This titanic dispute was truly described as ‘the seminal event, politically and industrially, in post-war Britain’
Note: We produced an immediate short summary of all the contributions, by Roger Jeary, after the Conference, to which readers seeking a brief overview are referred. Audio recordings of each contributor are avaialble via SoundCloud.
Panel 1. chaired by John Edmonds, Chair of H&P TUF
i) Nicky Wilson, President of the NUM, 2010 to date.
An NCB-trained electrician, Nicky described vividly the build-up to the strike in Scotland (over 11,000 miners). He was convinced that it all started when the national management installed a hard-line Area Director to replace union-friendly long-term local managers with those who would close pits. Six of their smaller community-based pits were closed between 1981 and 1983 under the colliery review procedure. His own Cardown pit, which had traditionally supplied coking coal to Ravenscraig steel-works, was stopped doing so on the grounds that it was a ‘gassy’ pit and liable to risk if production were increased.
This run-down process meant that, ‘nobody had to persuade us that something had to be done’, when the Scottish Executive immediately responded to the national call to strike in March 1984. The NUM’s local agreements with the rail and steel unions to regulate the flow of essential coal during the dispute, (18,000 tonnes per week to allow production at a level to maintain the furnaces), were thwarted by ‘the hand of government’, as lorry convoys poured through their streets. He was adamant that it wasn’t a case of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ with somebody (Arthur Scargill) from on high, ‘snapping his fingers’, which caused the miners to walk out in 1984, but their own experience. They knew it was part of a process which would decimate their collieries and communities as part of a clear NCB policy to get rid of ‘peripheral areas’, such as Scotland and Wales
He was arrested while running away from one encounter by a ‘snatch squad’ and taken to the Sheriff’s court, where some of the police evidence was clearly false. Their fines were excessive (£250 instead of the usual £25 for ‘breaches of the peace’), and he felt there was collusion between the police and the judges to gain convictions. Over 1400 were arrested in Scotland and 250 miners subsequently sacked, depending on whether their colliery managers were ‘hard’ or ‘soft’-line. Despite the outcome of the strike, he still believed they were right to do what they did, saying, ‘we were fighting for our very existence’.
ii) Ian Lavery MP, National President of the NUM, 2002-2010
Ian had been a young apprentice at the time of this strike, but he came from a mining family in the Durham coalfield (13,000 miners) - his dad and other members of his family were all involved - and so there was no question but that he would take part. He regarded the issue of ‘having a ballot’ as irrelevant. ‘It was the State against the miners’ , a ‘class war’ and so he automatically supported the Cortonwood strikers when they walked out. It was the men who were driving it and he recalled the debates in the local NUM house where they gathered to hear the news, watch it on the TV and argue about whether they should come out or not. In fact, they didn’t have much option as ‘we couldn’t have walked away from this one’. He was still very upset about the police invading pit villages with their big ‘black boots’ and as an MP was trying to get a full inquiry about their conduct towards the miners.
iii) Terry Thomas, Vice-President of the NUM, South Wales Area (21,000 miners).
Miners in his area had been preparing to fight closures since 1980 and the first ‘hit-list’ of 1981 included a number of their collieries. The South Wales miners had voted to strike in 1983 over the closure of Tymawr Lewis Merthyr but were disappointed when some of the larger regions did not support them in that national ballot. This may have explained their initial reluctance to respond to the National Executive’s call for strike action in 1984. It was only the coal-face miners, especially from Yorkshire, picketing their pits that persuaded them, and the Welsh miners (initially 18:13 lodges against strike action), changed their minds. Again it was the closure of Cortonwood and Polmeis collieries which ‘had made it inevitable’ as they saw it as part of the NCB plan to end production in all the ‘peripheral’ coalfields. It was a ‘grass-roots’ miner-driven strike and not one which the ‘the union barons’ had precipitated.
