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"War Without Guns" The Miners’ Strike 1984-85

“I’ve heard people call it ‘the great miners’ strike in 1984’. Well there was fuck all great about it! Thatcher sacked us, the polis’ beat us up, and the TUC and Neil Kinnock shit on us. It was a year of misery for the miners and their families, and we had a few mair besides trying to get back on oor feet. Some never made it yet.” Archie Campbell, a retired miner from Kelty summed up the miners’ strike from a (somewhat sardonic) miner’s viewpoint. It happened 20 years ago, and it seems like yesterday to many of us, but many people today, especially younger people, must be wondering just what the hell we are talking about. What was it about? Why did it happen? How did they last for a whole year on strike? Could it happen again? And what lessons can we learn from it? Jock Penman, SSP organiser in Fife and Central Scotland and a leading Fife trade-unionist at the time of the strike looks back.

The Miners’ Strike Was Inevitable.

On one side of this titanic struggle we had a Tory government under the leadership of a real class warrior, Margaret Thatcher, who was determined to push through monetarist economic reforms which meant investment in the service industries like banking, insurance and financial services rather than Public Services. This would lead to one third of the manufacturing industry in Britain being wiped out, extensive privatisation and cuts in wages and conditions, and the ‘sale’ of Public Utilities. She was well aware that before she could achieve her monetarist aims she would have to break the power of the Trades Unions, and the ‘Spartans’ of the entire labour movement were the miners.

They had taken on the National Coal Board in 1972 and defeated them, making them among the highest-paid workers in the country. Again, in 1974 they took on the Edward Heath government when he was obliged to call a state of emergency, with an enforced three-day working week. Again, the miners won, forcing Heath out of office. Margaret Thatcher, the Education Minister at that time, had made a name for herself as ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’ because she had stopped free school milk for primary school kids, was incandescent with rage and never forgave Heath. Saltley coke plant had been successfully picketed by miners, humiliating the police in the process, and allegedly giving them a bit of a doing. Neither the miners nor the police forgot that.

In 1981, with Thatcher now Prime Minister, the government announced that 23 pits were to close. The miners threatened strike action, and the government apparently caved in again. But this was not the time to take on the miners. Thatcher took more seriously the advice given to Heath in ‘74, “He should have remembered that all English history to that date had warned him not to pick a fight with the Church of England or the National Union of Mineworkers”. Joe Gormley, then President of the NUM, advised the NUM executive that there was no need to ballot on the threatened national strike as the government had backed down. Mick McGahey, the Scottish Miners’ leader was not convinced, saying, “I am very far from satisfied with the meeting, which only amounts to promises to review the situation…. On the real issues there are no concrete agreements.” He was proved to be absolutely correct. Gormley was later revealed to be working for MI5. Thatcher lost nothing, making only a tactical retreat from a skirmish to prepare for the real battle. He later stated that he deliberately stayed in office until Mick McGahey, then his vice-president, was too old under union rules to stand for the presidency. Many believe that if he had won it is unlikely that McGahey would have taken the NUM into battle at (what was) the wrong time and in the wrong circumstances. But the miners were forced into the fight.

People in the mining communities revered the miners’ union, the NUM. Historically the mines had kept whole communities alive, with miners themselves financing brass and pipe bands, institutes and clubs, the local Co-operative Societies and Gothenburgs, and mining communities were tight-knit communities. They also promoted relations with workers abroad. Chilean Trades Unionists, socialists and communists, were ‘adopted’ by the miners to prevent them being jailed, tortured and/or murdered by the military junta under the butcher Pinochet. Socialist ideals had played a major role in mining communities partly through the activities of the CP in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Miners had gone on strike in support of other workers in dispute. They even went on strike for more pay for the nurses so they wouldn’t have to strike, because it adversely affected mainly working class patients – with miners and retired miners forming a significant proportion. Yet it should be recognised that many people, particularly in the cities, looked down on mining folk.

