TWENTY YEARS ago British miners were forced into strike action to defend their jobs, their communities and their way of life. The strike became a trial of strength between Thatcher’s Tory government and the miners that still reverberates throughout the workers’ movement and society.
The strike, as former Labour MP and political commentator Brian Walden remarked at the time, “was a civil war without guns”; a battle between the workers and the ruling class.
Although guns were not used against strikers the whole panoply of the state forces, including weapons, cavalry, spies and the courts were used to try and intimidate the miners back to work. They held out for a year in the most determined show of strength; stiffened up by the magnificent solidarity of the working class in Britain and internationally.
That the miners were ultimately defeated was not down to their lack of courage or determination, nor the support shown them by the working class. Thatcher and the ruling class ultimately won but not through their own strength. Instead it was the right wing leaders of the trade unions and the Labour Party who stabbed the miners in the back and led to the social and economic devastation of the mining communities.
The strike’s defeat was a bitter blow for those miners and their families who struggled. Their betrayal by the right-wing Labour and union leaders meant that their jobs were to disappear forever and their communities turned into industrial wastelands.
A report in the Observer outlined what it has meant for one of the biggest former mining communities in Britain: “Barnsley has suffered all the classic depressive symptoms of a northern industrial town: unemployment, drug abuse and crime at some of the highest levels in the country.
“Until the 1980s, one in five of all Barnsley men worked in the mines. Now the figure is zero. Anne Lewis of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service said the closure of the mines had a devastating effect on the town’s youth. Barnsley became an area of huge deprivation. Some 42% of Barnsley’s children now live in poverty.” 1
The miners’ defeat, along with the economic upswing of the late 1980s, ushered in a complex and difficult period in Britain, which consolidated a shift to the right at the top of the labour movement that had started in 1981 but had been cut across by the year-long strike. Thereafter, Labour and trade union leaders abandoned any pretence of struggle against Thatcherite industrial run-down and privatisation and meekly accepted anti-union legislation.
Following on from the miners’ strike, the collapse of the Stalinist states of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe and the subsequent ideological offensive of the capitalist ruling class internationally greatly reinforced these trends. The leaders of the workers’ organisations used the miners’ defeat and the collapse of Stalinism to argue that class struggle was outdated and that there was no ideological or practical alternative to the capitalist market.
The end of class politics?
THE VICTORS of the miners’ dispute and their apologists in the labour movement have always attempted to portray the strike as an ideologically doomed, futile attempt by one man – Arthur Scargill – to preserve a dying industry.
Michael Ignatieff, regarded as something of a cultural guru by the ruling class in the 1980s but little remembered now, wrote in the New Statesman towards the end of the strike that “the miners’ strike is not the vindication of class politics but its death throes.” 2
The Labour Party tops at the time of the strike, like leader Neil Kinnock and his deputy Roy Hattersley have also tried to boil the strike down to the character and tactical ‘ineptness’ of Arthur Scargill. (These people were themselves such master tacticians that they squandered a 5% opinion poll lead at the time of the miners’ strike to lose the 1987 general election. Learning nothing from that, their tactical adroitness allowed them to go on to lose the 1992 general election as well).
Neil Kinnock, denounced at the time by Labour MP Bob Parry as one of the greatest traitors in labour movement history, used his betrayal of the miners and the attacks he conducted against Liverpool city council in the 1980s, as a stepping stone to the millionaire lifestyle he now enjoys as a European Commissioner. To him, 20 years on, it was simple: “The tragedy is that there was no mandate for the strike. The fault has to lie with Scargill.” 3
Hattersley, whilst giving more credit to Scargill for correctly defending the mining communities, still said the miners’ defeat was simply down to the NUM president not calling a ballot. And, according to Hattersley, the ‘best’ outcome of a miners’ ballot during the strike would have been that “The victory would not have been complete, The unstoppable advance of the global market would have made pit closures inevitable and the balance sheet of profit and loss would have guaranteed an accelerating decline.” 4
What seems to have escaped Kinnock and Hattersley’s notice, however, is that before the miners began their action, the Tories had massacred jobs across British industry.
Steelworkers had embarked on a 13-week strike in 1980 after a ballot but – because their leaders crumbled before the Tories – over 80,000 jobs were lost in British Steel within three years.
From Thatcher’s election in 1979 to the start of the miners’ strike, 1,600 jobs were lost every week in Britain with hardly a squeak of resistance from some union leaders. Even in the coal industry, where miners had shown themselves prepared to fight, over 100 jobs were lost every week as unemployment soared to over three million.
From the Tory general election victory of 1979 onwards, prime minister Margaret Thatcher had been gauging the temper of the British working class and in particular the willingness of the trade union and Labour leaders to struggle against the social counter-revolution she was embarking upon.
Before the miners’ strike there had been a number of occasions where the proclaimed defiance of the union leaders against everything Thatcher stood for had proved to be rhetoric: such as attacks on trade unionism in the car industry, the defeat of the 13-week long steel strike in 1980 and the union leaders’ inability to deliver the threat of general strike action when the anti-union laws were first used against the print workers’ union from late 1983 to early 1984.
But, all of these were only partial stages in Thatcher’s plan to weaken or destroy the power of the workers’ organisations, which stood in the way of her carrying through a shift in the balance of power in favour of the bosses.
Learning from defeat
THERE HAVE been millions of words written about the strike. However, there are still many issues that a new generation of trade unionists and socialists need to discuss today.
