Margaret Thatcher offers her thoughts on negotiations, the ruthless, manipulating few, and democracy as it pertains to the union movement;
As the strike continued with no end in sight, day to day life became increasingly fraught for the miners, their families and entire communities that had hitherto relied on the pits for employment and, in turn, their continued survival. The Thatcher Government had progressively tightened legislation around industrial disputes, and had removed state benefits previously available to strikers' dependents. Changes to the Social Security Act and the Trade Union Act, the government asserted, made unions more democratic while rendering the negotiating balance between employers and trade unions fairer and more evenly poised. The reality was that these restrictions tipped whatever equity that already existed firmly in the direction of the employer. By increasing the financial necessity to return to work, it made things very difficult for a striker, particularly one with a family, to remain on strike for long. The DHSS now declined urgent needs payments for miners families, and assumed that strikers were benefiting from 15 pounds per week strike pay from the union, which, in reality, ceased part way through the strike due to the apparent lack of sustainable funds.
Scargill's own conduct and management of the strike was being questioned; he might have argued that he had his own enemies within. Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock was one harsh critic of Scargill’s actions. In an interview with The Guardian in 2009, Kinnock said that Scargill possessed suicidal vanity, exploited picket line solidarity and fell right into the government’s trap. Kinnock was also very critical of the absence of a national ballot;
"...A ballot would have been won for the strike...What it would have done is guarantee unity right across the mining labour force. The strike was ruined the minute it was politicised and in the mind of Arthur Scargill it was always a political struggle…He fed himself the political illusion that as long as the miners were united they had the right to destabilise and overthrow the democratically elected government. The miners didn't deserve him, they deserved much, much better. My view is Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill deserved each other. But no-one else did..."
Political, ideological and legal machinations aside, throughout the summer and then towards the end of 1984, the human cost of the strike was becoming increasingly plain to see. For those holding firm, staying solid, money was scarce to non-existent. One consequence of the tightening of social security benefits was that strikers' children could not even access school meals, and families lost subsidies for school uniforms.
Many bridled over the generalised label, enemy within. The Prime Minister might have argued that she was referring specifically to the NUM leadership, but it was nuance lost on many working class families who had given sons, brothers and fathers not only to the pits, but to the Falklands as well.
Labour MPs had already raised, in the House of Commons, allegations of the malicious delaying of assessments for DHSS benefits, and as winter, and Christmas 1984 loomed, entire communities were surviving on little more than handouts, while shops and local businesses were also suffering, and heading to the wall.
One miner’s wife told the BBC;
“...Our village, and the people of the village...all they wanted to do was to try to save jobs, and in turn save all the rest that goes with it, your whole lifestyle...I’d been brought up as a miner’s daughter, and my father’s father and his father; they’d all worked down the mines. I think it was two thirds at the time, were in the mines, just on our street, so you can imagine a whole village. It forges you as a family and as a community…”
Inevitably, facing increasing hardship, some miners began to return to work, attracting reprisals and creating irreparable divisions within previously bonded streets and communities.
“...One of the real rules of being a miner is that you always watched each other’s backs, so the fact that everyone stuck together, and then a few started going back...It was, literally, a betrayal. I can understand why they did, when things got so very very hard, but it was heartbreaking because they were never forgiven. Their windows were egged, they were ignored, and they lived for the rest of their lives like that…"
Tempers were inevitably fraying. Violence and threats against working miners intensified and, in some cases, they were escorted to their workplaces under heavy police protection. One miner from Wales, who had made the decision to return to work in defiance of union solidarity, told the BBC at the height of the strike;
“...I’ve been grabbed hold of a few times. I have been threatened. I’ve got to the stage now where I have to creep out of the house every morning...Surely going around with baseball bats and duffing somebody up to keep them out, that's not solid. I’ve given them eight months, no social security no nothing, I haven't had a ha’penny from anybody. You know, what more do they want?...”