He was convinced that it was a war on the NUM and all other unions by Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government in revenge for the 1974 defeat of the Heath government. They needed to defeat the miners/NUM so as to be able to pursue their anti-union programme altogether and everything which has followed that defeat in worsening the workers’ position generally, e.g., zero-hours contracts, flowed from that defeat of the miners. He thought that the ‘cracks’ began to appear about November ’84. The pressures on mining families were so great - houses repossessed, debt, marriage break-ups - it became too much, and more and more started to drift back to work (about a 1,000 had gone back by then in South Wales, though 20,000 were still out). Government and media propaganda highlighted the drift back with a view to reaching the psychological 50% level.
He recounted on his experience in the law courts at the end of the strike, early in 1985, where he had sat for ten days in the Royal Court of Justice in the Strand before Justice Scott. They had to answer the legal challenges of the ‘working miners’ against the local union officials for promoting ‘an illegal strike and wasting union funds’. They faced fines of £2.25m, a third of which he could be personally liable for. They were all represented by leading QCs. Further injunctions were granted, but in the end the charges of ‘conducting an illegal strike’ were dismissed.
Finally, in February 1985, the South Wales leadership felt that they had reached the stage where they had to accept that the strike was lost and it was now a case of ensuring the survival of the union. So, on March 1st they called a conference at St David’s which demanded a national conference to consider a return to work without a settlement. This was held on 3rd March and only the tiny Kent Area delegates opposed the move (170:19). An amendment from Yorkshire to continue until the 720 sacked miners were reinstated, was just lost narrowly (98:91) and so the decision was made to end the strike. He knew that this was a ‘huge gift’ to Thatcher, but felt they had no choice.
iv) Professor David Howell, University of York
David, who grew up in Nottingham, rounded off this first session with a very informative insight into the situation in the crucial Nottingham area, (second largest coalfield with 32,000 miners),. He stressed the centrality of Notts coalfield in the strike, for the NCB, the government and the NUM, with its high output which was fuelling the power stations all along the Trent valley throughout the strike. The now-released Cabinet papers reveal the great uncertainty amongst ministers in the summer of 1984 as to what was going to happen.
To understand why the Notts miners took such a different attitude to the other Areas on the question of pit closures, David said you needed to know their history in (and out) of the MFGB/NUM, as well as their different culture, attachment to incentive bonus earnings and more collaborative industrial relations generally with their NCB managers. The Notts miners had a very different culture, one which limited the role of the central union in their affairs from the days of the breakaway ‘Spencer’ union of the 1920s and ‘30s. Dennis Skinner called it ‘scab county’ and this was also a widespread view in neighbouring South Yorkshire, creating a history of hostility. In fact, he said, it was a diverse and cosmopolitan series of colliery communities (lots of Scots, Geordie and other miners). Some were like the traditional isolated, self-sufficient villages of other Areas, but many Notts miners commuted from non-mining towns to the new large coalfields on the east of the county which had arisen from the NCB rationalisations of the 1960s.
This Area was the first to avail itself of the incentive bonus schemes which the union agreed from 1977, departing from the earlier wage-equalisation policy of the National Power Loading Agreement. As a result, Notts face-workers were earning far in excess of the basic (or even incentive rates) enjoyed in most other Areas. It was this and the different decentralised culture which David thought created a ‘brittleness of unity’. Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives even captured the Sherwood seat by in a March 1984 by-election.
Professor Howell described the democratic dilemma facing the NUM leadership as ‘the problem of the intense minority’, which John Stuart Mill had posed. This was whether those not directly threatened by closures were entitled to prevent those affected, from resisting effectively, by voting secretly against national action and refusing to support it? In practice, this had been argued vehemently on the National Executive Council of the NUM. He thought that even if a majority voted for strike action, the Notts miners would not support it, as a Notts striker told him, ‘you won’t talk them out, you won’t picket them out and you won’t shame them out’. In any case, even though the local Area council favoured the NEC strike recommendation, the presence of masses of Yorkshire pickets, was completely counter-productive making them even more determined not to join the strike and to tolerate the emergence of an active group of ‘working miners’ later on, bent on breaking the strike and the union.
