Twenty years ago on March 5, 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)
embarked upon the most important class struggle in Britain since the general
strike of 1926. Over the following twelve months of ferocious battles billions
of pounds were spent by the ruling class to crush the miners' militancy. More
than ten thousand miners were arrested; two were killed on the picket lines and
countless others injured. Decades of so-called consensus were obliterated and
the real and ugly face of British capitalism was exposed for all to see. The
masks of Democracy and the Law, behind which the ruling class try to conceal the
rule of capital, were shattered as the veil of so-called independence of the
courts, the police and the media was lifted to show the real role of the state
in capitalist society.
The courage and determination of the miners and their families, struggling to
defend their communities from an unparalleled assault by the ruling class,
should serve as an inspiration to a new generation. The strike is rich in
lessons, and we would be doing that heroic struggle no favours if we did not
also try to understand the mistakes which played an important role in the
dispute as well as drawing inspiration from the colossal resolve and sacrifice
of the miners' struggle.
Engels once explained that in some periods twenty years can pass as if they
were a single day, whilst, at other times, the experience of twenty years can be
concentrated into just 24 hours. Between March 1984 and March 1985 there were
365 such days.
The consequences of the strike – and its eventual defeat – for the miners,
the coal mining industry, the labour movement and the working class as a whole
make it our duty to study its many lessons. The miners were defeated, but
contrary to the twenty years of propaganda which has followed declaring the
class struggle to be finished, two decades have passed quietly only on the
surface. Beneath, wounds have been healed, a new generation has grown up, new
experience has been gained, and capitalism has squeezed and pressed the working
class to the limits of its patience. Far from the miners' strike representing
the end of class struggle, it provides us with a wealth of lessons to prepare
for the new battles which have already begun. Twenty years after the miners'
strike of 1984-85 new class battles are today being prepared in Britain.
Bosses "invest" in defeating the miners
When Thatcher's Tory Party came to office in 1979 they were still smarting
from their humiliation at the hands of the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974.
Ted Heath's government was brought down by the militant action of the miners
and the Tories were determined to prevent such a humiliation ever happening
again. This fact coloured many aspects of the dispute. Revenge, however, was not
the principle cause of this orchestrated attack on the miners and their
communities. For the ruling class confronting and defeating the miners, widely
seen as the vanguard of militant trade unionism, was the vital prerequisite for
an all out assault on the working class as a whole. There was no longer any room
for consensus, compromise and concessions. Reforms aimed at placating the
working class could no longer be afforded. The answer of the ruling class to the
decline of British capital was to restore profitability at the expense of the
working class, just as they had done in 1926.
This was never solely an economic question, however. For decades billions had
been squandered on nuclear power and on oil demonstrating the anxiety felt by
the ruling class at the dependence of the British economy on coal, and the power
this bestowed upon militant miners.
In 1926 the miners' struggle had led to the general strike and nine days
that shook the very foundations of society. In the 1970s their action brought
down a Tory government. The militancy of the miners represented a serious threat
to the capitalist system. No strike on its own, not even a general strike can
overthrow capitalism. That requires political organisation and action as well as
industrial muscle. Nevertheless, throughout their history, every national miners'
strike has marked a fundamental turning point in the situation in Britain.
Between 1926 and 1972 there was not one official national miners' strike.
Where was the miners' renowned militancy during this period? The lack of such
national action provided many academics, some even claiming to be Marxists, with
'proof' that the miners had been 'bought off'. Nationalisation, job
guarantees, and higher wages, these ladies and gentlemen argued, would ensure
that the miners would never fight again. This most thoroughly un-Marxist
assertion demonstrates the danger of being seduced by the surface of events,
failing to see the molecular process burrowing away beneath.
In reality, it had taken from 1926 until the second world war for the miners
to recover from the mortal blow of the 1926 lock-out. In the period roughly from
the end of the war to 1970, following the nationalisation of the pits, all
serious disputes were resolved through negotiation at national level. Against
the background of the world upswing of capitalism, and the introduction of new
technology, mechanisation etc, living standards generally improved. Hundreds of
pits were closed but there were no compulsory job losses.
Initially, the nationalisation of the pits by the Labour government in 1947
was greeted with jubilation. Many miners felt the pits now belonged to them.
They were soon to discover, however, that the old, hated coalowners had been
replaced by boards whose task was to manage coal mining as a 'milch cow' for
capitalism, by supplying a cheap source of energy to industry.
Throughout this period there was a consensus approach between the union and
the National Coal Board (NCB). Disputes were settled through negotiation and
therefore there was no need for national strikes. As a result, the union at the
top was in the grip of the right wing, although, given the miners' traditions,
there was always a left presence, including one or two Communist Party members,
in the leadership.
