[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

“The Enemy Within”

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was the bitterest class war since the 1926 General Strike. The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher mobilised the entire strength of the state to crush the National Union of Mineworkers. Paramilitary riot police placed mining communities under total siege. The welfare state was manipulated to starve miners back to work. A scab workforce was organised to break the strike, and billions were spent to keep the power stations running without coal. The full weight of the courts was used to sequestrate the funds of the miners’ union and break its resolve. The capitalist press churned out a Niagara of lies against the miners. As with all great events, it exposed the class relations of society. All the forces of the old society combined in order to crush the miners.

For twelve months, the miners and their families held out against this unprecedented onslaught. Their heroism, determination and courage astonished the world and inspired millions. They demonstrated their unconquerable will to fight. This struggle brings to mind the epic words of the revolutionary poet Shelley, written in the aftermath of the massacre at Peterloo:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!

At the time of Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983, plans were well advanced to take revenge on the miners. Coal stocks were steadily built up, totalling nearly 49 million tons by the time of the strike. The Central Electricity Generating Board increasingly switched from coal to nuclear power. Everything was done to make existing pits appear “uneconomic” and therefore “unprofitable”. The Tories demanded they be shut down, despite the terrible social consequences. They were determined to impose the “rigours of the market”, which had already destroyed swathes of manufacturing jobs, on the coal industry. This policy had been bitterly opposed by the NUM, which insisted that pits should only close when they run out of mineable reserves, and not on so-called “uneconomic” grounds.

This plan to defeat the miners was more than just about revenge for past humiliations. The Tories wanted to crush the miners because to them they epitomised militancy. Their real aim, however, was to cow the rest of the working class, and completely alter the balance of forces across British industry. Thatcher imagined that Great Britain could only become great once more on the backs of an oppressed and exploited working class. Wages had to be driven down to the lowest levels possible. In effect, the programme of Thatcherism meant an attempt to return to Victorian times. A humiliating defeat of the NUM would represent a decisive blow to the morale of the British workers, and open up a new stage of capitalist domination.

In preparation for the struggle, the Tories had placed the police force under centralised command in the guise of the National Reporting Centre at New Scotland Yard. Thousands of extra riot police were trained and the Special Patrol Group was beefed up. New anti-union laws were on the statute books. Non-unionism had been systematically encouraged amongst road haulage firms. In October, the NUM had begun an overtime ban over wages to reduce coal stocks and to prepare the ground for industrial action. By early 1984 Thatcher believed everything was in place to quickly isolate and defeat the miners. The Tories boasted that it was to be their “industrial Falklands”.

The Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor immediately set about making provocative statements about reducing the size of the coal industry. In the course of this he dropped a bombshell about plans to shed 20,000 jobs and close some twenty pits. On 1 March 1984 the NCB announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire. It was to be the first pit closure on “uneconomic” grounds without NUM consent since 1981. The fat was on the fire; there was no turning back. The stage was set for the “mother of all class battles”.

Superficial commentators in the capitalist press had written-off the fighting abilities of the miners. They said the old militant traditions of 1972 and 1974 had been swamped by consumer affluence. Young miners now had mortgages, cars, TVs, videos, foreign holidays and such like. Such opinions were reinforced by the likes of Professor Hobsbawn, of the British “Communist” Party, who had drawn deeply pessimistic conclusions about the working class in his essay The Forward March of Labour Halted? For him, the highpoint of working class solidarity and consciousness had peaked some 25-30 years earlier, and from then on it was downhill all the way. Events were soon to give the lie to this ingrained pessimism, so characteristic of the “left” intelligentsia.

On hearing the news of the Cortonwood closure, and without waiting for the NUM executive to call a national ballot, there were spontaneous walkouts across the coalfields. It was like a mighty army regrouping for battle. As in 1981, flying pickets were sent out to bring all pits to a standstill. In South Wales, Tyrone O’sullivan, the branch secretary of Tower colliery, took the initiative of sending pickets to every Welsh pit to rally support, to great effect. In South Wales, at the initial pithead ballots only 11 out of 28 pits voted to strike. Clearly bad feeling had been created by the abandonment of the earlier struggle over Lewis Merthyr. However, once the pickets arrived and the case was explained, the situation was transformed. The South Wales coalfield was rock solid for action, and would remain so for the duration of the strike. By early March some 171 pits were at a standstill. Not only were Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales, Kent and Durham firm, flying pickets were sent into Nottinghamshire, North Derbyshire and Lancashire to spread the stoppage.