The history of the miners’ struggles was one to be proud of and envied by others, and their new President, Arthur Scargill, was a fiery left-winger who was an uncompromising, strong, powerful orator who would never sell them out. There was a justifiable confidence about them that they could defeat Thatcher, with the help of the entire Labour Movement – if Arthur thought it was necessary.

Only one side was fully prepared for this mammoth encounter.

Thatcher had planned for this strike, for years. She and her advisers had learned the hard lessons of ’72 and ’74. She introduced more anti-Trades Union legislation and a new Metropolitan Police Force which covered the entire country. Coal was stockpiled, and the government prepared in military fashion for the battle to come. Some of her closest advisers and cohorts have admitted that the Miners’ Strike was planned, “with military precision.” Former chancellor Nigel Lawson (Nigella’s dad), said, “it was just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930’s.”

On 28th March 1983 Thatcher appointed Ian McGregor as head of British Coal. This was an open declaration of war on the mining industry and particularly on the NUM. McGregor had a history as an industrial mercenary both in America, where he used brutal methods to close down pits and as Chair of British Steel had overseen massive job losses. His objective was clear – shut down pits and break the power of the NUM, and prepare for privatisation.

The miners’ leaders, in stark contrast, relied on tried and tested methods of secondary picketing, calling out other workers and applying the sheer strength and discipline of the NUM members. Miners who were still working, like those in Nottinghamshire, were expected to go on strike because their brothers elsewhere were on strike, fighting for their future. There seemed no need for any further explanation. They also relied on Power Stations running out of coal, necessary for their operation, which were tactics which worked in ’72, ’74 and, apparently, in ’81.

The strike kicked off, as was widely expected when British Coal announced that Cortonwood was closing, on March 5th 1984. It wasn’t uniform by any means, each Area going out at various points over the month. Many miners, particularly the older ones, saw an opportunity to get out of the pits with a decent redundancy payment so they voted against strike action, but when they lost the vote they were on strike with the rest. There was no national ballot, but that was normal for the NUM. Each Area conducted their own ballot, and it was expected that the others would follow the lead set by the Yorkshire Area. This was used by Neil Kinnock as an excuse to betray the miners, and for Labour and right-wing trades unionist commentators to later declare that the miners lost because they didn’t call a national ballot.

McGregor declared, “Our customers are prepared for a very lengthy strike. Judging by what our customers have done, they have put together large stocks because of their concern about the fairly wild statements that have been made.” About 4 months’ supply of coal (22 million tonnes) at the pitheads, and a further 26 million tones at the power stations, had been stockpiled ready for a prolonged strike, but the preparations were made to last only 6 months – not a year.

This was a different strike altogether from ’72 or ’74. This was not about wages or conditions, to improve the lot of the suffering miner and his family. This was a strike to save a way of life. This was a strike to keep their self-respect, maintain a living standard, ensure that the communities stayed alive and that there would be jobs (hellish jobs but jobs none-the-less) for the next generation of young men looking to earn a few bob. I never met a miner yet who wanted his son to go down the pit. They wanted their families to get clean, healthy jobs where they didn’t have to break their backs. But the miners were realistic. Somebody had to do it, and they knew that the pits were essential to the very fabric of their communities.

It should be remembered that thousands of women all over the country, who worked at the collieries, were also on strike in 1984.

Almost as soon as the strike started Women’s Support Groups began to be set up. In some areas, like Cowdenbeath, there was strong opposition from the men and they had to be persuaded to ‘allow’ the women to be part of the struggle. (As if they weren’t already more than part of the struggle; it was just that no-one really mentioned it!) Even when the strike was going against the miners, when morale was low, and they were on the point of starvation, the women stood strong.

The Role of the State.

Thatcher put her plans into action, using the media to portray the miners as thugs, before a blow was even struck. The police were used to great effect, though they were not used in their own communities, but bused in from the cities in particular. Many miners swear to this day that there were soldiers in police uniforms. Miners were beaten and arrested for virtually standing still. During the strike, 2 miners died on the picket lines, 3 died digging for coal in the winter, 320,000 people were injured or even hospitalised during the strike, 11,300 were arrested, 100 were jailed, and many lost their homes, even their families, due to the poverty the strike caused.

