Richard Hyman takes part in the post-mortem on the miners’ strike

  • Digging Deeper: Issues in the Miners’ Strike edited by Huw Beynon
    Verso, 252 pp, £3.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 86091 820 3
  • Policing the Miners’ Strike edited by Bob Fine and Robert Millar
    Lawrence and Wishart, 243 pp, £4.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 85315 633 6
  • The Strike: An Insider’s Story by Roy Ottey
    Sidgwick, 157 pp, £7.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 283 99228 X
  • Scargill and the Miners by Michael Crick
    Penguin, 172 pp, £2.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 14 052355 3
  • The Great Strike: The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 and its Lessons by Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons
    Socialist Worker, 256 pp, £3.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 905998 50 2

In the Economist of 27 May 1978, details were published of a secret report by a Conservative Party policy group on the nationalised industries. Each industry would be allocated a minimum rate of return on capital; managers who failed to achieve this target would be sacked. The report, drafted by the MP Nicholas Ridley, recognised that the pressures to economise would inevitably threaten management-union conflict. In sectors where a Conservative government could not contemplate the political or economic costs of such conflict, ‘return on capital figures should be rigged.’ Accordingly, ‘the eventual battle should be on ground chosen by the Tories, in a field they think could be won (railways, British Leyland, the civil service or steel).’ Was it mere coincidence that these were four of the main sites of major industrial disputes during Thatcher’s first administration?

For Ridley, the mining industry required the most detailed attention. A future Tory government, it was urged, should build up coal stocks, particularly at power stations; should plan coal imports in any strike; should encourage the growth of non-union road haulage firms; and should ensure the development of dual coal and oil firing capacity at power stations. More generally, social security benefits for strikers should be curbed, and specially-equipped mobile police squads should be formed to counter picketing.

The Economist predicted that its leak would cause ‘a humdinger of a row’: but nothing of the sort. Only later was the Ridley report cited as evidence that the closure of Cortonwood colliery, announced on 1 March 1984, marked the culmination of a lengthy preparation for confrontation. In Beynon’s volume, the 1984-5 strike is contrasted with the circumstances of February 1981, when a spontaneous upsurge of militancy forced the Cabinet to provide additional funds to avoid a programme of pit closures announced by the NCB. But in the following three years, most of Ridley’s proposals were implemented. In particular, coal stocks were almost doubled, while oil-burning capacity was massively enhanced: by the autumn of 1984 the CEGB was burning over a million tonnes of oil a week – at enormous cost – as against eight million tonnes during the whole of 1983. After long contingency planning, the Thatcher Government was willing to expend over £3 billion on defeating the miners: ‘a worth while investment’, in the words of Nigel Lawson.

Compiled around the turn of the year, Digging Deeper brings together 17 authors, mainly but not exclusively academics and all sympathetic to the aims of the strikers. The title alludes to a popular slogan among those collecting funds to aid the National Union of Mineworkers – ‘dig deep for the miners’ – while at the same time pointing to the need to probe beneath the often superficial reports and commentaries on the sources and character of the year-long dispute.

Some of the most fundamental issues are examined in the book’s concluding chapters, which set the strike in the context of the recent politics and economics of energy policy. The current head of the CEGB – ‘the wealthiest body in the country’ – was appointed by Thatcher after previously running the Atomic Energy Authority; his enthusiasm for the pressurised water reactor programme matched the Government’s own nuclear bent. Within an aggregate energy consumption reduced by recession, a declining use of coal – and hence the definition of a growing proportion of pits as uneconomic – was a natural corollary of government policy, particularly since the price paid for coal by the CEGB failed to rise in line with that of electricity itself.

Thus the economics of mining, as ecologically-sensitive observers appreciated during the course of the dispute, cannot be assessed independently of the politics of energy, and in particular of the artificial and convoluted economics of nuclear power. Pit closures followed necessarily from an aggressive nuclear strategy; and the issue was inevitably explosive in the 1980s. Job losses were demanded in a period of high general unemployment; and they were to be concentrated in geographical areas (Scotland, the North-East, South Wales) already severely afflicted. Moreover the advent of high-technology coal-getting systems (MINOS) implied that the projected new ‘super-pits’ would generate relatively few replacement jobs, while employment in established collieries would progressively decline. Against this background, the NUM’s passionate insistence on the slogan ‘coal not dole’ is readily comprehensible.

The conviction among mineworkers – whose numbers were already down to a mere fifth of their former strength – that they were now engaged in a last-ditch battle for survival explains their capacity to endure the deprivations of a year-long struggle. And the future of pits and pitmen necessarily drew into the account the fate of the localities and even regions whose viability is inseparable from that of coal. Even in defeat, the heightened sense of common identity and common purpose could be reckoned an unquestionable gain. In South Wales, Kim Howells of the NUM declares, ‘the coalfield had developed a new collective spirit which revived community life and re-awoke in ordinary people the understanding that it was possible to take the first, concrete steps towards creating a more humanitarian and socialist society now, in the dreary midst of Thatcherism.’

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