A special issue of The Miner was rushed out with the heading “The Fight’s On.” Unfortunately, the national executive of the union decided not to call a national ballot. This was a serious mistake since there is no doubt that a ballot could have been won with a campaign. This was demonstrated by what happened in South Wales. Also a MORI poll for LWT’s Weekend World, taken on Friday 9 March, showed that 62 per cent of miners were prepared to strike over pit closures, compared with 33 per cent against.[1] Instead the executive endorsed the strike through Rule 41, which gave powers to the Areas to call strikes. “I want to make it clear that we are not dealing with niceties here,” explained Mick McGahey, the union’s vice-president. “Area by area will decide, and in my opinion it will have a domino effect.” He went on to oppose a national ballot with the words: “We shall not be constitutionalised out of a defence of our jobs.”[2]

But this was a tactical blunder of the first magnitude. It reflected a lack of confidence in the miners. Traditionally, as was evident from 1972 and 1974, miners held a national ballot before any national action. The attempt to circumvent this practice simply served to play into the hands of the Tories and all those who opposed the miners. This and other mistakes were to have far reaching consequences for the dispute. A successful ballot for action, a united army facing the NCB and Tories, would have resulted in victory within a space of three or four months. Now there was to be a long drawn-out battle.


The failure of get the Nottingham miners to join the strike had serious consequences for the dispute. Attempts by miners from Yorkshire and elsewhere to repeat the tactic of mass picketing in Nottingham failed to stop the working pits and only embittered relations between the coalfields. Rather than calling pithead meetings to bring the pits out as in South Wales, the Nottingham NUM leaders announced an area coalfield ballot and opposed picketing from other areas as “counter-productive”. The Fleet Street press, co-ordinated by Downing Street, whipped up a hysterical campaign about “intimidation”, “violence” and picket-line “thugs” attacking working miners. At this point, an NUM picket, David Jones, was tragically killed in an incident at Ollerton in Nottinghamshire. On 14 March, MacGregor and Thatcher met privately and agreed that the key to breaking the NUM would be to keep the Nottingham pits working. Leon Brittan, the Home Secretary, faced with 90 per cent of pits closed, ordered 3,000 police into Nottinghamshire to deal with “mob rule” and create an atmosphere of lawlessness – all of which was used as propaganda against the NUM.

Countless police vans streamed into the coalfield, breaking up picket lines, and intimidating strikers. While this was going on, the result of the Notts vote revealed 26 per cent of miners had backed the strike, an increase of seven per cent on the previous ballot. In Lancashire, the strike vote was lost 3,765 to 2,596; in the Midlands it went down by around three to one; and in North Derbyshire there was a wafer-thin 16-vote majority against. The failure to support the strike in these areas can be explained by a number of factors but ultimately it was the lack of a serious campaign by the leadership that could have turned the situation around. These miners were not innately right-wing. They had given strong support in the 1972 and 1974 strikes. Richardson, the Broad Left candidate had also won the Notts general secretary comfortably the year before. As the strike spread from below, the key was to extend and deepen it and ensure its success. When the police proceeded to completely seal off Nottinghamshire, pickets were prevented from talking to or communicating with working miners. They were deliberately kept isolated, bussed into work, and sealed-off by massed ranks of police. Nottinghamshire was like a besieged fortress.

Along with the ideological attack from the Tories and the capitalist media the miners were subjected throughout the strike to unparalleled attacks from the police and judiciary. During the dispute an unprecedented 10,000 striking miners were arrested, two were killed on picket duty, David Jones and Joe Green, and countless numbers were injured. The judiciary was used like a sledgehammer against the men – this can be seen in the use of bail conditions. For example, in May 1984 three Doncaster miners were granted bail (on charges that, if found guilty, would entail little more than a fine) on condition they had no contact whatsoever with each other, that they observe an 8pm to 8am curfew, that they report to the police station twice a day and that they did not enter Nottinghamshire! Most of the miners arrested were charged with minor offences that had not been heard in British courts for generations: 500 were charged with “unlawful assembly,” and 200 were charged with “watching and besetting” (a charge brought under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act). Despite this onslaught from the state, the young miners fought like lions.