One significant consequence of the growing conflict and unrest, was the breakdown of trust between police and people who would, in ordinary circumstances, have been generally supportive of their local constabulary and the work they did. Miners and their families felt targeted, described the hatred in the faces of police officers, and believed the coordinated, aggressive policing was an organised tactic to intimidate communities into compliance and retreat. As one miner’s wife recalled, it was a way of keeping people frightened, and off the street.
Proud, working families with no history of benefit dependence were now surviving on handouts, food parcels and attending soup kitchens; selling whatever personal items and assets they could and suffering declining mental and physical health. Striking miners also no longer received their solid fuel for heating, making life all but impossible as winter took hold.
Donations and offers of support, including countless gestures of personal generosity and kindness, were forthcoming from within, and from outside of the mining communities; including from firefighters and other unions, sympathetic members of the public and local businesses themselves, who were also suffering as towns and villages were economically devastated. Donations from abroad included support from French trade unions, and chocolates from the USSR. There also emerged an unlikely ally; the political movement Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, whose members had also suffered at the hands of the police, who would send undercover officers into gay beats on missions of entrapment, outing men and ruining lives along the way. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners began by actually collecting money on the streets, and then holding a benefit concert, and subsequently being emotionally welcomed as a group into socially conservative pit villages, grateful for their support.
Gay rights activist Mike Jackson recalled:
“...It was a huge, huge social division in Britain and it completely split the country into two; you were either for the miners or against them, it was as simple as that...The Miners Strike suddenly gave working class people a voice, including working class lesbian and gay people. We knew this was an attack on trade unionism itself, if the government won that, it was going to be very bad for working class people in this country…”
As the strike progressed, the National Union of Mineworkers itself, and Arthur Scargill personally, suffered a number of legal setbacks. In September 1984, High Court Judge, Lord Justice Nicholls, found that the strike was illegal, at least in certain regions, on account of the contentious absence of the national ballot. The court action had been brought by breakaway groups of miners, whom the Judge found should be free to return to work as the picket lines were illegal, and that they should not suffer any union disciplinary action as a consequence. The Judge said that the union in Derbyshire had run roughshod over the rights of its members, and that the NUM in Yorkshire should stop discouraging its members from going back to work.
Quoted by the BBC, Nicholls said;
"...It is as plain as a pikestaff that without a national ballot, the strike in Derbyshire is unlawful and contravenes union rules..."
Arthur Scargill dismissed the findings and ruled out any implications for the future of the strike on a nationwide basis, deriding the verdict as another attempt by an unelected judge to interfere in the union's affairs. Scargill was subsequently cited for Contempt, and the union fined 200 000 pounds. When this went unpaid, the court ordered sequestration of NUM assets.
Scargill was also found guilty of two counts of obstruction, arising from his arrest with the pickets at Orgreave, a couple of weeks prior to the main and most contentious battle between police and pickets at Orgreave Coke Works. Once again, he was critical of the attitude of the judiciary;
"...I anticipated the same kind of anti-working class sentiment that has been the order of the day throughout this mining industrial dispute..."
There was also government surveillance of key figures in the NUM. Future Welsh Labour MP Kim Howells was a union official during the strike, and recalled to the BBC;
"...All of us experienced strange events which we took as evidence that our phones were being tapped. We didn't know who was doing it, mind, we didn't know whether it was MI5 or the local police station. But we knew somebody was doing it. We ran too many operations where the police were there waiting for us, to believe any different..."
Cabinet documents released in 2015 under the Thirty Year Rule confirmed that surveillance of this nature was occurring, not only for operational reasons, but to assist with the tracking down of NUM money which was, according to the government, being hidden offshore to avoid the sequestration ordered by the courts.
There were concerns about the legitimacy, and political implications, of this level of surveillance, even from the most senior civil servant of all, Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong;
"...I'm not particularly concerned about my own name coming out in this context, I am, however, concerned about the conclusions that will be drawn about the involvement of the security service and about the activities in which it was engaged in connection with the NUM dispute..."
