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Socialist Review, March 1994

Duncan Blackie

Fight to the finish

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Ten years after the start of the Great Miners’ Strike in 1984 Duncan Blackie looks at the dispute and shows that despite popular mythology the miners were not fated to lose

‘The coal strike swung unpredictably in one direction then another – suddenly things would move our way, then equally suddenly move against us – and I could never let myself feel confident about the final outcome.’

Margaret Thatcher’s recollection goes much of the way to exploding the myths that surround the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984–85.

The greatest of these myths is that the miners were doomed to failure: the Tories were too strong, the working class too weak to make a victory possible. In fact the opposite was true.

The Tories had long prepared for this battle. One of Thatcher’s closest allies, Nicholas Ridley, had devised a plan in 1978 to weaken the unions. Physical preparations included a large, mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing. Strikes should be avoided in the most vulnerable industries such as gas or electricity. Instead another group of powerful workers should be picked on.

The Ridley Plan wasn’t a formal strategy, but a reference point for Tory offensives for nearly a decade. They had already attacked the steel workers, rail workers and printers. Each of these battles was finished before the next commenced. Indeed the Tories had scraped through the fight over the banning of unions at GCHQ just weeks before the pit battle commenced.

On 1 March 1984 the Coal Board announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire. The response was immediate. Flying pickets went out in Yorkshire and started closing down pits. Others followed suit in South Wales, Scotland and the north east.

Pickets went to Nottinghamshire in the first crucial test for the strike. Mythology now has it that the Nottinghamshire miners would never have come out on strike. In fact about 10,000 Nottinghamshire miners faced up to the worst police intimidation and came out for most of the 12 months. Nor were they destined to be a minority. In the first days of picketing Yorkshire miners shut pit after pit in Nottinghamshire. Mass pickets forced more and more Notts miners to join the strike and the picketing.

This momentum, however, was undermined by the area union leaders. The Yorkshire NUM leaders and the Notts leaders did a deal to keep pickets out until a ballot was held.

In addition, the right and centre on the NUM executive argued that nothing should be done until a national ballot was called. In the first month of the strike the grip of this argument on sections of the union leadership was crucial in undermining its effectiveness.

This was the Tories’ first real victory. Only after the picketing had been undermined was the Nottinghamshire coalfield flooded with 10,000 police to attack picketing miners.

Police terrorised the coalfield. Arrests and beatings of pickets were routine. Even James Anderton, the hardline chief constable of Greater Manchester, was forced to admit, ‘The police are getting the image of a heavy handed mob stopping people going about their lawful duties.’

Now the Tories focused on averting solidarity action from other unions. As Thatcher recalled, ‘We had to act so that at any time we did not unite against us all the unions involved in the use and distribution of coal.’

The first key test was steel. Steel works, unlike power stations, were likely to run out of coal quickly. According to Thatcher:

‘It was the BSC whose problems were immediate. Their integrated steel plants at Redcar and Scunthorpe would have to close in the next fortnight if supplies of coke and coal were not delivered and unloaded. Port Talbot, Ravenscraig and Llanwern had stocks sufficient for not more than three to five weeks.’

The closure of the steel industry’s five plants was only averted by the the union bureaucrats. The leaders of the three main left-wing areas – South Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire – all agreed to demands that ‘their’ local steel plants be allowed coal and coke supplies and production was allowed to continue.

But when scab lorries started running coke out of the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham, rank and file pressure led to unofficial picketing. Arthur Scargill backed the picketing, against the wishes of the Yorkshire executive. The pressure forced the executive to change their orders. There were 5,000 pickets assembled at the coke works by 29 May.

The police were vicious. Horses, dogs, teams with shields and batons were drawn from all over the country. Eighty-three miners were arrested and hundreds injured. Still, with Scargill taking a lead, the pickets almost broke through.

Scargill called for ‘all miners and the whole trade union movement to come here in their thousands.’

The next day the action was sabotaged by the Yorkshire leaders who turned their back on the decisive battle of Orgreave, sending pickets off to Nottinghamshire once more.

This pattern was repeated when the possibility of action on the railways threatened to undermine Thatcher’s whole strategy. Thatcher intervened personally to increase the pay offer to rail workers, as, in her words, ‘it was vital that we keep the rail unions working.’

A much greater threat to the Tories loomed in July 1984 when two national dock strikes were precipitated by steel industry supplies being unloaded at ports in Yorkshire and Scotland.

Coal boss Ian McGregor wrote later of the fears that basic trade union solidarity brought to the Tories and their allies:

‘Peter Walker was particularly concerned by the incident, he thought it would mean the end of the whole of our strike as well. It must have confirmed all his fears that we would never win.

‘I was asked to Downing Street to brief the prime minister. She seemed anxious that the dock strike, which had come out of the blue, could have a dangerous effect.’

Defeat for the government was only narrowly averted, mainly through the compromises of the union leaders. And support for the miners remained strong. Polls showed 28 percent of people saying they would support any tactic the pickets used – more people than had backed Labour in the previous general election.

Food and other gifts from trade unionists poured into the coalfields. Meanwhile the miners and their families showed determination and heroism in the face of hunger, police intimidation and attacks from social services. Women Against Pit Closures demonstrated how united the communities were.

The Tories had periods of panic during this time. In July Norman Tebbit wrote to Thatcher and begged for an early settlement, since ‘we could not afford to go on to the very brink of endurance.’

Then in November the Tories’ worst nightmare seemed set to come true. Members of the overseers’ union NACODS were threatened with the sack unless they crossed NUM picket lines. NACODS members voted by 82 percent for a strike.

Ian McGregor was told bluntly that he had to give in, ‘You have to realise’, Thatcher told him, ‘that the fate of this government is in your hands.’ Thatcher herself nearly fell apart as she realised the significance of this ‘major error’, which ‘almost precipitated disaster’.

Even as NACODS was bought off, the majority of miners fought on through the hard winter months. There were heroic acts of solidarity like that of the Coalville rail workers in Leicestershire who braved sustained intimidation to stop the movement of coal. But after all the missed opportunities, rank and file confidence was not in general great enough to transform the huge sympathy for the miners into concrete action.

Finally, almost a year to the day since the start of the strike, the majority of miners marched back to work, defeated but defiant. As Socialist Worker wrote:

‘The Tories won the battle of 1984–85, but at enormous cost. In financial terms £26,000 per miner to be precise. The economic fallout alone from this strike paralysed the government for the rest of the term.’

Yet while many drew the conclusion that the miners’ defeat meant that other groups of workers couldn’t win, there still burned in them an admiration for that fight and a deep hatred of everything the Tories stood for. That bitterness is being rekindled today.

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