The strike, society and the media
i) Anne Scargill, lead organiser, ‘Women Against Pit Closures’
Anne, who lived in a small mining village near Barnsley, became active in support of the miners from the start and saw it as ‘a war’, rather than just an ordinary strike. At the time, she had been Arthur Scargill’s wife, and the media followed her child to school. The idea of forming this vital support group came from women like herself in the mining community, for example, Betty Cook. Many of the women in her village had voted for Mrs Thatcher in 1983, thinking that she would improve women’s lives (she said that many miners were very male chauvinist!), but when they saw what she was doing a year later, they sprang to the defence of the men. Instead of being the ones pressing them to go back, they sustained the strike with their supporting activities eg., providing soup kitchens and dinners and various community events and social activities.
Anne also did a lot of picketing, especially in Nottinghamshire. When the Yorkshire pickets were prevented from going there by the police, she and her WAPC colleagues, went instead. She recalled incidents at one Nott’s pit, Silverhill colliery, where she was arrested and strip-searched in humiliating circumstances - it left a lasting impression on her. Far from being deterred, ‘it made me far worse - I did terrible things’! She said that the strike changed her forever.
ii) Betty Cook - another key activist in the ‘WAPC’
Betty described herself as a typical working class woman from Wooley Edge village in West Yorkshire. She also talked about their rough treatment from the police, with their dogs and horses. From being a quiet unassertive person she became quite ‘lippy’ and had many escapades going on the picket lines also. Her marriage had been an unhappy one for some time, but her involvement in the strike had given her the confidence to end it. She was amazed by the things they did in support of the strikers. After the strike, she went on to take a degree as a mature student and has continued ever since going all over the world to talk about the strike and to give support to different groups of workers in struggle.
iii) Professor Peter Ackers, University of Loughborough
Peter dealt with the wider implications of the strike. He saw it as a crisis in the trade union and labour movement, which was ‘in bad trouble’, long before the 1984 strike. He felt that the NUM strategy and tactics, reliant as it was on mass and flying pickets, was misconceived. After the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978/9, unions had lost public legitimacy and the social democratic consensus which regarded unions on strike as acceptable generally broke up with the Thatcherite victory in 1979. She no longer sought to manage the economy with the assistance of unions and instead sought to weaken and marginalise them with public support. So, the NCB and the government could do what they did in 1984/5 and the mass picketing enabled them to focus the dispute on law and order issues.
He believed at the time, that public opinion could have been shifted away from the government, if the NUM tactics had been different. Making the moral case for the mining communities should have been to the fore. Mrs Thatcher’s government had been re-elected in 1983 with a massive majority and the TUC and the Labour leadership should have acknowledged the reasons for that massive political defeat. They should have pressed more strongly for a different approach from the NUM but they stood aside, or got swept up in the emotion of the moral case for the miners.
iv) Nick Jones BBC Industrial and Political Correspondent 1972-2002
Nick presented a large slide-show, mainly of national press headlines from the key events of the strike as it unfolded. He has published the secret report to the Cabinet by the NCB Chairman, Ian MacGregor in October 1983 to confirm their intention to close 75 pits by 1985 (not the 20, repeatedly stated by Thatcher and her Ministers). This would have meant a loss of over 70,000 jobs, decimating entire Areas such as South Wales Scotland and the North East. He admitted that the BBC coverage, which he was responsible for, was seriously distorted by his acceptance of the NCB and government information at the time.
He argued that the press coverage demonised Arthur Scargill and the strikers, with full-page, photos and large headlines, with the war switched to media images, every night, of pickets clashing with the police (the ‘battle of Orgreave’ being the worse example, where the footage was reversed to show the pickets attacking the police). Had social media been available, the NCB and government might not have won the propaganda war.
2pm-2.45pm Interview: Nick Jones in conversation with Lord Neil Kinnock, Labour Leader 1983-’92
Note: An extended interview is carried separately on the website and so only a condensed account of his talk is carried below.
Lord Kinnock’s former Islyn constituency of South Wales, had about 6,000 miners in two collieries and two major steelworks nearby at Ebbw Vale and Port Talbot, which employed 16,000 and 20,000 workers.
What worried him from the start was that the miners’ leader did not seem to have a clear strategy. He agreed that it was a war, but that ‘one side wanted to fight it, the other to win it’. He had said publicly that the NUM should have had a national ballot but he now accepted that he should have been more assertive and ‘up front’ in pressing the case on the NUM.