This consensus, however, was only on the surface. In coal mining especially
it is necessary to know what is going on underground. Whilst there were no
national strikes, disputes in individual pits and areas between 1947 and 1957
constituted 70 percent of all the industrial action in the country. In these
struggles a new generation of militant leaders was born and schooled. Some of
these struggles saw more miners on strike than in 1984. This was the case in
1955 and again in 1961.
1970s – miners bring down Tories
In 1969 and 1970 these disputes escalated into serious strikes over hours and
wages. In 1956 miners had earned 122 percent of average manufacturing workers'
wages, but by 1970 this had fallen to 89 percent. Thus falling living standards
and the continuing closure programme combined with a new generation of militant
activists to prepare the strikes of 1972 and 1974.
The Tory government of Ted Heath had imposed an incomes policy to limit
workers' pay increases, but mounting inflation was eating away at the miners'
already low wages. Nearly 60 percent of the NUM voted to strike for a 47 percent
The tactic of flying pickets and mass picketing played a decisive role in
these disputes, most notably the mass picket at Saltley Gate. Pickets were not
needed at the pitheads in 1972 because the strike was rock solid, so the mass
pickets concentrated on the power stations. Solidarity action was spreading with
other sections of workers taking sympathy action. The Tories, running scared,
declared a state of emergency. A major confrontation was prepared at the coke
depot of the Saltley gasworks in Birmingham. Engineering workers across the
region went on strike to support the miners, and 10,000 of them marched on
Saltley Gate to join the 2,000 miners already picketing. With only 1000 police
officers in attendance, the authorities had no alternative but to close the
gates. The miners, with widespread support, and a solid strike, using the
militant tactic of flying pickets, scored a tremendous victory. The 21 percent
pay rise they secured was only a part of that victory. So too was the growing
confidence of the working class.
Two years later in 1974, the threat of a new miners' strike, forced Heath
and the Tories to call a general election – which they lost. The miners had
secured an historic industrial and political victory. The ruling class were
visibly shaken. Something would need to be done to prevent this ever happening
Tories plan revenge
In 1978 future Tory cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley prepared his now
infamous report for a confrontation with the miners. Ridley's plans included
building up coal stocks and increasing coal imports; recruiting non-union lorry
firms for coal transport; transforming power stations to enable them to burn
oil; cutting the state benefits available to striking workers; and the creation
of a national, almost paramilitary, police force.
In the early Thatcher years, between 1979 and 82, there had already been
important disputes at British Leyland, British Steel, in the health service, and
on the railways. In fact, the Tories almost provoked the miners prematurely in
1981 when they announced their intention to close 50 pits. The South Wales
miners walked out and sent flying pickets to other coalfields. Within days the
Energy Secretary David Howell was forced to withdraw the plan. They had done
exactly the same thing in 1925, delaying, retreating to fight only when they
were ready. As Howell explained "Neither the government nor I think society as
a whole was in a position to get locked into a coal strike… The stocks weren't
so high. I don't think the country was prepared, and the whole NUM and the
trade union movement tended to be united all on one side."
An internal Coal Board report published in June 1983 claimed that 141 out of
the 198 pits were 'uneconomical', 100,000 jobs would have to go in the space
of five years. For years pit closures had proceeded through agreement with the
union on the basis of the exhaustion of mineable supplies. Now they wanted to
close them for economic reasons. That is, to recognise that the mines existed
not to extract coal but to make money. The miners' case was really
unanswerable in relation to the needs of industry and the long term supply of
energy. Logic and the facts, however, would not be allowed to interfere with the
needs of the ruling class in securing their profits and defeating the trade
Thatcher brought in Ian MacGregor – an American union-buster who had
already served his apprenticeship as the butcher of the steel industry – as
the new head of the NCB, and moved Peter Walker to the post of Energy Secretary,
informing him on his appointment, "we are going to have a coal strike." This
statement betrayed not just Thatcher's desire to provoke such a battle, but
also a recognition of a process which was already underway.
1981: NUM shifts left
In 1981 the shift to the left at the top of the NUM was confirmed by the
election of Arthur Scargill, one of the militant leaders of the 1972 strike, as
President of the NUM. At the end of 1982 The Coal Board announced the closure of
Kineil colliery in Scotland. The miners occupied their pit over Christmas but no
strike was called.