The media had a field day when a concrete slab was (stupidly) dropped on to a taxi carrying one working miner in South Wales, killing the driver. However, the most damaging propaganda coup for Thatcher came when the IRA tried to blow her up in her Brighton hotel during the Tory Party Conference that year. She launched into an attack on the miners, comparing them to the IRA and calling them, ‘the enemy within’. This was an incredibly inaccurate, biased, outrageous but highly successful attack on the miners and their union.

Television reports were carefully edited to put a completely different view of the battles between pickets and police. Police brutality, which was widely acknowledged, was wiped from the footage; scenes were shown out of sequence to make the miners, angered by police activity, look like the aggressors. The miners were no angels but the media was blatantly and cynically used as a propaganda machine for the government.

In September a high court judge even declared the strike unlawful when two ‘separate’ groups of miners took the NUM to court. Who financed it? You may well ask. The judge, according to the media, “….stopped short of ordering the NUM to ballot its members,” but that “..miners could not be disciplined for crossing picket lines..” and the men, these true democrats, vowed to return to work - as if this decision actually meant something.

If proof were needed that the government and the police were treating the strike like a military exercise, indeed like a “war without guns” as former Labour MP and journalist Brian Walden described it, Orgreave, provided it.

Buses carrying miners were given a free run to Orgreave, a British Steel coking plant, whereas on previous occasions when they were going to picket the buses were stopped. This time the police were very co-operative. The police would no longer have a bit of banter with pickets, unlike in ’72 and ’74. This time they had riot shields, and set another disturbing precedent when they rattled their batons against them like Roman soldiers going into battle. Most of the miners wore just t-shirts, some just shorts, and they were in carnival mood, playing football and eating ice-cream. The police wore body armour, and they were lined up in ranks, lines of them holding riot shields and truncheons and wearing helmets. They looked the part. There were lines of dog-handlers too, and then there were the mounted police. When the lines of ‘footsoldiers’ parted on command, they charged, causing panic among the six thousand miners, most of whom were still just standing around in the sunshine. Even the miners didn’t know what was really happening at that time, or that they had been led into a carefully planned trap, not till the cavalry charged.


As the strike wore on things got harder for many miners’ families. In Kelty, where I live, we held a gala to try to keep the spirits up, and to raise much-needed cash. Local shop-keepers contributed money or goods, though some were reluctant, and there were more than a few sheep ‘borrowed and butchered’ from local farms.

One young couple from Cowdenbeath had not long been married and Kath was pregnant when the strike started. They had both been earning decent wages and had been seduced by the Thatcher philosophy of ‘leading independent lives’, independent of the state, owning your own house and car. The acceptance of privatisation was a real marketing success for Thatcher in the early years. However, there was no way the miners and their families were going to allow their lifestyle to come before their principles, as had been predicted by some union and Labour Party pundits. When Kath could no longer work because the baby was due, the house went because they simply couldn’t afford the mortgage, then the car and other luxuries they had begun to take for granted, but women in the community rallied round to make sure the baby wanted for nothing. Others, however, were not so fortunate.

To be called a scab is one of the worst insults anyone can throw at you, particularly in mining communities. Men who scabbed in the 1926 General Strike were never forgotten or forgiven even to this day and the very mention invokes anger among the old miners. In 1984 the rules were still the same, even though the strikers and their families were tested to the limit of their endurance.

The miners depended almost entirely on contributions from the working communities to feed them and their families. The Guardian reported that over £60M had been raised during the strike, with many workplaces also donating food parcels, and toys for the kids at Christmas. Some active trade unionists worked hard to raise money, but others did very little, citing their leadership attitude, “..that the miners had bitten off more than they could chew, and it wasn’t worth the whole TU movement suffering because their leader wanted to bring down Thatcher” as a reason for turning their backs on the miners. Scargill was seen as an ultra-left, self-opinionated maverick by other TU leaders.