By the end of the first week of the Notts picketing, there were over twenty thousand police from 43 different forces available to police picket lines and patrol the mining communities. The chief constable of Nottinghamshire estimated that 64,508 individuals were stopped from entering the county in the first twenty-seven weeks of the strike. Their actions were coordinated by the NRC (National Reporting Centre), with all the technology and new policing methods developed over the previous period. The police were determined to match and even outnumber the pickets. On the explicit orders of the Thatcherites, all means – including violence – were to be used against the NUM to break the strike. As in Warrington, the first police tactic was to stop pickets getting near the working miners. On the picket line it was one of containment, rapidly followed by assault. Police would attempt to cordon-off the pickets well away from any scabs. Arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests would take place then snatch squads would build up pressure on the pickets.

Where large numbers of pickets converged, police on foot, wielding truncheons, faced them with baton charges and short shields, the use of dogs and specially armoured police vans. If this were not enough to break the pickets, the police cordons would part to let through the lightly armed Police Support Units (PSUs) with their round Perspex shields and truncheons, followed by a cavalry charge from the mounted police. These activities were routinely backed up by MI5 surveillance and intelligence, under the ever-watchful eye and direction of Stella Rimington.

On 20 April, a Notts NUM delegate conference representing all those on strike belatedly agreed to make the strike official. But it was somewhat late. The failure to act earlier meant that the bulk of the Nottinghamshire coalfield continued to work. Two-thirds of the miners were at work, while a third backed the strike. This proved to be an Achilles’ heel. It allowed coal to be mined, but more importantly, it was used by the government and capitalist media to foster disunity in the working class. It became a focal point for all those wanting to break the strike.

The Ballot

The decision not to call a national ballot resulted in a hue and cry from all who opposed the strike. A frenzied campaign orchestrated by the Tories, the capitalist media, and the right wing – with the Labour leaders in tow – was waged to smash the miners and break the strike. Of course in the past, when it suited their interests, these “democrats” were quite prepared to ignore ballots. For instance, when the NUM membership voted in a ballot by 55.75 per cent to oppose the introduction of the national incentive scheme, it was declared null and void by Gormley and the right wing. When the issue was taken to the High Court, Mr Justice Watkins declared that the ballot result had “no great force or significance.” For the ruling class, deceit, lies, black propaganda, violence and subterfuge are all legitimate weapons in the struggle.

In the concrete circumstances of the strike, the ballot controversy became a diversion. It was well within the rules of the union to carry through the struggle by using Rule 41. However, at the special delegate conference on 19 April 1984, just over a month into the strike, there was an opportunity to turn the ballot issue against the opponents of the strike. Delegates voted to change the rules so that a simple majority was enough for a strike, as opposed to 55 per cent previously. At this point, tactically it would have been preferable to organise a ballot while on strike to cut the ground from under the Tories. With more than 80 per cent of miners on strike, a ballot for strike action would have been easily carried.

The subsequent NACODS ballot, with 82.5 per cent voting for strike action, showed what would have been possible. Whether such a decision would have turned around the situation in Nottinghamshire is an open question, but it would have deprived the Labour and TUC leaders of the lame excuses behind which they were hiding. But on the advice of their leaders, the delegates rejected this, and attention now turned to stopping the movement of coal. From now on, every miner not working was deemed to be on strike. It was a fight to the finish, with no holds barred.

Thatcher was hoping for a quick victory as the strike headed towards the summer months, a time when less coal was burned, and stockpiles were high. Publicly the Tories preached “non-intervention” as they believed they were assured of victory, and had only to sit out the strike. They were, nevertheless, desperate to avoid provoking other groups of workers from joining the miners on strike. Therefore, they made significant concessions to other workers. But as time wore on, they became more and more alarmed by the situation. The miners stubbornly refused to give up. The Tories were taken aback by the enormous will power, solidarity, imagination, and organising abilities of the miners, their families and supporters. The strategy of the government was beginning to run into difficulties.

To the utter astonishment of the ruling class, the resolve of the miners hardened. This was particularly the case after the experience of police violence, roadblocks and the besieging of mining communities. In many instances, miners and their families were beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions from their own experiences. It was like a miniature revolution, in which the masses were in direct struggle against the state, which appeared before them as an instrument of repression in the hands of the ruling class.

