35 years on, and the impact of the great miners’ strike of 1984–85 still reverberates. Mike Simons, executive producer of the film Still the Enemy Within, takes a look back at this extraordinary struggle.
The 1984-85 miners’ strike was the longest, most bitter national strike in British working class history. For 12 months the miners of Britain fought an unprecedented battle to defend their jobs and communities against the full might of the government and ruling class.
The miners fought a government that first provoked the strike and then prosecuted it like a civil war. They withstood unprecedented police brutality, travesties of justice in the courts, poverty, hunger and media harassment, holding firm for a year.
Almost 10,000 miners were arrested during the strike. More than 180 miners spent time in jail and 700 were sacked in its aftermath. Welfare and social services agencies were turned into a weapon by the Tories, denying miners and their families the benefits they were entitled to, in a bid to starve them back to work.
Rather than surrender the mining communities transformed themselves. Men and women joined picket lines, travelling the country speaking at meetings to raise funds, organising food kitchens and stiffening the backbone of wavering strikers. After 12 months the miners were forced back to work but their heroism inspired millions around the world.
In the immediate aftermath of the strike and in the 35 years since, a political battle has raged about why the miners went down to defeat. Some simply say that the strike was doomed from the start – that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) should not have taken up the Coal Board’s challenge, coming as it did in the spring and at a time when coal stocks were at unprecedented levels.
But workers are often forced to fight in less than ideal conditions. Had the miners’ capitulated in March 1984 without a fight, then Thatcher’s offensive against the British working class would indeed have seemed unstoppable. The length and scale of the strike, its political and financial cost to the Tories, revealed the miners’ strength, and the impact workers can have when they fight back.
Others say, then and now, that the refusal to hold a national strike ballot doomed the strike to defeat; but the decision not to hold a ballot in March 1984 was not about democracy in the abstract. The miners had voted in a ballot to oppose pit closures. The ballot call in March 1984 was made when tens of thousands of miners were already out on strike, in line with a democratically decided union policy to fight for jobs
The Tories and those in the Labour Party, who then and now, denounced the lack of a ballot have a highly selective attitude to democracy. They favour secret ballots when they win them; when they lose, their attitude changed. Thatcher herself shamelessly denied workers at the government’s GCHQ monitoring centre, a vote over the withdrawal of their trade union rights, just a few weeks before she provoked the miners’ strike.
Had the miners held a ballot and voted to strike, does anyone think that Thatcher would have behaved differently? Does anyone think she would have not mobilised the police in such vast numbers and contemplated using the army against the strikers? No one in 1984 had any doubts and no one should today.
An inevitable defeat?
Some argue that the strike was doomed from the start, that pickets could never beat the police and the state, that workers’ solidarity was a thing of the past.
These claims fly in the face of the facts – facts that were apparent 35 years ago and which have been confirmed by the release of the Cabinet Papers from 1984. The Cabinet Papers give the lie to Thatcher’s claims in 1984 that the dispute was not of the government’s making. They show her daily micromanagement of the dispute and the way the law was twisted and turned to suit the Tories’ aims.
The Cabinet Minutes reveal Thatcher lambasting chief constables in the early days of the strike because they were reluctant to order the arrest of miners who had committed no crime. It was, she said, “essential to stiffen the resolve of chief constables”. She demanded a special report to see if the police were “adopting the more vigorous interpretation of their duties which was being sought.”
Two months into the strike and after 900 arrests in the Nottinghamshire coal field, Lord Hailsham, the government’s top legal officer advised Mrs Thatcher that the Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire had “expressed reservations about the quality of some of the evidence upon which the arrests have been made, and for this reason is not anxious for dates of trial to be fixed too soon.” It was given short shrift and the government sent in scores of stipendiary magistrates to dispense rough justice.
These are just two of a myriad of examples from the 1984 Cabinet minutes that show the reality of power beneath the thin veneer of parliamentary democracy. In the end, however, it wasn’t the might of the police and the courts that beat the miners, it was the failure of the trade union leaders to deliver the solidarity they promised and that the miners needed.
The miners came close to victory many times during the dispute. At the start of the strike the flying pickets almost shut the whole of the mining industry. They stunned the government and coal board, forcing them to use the police in unprecedented numbers to physically prevent Yorkshire miners getting their arguments about pit closures across to their fellow union members in Nottinghamshire.
Had the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire NUM leaders been more resolute, Thatcher could have been forced to back down.