At the beginning of 1983 the closure of Lewis Merthyr colliery in South Wales
was announced. The response of the miners was again to occupy the pit and this
time their strike spread to other collieries with 3000 miners walking out. The
South Wales Area of the union endorsed the strike, and the Yorkshire and
Scotland areas both voted for strike action. At the union's National Executive
Scargill argued for a Rule 41 strike, but lost. This rule of the union allowed
the Areas (South Wales, Yorkshire etc.) to call their members out separately
without calling a national ballot. The use of this tactic was soon to have
profound consequences in the 1984-85 strike.
On this occasion a national ballot was held, with 61 percent voting against
national strike action. A campaign was clearly needed throughout the coalfields
explaining the threat to tens of thousands of jobs and the attacks that were
being prepared on all sections of the working class. Such a campaign of
propaganda and agitation would have played a vital role in preparing the ground
in Nottinghamshire, in particular, and in those other pits that had voted
against action. This fight was not going to go away.
MacGregor made provocative statements about the need to close 20 pits and
destroy 20,000 jobs. The ruling class had been preparing and were now clearly
ready for the confrontation. The miners' preparations began in earnest in
November 1983 when a national overtime ban was organised to try to run down coal
The Coal Board announced another pit closure at Polmaise in Scotland. They
proceeded to flood neighbouring Bogside colliery, claiming that the overtime ban
was to blame, offering a glimpse of the unparalleled black propaganda campaign
that was to follow. During the course of the strike, miners and their local and
national leaders were subjected to the most appalling campaign of smears,
slanders and abuse in the press.
The final provocation
On March 1, 1984, the final provocation came with the announcement of the
closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire. Flying pickets were dispatched
around the country, immediately bringing Scotland and Wales out. This time
however the ruling class had prepared its stocks of coal, its transportation
systems, and had created a national police force – all the plans outlined in
Ridley's 1978 report – to confront the pickets and place mining communities
across the country under a state of siege. The battle lines were drawn. This was
to be class war.
Within days 171 pits were at a standstill. Yorkshire, Wales, Kent and Durham
were solid and flying pickets were sent into Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and
North Derbyshire to spread the dispute.
On this occasion, however, there was to be no national ballot. This decision
resulted in a storm of protest in the media, echoed by the right wing Labour and
trade union leaders. These 'democrats' are only keen on democracy when it
suits them. Back in 1977 a national ballot rejected a new incentives scheme by
55.75 percent. Right wing NUM leader Gormley declared the result of the ballot
to be irrelevant. When the matter was taken to the high court, the judges agreed
with Gormley, and the democratic decision of a ballot was overturned.
To pose democracy as an abstract question is false and misleading. Those at
the top of the labour movement demanding a ballot never offered their own
members the same courtesy of democracy by organising a ballot for action in
support of the miners. Their demand was not based on 'democracy' but an
excuse for not spreading the struggle. For that reason holding a ballot would
have completely undermined them.
For the labour movement the vital question is what tactic can secure and
maintain the maximum possible unity of the workers in their struggle. In 1984
NUM vice-president Mick McGahey argued – against the need for a ballot – that
the miners would not be 'constitutionalised out of their jobs'. This was
quite right – in principle. The trade unions should decide upon how they
conduct their affairs themselves without the interference of the state. However,
this principle far from exhausted the question.
Ballot or no ballot?
Scargill had already lost several national votes over pay, and over closures.
This must have been a factor in the decision not to call a new ballot, betraying
a certain lack of confidence in the rank and file. Once the vast majority of
miners were on strike, and certainly by May when the national demonstration took
place in Mansfield, there can be no doubt that a ballot would have been
With the strike underway, and the majority of miners having voted with their
feet, the need to build and strengthen unity became clearer than ever. A
majority of miners in the Nottinghamshire area continued to work. The continued
failure to win them over through picketing illustrated the need for a ballot.
Why should there have been a ballot? The unity of the strike was decisive. A
ballot would have assisted the strikers in Nottinghamshire to make their case
amongst those miners still working. Could a ballot have created the necessary
unity nationally, and isolated those determined to organise scabbing? We will
never know for sure, but it would have helped. A majority in a national ballot
could have brought the majority of Notts' miners out, and this in turn would
have transformed the situation. Above all, it would have completely cut the
ground from beneath the leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party who consistently
cowered behind the question of the ballot to prevent solidarity action.
In any strike or dispute tactics are vital. In a titanic struggle such as
this, with the might of the state lined up against them, the tactics adopted by
the miners' leadership were decisive. Not holding a ballot once the dispute
was underway proved to be a serious mistake. Not because the Tories or the press
said so, but because of the need to build unity and to break the stick that was
being used to beat them.
March 5, 2004
See Part Two