Through their experiences, the miners and their families clearly understood the class struggle, the role of the capitalist state, and the rottenness of capitalism that was intent on destroying their livelihoods. Some of the Tory “wets”, such as Heath and Francis Pym could see what was happening and were openly worried that the strike was “damaging the fabric of British society.” Their concern was not for the miners or their communities, but for the long-term interests and survival of capitalism. They understood that even if the government won, nothing would ever be the same again. The “consensus” built up in the post-war years would be completely undermined, if not destroyed altogether.

The Orgreave

The attempt to use lorry convoys to break the picket lines at Ravenscraig was repeated at the Scunthorpe steel works. On 23 May the first lorries were to leave the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham. NUM pickets began to arrive at Orgreave, and at first heavily outnumbered the police. Police reinforcements then turned up in force, which was to result in the most violent scenes in any industrial dispute in Britain since the First World War. If anyone had any doubts that this was class war, there was no longer any room for confusion after the “Battle of Orgreave”.

The pickets assembled in a housing estate on the Sheffield side of the Orgreave plant. The police assembled in front of the coke works, while mounted police lined up in the adjacent field. Other police with dogs, as well as thousands in riot gear, mobilised their ranks to surround the pickets. As soon as the lorries had entered the plant to load up, riot police attacked the pickets in a series of baton charges. The mounted police rode into the strikers, followed by truncheon wielding foot police.

Despite the beatings and arrests, the miners were not cowed. However, the following days’ pickets were diverted by the Yorkshire Area to Nottingham, resulting in hundreds, rather than thousands facing the police lines. On 30 May Scargill was arrested, but this served only to increase the anger of the pickets. On 18 June, 5,000 strikers turned up and were met with an orgy of violence by the police. The forces of “law and order” ran riot, chasing and bludgeoning pickets. Wounded pickets were even arrested while in bed in hospital. Of course, the capitalist media portrayed the whole episode as picket line violence, and doctored film footage was used to place the blame for disorder and violence on the NUM. There were no mass pickets of Orgreave after that.

“The use of police horses to deal with riots has always been seen as the ultimate response”, stated the Police Review a few weeks before Orgreave. “From the Trafalgar Square riots of a hundred years ago, to the anti-fascist skirmishes of the Thirties, the imagery of charging horses and flailing batons has been enough to put the seal on charges of police brutality.”[3] Orgreave was no different. In August, 137 riot charges against miners arising from the Orgreave police operation were dropped for lack of evidence. But the police had done their job.

The tactic of mass picketing, especially after the setback at Orgreave, did not have the expected results. The massive scab operation to move coal by road was stepped up. The miners’ backs were now against the wall. For the miners to win on their own would have been an immense task. Given the gravity of the situation, solidarity action from other unions was becoming essential to win the dispute.

In the summer, Ian MacGregor sent a personal letter to all miners urging them to return to work, but it had no effect. The Times (16 July) advocated the calling of a state of emergency, but such measures were put on ice for the time being. Despite all the propaganda against the NUM and picket-line violence, there was widespread sympathy for the miners. Many sections of workers, railworkers and others, at great personal risk, were taking solidarity seriously. In particular, the railworkers at Coalville in Leicestershire from early April onwards, despite continuous threats from BR management, effectively blacked coal from the working pits of the area. Even printworkers on The Sun closed down the paper on two separate occasions in protest at the blatant lies they were being asked to print about the miners.

The steadfast determination of the miners was inspiring support across the country and beyond. Unfortunately, similar resolve was not replicated at the top of the movement. The leadership, both in the Labour Party and the unions, were either deeply reluctant or opposed to broadening out the struggle, and yet there was overwhelming potential for wider industrial action. The might of the Labour movement, if brought into play, would not only have saved the miners, but could have brought down Thatcher in the bargain, as it had done her predecessor.

Dock strikes

Right-wing leaders, such as Bill Sirs (ISTC) and John Lyons (EMA) spurned the cause of the NUM. Unfortunately, the left leaders proved incapable of delivering the national action needed to defend the miners. Ron Todd, although deeply sympathetic to the miners, failed to link up the fight of dockers and miners. Two national dock strikes in the summer of 1984 created a great opportunity to unite their respective struggles into a unified movement. The root cause of these dockers’ strikes was the National Dock Labour scheme, a scheme that Thatcher was intent on destroying, just as she was determined to destroy the coal industry. As a result of the Jones-Aldington Agreement, which allowed for enhanced voluntary redundancy terms, there were only 13,500 dockers left by 1984.