Isolating the Miners
As the strike progressed the Tories tried desperately to avoid fighting on two fronts at once. They suddenly found extra money for left wing Labour controlled inner city councils, and to give rail and other workers inflation busting pay rises. Tragically, every time a second front looked like opening union leaders grabbed whatever extra the government offered rather than join the miners in their fight.
The Tories panicked when the dock workers walked out on strike in defence of the dock labour scheme which had ended the casualization of the industry. The Cabinet Minutes show Thatcher telling her war council the priority was to “settle the dock strike as quickly as possible in order to allow the government to concentrate on winning the miners’ strike.”
Ministers were instructed to reassure dock workers the government had no intention to “alter or abolish” the dock labour scheme which provided guaranteed employment. It was, of course, a lie, but the dockers’ leaders fell for a phoney deal.
Again, when the coal board picked a fight with the NACODS, the pit deputies union, Thatcher ordered Ian MacGregor the union buster she appointed to head the National Coal Board, to cobble together a compromise, telling him “the fate of the government was in his hands”.
For even the most stupid trade union leader, the stakes were clear when Thatcher made her notorious speech declaring the miners the ‘Enemy Within’. This should have been a signal to the rest of the trade union movement that the miners’ strike was not a normal industrial dispute, but a fight for the survival of the whole movement, that it was time for action as well as words.
In September 1984, the TUC Congress promised to deliver solidarity that would stop the use of coal and oil imported to break the strike, but nothing was done. Despite the resolution at the TUC congress overwhelmingly backing the miners, not a single leaflet or poster was distributed, not a single march called.
Worse, when the courts removed the elected representatives of the NUM from control of the union funds and appointed a receiver, the TUC refused point blank to help. They offered no official support for fear that it might leave them “in contempt of court”.
As the legal attacks on the NUM mounted, rather than step up the solidarity, the leaders of the power station workers’ unions relaxed their “guidelines” against using scab coal, oil and gas. These guidelines, the miners had been assured back in the autumn of 1984, would bring power cuts within weeks. And so it was that the government got through the winter without blackouts.
Even as the union leaders were turning their backs on the miners, the strikers were winning support at home and abroad that showed what could have been achieved.
While the Tories imported coal from Russia and Poland to break the strike, a message of support came from Solidarnosc, the independent trade union in Poland that was fighting the military regime. As the Tories imported coal from apartheid South Africa, black South African miners organised collections for the NUM. In Australia dockers and seafarers refused to handle coal bound for Britain; while in Denmark, dockers fought a pitched battle with riot police to stop coal being exported to undermine the strike.
In Britain, there were many shining examples of solidarity. At Coalville, in the middle of the working Leicestershire coalfield, no coal was moved by rail for 35 weeks. Railworkers were barred from virtually every pub and club in the area but they stood firm.
At the Sun newspaper, print union workers refused to handle one of the most obnoxious front pages, which likened Arthur Scargill to Hitler and then closed the paper down for three days in protest when the management refused to publish a half page statement from them in support of the miners.
As the strike dragged on millions of ordinary workers, watching the now almost daily police assaults on the picket lines, responded by delivering unprecedented financial support to mining communities and joining a massive campaign to twin pit villages with union branches and community groups. This could have been mobilised to deliver strikes, but while grassroots solidarity grew, trade union leaders were busy undermining it.
A series of days of action called by regional TUCs were condemned by Len Murray, then General Secretary of the TUC, who was subsequently knighted by Thatcher.
Even after Xmas 1984 and a new year drift back to work, the Tories weren’t invulnerable. News began to emerge of the price in oil imports the government had paid to keep the lights on and there was a massive run on the pound. Instead of seizing the time to campaign for solidarity, Norman Willis, Murray’s successor, spent days ensconced in the plush home of Coal Board chief Ian MacGregor, drinking whiskey and drawing up a surrender document to impose on the NUM.
Despite everything stacked against the miners, they fought on for a whole year, before marching back to work in March 1985 behind their banners with their heads held high.
The miners did not achieve the victory they deserved, but they stopped the Thatcher government in its tracks, for the first time in five years. The epic scale of the miners’ resistance broke the back of a Tory offensive that had been designed to smash the British trade union movement and dramatically cut working class living standards and boost profits.
It also showed a whole set of values that are as relevant today as they were 35 years ago – that people come before profit, that workers don’t have to bow down to market forces, that solidarity can overcome isolation and fear, and that ordinary people can transform themselves and their communities when they unite together against the ravages of free market capitalism and globalisation.