The Miners’ Strike Remembered
One socialist recalls what made him class conscious
The 1984-85 Miners’ Strike was a pivotal moment in my political education, a formative event in the development of my socialist class consciousness. After the death of Thatcher in April 2013 I was at a celebratory gathering in Trafalgar Square which was also attended by a few Geordie Miners who carried their North East Area NUM banner. In the old mining village of Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire an effigy of Thatcher was publicly burned. Seumas Milne wrote in The Enemy Within that ‘films such as Billy Elliot and Brassed Off rammed home the devastation of the mining communities wrought by the politically driven closures.’ Recently there have been released cabinet papers that reveal the Tory government had a secret plan to close 75 pits at the cost of 65,000 jobs, and that the government used police tactics to escalate the dispute. The IPCC is currently undertaking a preliminary assessment to decide whether it should launch a full inquiry into the ‘Battle of Orgreave.’
On two occasions having my birthday in February meant the candles on my birthday cake were the only light in our house. In February 1972 a miners’ strike led to power cuts, and the defeat for the Tory governmentpay policy. Again in February 1974 a miners’ strike caused power cuts but this time Heath called a snap election asking ‘who governs? The Tories or the Miners?’ The British electorate told Heath it was not him.
On 18 March 1979 an explosion at the Golborne Colliery near Wigan in the St Helens coalfield killed 10 miners with one survivor, a 20-year old apprentice electrician called Brian Rawsthorne. Following the explosion Golborne was visited by the Labour government Secretary of State for Energy Tony Benn who said: ‘It is the most terrible tragedy. I have come to express sympathy with the families. The human cost of coal is still a very high cost and we must never take it for granted.’ On Boxing Day that year in Garswood, near Ashton-in-Makerfield my family were visiting my uncle who was a mining surveyor for the National Coal Board. The young Brian Rawsthorne was also a guest that day. As recent as September 2011, a miner was killed at the Kellingley colliery in North Yorkshire, and 4 miners were killed at Gleison colliery in South Wales.
Workshop of the world
In the nineteenth century Britain’s industrial position as the ‘workshop of the world’ (Disraeli 1838) – reflected in the bourgeois triumph of the Great Exhibition of 1851 –was based on coal. In 1865 in The Coal Question the leading economist of the day, William Stanley Jevons wrote ‘Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country, the universal aid, the factor in everything we do, a material of such myriad qualities, of such miraculous powers.’ Britain had huge coalfields in South Wales, Lancashire, South Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland, employment in coal mining hit a peak of 1.3 million workers in 1920 with a production peak of 287 million tons in 1913. In 1983 production was still over 100 million tons and close to 200,000 miners still worked in the industry.
In 1956 in Coal is our Life, Dennis et al wrote ‘The prestige of the miner in the working class is higher than it has ever been’ but in some quarters there was a growing realisation of the ‘state capitalist’ nature of the nationalised coal industry. VL Allen in The Militancy of British Miners (1981) wrote that ‘there existed a group of politically articulate miners who argued for the emancipation of their fellow miners from the conditions which made them compliant, vulnerable and dispensable wage labour.’ Milne observed a ‘visceral capitalist class fear of miners emerging from the bowels of the earth to demand their rights which touched a raw nerve’.
On 2 March 1984 the Miners’ Strike began at the Cortonwood Colliery near Wath-upon-Dearne in South Yorkshire. On 6 March the government scrapped the 1974 NCB Plan for Coal and announced a closure plan. On 12 March the strike went national with 196,000 miners on strike. Chas Critcher in Working Class Culture (1979) wrote ‘The miner may not think of wage labour or class consciousness as abstract categories, but he knows who pays his wages and what they get out of it, and hence sees that they are not on his side.’
At the end of March 1984 I heard the Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock speak about the Miners’ Strike at Preston Polytechnic. Within days I had joined the Labour Party Young Socialists, was reading the Militant newspaper and essentially I had joined the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist organisation. There followed public meetings on the Miners’ Strike at the Preston Trade Union Centre, a Militant Rally in Blackburn, attending branch meetings, and selling Militant in Preston town centre. I read the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels but the most important book to my then comrades in Militant was Lenin’s What is to be Done? which describes a disciplined, centralised ‘vanguard’ party of dedicated revolutionaries (i.e. Militant) bringing socialist consciousness to the working class. I was always hearing the word ‘cadre’ and was told the situation in Liverpool where Militant controlled the City Council was akin to ‘Petrograd in 1917.’ I also helped out in the Labour Party rooms at the May local elections.
In June I knocked on doors in Preston collecting food for striking miners’ families in the Lancashire coalfields. There were 6,500 Lancashire miners at 20 collieries in the Manchester coalfield, 26 collieries in Wigan, 22 in St Helens and 18 in Burnley. The working class are capable of organising their own affairs in common and this was clearly demonstrated by the mining communities pooling their energies and resources and taking what they needed from a common store. As Engels wrote ‘the humanity of the workers is constantly manifesting itself pleasantly. They have experienced hard times themselves, and can therefore feel for those in trouble, whence they are more approachable, friendlier, and less greedy for money, though they need it far more than the property-holding class.’