Sabre rattling by the Transport Secretary, Ridley, resulted in the TGWU threatening an immediate national dock strike. Scab coal was being shipped in through the unregistered ports, a serious threat to both miners and registered dockers. A dock strike in Scotland was only narrowly averted in May. Then at the port of Immingham in early July, railworkers refused to transport iron ore to Scunthorpe steel works, so BSC transferred the ore to lorries. Immingham’s registered dockers refused to scab and went on strike.

Things came to ahead when the TGWU nationally called a strike of all dockers on 9 July to defend the Dock Labour scheme. The situation looked extremely serious for the government. However, although the strike was initially solid, it rested on unity between registered and unregistered dockers. They only way this unity could be cemented were to put forward the central demand of extending the Dock Labour Scheme to all ports, and defending all jobs. But this was not done. This failure resulted in the strike cracking at Dover, and its eventual end. What began with such great potential ended in a shambles. A golden opportunity was thrown away.

On 30 July, in a case brought by two haulage contractors, the South Wales NUM was fined £50,000 for contempt of court. When the South Wales Area refused to pay the fine, the courts sequestrated their funds. When Scargill appealed for solidarity action, the TUC turned a deaf ear. A lead from the top, with the TUC calling a 24-hour general strike, could lave transformed the whole situation. But the TUC shamefully let the initiative slip by. They were paralysed by their fear of militant action and of breaking Tory laws. They decided that rather than support the miners, and get themselves into a hole later, it would be far better and simpler not to support them in the first place!

But the problems on the docks would not go away. In early August the TGWU dockers at Hunterston decided to black the Ostia, carrying coking coal bound for Ravenscraig. When the ship attempted to dock, a delegate union conference voted massively by 78 to 12 to call a national strike within the space of six weeks. Without any serious preparation by the union leadership, the strike started on a shaky basis, with Dover and Felixstow continuing to work normally. Again the union leadership avoided the question of extending the Dock Scheme to all ports. The strike began to fray at the edges as heated negotiations took place with the BSC and the port employers piled on the pressure. Finally, the dispute came to an ignominious end on the 18 September.

Despite these setbacks, the miners were granted a further opportunity to widen the dispute on the 15 August, when the NCB tore up an agreement with the pit deputies and overseers’ union NACODS. They had originally agreed that NACODS members would be paid if they refused to cross NUM picket lines. Now, according to Ned Smith, the NCB industrial relations officer: “When mineworkers are going through pickets then in the board’s view there can be no good reason why officials should not go as well.” These NACODS workers were responsible for safety in the pits. If they stopped work, the pits would close. The NACODS’s leadership called a strike ballot and an unprecedented 82.5 per cent backed industrial action. If they struck even the Nottinghamshire coalfield would grind to a halt. In the previous April, a majority of NACODS members had in fact voted to strike, but 54 per cent was a single percentage point short of the necessary 55 per cent majority! Now, after failed negotiations, notice was given to strike. This was a potential turning point for the whole dispute.

The Tory government suddenly saw the ground open up beneath them. They began running around like headless chickens. “I could therefore understand the pressures on her [Thatcher] when she exhibited nervousness on a couple of occasions over the direction of the dispute”, revealed Ian MacGregor later. “Particularly in the period of the NACODS threat, I got the feeling that she really thought the house was going to fall down all around her.”[4] Suddenly, within 24 hours of the strike deadline, the NACODS leaders called off the proposed strike and accepted a fudged deal, so that all disputed “matters” would be referred to an independent appeals body. If NACODS leaders had held firm, Thatcher’s plans could have been defeated and the situation transformed. But once again, the NUM was left isolated to face the wrath of the ruling class. Despite the cowardly capitulation of their leaders, NACODS members were later to lose their jobs when Thatcher butchered the industry.

At the September TUC Congress, a General Council statement giving general support to the miners was overwhelmingly passed, but it contained no proposals for any concrete action. The real intention of the right wing was to settle the dispute as quickly as possible on whatever terms they could get. In the heated Congress debate, however, Eric Hammond, the leader of the EETPU, denounced Scargill as a donkey. Todd declared in reply to rapturous applause, “I’d rather be led by a donkey than by a jackal.” The rebuttal was well deserved, but did not alter the fact that the union leaders proved incapable of translating their words of support into effective solidarity action.

