Glasgow, United Kingdom – Few confrontations in the history of modern Britain come close to the industrial dispute that gripped England, Scotland and Wales in March 1984. Fracturing communities, pitting workers against the forces of law and order and even causing lives to be lost, the bitter clash became one of the greatest trade union struggles since the British General Strike of 1926.
That struggle was the British miners’ strike and today marks 30 years since the head of Britain’s Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, announced plans to cut production – the equivalent of 20 pits or 20,000 jobs – leading to a year-long walkout that would see British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Arthur Scargill come to blows and change the face of Great Britain forever.
“It was the longest industrial dispute in Britain in the 20th century and directly involved roughly 120,000-130,000 workers from March 1984 onwards,” Dr Jim Phillips, a senior lecturer of economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, told Al Jazeera.
“It might be seen as pivotal in the sense of Britain’s economic trajectory – moving out of an industrial economy into a more service, finance, and capital-related economy. Some of the 150 or so pits that operated in 1984 were, in narrow economic terms, loss-making and so required some degree of cross subsidy from more financially viable pits to remain in operation… The coal industry was also losing business during the recession of the early 1980s.”
Change under Thatcher
Yet, just a decade before the strike coal mining had appeared to be a booming industry in the UK. The so-called Plan for Coal, a tripartite agreement endorsed by the Labour government, the National Coal Board and the mining unions, had been agreed just two years after the February 1972 miners’ strike, which saw Britons subjected to power blackouts. Output targets were set at 135 million tonnes by 1985 and 170-200 million tonnes by 2000. Yet, as Thatcher’s Conservative Party swept to power in 1979, change was in the air.
I personally made the decision that we stood up to fight. And, I still think today that that was the right decision.
Thatcher had avoided a miners’ strike in 1981 by backing down because coal stocks were low – but she was unwilling to buttress what she considered a dying industry for long. After crushing the Labour Party in the 1983 general election, she knew a walkout was inevitable – and within a week of MacGregor’s announcement more than half the country’s miners had taken strike action.
“I started in the industry in 1982 when I was 16 and was told by the personnel manager that I had a good job for life if I looked after it,” Chris Kitchen, the current general secretary of NUM, tells Al Jazeera of his mining days in West Yorkshire, northern England.
“I was a trade union member from day one – not really politicised – but always supported the union… In 1984, when we went on strike, I didn’t know very much about Arthur Scargill – because I only knew my own branch officials – but in the meetings we attended and through the information we were given it seemed feasible to me that we had two choices: that we either rolled over and let them destroy us or we stood up to fight. I personally made the decision that we stood up to fight. And, I still think today that that was the right decision.”
Was the strike necessary?
Yet, many commentators still contend that Scargill’s move to strike was fatally flawed by his unwillingness to ballot his members on industrial action. This, say some, not only lost NUM the support of other unions – but crucially meant that Scargill’s movement lacked political legitimacy. Kitchen, for one, disagrees.
“The ballot wasn’t an issue, it was a smoke screen,” says the veteran trade unionist. “It is irrelevant whether there was a ballot or not, it is whether it was right or wrong. If it’s right, you don’t need a ballot to justify it. And, the strike action was right so the ballot argument was irrelevant.”
When we were going out onto the picket lines we had the crazy situation where other striking miners were calling us scabs.
But, as miners across England – as well as Scotland and Wales – abandoned their pits and began to picket, miners in Nottinghamshire, in the English Midlands, did not. Without a national ballot, Nottinghamshire’s miners refused to follow the actions of their colleagues and instead set up their own breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM).
Yet, for a small number of Nottinghamshire’s mineworkers, strike action was viewed as necessary. One such miner was Chris Craven, who, rejecting the stance taken by his fellow workers not to strike, found himself in a somewhat perilous position.
“When the miners’ strike kicked off, I was one of the very few miners from the Nottinghamshire area who went out on strike,” Craven, then a 21-year-old, recalls to Al Jazeera. “I, along with a few hundred others, was in a really funny situation. Obviously, we had the issue that a lot of people from our own villages were going back to work, but when we were going out onto the picket lines we had the crazy situation where other striking miners were calling us scabs (the disparaging term for non-strikers) just because we were from Nottinghamshire.”
Alex Bennett was a 37-year-old mining leader in Midlothian, Scotland, when the strike broke out. He recalls how the thorny issue of non-striking miners pervaded both his own mining community and others across Britain.
“They were scabs and are still classed as scabs,” says Bennett, now a Labour Party councillor in Midlothian. “There were some of them who went back to work (during the strike) because they were against the union, some who formed the UDM, but others who just went back because of pure hardship – and I’ve got no resentment against them.”
When the striking miners returned to work in March 1985, they did so dejected and defeated. The intervening year had seen more than 11,000 arrests and more than 8,000 people charged, mostly for breach of the peace, including Bennett. Worse still, there had been 11 deaths, of those a taxi driver who was killed as he took a non-striking miner to work in Wales. On the political front, Thatcher’s decision to face down Scargill’s NUM had led to a humiliating and lasting defeat for the miners and a political triumph for Britain’s premier and her ruling Conservatives.
Today, the strike’s legacy can be seen across Britain. Where there was 170 operating coal pits dotted across the British landscape in 1984, now only three remain. NUM, once a powerhouse union of more than 200,000 members, has less than 2,000 today. When cabinet papers, released earlier this year under Britain’s 30-year rule, appeared to vindicate Scargill’s long-held belief that Thatcher’s Conservative government had a secret “hit list” of 75 pits earmarked for closure and not just the 20 that had been discussed publicly, the outrage from many exposed a lingering bitterness.
Yet, while the likes of Kitchen continue to give their lives to Britain’s now decimated mining industry, for many ex-miners like Craven, time has moved on.
“When you were in the mining community it was a really pleasant community,” says Craven, whose redundancy from the mining industry in 1993 saw him find work as a scuba diving instructor before becoming owner of Water Babies, a UK-based business franchise that he now runs with his wife. “But, you have to move on, and I’m of the opinion that what’s done is done and you can’t dwell on the past. You could – but it would just take you down with it.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi