On 6 March 1984, the walkout at Cortonwood Colliery signalled the beginning of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Thirty-five years on, Colin Revolting remembers how he and his fellow students at Goldsmiths’ College offered support and solidarity to the striking miners over the year that followed.
Spring term 1984
A group of activists are chatting in the Students Union bar when we hear that the National Union of Miners (NUM) have come out on strike. It’s bad timing for the miners, and me. For the miners it’s the beginning of spring so coal is in less demand. For me, the end of year exams are looming and I was about to ease up on being so active politically. Oh well…
Talk in the bar turns into a heated discussion about the miners strikes of the 1970s: the power cuts which plunged us all into darkness and eventually brought down the Tory government. We would love to see history repeated and an end to the Thatcher regime.
There’s something in the air, something is beginning. So far, being at Goldsmiths’ College has felt like living on an island as South East London roars past. The outside world is about to make an impact on all of us – and in my case affect the rest of my life.
Summer term 1984
When we return after Easter the miners strike has spread across the country, except in the Nottinghamshire coalfield where most miners are refusing to join the strike. A call goes out for a mass picket and march in the heart of Nottinghamshire, so a coach full of students and other local strike supporters head north. The sun is shining and there’s a great turn out, but a number of incidents mean the day is depressing.
‘Here we go, here we go, here we go,’ everyone sings as we parade down Mansfield High Street holding high our SU banner. A National Coal Board (NCB) train trundles across a bridge above us piled high with coal. The NCB are boasting that the strike isn’t biting and power cuts are a long way off. Some of young miners near us chant at young women standing on the pavement, ‘Get your tits out for the lads!’ and a couple of the women do! Later we hear a chant from the back of the march, ‘I’d rather be a Paki, than a scab!’
We return to the coach downhearted and confused. It takes Lindsey Roth, a 3rd year nursing student and experienced trade unionist, to offer another perspective: ‘Who supported the Asian women on the Grunwicks picket lines in 1976? It wasn’t the Labour Government. It wasn’t the TUC. It was miners who stood in solidarity with them.’
The miners need money: for petrol, so they can travel the country as flying pickets and, for food to feed their families. Lindsey calls the first meeting of the Goldsmiths’ Miners Support Group. We rattle buckets all around college crying, ‘Dig deep for the miners!’ We propose a solidarity motion which passed at a packed SU meeting, and paste up posters saying VICTORY TO THE MINERS all along Lewisham Way and down Deptford High Street.
Even more than money the miners need solidarity action. They need the other trades unions to open up a second front.
My department, Media and Communications, announces that lecturers are to be cut from the small staff team. The SU launch a campaign against the job cuts. Some people suggest letters to the College Dean, whilst we call for an occupation.
The anti-cuts campaign begins with petitions and lobbying the governors but soon picks up speed, and busy with the strike, we have to run to catch up. Before we know it, a hundred students are occupying the Administration block. The Head of Department making the cuts is known for his book Power Without Responsibility – and with the addition of a kind question mark the phrase is emblazoned on a huge banner hung across the occupied building.
Passions of all kinds are running high during the occupation. There’s a constant fear of eviction by the police, days of debate, visits from students, miners and other trade unionists and sleeping on the hard office floors. For over a week the experience is exhilarating but also exhausting.
Miners have spoken at most meetings I’ve been at in college and around south east London. They usually spend 5-10 minutes explaining the miners case, updating us on the action and making an appeal for support. The miner who arrives at the occupation introduces himself as Norman Strike and it’s his real name. Norman has so many stories to tell, and tells them so well that he keeps everyone in the occupation entranced for the best part of an hour.
Richard Hoggart, the College Dean, is reaching retirement and plays a waiting game rather than call the police to evict us. Not that we don’t do much to provoke him – hi-jacking his end of year speech and the rest. With summer holidays approaching we end the occupation after eight days and sit our exams. The cuts to staff are postponed and we cautiously celebrate.