The miners’ strike had transformed life in the mining communities. They lived and breathed the strike, day in and day out. The magnificent role of the miners’ wives in their support groups helped to sustain the strike through thick and thin. They showed great courage and endurance in the struggle. At critical times, when the men’s resolve weakened, they provided the backbone for continuing the strike. They were in the forefront of defending their families, communities, and their very way of life. Nothing could destroy this resolve.

The role of the women in the miners’ strike mirrored the growing militancy of women workers in general. Having come close to becoming a majority of the national workforce, they had increasingly played a leading role in the industrial battles of the previous decade – from Ford sewing machinists, through Trico, Grunwick, to Chix, Lee Jeans and Barking hospital workers. Now the miners’ wives showed they had the mettle to take on their class enemies, starting with the so-called Iron Lady. They would not be the last to display such courage.

Propaganda offensive

The government’s plan was to isolate the miners. To this end, they exerted pressure on Kinnock and the rest of the Labour and trade union leadership to condemn the strike. They made no attempt to disguise their intentions: “Mr Scargill’s defeat will come from within the union movement”, wrote The Economist with ill-concealed glee.[5] The Tories played up the politicisation of the strike, just as Baldwin had done in 1926. Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens talked of Scargill as a “confessed Marxist surrounded by Communist aides and advisers… much more serious support for him is coming from the Kremlin.” Cranley Onslow suggested that unidentified figures were “controlling and directing riotous mobs”; Tony Marlow advocated that Scargill be “arrested for organising a private army.” But it was not just the Tory backbenchers that were making these attacks.

At the end of July, the campaign climaxed with Thatcher’s infamous “enemy within” speech. Addressing the 1922 Committee, she said: “In the Falklands we had to fight the enemy without. Here is the enemy within.” Scargillism was portrayed as the phenomenon dedicated to the wholesale destruction of British society. At the Tory Party conference in October, Thatcher declared: “Mr President, what we have seen in this country is the emergence of an organised revolutionary minority who are prepared to exploit industrial disputes, but whose real aim is the breakdown of law and order and the destruction of democratic Parliamentary government. We have seen the same sort of thugs and bullies at Grunwick, and more recently against Eddie Shah in Stockport, and now organised into flying squads around the country.”[6] In Thatcher’s address at the Guildhall in November she equated the actions of miners with terrorism, “We are drawing to the end of a year in which our people have seen violence and intimidation in our midst: the cruelty of the terrorist; the violence of the picket-line; the deliberate flouting of the law of the land.”

The TUC general secretary Norman Willis addressed a mass meeting in Aberavon on 13 November. Thousands were inside and outside of the Afan Lido building, amid scenes of chanting defiant miners and their supporters. Typically, the “even handed” Willis criticized “scenes of unprovoked police violence”, and then laid into the miners with greater vigour. “Any miner who resorts to violence damages the miners’ case far more than they weaken their opponents’ resolve,” he declared. “Violence creates more violence. Such acts if they are done by miners are alien to our common trade union tradition, however, not just because they were counter-productive but because they are wrong.”

The miners did not want violence. But they were not going to remain with arms folded when faced with police provocation, intimidation and state violence against them and their families. During Willis’s speech, a great roar went up from the crowd. In the middle of his attack on picket line violence, a noose was lowered and dangled in front of him with a placard that read, “Where’s Ramsay McKinnock?” This incident was an example of the rough and ready humour of the Welsh miners, but it also made a serious point about Kinnock’s role. Within days, Kinnock was accusing the leaders of the NUM of wanting a “glorious defeat”. This was comparable to the role of Citrine and MacDonald in 1926, and the miners knew it. It would never forgotten nor forgiven.

In October the government placed a gun to the head of the whole Labour movement when the High Court in London sequestrated the entire funds of the NUM. On 31 November, following contempt proceedings, the Court appointed a receiver to take charge of the affairs of the NUM. This brutal attack placed a question mark over the very survival of the NUM as a union. It could only be successfully repulsed by a general strike. However, while promising to continue support for the NUM “in line with Congress policy”, the TUC leaders studiously avoiding any risk of the TUC being held in contempt of court.

