This week marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the great miners’ strike in defence of jobs and communities. Their year-long confrontation with the state and the Tory government remains an outstanding example of the determination of ordinary working people to fight for their rights.
By the time of the strike, officially, unemployment in Britain had risen to around 3.25 million – although the real total was nearer 4 million - and the privatisation of all the great state industries, starting with British Telecom, was underway. It was the miners alone who answered the call of history, and challenged the right of the state and governments to put people out of work and into poverty.
The strike was provoked by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher when the state-controlled National Coal Board (NCB) on 1 March 1984 announced plans for the closure of 20 pits in Yorkshire with the loss of 20,000 jobs. The government was in fact secretly planning for the closure of 70 pits throughout the country and the virtual destruction of the industry.
The 600 miners at Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire met on Sunday 4 March and voted to strike, calling on the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Miners for support, which was duly given a few days later. The miners of Scotland, Wales, the North-East, Kent and North Derbyshire came out on March 12.
So began one of the longest, most decisive, most determined and extraordinary strikes of all time. The government had prepared very carefully for this showdown, building up stocks of coal at the power stations, while at the same time switching some of them to burn oil.
They had appointed Ian MacGregor, the butcher of the steel industry, as the new chief at the NCB. State agents were planted in the unions, including the NUM, and the government cultivated good relations with the leaders of the right-wing unions. Social security laws were changed and the scope of the anti-union laws was extended. Plans for the national deployment of police were drawn up. In short the power of the state machine was considerably enhanced.
Within a few days, when it became evident that many of the Nottinghamshire miners might defy the strike, the forces of the state were unleashed. Thousands of police from all over the country were drafted into Nottinghamshire in order to seal the county off from the mass pickets of Yorkshire. Road-blocks were set up round the county, coaches were turned away, pickets had their cars smashed, and if they did get through (which they usually did in large numbers), they were met by thousands of police at the gates of the pits. Nearly 10,000 miners were arrested altogether during the strike, and over 8,000 of them were charged. Hundreds were jailed.
Injunctions and contempt of court actions were taken out by the NCB, and later Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, was served with a High Court writ while he was inside the Labour Party conference. On 5 October, he had a second writ served on him for simply declaring the strike official and a week later the union was fined £200,000. This led the following month to the seizure and sequestration of all the funds and assets of the union to the tune of around £10m.
Neil Kinnock and the other leaders of the Labour Party sat on their hands, while continuing to hide behind the call for a ballot. The trade union leaders, terrified of the implications of the strike and of breaking the law, hardly even turned up. They confined their activities to giving money and searching for a compromise solution, which was never to be had.
Inside the mining communities there emerged a new source of strength, the wives and the women. They joined the picket lines, set up soup kitchens to feed everyone in the community and organised a joyful Xmas 1984, insofar as money would allow. And all over the country hundreds of thousands of individual trade unionists and other supporters gave money and material support — and this flowed in from France, Australia, the Soviet Union and other countries.
The miners were eventually forced back to work. On 3 March 1985 they marched into the pits proudly behind their bands and their banners without a settlement. They were driven back not by their leaders – who stood firm – but as a direct result of a long process of back-sliding and abandonment of principles on the part of the Labour Party and the TUC in the face of the new offensive of the corporations internationally.
The Thatcher government had deployed the full might of the state to the task of defeating the miners because they represented the final, and the most formidable obstacle to its aim of making Britain fit for the corporations as one of the centres of the new globalised economy.
Today, the fight for jobs is once more top of the agenda as the global capitalist economy plunges into slump. As in 1985, most union leaders have abandoned any resistance to the state and the employers. The heroic miners’ strike remains an inspiration, however, and provides valuable lessons for today. Above all, the miners demonstrated that the power of the capitalist state stands between working people and the right to determine their own future in terms of jobs and communities.
P J Arkell
Photographer during the miners’ strike