Lindsey graduates and it takes time for me to recognise that she lead our group of socialists with such a sophisticated and unassuming manner that it was easy not to realise she was doing so. Perhaps ‘guiding’ us better describes what Lindsey did, with much patience, persuasion and determination. I’m the first to admit that when it’s left to me to co-ordinate the group, I fail to do so without annoying several supporters.
Autumn term 1984
Amazingly the miners strike is still going strong when we return to college (I had passed my first year exams). A shortage of funds and food means things are now more desperate for the miners’ families. Women from the mining communities are playing a more and more crucial role as the strike fights to sustain itself. Two women from the Shirebrook Colliery in Derbyshire come to our union meeting. Though nervous and reluctant to speak, they tell moving tales of hardship, solidarity and resilience.
The SU president chairing the meeting is a LibDem and insists, ‘Questions only, no speeches.’ In response to the questions the women describe breaking out of their former lives of kids, kitchen and mundane jobs and how they’re ‘never going back.’ I raise my hand and the SU president reminds me, ‘No speeches, only questions…’ We hope more students will actively support the strike, so I mention the meetings and activities of the Miners Support Group and our coach to a mass picket of Tilbury power station. As I do so, the President keeps butting in, ‘Ask a question Colin or sit down…’
‘Here’s my question,’ I say to the Derbyshire women, ‘We’ve collected £347 this term… Do you want it?’
‘Yes please,’ they smile appreciatively.
One Sunday afternoon in December a coach load of students head down to Betteshanger Colliery in Kent with some Christmas presents. We have an evening in the Miners’ Social Club and are put up in miners’ family homes. We rise before dawn to join the other miners and students marching down the dark country lanes to the pit singing, ‘I’d rather be a picket than a scab.’ I haven’t heard the racist or sexist chants since the march in Mansfield near the beginning of the strike. Not a single miner has crossed their picket line, but neither have they persuaded the foremen at the pit to join the strike, so the picket is a dignified but frustrating affair and we’re soon back at the social club for sausage sandwiches. Our host, Alan, laments, ‘We’ve been left to fight Thatcher alone – Labour and TUC leaders have abandoned us.’
As well as marches, meetings, and pickets of power stations, there are many benefit gigs, comedy and social events organised to support the miners. Evenings of drinking, dancing and laughter raise spirits and well needed cash. At one gig a friend is so incensed that the miners aren’t being acknowledged that he harangues the band. They shout back that they had done many benefits for the miners, but that they also have to earn something for themselves. I grab a beer mug and stand at the door collecting cash as people leave.
Despite increased hardship and the failure of union leaders to organise strike action there is generous solidarity from supporters (over a third of the population support the strike) and the miners stand firm through Christmas and into the new year…
Spring term 1985
Fatigue is affecting everyone involved in the strike, but rattling buckets back in the college bar still raises some money and some debate. ‘What about the violence on picket lines?’ asks one student. ‘When the police aren’t around there is no violence,’ I answer. The student attends the Miners Support Group the following week to pursue the debate further. She introduces herself as Kirsti and a month later joins the final Victory to the Miners march across London. Almost a year into the dispute I’m grateful to have someone else to help carry the SU banner. ‘Here we go, here we go, here we go…’
The most militant miners lead part of the march down Whitehall towards No. 10 Downing Street (Thatcher hasn’t erected those metal gates at the time). The police stand in the way and push turns to shove. ‘The Workers united will never be defeated,’ everyone chants and links arms. Fighting breaks out with the police, a reflection of the bitterness, determination and frustration of the miners and their supporters.
The strike ends in defeat. The effects of which impact on the country for decades. The women and men of the mining communities fought an astonishing battle and were made to pay a bitter price by the government. For those of us across the country who fought alongside the miners we gave something of ourselves to support the strike but received so much more in return. In sometimes small, but significant, ways we have continued to do so down the decades… VICTORY TO THE MINERS!
(By the way I got a 2.1 – activity and academic achievement can mix.)
Dedicated to the memory of life-long socialist, Lindsey Roth (later Lindsey Brewerton) – a warm, determined and hopeful person. 1953 – 2011 ‘She had a kind word to say for everyone – except the Tories.’
This article was first published on this site on the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike, in 2014.