Here We Go! Forty years on from the outbreak of the Great Strike

Forty years ago today British miners began industrial action in what became the longest and most bitter strike of the twentieth century. Here Brian Parkin, a former Research Officer for the National Union of Mineworkers, gives a brief introduction to this pivotal strike, the defeat of which has had a huge influence on the nature of class struggle in Britain since then.

Miners’ mass meeting, Port Talbot, 1984 – photo by Alan Denney used under CC licence.

The seeds of revenge

In March 1970 a Conservative government, led by Edward Heath, came into office with the expressed intentions of resolving Britain’s economic problems at the expense of the trade unions. Beset by both rising inflation and low productivity, Heath proposed to resolve these problems by a ‘Price and Incomes’ policy. Wages, particularly for those in the public sector, were to be held down by means of statutory pay ‘restraint’, in the hope that emboldened private sector bosses would follow suit. This held for almost two years, but was  shattered by the miners in a national strike in the January and February 1972.

After seven weeks on strike, the miners, under ‘Special Case’ provision, settled for a 21% pay rise – albeit with overtime undertakings which proved to be both divisive and decisive factors at a later date.

Very much the same was to occur in 1974, where another miners’ strike led to a three-day working week, rotational power cuts and a ‘State of Emergency’ in February.  Heath rushed for a general election, under the slogan of ‘who rules the country, the miners or the government?’ The voters narrowly replied ‘not you’, and the new Labour government under Harold Wilson sued for peace with a 32% pay award to the miners.

For the Tories, this represented a massive humiliation. It was not just a loss of electoral legitimacy, but seemed a surrender to a particularly militant section of the working class who seemed to show scant regard for the ‘rule of law’, particularly in their chosen weapon of the mass picket.

Settling the score

The Wilson and Callaghan governments were slow-motion disasters, and the general election of March 1979 saw the Tories back in office and more determined than ever to take on the workers’ movement. Following their defeat in 1974, the Tories, now under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, had lost little time in making serious plans for a subsequent term in office. Much has been written about ‘The Politics of Thatcherism’[1], and much of it over-hyped. But certainly the adoption of some formulation of neoliberalism had informed and motivated the Tory leadership[2].

Loathing of the state-owned industries and lust for a ‘double whammy’ of privatisation and union busting were key factors that led to them deciding on a showdown with steel workers in the British Steel strike in 1981. A key part of their strategy was appointing a renowned American union-buster Ian McGregor as chairman of the Steel Corporation in advance of the strike – who would then go on to chair the National Coal Board.

And in the spring of 1984 McGregor pushed forward plans to close ‘uneconomic’ pits in Yorkshire, knowing full well that this would provoke a strike. (In fact, several pits in Yorkshire were already out over related issues when the official strike began.)

In a summit between senior cabinet ministers, Home Office advisors and senior police officers, Thatcher had expressed doubts regarding the ability of police officers to deal with mass strike actions and pickets in particular. But she was assured that legislation designed by a Tory ‘wet’ home secretary, Jim Prior, would amply give the police the powers required to contain mass picketing and ‘secondary’ (solidarity) strike action that miners had used to win in 1972 and 1974,

The strong state

 It is an enduring paradox of ‘neoliberalism’ that whilst advocating the virtue of the ‘small state’, an enduring requirement for its ‘consensual’ agenda, is a strong state and a full panoply of repression. This was especially true of Thatcher and her ‘dry’ Tory cabal in their pursuit for a revenge that would restore the Tories as the party of law-and-order, as well as the scourge of collective power. Yet it remains an enduring claim of Thatcher ideologues that it was not until the summer of 1984, that the government was with great ‘regret’  forced to intervene. This followed the ‘battle of Orgreave’ – in fact a defeat for the miners – which prompted Tory claims that law and order in the coalfields had ‘broken down irreparably’,

In fact the Ridley Plan[3] of 1977 had proposed a number of stratagems, including covert and even questionably legal measures, that a Tory government should resort to in emergencies of its own making. These included the retraining of all branches of the police in mass crowd control, cross-constabulary command and control, creative arrest and charge methods, as well as reinstating arcane laws enforcing internal exile, ‘besetting’ and sequestrations of union funds and assets. The plan also played on the advantage of an innately conservative BBC bias[4], as well as the assumed support of most of the print media, and how to play them with a combination of favours and/or the threat of D Notices.

But in reality, the overall strategy for both micro and macro-management of the strike had been clear from 1983 with the appointment of Ian McGregor. The overtime and bonus undertakings of the 1974 settlement had widened earnings between the Nottinghamshire pits and those of other coalfields, and a key part of the plan was their expectation (unfortunately accurate) that most Notts miners would not strike against closures in other areas, thus fatally weakening the strike. From the beginning of 1984 onwards, incremental pit closures were announced until the NUM were forced to take action.

The power struggle

What was clear (to some of us) that a long strike could only be won with ‘the lights going out’; the key issue would be stopping fuel getting into the power stations. In reality, the Tories had bet on the strike lasting no longer than the end of the summer of 1984, beyond which coal stocks would exhaust and the government would be forced to sue for some kind of truce, even with Nottinghamshire and some smaller areas scabbing.

And despite heavy fuel oil being pumped to some of the bigger power stations, it was by no means clear that this short-term fix would get the government through the winter. Which is when Walter Marshall of the Central Electricity Generating Board stepped in, offering the UK nuclear power stations to fill the capacity gap. It is reported that when this was put to the cabinet there was considerable dissent, not least regarding matters of safety, plus also the certainty of the government being finished if it was seen to have risked public safety in  pursuit of a vendetta with the miners. But almost miraculously (for them) things held, and a mild winter plus a growing return of miners to work coordinated by Tory strategists and the media, led to the strike finally being called off, one day to the year it had started.

Community and gender

The strike could not have lasted very long had it not been for the cohesion and solidarity of the mining communities. And central to this was the resilience and activism of the miners’ wives and partners. By the summer of 1984 Women Against the Pit Closure (WAPC) groups had sprung up in every coalfield. Apart from collecting for and running miners’ welfare meals kitchens, it was those women who found a voice, traveling up and down the country, speaking at packed public meetings, trade union branches and student unions.

Women also increasingly formed the backbone of many picket lines, stepping in for many miners on bail or in some cases, remanded in custody. Among many impressive displays of solidarity from across the trade union movement, there was of course the rightly celebrated occasion of a lesbian and gay London collective taking food and other supplies to a Welsh mining community. The film Pride is a moving and inspiring record of the solidarity and the breaking-down of taboo and class stereotypes that resulted.

And it was with heads held high that the WAPC groups in many cases led the miners’ marches back to the pits on 5 March 1985, a year on from when the Greatest Strike in British history had begun. The Tories were victorious, but we remember with pride and with sorrow a fight that could – and should – have been won.

[1] The Politics of Thatcherism, Stuart Hall, Martin Jacques et al. (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983).

[2] A point over which the late Neil Davidson and I spent many hours and rail station coffees arguing. Evidence of Neil’s superior interpretation of events can be found in his What was Neoliberalism? (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2023).

[3] A policy paper drawn together by Nicholas Ridley in 1977 which made a series of suggestions – some of them ‘dark ops’ – required for a government to provoke, withstand and win national strikes and other disorders without recourse to emergency legislation.

[4] See Nicholas Jones, former chief industrial correspondent for the BBC during the miners’ strike, If Only…..Some soul searching over the 1984-85 miners’ strike. 2014 speech, Newcastle University – recording available here. Also his book Strikes and the Media (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1986).

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