the police were learned from the experience of the RUC in Northern Ireland over the previous 15 years.
A virtual curfew existed in some areas. Miners going to protests or picket lines were turned back, sometimes miles away from their destination. At one stage, the police threatened to arrest Kent miners if they went outside the county boundary.
The brutality of the police on the picket lines flashed across TV screens and resulted in anger and rage amongst the working class. The scenes of men in jeans and t-shirts been beaten by police in full riot gear, some on horseback were greeted by disbelief amongst a majority of workers. The baton charging of picket lines were a daily occurrence.
The battle of Orgreave just outside Sheffield made international news headlines. Thousands of riot police waged a full-scale battle against defenceless picketers, baring the "teeth of the British State" for the entire world to see. Thousands were injured including some bystanders. Arthur Scargill was arrested along with many others.
These events left a mark on the consciousness of working class people far beyond those on the frontline in the mining communities. The image of the "Bobby", the friendly community police officer was destroyed by the role they played in the dispute. The British police were seen for what they are a political weapon to be used against the working class. Engels definition of the capitalist state as armed bodies of men in defence of private property was graphically illustrated on the picket lines and in the mining towns and villages in the miners' dispute.
The millionaire-owned press, backed and supported Thatcher in her war on the miners. The newspapers demonised the miners and in particular the leadership of the NUM. Kelvin McKenzie, the editor of the Sun at the time, is quite open about the role his newspaper played. In a recent Channel 4 documentary to mark the twentieth anniversary of the strike, McKenzie proudly boasted of the way the media supported the Tories and blatantly undermined the strike. At one stage during the dispute, he tried to print a front-page photograph of Arthur Scargill with his hand in the air looking like he was giving a Nazi salute. This was an attempt at a monstrous slur. However, the print workers at the Sun refused to print the picture and printed the paper with a blank space were the photo of Scargill should have been.
In mining areas, papers like The Star
were boycotted. One woman interviewed during the strike said, "We've stopped buying newspapers. The Star
won't be believed after they said something like Britain doesn't owe the miners a living. They are so bad we don't even believe the ordinary stories any more. We won't go back to the old routine after the strike."
Revolutionary Marxist ideas were openly spoken of amongst striking miners. 500 miners joined the Militant during the dispute.
The miners' strike was there to be won. If the determination of the miners and the support they had within society had been matched by leadership of the trade union movement and the Labour Party this could have been a huge victory for the miners and the working class as a whole. The ruling class were well aware that a victory for the miners would have meant the downfall of Thatcher and the Tory government and fought tooth and nail to prevent it.
The leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party played a treacherous role. They isolated the NUM from the rest of the trade union movement. The support and solidarity that was there for the miners was never mobilised by the TUC leaders. As already stated support amongst the working class for the miners was widespread. If the TUC had issued a call for a 24-hour general strike, it would have been willingly embraced by workers.
At the time the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) issued a call for the NUM to convene a rank and file conference and organise a one-day general strike. "Now is the hour for action. If a serious lead is given to the ranks of the labour and trade union movement, the Tories and the NCB and the ruling class at large will begin rapidly to step back. The Tories strength is illusory, based only on the passivity of the trade union leaders. As this strike has gone on more and more splits, open hostility, tensions, and bitter feuding has been revealed at every level within the Tory party and the cabinet.
If the necessary lead is given for action, then these divisions will become a chasm, the ruling class can be sent scurrying in disarray into retreat and the way can be prepared for an historic victory of the British working class." Militant Miner
By taking up this call the NUM leaders could have sidelined the right wing TUC who had no intention of mobilising the power of the working class. The TUC had already given the Tories a trump card when in 1983 the printers in the National Graphics Association (NGA) had been taken to court for organising secondary action. A TUC decision to organise a general strike if any union was threatened with sequestration was ignored. The refusal to back the NGA was a mistake further compounded by their open betrayal of the miners.
There had been no tradition in the NUM for holding ballots on the issue of pit closures. It was just accepted that miners would strike in the case of an economical pit being threatened with closure. The fact that the majority of miners participated in the dispute showed that the strike had the support of the majority of the NUM. However, the lack of a ballot was seized upon by right wing trade union leaders and by Kinnock and the Labour leaders as an excuse not to back the NUM.
During the strike we maintained a united front with the NUM on the issue of refusing to hold a ballot when the strike had commenced. To do otherwise would have meant giving credence to the arguments of the TUC leaders and Kinnock that they couldn't support the miners without a "democratic vote". After the strike we pointed out that the decision not to hold a ballot, even during the dispute was a mistake. The majority of miners would have voted for strike action and it would have undermined the right wing trade union and labour leaders, cutting the ground from under them.
In the end a combination of the treachery of the union leaders and Kinnock, the brutality of the police and the courts, forced the miners back to work. They marched backed, in full song, led by brass bands, their banners held high, filled with pride after 12 months of an heroic struggle.
The miners' strike demonstrated the will and determination of the working class to struggle for a better life not to be thrust into a nightmare situation of unemployment and bad conditions. In reality, what was revealed was the will of the miners to change society.
An essential part of the strategy of the ruling class was to isolate the miners, to deal with them and other sections of the working class one at a time. That is why the demand for a 24-hour general strike was so important.
The refusal of the trade union leader and Labour Party leaders to lift a finger to organise action in support of the miners was an historic betrayal. The example of ex-Communist Party member and General Secretary of the EETPU Frank Chapple summes up the role of these right wing collaborators. This scab had not only helped defeat the NGA by organising strike breaking, but he also suggested to the Tories that Ian McGregor be appointed head of the NCB to deal with Scargill and the miners!
Today we face the same task as the working class of 20 years ago - to remove the right wing bureaucrats who masquerade as union leaders - and to replace them with workers leaders committed to the struggle for socialism.
The Contents Page for this issue of Socialist View