Government and unions set the miners up for defeat

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It's 40 years since the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85. The BBC and Channel 4 broadcast some documentaries to commemorate it[1]. These programmes focussed mainly on the testimonies of miners as well as some of their wives who joined the picket lines and protest demos. We were also served up comments from individual police and those state functionaries involved in planning and plotting the defeat of the struggle. The documentaries want to show the tragedy of the strike, the hopelessness of a situation where the miners were overpowered by police, and where there was division and fragmentation across the various regions of the British coalfields and violence on the picket lines between the pickets and miners who decided to cross them. The obvious conclusion from this is that “struggle doesn't pay”.

Revolutionaries must draw the lessons of the defeat and place these events in the broader context of the struggles of the international working class taking place at the time. This strike followed in the aftermath of the 1980 Polish mass strike and in a period when many struggles had occurred and were still occurring across the European heartlands. At the time of the miners' strike there was the potential for a broader struggle with some level of support from striking dockers, or from workers in the steel industry and transport sector, but the TUC and the other unions acted to isolate and disarm the strike, which led to its ultimate defeat. One clear lesson to draw is that there is no way in which one sector of the working class can defeat a capitalist state machine that is well-prepared and well-armed.


The emergence of Thatcherism

The history of miners’ strikes in 1971/72, 1974, and 1981 demonstrated a real solidarity and unity that was effective in enabling workers to push back government attacks and establish the miners as a vanguard sector of the working class during this period. However, a big change was afoot; a new government had taken office in 1979 with a Prime Minister on a mission to apply some drastic surgery to the ailing British economy through privatisations of state-owned sectors, with measures to deregulate and open industry more directly to market forces, and with incentives provided to attract more investment. A key aim was to inflict a serious blow against the resistance of the working class in Britain as a whole. This was part of an international strategy of the ruling class, echoed by the policies of the Reagan administration in the US, the attacks on steelworkers' jobs in France, and so on. 

The miners were first in the firing line of this planned offensive. One of the miners actually speaks of discovering, in the aftermath of the strike, that the Tory party had devised a strategy called 'The Ridley Plan' in 1977 to prepare the Thatcher government for a confrontation with the miners. It proposed “Stockpiling coal at the power stations, training a large mobile police force and recruiting 'non-union' lorry drivers to take responsibility for transporting coal” as the way of defeating the miners and strengthening the hand of the capitalist state[2].

In the face of Thatcherism's anti-working class rhetoric, the NUM in 1982 elected Arthur Scargill, a demagogic figure from the left as national leader of the NUM. So, when the government announced the closure of 20 pits in the South Yorkshire, Kent and Scottish coalfields in 1984, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, the reaction in these coalfields was to take immediate strike action, and to deploy pickets across all the coalfields. Scargill and the national leadership were quick to take a strong grip on the situation, and ordered a mass walk-out across the British coalfields. The media portrayed the situation as a battle between two ideologues: “Thatcher versus Scargill”.

Flying pickets travelled to the other non-striking coalfields and there was immediate support from some pits at the outset, but quite early on hesitations began to appear in the Midlands coalfields of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire, where pits were considered more viable and profitable, and thus not faced with immediate closure. With permission from the national leadership, the local NUMs in these areas balloted their members and a particular focus fell on the Nottinghamshire coalfield which voted against strike action; a few individual miners began to cross the picket lines, which in turn gave rise to pickets arriving from the South Yorkshire coalfields. The government had the police on standby and squadrons were deployed from all over the country. They set up roadblocks to intercept miners, arresting them and charging them if they would not turn their vehicles around and return home; as a result, many were arrested. The Yorkshire miners who got through and joined the pickets at Ollerton colliery were held back by armed cops providing a safe passage for those going in to work.

These TV documentaries show that the media at the time painted the miners as violent law-breaking thugs inflicting violence on the police! Thatcher referred to it as “the rule of the mob, against the rule of the law”. The hostile government and media propaganda was used to create further divisions in workers' ranks, while the NUM leadership was happy to continue the physical confrontations with the police and would condone physical violence against those branded “scabs” for crossing the picket lines.


The so-called “Battle of Orgreave”

Both Channels focussed a lot on events at the Orgreave coking plant in south Yorkshire. Channel 4 devoted a whole episode to it, having been given film taken by NUM officials, said not to have been seen before. Orgreave supplied coke to the Scunthorpe steelworks in Lincolnshire and the NUM leadership believed that blockading it en masse could bring a turning point in the strike. Miners from across all the coalfields were sent there to obstruct lorries entering and leaving the plant. We were told that the NUM mobilised 8,000 miners. Those who were present on the day spoke of being surprised that there were no roadblocks and there was no problem finding parking. The police totalled around 6,000. They had come for a fight, dressed with riot shields, armed with batons, dogs and horses.

It was a summer's day, 18June, three months into the strike, and the miners were in tee-shirts and casual clothes, oblivious to what was in store for them. There was the usual push and shove between police and miners, but otherwise the mood seemed light, with some stone-throwing in the direction of the heavily armed riot police. But this stone-throwing became the excuse for the full-scale attack once the miners were hemmed in. One of the programmes shows Scargill urging the miners forward, encouraging them to surge towards the police lines, after which he then got himself arrested and removed from the scene before the onslaught began.

It was a total trap. With the stage set, the sea of police lines was given the order. A pathway for the mounted police cavalry was created and they drove the horses straight into the crowds of unprepared miners. The baton-wielding foot police followed closely behind. The footage shows miners having already suffered terrible injuries being dragged across the ground by teams of cops to then be arrested. And the assault didn't stop there, as the police, including those on horses, drove the miners from the coking plant into the pit village, a deliberate strategy to be able them to charge the miners with “riot”.  As one of the defence lawyers who represented the miners in court, Gareth Pierce, explained later, the charge of “riot” requires that a civilian population “is frightened” by protesters. This deliberate framing of the strikers and other lies and deceptions used in court by the police were duly exposed as fraudulent. On the day 95 miners were arrested, 55 charged with “riot”, which can come with a life sentence. The charges were dismissed in court after a 48-day trial and the South Yorkshire police were ordered to pay £425,000 compensation to the miners for assault, unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. By the end of the strike, across the whole of the British coalfields, there were 11,291 arrested and 8,392 charged with breaking the peace or obstructing the highway.

Thatcher revelled in the triumph of her well laid plan at Orgreave, continuing the lie that the miners were the ones who incited the violence. She drew a parallel between her victory in 1982 evicting the Argentinian forces from the Falkland Islands and the victory over the miners at Orgreave. For her, one was the “the enemy without” and the other “the enemy within”.

The defeat inflicted at Orgreave by the British government on the miners weakened the resolve among many miners. So, at the end of August some Yorkshire miners began to return to work for the first time. Nonetheless the strike would be dragged out for a further 6 months. Orgreave symbolised the broader trap laid by the NUM, which aimed to convince workers that the strike could be won through a war of attrition in a single sector, a total blocking of coal supplies, rather than extending the struggle to other sectors of the class.


The demand for the national ballot

In one of the TV programmes a miner in the Nottinghamshire coalfield who was an NUM representative there, strongly criticised the fact that there was no national ballot across all the UK coalfields, which he claimed would have united all the miners behind the all-out strike from the start. This lack of a ballot became a common refrain and a criticism in the media of the 'undemocratic' NUM leadership of Scargill. At the end of August when miners in Yorkshire were returning to work, it is possible that the outcome of a national ballot could have been in favour of a return to work, but this would have weakened Scargill's grip over the miners, so it was rejected by a vote of the NUM executive.

There was a subsequent challenge to the NUM's refusal to call a national ballot, not from within the union, but from the courts. In September 1984 the miners' strike was decreed illegal because of the NUM's refusal to hold a national ballot. The court seized the NUM's assets. At which point, as the programme shows, the NUM's behaviour became farcical as footage shows NUM representatives making approaches to the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, a major financier of terrorist groups like the IRA, for financial support,

Official data claims that there were 26 million strike days in the miners’ strike, the largest since the 1926 General Strike. The funds of the NUM in support of the strikers would run out quite early on and, as the law denied strikers welfare benefits, the miners were dependent on other family members or on financial support from other unions, and concerned groups and from money collected at numerous rallies and demonstrations across the country. The steelworkers’ union, the ISTC, had refused any cooperation with the NUM from the start, but donated food and other means of support in the later stages “but gave no money as they didn't want to be accused of financing the aggressive picketing”. The financial toll on those who were prepared to see it through till the bitter end, on March 3 1985, was a heavy one, leaving families burdened with debts that would take many years to pay off.

What is depicted in the documentaries is a real working class militancy expressed in the testimonies of the striking miners. The mental scars they still bear today from the barbaric violence inflicted on them by the capitalist state were clearly visible, alongside the trauma they suffered from the nauseating propaganda they were subject to in the media. Many went to prison and were denied further work in the coal industry. Deaths of miners and family members occurred. They had been led into a trap and striking workers today must learn the lessons from this. This defeat would prove to be a heavy defeat not just for the working class in the UK. Bourgeois propaganda illustrated with images of the misery inflicted on the miners, isolated from the rest of the working class over the course of a whole year, would circulate around the world and impact the working class internationally.

It is importance for the emerging new generation of militant workers to understand that the working class needs the broadest possible unity of its forces when defending its class interests. This can only occur through the self-organisation of workers' struggles, by organising their own mass meetings and elected strike committees. And that is only possible when workers are able to escape the union traps designed to reinforce division and create conflict between them and their fellow workers in the struggle to defend their living standards against the increasing attacks of the capitalist state.

Duffy 31/3/24


[1] Channel 4 devoted 3 hours to it, the BBC only one hour of TV, but also had similar documentaries in a couple of series on BBC Sounds.

[2] The stocks at power stations in October 1983 had reached 34 million tonnes.



TV documentaries on the 1984-5 miners' strike