Soon, however, the media strike coverage obscured the pit closures’ issues of the strike and as it dragged on, the violence on the picket lines was increasing. All shadow Cabinet meetings were dominated by concerns about it. He had to combat Prime Minister Thatcher’s constant accusations in the Commons, over ‘the rule of law’ being flouted. He tried to counter with the case for coal. He felt that the NUM leaders were falling into the trap which the NCB and the government had laid for them.
He was also critical of some Labour MPs, who initiated Commons debates about the most controversial incidents of the strike, contrary to the Shadow Cabinet’s decisions. He had to defer taking on the ‘ultras’ in the Labour Party until October 1985 on account of the strike. He suffered humiliation at the 1984 Labour Conference as delegates embraced the intransigent NUM leadership, who had showed open contempt for the Labour leadership and their efforts (Stan Orme MP) to broker a compromise deal, especially in July and September, when serious opportunities to settle the strike arose. They were deeply embarrassed by the media revelations about the senior NUM official, Roger Windsor, embracing Libyan leader, Gaddafi, in October.
Implications of the strike for state and law
Keith, who is also President of the Institute of Employment Rights, said that this strike was remarkable for the non-use by the NCB of civil law restrictions. Ian MacGregor’s autobiography explained that this approach was avoided so as not to bring the other unions more into the dispute, or bring out the working miners. Instead, they found individual miners who would put their names to legal actions. He referred particularly to the shadowy role of David Hart, who coordinated the work of dozens of cells of ‘working miners’.
They focussed on the NUM rulebook to ‘tie them up in knots’, getting court rulings that the strike was in breach of those Area and the National rulebooks. The injunctions granted and a series of satellite litigation effectively brought the strike to an end. Also, the fines from other actions against the National President, Arthur Scargill, on non-payment led the courts to put in a Sequestrator to seize all NUM assets and a Receiver to recover the money from abroad where they had been placed. The close collaboration between the courts and the police prevented the movement of pickets on the roads. He thought it was a concerted effort of all three arms of the State - government, judiciary and police - to reassert the authority of the law, which they saw had been lost since the industrial actions of the 1970s.
b) Lord John Monks, TUC General Secretary 1993-2003
John was Head of the Industrial Relations Department at the TUC at the time. Arthur Scargill did not want the Trades Union Congress involved and Len Murray, as General Secretary, also did not want it, without them having a function in resolving the dispute. This amazing ‘stand-off’ was due mainly to ‘memories of how things worked out (or didn’t) in the 1926 General Strike’ There was an informal liaison group of unions (RMT, ASLEF, NUPE and the T&GWU), which kept them in touch, but remarkably, the TUC General Secretary had only occasional meetings with the NUM leadership for the first six months of this monumentally important dispute.
At the September Congress, where Scargill wowed the delegates, the General Council issued a statement supporting the NUM, but with a proviso requiring that the NUM should agree to negotiations. However, he compared it with the TUC giving the NUM ‘a blank cheque but forgetting to sign it! It was the threatened strike by the tiny colliery supervisors’ union (NACODS), which provided a real opportunity to resolve the dispute. Ian MacGregor had insisted that they cross picket lines to enter pits, leading the supervisors to ballot for and support industrial action. The TUC and ACAS were involved and various formulas were explored in an attempt to find a basis for settlement, He was given the role of liaising with a senior Department of Employment official, Douglas Smith, who was close to Downing Street senior civil servants. However, Mrs Thatcher herself intervened to rectify McGregor’s ‘mistake’, and the dispute was resolved to the satisfaction of the NACODS leadership, just the day before they were due to strike.
He saw the defeat of the NUM as the ‘loss of our strongest regiment’, which affected the confidence of the entire movement in industrial action to resolve disputes. The syndicalism which had been quite strong in the unions since the 1970s was no more and they tried at the TUC to bring forward a ‘Partnership Agenda’.
c) Robert Taylor, Labour Editor of The Observer 1976-87
Robert, who had covered the strike as an Industrial Correspondent, argued that the ‘hidden dimension’ of this strike was the active role of the State. Much has now been revealed in the Cabinet Papers of the time, and he felt more was to come - if they haven’t been shredded!