It appears that information obtained by this surveillance, including details of false identities allegedly created to hold secret NUM funds, was passed onto Price Waterhouse, who were acting as the government's sequestration agents. The Cabinet Secretary was concerned that the source of the information might leak, and was particularly worried that a related court action in which Price Waterhouse was involved, in Dublin, might result in certain highly embarrassing disclosures, under oath, in open court.
Sir Robert Armstrong;
"...It could be argued, I think, that it was a legitimate use of interception to seek to discover what assistance the NUM was receiving from overseas in the provisional movement of funds. It would be more difficult to justify the use of information obtained by interception, to assist the searchers of the sequestrators..."
Kim Howells, who went on to chair a future Labour Government's Intelligence and Security Committee, described the government's activities around this as a dodgy game, and a very very dangerous exercise. Interviewed by the BBC in 2015 following the release of Cabinet documents, Mr Howells helped to put the Thatcher Government's anxieties into context;
"...This was very, very sensitive back in 1984-85. There were still so many paranoias and secrets about even admitting that MI5 existed, or that it was doing the things that it did; let alone trying to defeat a legitimate trade union..."
In the end, following high level and mildly panicked discussions involving, amongst others, the Prime Minister herself, Home Secretary Leon Brittan, and Attorney-General Sir Michael Havers, a government representative met discreetly with lawyers acting on behalf of Price Waterhouse, and as a result, any politically damaging disclosures were avoided.
|Harold MacMillan in 1942|
The 90 year old Lord Stockton, according to the New York Times, offered only measured words of praise for the policies of the Prime Minister, but his speech was very well received, rewarded by an unprecedented standing ovation.
The strike finally ended after 12 months, in March 1985, with the National Executive of the NUM voting to return to work 98 to 91. Although many miners were no doubt relieved to be getting back to work and earning again, the decision was far from universally applauded. Scargill faced an angry membership when he announced the end of the strike, and he claimed at a press conference that the NUM had been abandoned by the wider union movement, and had that it had been facing not just an employer, but also a government, aided and abetted by;
"...The judiciary, the police, and you people in the media, and at the end of this time our people are suffering a tremendous hardship..."
A National Coal Board spokesman declined to claim victory, owing to the fact that, in his estimation, the coal industry was the side that had actually lost, and was the victim, having lost markets and any remnants good labour relations. The NCB refused to grant any terms of amnesty for miners sacked during the dispute over picket line and other confrontations, or for damage caused to NCB property, a stance publicly endorsed by the Prime Minister. The NCB would also be proceeding with proposed industry reforms. Specifically; pit closures and job losses.
The government claimed that the strike had cost the nation 1.5 billion pounds, while later estimates suggested the amount was closer to 3 billion pounds. The Prime Minister's comments at the strike's conclusion reflected an ongoing theme; her desire for a competitive industry and the freedom of miners to work. She also acknowledged, at least in part, some of the suffering that had resulted;
"...I want a prosperous coal industry obviously, but the privations some of those families have been through...And they would have been back earlier had it not been kept going by intimidation, and I'm very glad that now they can go back..."
Read in more detail here, some of Margaret Thatcher's remarks as the strike ended;
Arthur Scargill was later interviewed by Sue Lawley, for BBC Radio Four's Desert Island Discs radio programme. When asked if he would have done anything differently, he replied;
"...I don't think I should do anything differently, quite frankly...If there was one thing that the miners didn't do, it was to take action before they did...You can see that the strike was created deliberately, by both the National Coal Board, and the Conservative Government. I had actually warned, in 1981-82, that it was the Coal Board and Government's intention to bring about a programme of pit closures. Tragically, there were not only many people outside of the mining industry who didn't believe me, including the media, there were also sections of the miners' union who didn't believe me either. They thought I was scaremongering, they thought that I was merely flying a kite..."