So much money had been collected that the media began to circulate the lie that Scargill had been getting money from Gaddaffi. The government felt confident enough to freeze the assets of the NUM. Clearly this was a crude attempt to break the strike.

It is true that the TUC had (narrowly) voted against a motion to call a national strike in support of the miners, and that most of the TU leadership envied and hated Scargill. If the miners had beaten Thatcher the effect on their members would have been enormous. The other unions didn’t have the discipline, the history or the militancy of the miners, so they weren’t as confident as Scargill. Nevertheless, they would undoubtedly have been forced to take on the bosses, and even the government for better wages and conditions for their members. Public opinion swayed to and fro during that long year, but even when support for the miners was at its highest, Neil Kinnock sat on his hands. He didn’t even visit a picket line until the strike was all but over.

Yet there were times when the miners looked like winning. Thatcher and her allies had only planned for a maximum of 6 months, and they began to look very shaky after that, like when NACODs, the pit deputies’ union looked like joining the strike in October. If NACODS had joined the strike, the miners would undoubtedly have won. All the pits would have been closed down, and that was what the miners’ leaders were after. But they voted against, to be subsequently betrayed by McGregor, and that had a serious effect on morale.

As it was the miners were gubbed. But Thatcher and her pals had no cause to celebrate. After a narrow vote of 98 to 91 by the NUM Executive, the miners marched back to work, their banners waving, but with heavy hearts. Arthur Scargill declared, “One of the reasons is that the Trades Union Movement of Britain, with a few notable exceptions, has left this Union isolated. We face nt an employer but a government aided and abetted by the judiciary, the police and you people in the media.”

It was very much a pyrhic victory. While the Miners’ Strike was in progress the government had not had time to deal with Liverpool City Council’s defiant stance. That was still going strong, and it took the Labour leadership to do that for them. But the resilience of ordinary people remained strong, and when the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign began, and the fight was taken from the industrial battlefield to the communities, people were more than willing to have a go. The mining communities wanted revenge and it was very easy to organise Anti-Poll Tax Unions in the mining villages. In some pit villages we couldn’t organise Public Meetings fast enough, and Anti-Poll Tax Unions were set up before we even got there.

However, the official Trade Union movement was in full retreat. Thatcher’s infamous claim that, “There is no alternative” was echoed by trade unionists and Labour who had accepted ‘New Realism’.

Asbjørn Wahl, a Norwegian Trade Union leader explained in an excellent article, “The few trade unions that tried to take action against the neoliberal attacks, as did the British mineworkers, were defeated. In the British case, one reason for defeat was that the bureaucracy of the trade union confederation (TUC) considered militant industrial action to be a bigger threat to the consensus policy of the social pact than the furious attacks from the mining companies and the Thatcherite regime. Many years later, the TUC admitted that it had been wrong not to support the miners’ strike, but by then the damage had been done. And remarkably, the TUC has not altered its support for the social pact.” Had the miners won, the political shape of Britain, indeed the world, would have changed. Thatcher would have been brought down, as she was later because of the Poll Tax defeat; Kinnock would have been Prime Minister (“Oh great!” I hear you say) and Britain would not be following the path of an extreme right-wing American administration. Instead we would be following the reformist line of European social democracy, for as long as it lasts. We would certainly not have been subjected to the explosive dogmatic surge towards monetarist economics and the misery that has brought.

And there wouldn’t have been a Scottish Socialist Party.

That’s all a load of ‘what-ifs’ but, nevertheless, is an indication of the importance of the titanic struggle which began 20 years ago - a struggle which will never be repeated on the industrial battlefield. The ‘big battalions of the Trades Union Movement’ have all but disappeared and, while we have seen remarkable struggles like those of the Nursery Nurses and the Fire Fighters, the Miners’ Strike stands out as the real industrial battle of the last 75 years. For a long time to come workers will rely on localised campaigns like the Medical Secretaries and the other NHS workers in Glasgow to protect their interests, rather than national TU campaigns. While strike action is being considered by many workers under threat, confidence in the TUC is almost non-existant.