Some on the Left have simplistically concluded that either the strike showed that the Tory government and state forces were too strong to be taken on and defeated, or that all that was needed, in the fashion of first world war generals, was to throw more troops out of the trenches.
Neither answer is adequate. But was there any way the miners could have won this massive defensive battle and avoided the Thatcherite scorched earth policy which reduced former manufacturing areas to wastelands?
The answer is undoubtedly yes. They could have won if the trade union leaders had shown the same commitment in action to supporting the miners as the rank and file of their unions did.
More than ever, a proper accounting of the strike and its aftermath is necessary to strip away the one-sided pessimistic gloss heavily applied throughout the years.
There is a need to rescue the heroic endeavours during the strike of the millions of ordinary working-class people – especially the miners and their families. In what were posed as insurmountable odds, even by many union leaders, it needs to be recalled how close the miners and their supporters actually came to achieving a historic victory, which would have raised the whole of the working class a head taller.
But to answer how the miners could have won, many complex questions thrown up by the strike need to be seriously addressed: Was the strike inevitable? Did the miners and NUM leaders have any other options? Should they have had a ballot? Was mass picketing successfully carried out?
If the strategy and tactics of the miners’ leaders had been different could they have secured a victory and what would the impact of that have been?
Had the miners won then the immediate history following the strike would have been radically different. Thatcher and her government would have been massively discredited and it probably would have led to her resignation. Although we should never underestimate the ineptitude of the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it would have been likely that a Labour government would have come to power.
The pit-closure plan would have been initially dropped. But at a certain stage the miners would have once again needed to fight for their industry and for the removal of the rigged Tory market in energy along with advocating a socialist plan of production for the mining and energy industries.
Lastly, under pressure from a confident working class, even a Kinnock Labour government would have had to carry through some measures in favour of the working class, perhaps being compelled to abolish the Tory anti-union laws. One of Kinnock’s principal reasons for his attacks on the miners was his fear of a rising tide of militancy in the event of a miners’ victory – he didn’t want to see militancy pay, especially not if he were to become prime minister.
Struggle historically justified
WHATEVER THE background and outcome to their struggle the miners had no option but to fight in 1984. The fact that they fought so valiantly against the subsequent rundown of their industry shows they were right to struggle in the way they did under Arthur Scargill.
Had the miners not done so then the Tory pit-closure programme would have proceeded much more rapidly and many other anti-working class measures would have been introduced earlier than they were.
Their stand has been historically vindicated. Amongst the miners and the general public, particularly after the Tories’ second wave of pit closures was announced in 1992 against a huge public outcry, there was an overwhelming recognition that they were right to fight.
The miners’ strike also politicised a generation of young people and at the time produced a massive shift to the left on many issues in society. It inspired, for example, the quarter of a million-strong national school student strike, called by Militant supporters, which followed within months of the end of the strike.
Most importantly the miners’ strike showed the willingness of working-class people to struggle to change society.
THE ‘OFFICIAL’ right-wing view of the strike as a ‘terrible defeat’ has been held over the head of trade unionists, socialists and left-wing organisations like the sword of Damocles for the last 20 years. But after 20 years there are signs of a new militancy amongst workers, witnessed in the firefighters’, postal and Heathrow baggage handlers’ disputes of 2003.
There has been, despite the retirement of Arthur Scargill, talk of the re-emergence of ‘Scargillism’ – it was one of the first lines of attack against the firefighters in their dispute. It was not a label that fitted well on their national leaders: especially not their ‘moderate’ general secretary, Andy Gilchrist.
However, a new generation of workers, trade unionists and socialists should now take the opportunity to re-examine the events and lessons of the strike to ensure they are better equipped to win their own industrial battles and succeed in the socialist struggle to change society.
Although there is a detailed chronology of the main events and bibliography of books giving very detailed accounts of the strike included, this account does not intend to chronologically chart all the developments in the strike. Instead the aim is to bring out general lessons which can help the Left in the trade unions today. (Many of the specific examples I give are from South Wales where I lived and worked alongside miners and their wives in 1984 but hopefully the reader will see they are used to illustrate general processes at work).
In particular, this account intends to show that Britain during this colossal battle was involved in a virtual civil war with the working class solidly behind the miners and – particularly when she was winning – the ruling class solidly behind Thatcher.
We never believed that the miners’ defeat was preordained as some on the Left felt – including the Socialist Workers’ Party with its theory of the ‘downturn’ which ultimately held that workers’ struggles could not be successful.
And a recounting of that momentous year holds many rich lessons for future struggles of working-class people, which need to be touched on. In particular it should address key questions that have been used since the strike to hold back workers’ struggles by the right-wing union leaders.
They have used the strike’s defeat as a means to attack militancy and justify their rolling over in front of the bosses’ attacks, which has led to a big reduction in union membership that is only now beginning to be reversed.
Although the new generation of union members have shown little fear of the anti-union laws as they have moved into struggle, the new Left leaders in the trade unions, the so-called ‘awkward squad’, are still intimidated by the miners’ defeat. The awkward squad have (so far) lacked confidence to launch the kind of all-out struggles needed which could successfully turn the tables on 20 years of the bosses’ brutal attacks.
For all of these reasons, and because of the huge volume of material that has denigrated the miners or drawn false and negative conclusions about the strike, there is a need for this account. We hope it will draw out the vital lessons that are applicable to a new generation of working-class militants in the 21st century.
1 Observer, 22 February 2004
2 New Statesman, 14 December 1984
3 The Independent, 5 March 2004
The Guardian, 8 March 2004