18 June was a decisive day during the strike when 10,000 miners picketing at Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire were confronted by about 8,500 police from ten counties. The NUM planned to repeat the success of the picket at Saltley Coke Depot, Birmingham in 1972. At Orgreave coal was turned into coke for use in steel production and British Steel plants had been receiving ‘dispensations’: picket-permitted movements of coal to prevent damage to their furnaces. However it was discovered that British Steel was moving far more coal than the dispensations agreed. In the ensuing ‘Battle of Orgreave’ 93 miners were arrested, and 51 miners injured by the police. The BBC edited footage to alter the time-line of events to show police defending themselves from miners attacks when it was miners defending themselves against police attacks. Later 95 miners were charged with riot and unlawful assembly. In 1991 South Yorkshire police paid £425,000 to settle civil actions brought by 39 miners for what happened at and after Orgreave including for assault, wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution, but no police officer was ever disciplined for any misconduct.
In The Enemy Within Seamus Milne details the Tory government, police, MI5 and Special Branch tactics in the class war against the miners; tapping phones, checking bank deposits, forging documents, using agents provocateurs, providing disinformation to the media, surveillance of miners and the NUM, the DHSS withholding benefits to striking families, restrictive bail conditions and courts sequestering NUM funds. There was the creation of what ostensibly was a national police force, the police used as a paramilitary force, the police using road-block strategy stopping cars and buses and turning them back hundreds of miles from their destinations, and arresting miners if they strayed outside their home county. The criminal law was used against the miners even though picketing including secondary picketing was not an offence in criminal law.
A few days after Orgreave I was in Leyland for a miners rally where I heard speeches by Dennis Skinner, ex-miner and Labour MP for Bolsover in the Derbyshire coalfield, and Peter Heathfield, NUM General Secretary. A ‘Second Front’ of strikes in the face of Tory anti-trade union legislation on secondary picketing was opened up in July with a 2 weeks national dock strike prompted by the use of contractors to unload iron ore at Immingham Docks. There were also prolonged ‘wildcat’ strikes at power stations in the Aire, Calder, Wharfe, and Ouse valleys in Yorkshire. Railway workers did not move coal trucks, and the railway workers at Shirebrook marshalling yards in Nottinghamshire right in the heart of scab country refused to move one ounce of coal throughout the year-long strike.
In September I came to London to read politics and philosophy at Thames Polytechnic in Woolwich, South East London. Leftwing politics were popular at the Poly; the SWP, the Labour Club which comprised the LPYS, i.e. Militant Tendency, the Socialist Labour Group, and the IMG. My first gig at the Poly in the Student Union Cellar Bar was a Miners’ Benefit with The Three Johns and Hagar the Womb, a feminist anarcho-punk band. The Miners’ Support Group was linked to the Kent NUM and the 3,000 miners at Betteshanger, Snowdown, and Tilmanstone collieries. In Plumstead I knocked on doors collecting food for striking miners families in the Kent coalfield.
NACODS, the Pit Deputies and safety officials union, wanted the NCB to withdraw the pit closure plan and a ballot on strike action was 82 percent in favour. Strike action was called off when the NCB and Government promised a modified colliery review procedure which was reneged on. If NACODS had gone on strike could the miners have won the strike?
In November I travelled on a hired bus with the Miners’ Support Group and Labour Club to the NUM picket line at West Thurrock Power Station in Essex. Near to Christmas young miners from the Betteshanger Colliery in the Kent coalfield visited the Polytechnic and we spent hours drinking with them in the student union bars and later smoking hashish at our house in Charlton.
During the strike state capitalist Poland exported cheap, non-unionised coal to Britain demonstrating that the defeat of the Polish miners in their earlier efforts to form an independent trade union (Solidarnosc) contributed to the defeat of the British miners. The class war is not local but international and the interests of workers in one part of the world are the common interest of all workers. There were no power cuts in Britain in the winter of 1984-85. Later it was revealed that a $1 million donation by Soviet miners never reached Britain through the influence of Thatcher over Gorbachev when he visited Britain in December 1984.
Like many others in the world of art of performance, the ‘alternative music scene’ I followed was behind the Miners’ Strike. Test Department, from New Cross in South East London collaborated with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir on the album Shoulder to Shoulder. The Redskins sang Keep on Keepin’ On! about the Miners’ Strike, and proceeds from Billy Bragg’s Which Side are You On? and Paul Weller and the Council Collective’s Soul Deep were donated to the striking miners fund.
Eventually, the Miners’ Strike ended in defeat on 3 March 1985. Two miners had been killed during the strike, and three teenagers died picking coal from colliery waste heaps. During the strike police arrested 11,312 miners in England, Scotland and Wales. In December 2011 only 3,000 miners were left at 9 pits.
At the end of the strike I left ‘leftist’ politics and began over 25 years of counter-culturalism, beatnik-hipsterism, and armchair-anarchism. Then I discovered Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and realised the miners needed to go beyond fighting over wages and conditions in the industrial struggle and instead ‘ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, abolition of the wages system.’