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From The Socialist newspaper, 7 November 2012

October 1992 battle against pit closures

Hundreds of thousands march against vicious Tory government

Mike Forster

On 13 October 1992, the then Tory trade secretary, Michael Heseltine, announced the closure of 31 of the 50 deep coal mines that remained in the UK after Thatcher's closures in the 1980s.

He committed 1 billion for redundancy payments which would see the workforce decimated by 30,000.

An explosion of anger erupted, taking the newly elected smug Tory government by complete surprise. Within eight days, a mid-week protest demo, initiated by the miners' union NUM, attracted 100,000 to London.

Even the normally hostile Tory media reflected the mood of anger: The Sun described a "mighty army of miners" whose march for coal and jobs "won the support of Britain's diehard Tories".

To the paper's evident surprise, "Sloane rangers left their tables at swanky eateries and customers poured from posh boutiques to wave them on".

The government was thrown into disarray. An emergency debate was held in the House of Commons where Heseltine was forced to pledge a 'review' of 21 pits before any final decision was taken.

The following weekend, a monster demo of a quarter of a million, called by the TUC, marched through London in pouring rain.

This rapid mobilisation in the space of two weeks was a reflection of the huge distrust working people felt towards the government. But representatives from the CBI and the Lib Dems were invited to speak on the platform!

Arthur Scargill, president of the NUM who had led the 1984-85 strike, had always maintained that the Tories had a secret hit-list of pits they wanted to close.

But Heseltine's closure programme actually went much further than Scargill had predicted.

But, instead of launching a new stage of the struggle, the London demos were the TUC's final attempt to halt the Tories.

The so-called review took place and reported back to parliament in December.

This announced the closure of 19 pits on top of the ten pits which had already shut. Others were to be 'mothballed'.

The miners had fought a battle to save the pits in 1984-85, and lost. The mobilisation of the wider trade union movement in general strike action could have forced the Tories back then, and in 1992.

But the TUC was more afraid of the NUM's militancy than the government's alternative energy plan. There was no call issued for any general strike action after the demo at the end of October 1992, despite demands by the NUM.

The TUC had left miners to fight alone in 1984-85 and they repeated the same betrayal in 1992.

Interview with Mary Jackson, Women Against Pit Closures

Within a week of Heseltine's announcement, Women Against Pit Closures had set up three permanent camps at Markham Main, Grimethorpe and outside the Department of Trade which became a rallying point for the resistance. Mike Forster spoke to Mary Jackson, one of the activists.

What impact did the pit closure announcement have?

I can still remember the Heseltine announcement. It had an instant impact on workers everywhere.

My husband was working at Drax power station at the time where there was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

But after the call went out to go to London, the workforce lost their fear. There was no strike action, they just didn't go into work and instead they all went to London. That was the feeling everywhere: they have gone too far and we can't let this happen.

How did the pit camps come to be set up?

The first pit camp was set up by Brenda Nixon and Anne Scargill at Markham Main pit in Armthorpe village.

The village had a great militant tradition; they had been cordoned off by the police in the strike but never buckled.

The camp was just a tarpaulin and a brazier. There was a hard-core of us of about eight to ten women but we had supporters visiting all the time.

Every day people visited with food, wood, coal and messages of support. There was a woman who lived at the end of the lane who opened up her toilet to the camp and kept it clean for us all to use.

We camped out every night in some of the coldest weather British winters had to throw at us.

Why was it mainly women who got involved?

Women had gained a lot of confidence through their role in the 1984-85 miners' strike and the camp came as a natural extension of the struggle to save the pits. The camps motivated more women to get active and became a symbol of resistance.

Women were more frightened than the men about the impact pit closures would have on their communities and children.

They were frightened of losing their way of life. Look at pit villages today - we were right.

Tell us about the demos in London

The first demo was amazing. There was a lot of middle class people and folk from down south where they had no pits.

I was surprised at the accents and the chanting which was all very 'correct'. It was an uprising of middle and working class Britain.

The second demo was electric and everyone was buzzing. The whole country wanted to save the pits and there was a feeling we were going to win.

So why did the pits still close?

In reality the Tories didn't shut the pits. In the strike they bribed the police and the judiciary with huge pay rises and special treatment. This time, they dangled a lifetime's salary as a redundancy pay-off.

The men had been battered in the strike and felt even worse for taking the money, but they had been left to fight alone again. They felt they had no choice. Most of them just walked away.

I remember one miner at Markham Main, Buck, who refused to be bribed and turned up for work on his own every day. He signed on at the pit, was sent away and came for a cup of tea with us.

By December when the review was finished, most of the miners had already gone.

How could the pits have stayed open then?

There was a mood for a fight all over the country. If the TUC had called a 24-hour general strike straight after the demo and threatened more if that didn't work, we would have won.

The Militant [the Socialist's predecessor] urged the NUM to name the day for a strike if the TUC were not prepared to. The Tories were on the ropes and they knew it. The TUC let them off the hook.

What lessons are there for today's struggles?

Thatcher took us on one by one and beefed up the state to smash us when we fought back. When she took us all on in the poll tax, she got beaten.

This lot haven't learned that lesson and are trying to take us all on, including the police and even the armed forces.

The poll tax attack united great swathes of people who had no obvious things in common 20 years ago. In 1992, there was one broadcast, the mood changed and workers everywhere said we've had enough.

Now they are attacking teachers, civil servants, the sick and disabled, the unemployed, council workers - and they are making a huge mistake. We've already forced the TUC to vote for general strike action - even if it's the last thing they want!

Times are clearly changing. People are getting ready to fight back. We have to force the TUC to call a 24-hour general strike, with the threat of more to come, and this lot will crumple. I can't wait to see it.

A Civil War Without Guns - The lessons of the 1984-85 miners' strike

by Ken Smith

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In The Socialist 7 November 2012:


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