This ‘hidden dimension’ he identified as Mrs Thatcher’s use of all the State’s apparatus - police, judges, civil servants and so on - against what she saw as ‘the enemy within’, especially Arthur Scargill and the NUM leadership over their role in the downfall of the Conservative government in 1974.
However, Robert believed, this was just part of her much wider agenda against the post-war ‘social democratic consensus’. Her key appointment, Ian MacGregor, as Chairman of the NCB, was chosen on account of his anti-union and job decimation reputation. MacGregor and Scargill had no rapport.
During the strike, Robert highlighted three main actions. First, the use of the security services, phone-tapping and other ‘dirty tricks’ to disrupt the union leadership. Secondly, portraying the ‘working miners’ as ‘the little guys’ versus the ‘bully boy’ collective union. Finally, the role of the judiciary, who were political in developing the common law against collective actions. He thought that Thatcher’s greatest achievement in defeating the NUM and entire trade union movement, was the subsequent development of New Labour and that the coal strike was the seminal event, industrially and politically, of post-war Britain.
Panel 4 Dr Alastair Reid, Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge and co-founder H&P
Alastair marvelled at the tremendous range of subjects which had been touched upon, including :
These went to show how central trade unions and strikes were to British history. We had heard strong differences of opinion on the strategy adopted by the NUM. For instance, whether it was right for its leaders to focus so much on economic/industrial ‘muscle’ side or should they have broadened the issues and paid more attention to getting public opinion on their side? Having these different perspectives all brought together, was itself valuable. As a historian, he was struck by four points:
- the contrast between the coal industry and today’s ones. Unions looked quite powerful, but their unity was very fragile, as in the coal industry. There had been a major decline in physical production sector in Britain so that that miners’ world would not be recognisable today. Unions looked powerful, but in fact, the diversity and complexity of the industry - the interplay of regional and national influences for one - belied that image. As David Howell pointed out, there was an inbuilt ‘brittleness of unity’ and fragility to the NUM.
- the importance of the strong community and family loyalties involved which could see five men from one family on strike;
- the strong political dimensions of the miners’ unions, from the Miners Federation through to the NUM. This showed how important legislation was for the miners - nationalisation, union recognition for collective bargaining, Health and Safety, accident and disease compensation, the ‘check-weighmen' system to ensure fair measures and so on. This tradition and close connection between the industry and Parliament had continued into the twentieth century as the NUM had a strong string of sponsored Labour MPs. Such political representation was seen as integral to their efforts as a union;
- Finally, this tradition made being faced by a hostile State quite unusual for the miners - historically, they had been an industry which was treated favourably by government and the State.
ii) Professor Michael Gold, Royal Holloway College, London
Michael compared the UK coal industry experience with other European countries, particularly Germany’s. It was an industry in crisis throughout the EU since the 1980s, facing strong competition from other power sources (oil, gas, nuclear) and environmental concerns. In the Ruhr and Rhineland coalfields, contraction had been dealt with very differently/much better, because of two main factors. i) parity of worker Directors on supervisory boards of the coal companies. This meant that the unions and the miners were involved in the strategy for handling contraction. ii) the political climate/structures in Germany.
In North Rhine/Westphalia north west region, where the Ruhr and Rhineland coalfields were centred, the devolved German system of government meant all parties had a vested interest in paying attention to or representing the views of the miners. In Britain, by contrast, Conservative politicians had no interest in serving mining communities, as they knew the miners would never vote for them.
As a result, the closures were handled much more effectively in Germany, with joint management/union planning of the run-down collieries through social funding of in-work training on 2/3rds pay, before redundancies arose. Transfers, diversification and regeneration of coal areas were all part of a planned and regulated wind-down. As a result they did not experience such convulsions as in Britain.
John Edmonds, chair of the H&P Trade Union Forum thanked all the contributors and audience for a most interesting and enjoyable conference.
Dr Jim Moher
Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!
We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.
H&P is an expanding Partnership based at King's College London and the University of Cambridge, and additionally supported by the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leeds, the Open University, and the University of Sheffield.
We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.