To each side in the coal dispute, this is more than just another strike. For the NUM it is a struggle to keep miners in employment, whether this is profitable or not; it is also, for some strikers, a stroke at the heart of the Thatcher government which may end in Arthur Scargill becoming the champion of the Labour movement. For the government and Ian McGregor it is a matter of asserting that management must be allowed to “manage”, by which they mean allowed to implement the principle that coal mines are like any other productive unit and must be closed if they run consistently at a loss. Both sides are aware of the events of 1973 and 1974, by now a part of left-wing folklore, when the Heath government blundered into a fight with the miners, the Three Day Week crisis and then to electoral defeat. In case anyone is hoping the miners will repeat that particular piece of history, it should be remembered that that alleged triumph for the organised working class resulted in the 1974-79 Labour governments, which were notable for their continual assaults on workers’ living standards, their strike breaking, their encouragement to cross picket lines and at the end the infamous Winter of Discontent. And what came out of that? When Callaghan called the election in 1979, class society was as strongly entrenched as ever. The means of life, including those parts of it which had been nationalised, were still owned by a minority of exploiting parasites while the useful, productive majority were still bound to submit themselves for exploitation in order to live. The miserable impotence and disarray of those governments persuaded millions of workers to vote for the Thatcher government who made no secret of their intention to curb the trade unions, if need be in the kind of fight to a finish which the miners may now be engaged in.
Back beyond 1973, there is an ominous resemblance—by no means accidental or insignificant—between what happened in the 1920s and what is happening today. At the end of the First World War many of the staple industries, on which the British capitalist class relied so much, were in decline; coal was affected by competition from continental rivals such as the Ruhr and Poland and the productivity of British mines lagged behind that of their most serious competitors. In 1925 a slump in coal exports contributed to the industry showing losses of about £1 million a month and the mine owners gave notice of their intention to negotiate a new agreement with the union based on a longer working day and a reduction in wages. The miners resisted and. as the TUC declared their support, a general strike seemed unavoidable. What deflected the strike was the government’s agreement to provide a subsidy, which eventually amounted to £23 million, to keep the mines working.
The day the subsidy was announced 31 July 1925 — has also gone into folklore as Red Friday
, an enduring triumph for the working class. The secretary of the miners’ union. A.J. Cook
, trumpeted: “We have already beaten, not only the employers, but the strongest government in modern times”.
There were two serious mistakes in this claim. The miners had not beaten anyone; the subsidy could only postpone or modify the operation of that law of capitalism — no profit, no production (which Ian MacGregor
is trying to apply now). Baldwin’s government had not been defeated; they had merely bought time to organise for a more conclusive confrontation with the workers. They used the time by setting up, in September 1925, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies to recruit and train volunteers (or rather blacklegs) who would keep services running during a general strike. Administratively the country was divided into regions of government, each under a Civil Commissioner, and then into smaller areas under committees responsible for transport, police and other services. A grateful mine owner, probably not susceptible to left wing hysteria, praised “. . . the respite purchased by Mr. Baldwin” and the Prime Minister himself assured the critics of the subsidy on his own side:
. . . if the time should come when the community had to protect itself, with the full strength of the government behind it. [its] response will astonish the forces of anarchy throughout the world. (House of Commons. 6 August 1925)
When the time Baldwin was referring to came, the state machine was ready as it had not been on Red Friday. The general strike lasted but nine days and it did not bring capitalism down, nor the government to their knees, nor even the coal owners to a more conciliatory mood. In fact the owners grew more obstinate with the passage of time, which tended to upset even the people who were supposed to represent their interests. J.L. Garvin described them in the Observer (25 April 1926) as ’tactless and irritating to the last degree” and Lord Birkenhead said he would have thought the miners’ leaders were the stupidest men in England had he not met the coal owners.
When the other unions backed out of the general strike the miners struggled on. Cook, who was by then the best loved or the worst hated man in the country, had declared in March 1926:
We are going to be slaves no longer and our men will starve before they accept any reductions in wages.
And starve they did, as the months passed by and with each tightening of the screw by the owners and the government. Cook’s rhetoric could fill no stomachs and some miners began to doubt the usefulness of struggling on. The trail back began — Warwickshire in July. Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in August — until in December Durham went back and the surrender was complete. The miners had to concede the longer working day and the cut in wages, which were cut yet again a couple of years later. Such was the suffering in the mining communities that the Lord Mayor of London, in the best traditions of capitalist charity, was moved to set up a Relief Fund. In the aftermath of bitterness, the breakaway Miners’ Industrial Union was formed in the Midlands.