Arthur Scargill accused them correctly of “making mealy-mouthed” resolutions, and called instead for solidarity action: “The most massive mobilisation of industrial action our movement has ever known and we must have it now”, said Scargill. “There is no other way to stop the courts attempt to destroy the NUM.” He concluded that the “trade union and Labour Party leaders must now stand up in contempt of laws being used against us – or remain forever in contempt of all those they represent: all those whose futures are at stake in this crucial battle.”

In face of these attempts to crush the NUM by use of the capitalist courts, the whole strength of the trade union movement was needed to repulse this sustained attack from the state. Tony Benn took up the call for a general strike, as did Dennis Skinner and other left MPs. “But a general strike may prove to be the only way of reminding this government of the harsh realities of life”, stated Benn. “The Labour movement has now got to face the fact that a general strike might become necessary to protect free trade unionism, ballot-box democracy, political freedom and civil liberties in Britain.”[7]

Kinnock, known to many as the Welsh windbag, immediately waded in. “The prospect of a general strike is nil, and any threat of a strike without a prospect of it being successful would be terminally damaging to the movement’s chances of putting the case for coal over to the public.” As usual Kinnock missed the point. The attack of the Thatcher government had gone far beyond the “case for coal”. At stake now was the very survival of trade unionism. Like an old record with a repeating groove, the Labour leader was continually warning the NUM leadership against violence, while at the same time down playing police violence against the picket lines. Throughout the dispute, he cut a cowardly and despicable figure. He was desperate to “prove himself” to the ruling class by kicking the miners, but his mealy-mouthed pleadings would not stop or appease the Tories, but only served to encourage them in their attacks.

Action not words

The TUC was a picture of impotence and inaction. The seven TUC leaders chosen to liase with the NUM – including Norman Willis, David Basnett, Bill Keys and Gerry Russel – even dithered over calling a meeting of the Finance and General Purposes Committee, the TUC’s inner cabinet. Wringing their hands, and ignoring the magnificent solidarity from below, they made clear to the NUM leaders that support from the Labour movement had not been forthcoming. It was like 1926 all over again. The surrender of the TUC leaders was pitiful, as they begged the government to be “reasonable” and allow “meaningful talks”.

Some leaders, like Frank Chapple and Eric Hammond, continued to denounce the striking miners. In fact, Chapple went as far as to suggest to the Tory government that McGregor, prior to his appointment, be made Coal Board chairman to deal with Scargill and the miners! Given their past role, that was perhaps to be expected of the right wing. After all, Chapple once stated that he admired Thatcher as much as anyone on his union executive. But sadly the left trade union leaders also failed to deliver their promises of solidarity.

The left-led TGWU in particular could have transformed the situation. It was facing its own legal attack in the courts with a £200,000 fine hanging over its head and the possibility of the sequestration of its funds due to the failure to hold a legal ballot at Rover. Yet the TGWU leaders limited themselves to a passive defiance of the law and to legal pleading.

The only possibility left to the NUM to obtain national action would have been for them to appeal directly to the ranks of the trade unions over the heads of the General Council and to name the day for a general strike. The NUM had built up enormous authority in the eyes of the class. Had they made such an appeal, it would have placed the TUC in a very difficult position, exposing the right wing and putting very serious pressure on the Lefts to act. “Action, not words!” would have been the central slogan to force the TUC to come off the sidelines and begin to fight. Unfortunately the NUM leaders failed to do so. The opportunity was again lost to salvage the situation and transform the course of events.

By this stage, any hope of widening the action to other sections of the movement had all but evaporated. In the absence of generalised national action, the miners were in an impossible position. Over the winter a slow drift back to work developed. By mid-January the strike began to crumble in a number of areas. By running nuclear and oil-fired power stations flat-out, and using coal as sparingly as possible, the Central Electricity Generating Board never imposed power cuts. At least so they claimed. In fact sporadic power cuts were taking place at 2 and 3 in the morning to drag out supplies. There was, nonetheless, something like 12m tonnes of coal stockpiled at the power stations, and 60 million tones at the pitheads. Ironically, the Tories had also been busy importing coal from so-called “socialist” Poland, to the shame of the Stalinist regime, to break the strike. The Polish bureaucracy was more concerned about securing contracts with Thatcher than giving support to British strikers.

All this served to embolden Thatcher. The miners’ strike represented a watershed. The Tories tried everything to break the miners as a means of breaking the spirit of the working class. The dispute had cost the country an estimated £3.75 billion. The strikers and their families had to be crushed, and seen to be crushed. But the Tories had underestimated the support, resilience, stamina and courage of the miners and their communities. They threw everything at them: the police, the laws, mass media, etc. But it was the divisions within the miners, played up and cultivated by the Tories and the press that fatally undermined the strike. This led to the formation of the scab Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) led by the renegade Roy Link. The UDM naturally had the full support of Thatcher, MacGregor and the rest of the capitalist Establishment, as did the Spencer union after 1926.

The NUM leaders made a number of tactical mistakes throughout the year-long strike, but the decisive factor in the defeat of the miners was the failure of the TUC and Labour leaders to organise effective solidarity action. The mood existed in society to help the miners, despite the orchestrated propaganda campaign by the government. The magnificent work of the miners’ support groups, which collected hundreds of thousands of pounds outside factories, offices and shopping centres, demonstrated this fact. When the miners and their families faced Christmas 1984 penniless, the workers of Britain and other countries sent them food parcels and presents, organised Christmas dinners, parties. The miners will never forget this tremendous working class solidarity, just as they will never forget how Thatcher or the Tories destroyed their communities.

The strike continued until March 1985, twelve months since the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood. On 3 March the special delegate conference of the NUM held in Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC that had let them down so badly, voted 98 to 91 to return to work with no agreement, no reprieve for the threatened pits and no amnesty for the sacked miners. Faced with the coalfield’s extinction, only Kent opposed ending the strike. By this time some 718 miners had been sacked.

The end result of this Herculean struggle was a defeat. Not like the abject humiliation of 1926, but a bitter defeat nonetheless. The return to work was a shattering disappointment to most activists. True, the proud and dignified nature of the return to work behind colliery bands and banners robbed Thatcher of the “total” victory she and her class sought. Nevertheless, the Tory government subsequently closed over 100 pits and more than 100,000 were made redundant. The pit closure programme was carried through remorselessly. It tore the guts out of the industry and out of the mining communities. In the immediate aftermath, the miners staged a whole series of guerrilla struggles in the pits, but these failed to prevent the destruction of the industry. As a final measure, privatisation was now brought forward to pick over the carcass of whatever was left.

The defeat of the miners had an enormous impact on the whole movement. Along with the extension of the economic boom, it accelerated the shift to the right amongst the Labour and trade union leaders. It further strengthened the ideas of “New Realism”, widespread in the trade union bureaucracy. The mining industry was decimated. In 1926 there were over one million miners. At the time of the 1984-85 strike there were still 181,000. By 1990, numbers had fallen to 65,000. But the private mining industry today has been almost totally destroyed with some 5,000 miners remaining, and the massive Selby coalfield, the largest in Europe, due to close soon. Ironically, the wholesale slaughter of the pits now coincides with the exhaustion of natural gas and oil reserves. By 2012, 70 per cent of our electricity would be generated by gas and 90 per cent of this would have to be imported from such countries as Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and the Yemen. Such a situation could leave Britain facing serious power cuts within the next 15 years. In fact, London has already faced a massive power cut in August of this year, where a quarter of a million people had to be evacuated from London Underground. This astonishing result of privatisation, asset stripping and under investment came only weeks after a devastating power cut in the United States. At that time, bosses at the National Grid went on record as saying that that sort of thing could never happen here. The short-sightedness of the myopic British bourgeois has now become a way of life.

The slaughter of the mining communities vindicated the courageous stand taken by the NUM in the heroic struggle of 1984-5, as much as the counter-revolution on the shopfloor that followed the defeat dammed forever the craven stand of the Labour and trade union leaders. The strike was defeated but the fighting spirit of the miners lives on. It had left behind a tradition of courageous struggle, which will be revived in the titanic struggles that lie ahead.


[1] Crick, op. cit, p.102

[2] Ibid, pp.100-101

[3] Police Review, 4 May 1984

[4] Ian MacGregor, The Enemies Within, p.375, London 1986

[5] The Economist, 8 September 1984

[6] Margaret Thatcher, The Collected Speeches, p.225, London 1997

[7] Financial Times, 7 December 1984