Mr Scargill went on to reject Sue Lawley's assertion that the miners had lost;
"...I don't accept that in the end, we lost. I think that if you look at the strike itself, and take it into context, I think you'll see that it led to an inspiration as far as the labour and trade union movement is concerned, and its often been said in history that people have lost things. It was said the Suffragettes lost, but as you and I talk here today, Sue, we know that they didn't lose. It was said that the Tolpuddle Martyrs lost , but when we look back, we know that the trade union movement in this country and in other parts of the world flourished because of their sacrifice. I think eventually we shall see not only the triumph of working people in establishing the right to work, we shall see the establishment of socialism because of, not in spite of the miners strike..."
You can listen to, or download, the full Desert Islands Discs interview with Arthur Scargill here:
Various sources state that there were 11 people killed during the strike, including Joe Green, run over by a lorry while picketing at Ferrybridge Power Station, West Yorkshire, and a Welsh cab driver who was driving a miner to work in defiance of the strike. David Wilkie was killed when a concrete block was dropped from a bridge onto his cab, in an attempt, a court later heard, to disrupt a police escort and a taxi taking miner David Williams to the Methyr Vale pit. The miner, Williams, was injured, but survived.
Two striking miners were initially convicted of murder in Cardiff Crown Court, and sentenced to life imprisonment by Mr Justice Michael Mann, who conceded in his sentencing remarks that the Miners' Strike had engendered a climate of violence. The sentence was later overturned on appeal to manslaughter, and reduced to 8 years for each defendant. They were released after 5 years, following a campaign championed by Arthur Scargill and Labour MP Tony Benn.
At the beginning of the strike, there had been 173 collieries operating across England, Scotland and Wales, employing over 180 000 people. The BBC reported that, 20 years after the strike, only 20 collieries remained operational , employing 5000 people. On the 30th anniversary of the strike, Al Jazeera reported on the legacy of the pit closures, stating that, as of 2014, only 3 pits remained, and that the National Union of Mineworkers' membership, once numbering around 200 000, now numbered around 1% of that amount. It has since fallen even further.
Many miners took redundancy payments, and the process of complete privatisation of what remained of the coal industry was completed by the end of 1994. In that same year, a survey of 900 former miners found that 50% had been out of work for at least a year following the closure of their pit. Some were able to take up retraining schemes, but even those lucky enough to find new fields of employment had taken a pay cut.
In 2014, the Guardian reported on the fate of the community around Coventry Colliery, Warwickshire, as recalled by Mat Jordan;
"...The coal board houses being sold out from under people, the mine being privatised then eventually closed, demolished and replaced with ubiquitous Barratt estates and warehouses. Unemployed miners were hidden away on disability allowance. The Blair era initiatives didn’t help much either as they encouraged the Barratt housing and business parks. Then the miner’s compensation payments were comprehensively bungled...”
By any objective evaluation, and despite claims from both Scargill and the NCB, the end of the strike resulted in a resounding win for the forces of Thatcherism. But at what cost?
Further viewing; BBC Panorama documentary The Coal War, which was made a matter of weeks after the strike began.
Credits and references;
Margaret Thatcher photo-Copyright waived by US Government
London rally photo by Nick from Bristol Link to Source
London rally photo by Nick from Bristol Link to Source
Neil Kinnock image from the Dutch National Archives Link to Source
Harold MacMillan photograph by Elliott and Fry (disputed) Link to Source
The Battle for Orgreave (Channel Four Documentary 1985)
Assertions on the legislative changes and loss of strikers' benefits were taken from Wikipedia's extensive article on the strike, noting the verification by primary sources
Al Jazeera Online
Margaret Thatcher Foundation
The Journal (online)
BBC Radio 4-UK Confidential-Desert Island Discs-Report
BBC Word Service Radio-Witness
BBC online- Inside Out - East Midlands (2004)
New York Times
BBC Word Service Radio-Witness
BBC online- Inside Out - East Midlands (2004)
New York Times
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