The 1984 battle is over pit closures but it too springs from the plight of the British coal industry in a time of world slump. The dispute goes back some way before the start of the strike, to the time when the government applied something of the Baldwin 1925 strategy, conceding the miners’ case in order to prepare for a more final solution. It was in February 1981 that the government, in face of a threatened national coal strike, withdrew their plans to close ten pits during the next year. They did not then stand on the argument that it is impossible to keep “uneconomic” pits in operation; they accepted NUM policy on restricting coal imports and announced a subsidy of £300 million to finance these measures. Tory backbenchers were restless about the deal, as were the Institute of Directors. They need not have worried; a year or so later the government were ready to do serious battle and announced plans to shut down about 60 pits by 1991, some through exhaustion and others as loss makers. This opened the battle which is raging today, on the picket lines, in the courts and in the media.
This was not sudden or unexpected, except perhaps to those people who think that capitalism can be made to operate against its essential nature. After the Second World War it did not take long for the coal mines to feel the pressure of competition, from electricity — with nuclear power stations — oil and the re-emergent gas industry. During the 1960s the NCB tried to catch up, investing in powered supports and mechanised systems which increased productivity and helped cut the workforce by half but behind that production fell from 184 million tonnes a year to 134 million tonnes. In 1973, just before the Plan for Coal was agreed, it stood at 130 million tonnes.
The Plan for Coal was in fact a sign of a burgeoning optimism in the industry, partly due to the price advantage which coal regained as a result of the oil crisis of 1973- 74. which put its price per therm at about half that for oil. It was generally expected that the market for coal would expand and the unions, the NCB and the government planned for production to rise throughout the 1980s and 1990s to reach about 170 million tonnes in the year 2000. For the NUM these plans represented not just security of employment for the miners but also a strengthening of their bargaining power. However the whole exercise rested on the kind of assumptions which the economists and the politicians are continually making and which are continually found to be false. There was the politicians’ presumption that the economic problems of 1974 were no more than a little temporary difficulty which could be cleared up with some adjustments in budgeting and taxation. There was the presumption that when that happened the coal industry would compete ever more successfully in the energy market. And the conclusion from both these presumptions was that it would make economic sense to keep open pits which, in more stringent circumstances, the NCB would want to close as loss makers. It was not just the 1974 Labour government which deceived itself in this way; in June 1980 Thatcher’s Energy Secretary assured the Commons that “Coal is our greatest single natural resource . . . coal’s prospects have never been better “.
As the crisis of 1974 deepened into a world recession, the hopes and plans were exposed as the work of people who had little real understanding of how capitalism operates. The market for coal did not expand, it contracted. Ian MacGregor recently referred to the “over supply world-wide” on short term markets and predicted that intensifying competition from American exports will bring about “a coal glut for Western Europe” (Guardian, 2 October 1984). Following their retreat in 1981, the NCB’s return to the matter of closures in 1982 was in some ways the Thatcher government’s 1926. except that now there is no Triple Alliance to support the miners in their resistance. In place of the hard-faced, complacent private owners there is Ian MacGregor, the nationalised boss and not one whit more sympathetic for that, the despair of those like the clergy who think the whole unfortunate matter could be settled in a cosy, family chat. And of course the successor to A.J. Cook is the combustible Arthur Scargill, as much loved and hated as Cook was in the 1920s.
These resemblances are not coincidental, for MacGregor. Scargill and the rest are filling roles in a script which is structured on the needs of this social system. Capitalism has not basically changed since 1926; it is still a society of class ownership, of conflict, of commodity production and of the boom/slump cycle. The administrators of the system cannot control these things, they can only respond to them. The miners are weakening now, as they did in 1926, because they belong to the class who depend for their lives on selling their working abilities. When a miner goes back to work it is not a victory for “the national interest”, or “common sense”, or democracy; it is a bitter acknowledgement of the essential poverty and degradation of all workers. of whatever industry, everywhere.
A defeat for the miners could lead to them being treated much as they were in 1926. forced to accept terms which are some way worse than were on offer earlier in the strike. That will be an acknowledgement of the other side of the class war, of the fact that the owning class are also the ruling class and that they dominate through their control over the coercive state machine. At the points where 1984 resembles 1926 there is more than a repeat of history. There is a signal for the strikers and for the working class as a whole. There is little to show for these sixty years of struggle except cracked heads and bruised bodies; capitalism, a repressive society of privilege against poverty, remains to be dealt with.