Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85 
by Robert Gildea.
Yale, 469 pp., £25, August, 978 0 300 26658 0
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Halfway​ between the end of the Second World War and the present, the 1984-85 miners’ strike marks a dividing line in Britain’s recent history. Before the strike, the country was characterised by comparative egalitarianism, the (relative) power and legitimacy of organised labour, and an industrial economy in which state industries played a prominent role. After it, economic inequality skyrocketed and the trade unions were delegitimised, politically and legally, losing members and power in an economy marked by privatisation and a shrinking industrial sector. The coalfields of England, Scotland and Wales were at the sharp end of these transformations, and miners were among those who made the greatest effort to stop them.

The strike was a titanic battle, involving 184,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers and their families. It is usually said to have begun in early March 1984 when miners walked out of Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire after it was announced that the pit was to be closed along with nineteen others across Britain. Arthur Scargill, the leader of the NUM, decided to use the union’s rule 41 to call strikes on an area by area basis rather than holding a national ballot. Union leaders in Nottinghamshire and other smaller coalfields such as Leicestershire raised objections, and most of the miners in Nottinghamshire, then Britain’s second largest coalfield after Yorkshire, kept working, undermining the strike’s economic effectiveness and political strength. The British state mobilised unprecedented resources for an industrial conflict, carefully planning the stockpiling of coal and the movement of energy supplies, and comfortably exceeding its outlay on the Falklands War. After the strike ended, the Tory chancellor, Nigel Lawson, described it as ‘a very good investment’.

The miners returned to work in March 1985; a thousand had been sacked during the strike, often after being arrested on picket lines. The fate of these men anticipated that of their workmates. Although the last deep coal mine in Britain – Kellingley colliery in North Yorkshire – didn’t close until 2015, the industry had fallen into insignificance by the early 1990s after a drastic closure programme which preceded privatisation in 1994 (only 7000 miners were working by this time).

After the strike ended, miners and their supporters began to describe what had happened in their own words. The bitterness that accompanied defeat, closures and redundancy was evident in the initial wave of publications, but an element of reassessment became possible in later books and films. The 2014 film Pride tells the story of the enduring bonds formed between mining families in the Dulais Valley in South Wales and the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. It’s a far more optimistic portrayal of activism and agency than earlier movies about the dispute, such as Billy Elliot (2000), in which the son of a Durham miner flees poverty and cultural conservatism to perform in the West End.

In an essay published just after the strike, entitled ‘Mining the Meaning: Key Words in the Miners’ Strike’, Raymond Williams warned that attempts to understand the dispute would be affected by the verbal and textual equivalent of the ‘noise and dust and unwanted stone’ that miners are faced with when cutting coal. Despite activists telling their stories, the most influential version of the strike concentrated on high politics, and concerned the legitimacy, legality and efficacy of the NUM’s strategy, as well as the character of Scargill. He was elected two years before the dispute began, after a miscalculation by the previous president, Joe Gormley, who assumed he could hand over his job to someone else on the right of the union if he stayed in post long enough for the NUM’s communist vice president and Scottish area president, Mick McGahey, to be too old to run for the job (55 was the limit).

Journalists and other commentators have focused on Thatcher and Scargill when writing about Britain’s late coal age; Robert Gildea’s Backbone of the Nation is more interested in the experience of the miners: working underground; feeding and clothing a household; and, most of all, organising the dispute and surviving a year without a salary while often encountering violence at the hands of the state. An emphasis on what happened in families and neighbourhoods is itself a corrective to the histories that focus on ballots and political strategising. A cast of 148 interviewees populates Gildea’s book. Strikers and their wives, children and grandchildren from Fife, the South Wales valleys, County Durham, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire appear alongside activists who supported them from London (including leading members of LGSM) and the United States. As well as the reflections of the striking men, Backbone of the Nation includes the memories of some of the Nottinghamshire strikebreakers who went on to form the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers soon after the dispute ended.

The major national, political and industrial figures involved in the conflict are present but only as recalled by activists who spent their days organising picket lines, fundraising or running soup kitchens. Scargill features, but isn’t interviewed, though Gildea did talk to his ex-wife, Anne, who was a central figure in the Barnsley Miners’ Wives Action Group. He also talked to Dave Douglass, the NUM delegate at Hatfield colliery in South Yorkshire and a key regional ally of Scargill’s, who reflects on the limitations of mass picketing as opposed to ‘guerrilla’ picketing, which he feels might have been more effective at hitting strategic targets. Douglass’s remarks, along with stories of pithead arguments in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, help reveal the texture of the debate over strategy and tactics as it evolved in union meetings and conferences, both among picketers and working miners.

Gildea’s greatest contribution is his commitment to capturing the variety of miners’ experiences of the dispute. Industrial action felt very different for the ‘Dirty Thirty’ of Leicestershire – the tiny minority who went on strike in a coalfield that employed 1500 miners – than for those in South Wales, where support was solid right to the end, with just 2 per cent of miners breaking the strike. Margaret Pinnegar, the wife of Malcolm, the leader of the Dirty Thirty, described her husband ‘grappling on the floor’ with Johnny Turner, a strikebreaking miner outraged that Pinnegar’s daughter was dating his son. Turner threatened to stab Pinnegar before being arrested. On occasion Gildea’s aim to assess the strike through lived experience runs up against the sheer volume of reported opinions. A range of potentially conflicting reasons for the Nottinghamshire miners’ decision not to strike are put forward: the influence of the breakaway Spencer union, which collaborated with employers during the 1926 miners’ lockout; traditions of local and national NUM democracy; and the comparative economic security felt by Nottinghamshire miners. Gildea acknowledges that large numbers of Nottinghamshire miners had moved there from other coalfields, but does not engage with how this might undermine a reliance on historical ‘Spencerism’ in any explanation of the characteristics of Nottinghamshire unionism. Despite the weight of sometimes conflicting detail, however, a distinctive view of what the strike means in the 2020s emerges from Gildea’s testimonies.

The more familiar high politics interpretation of the dispute is disrupted by regional perspectives. Gildea tells us, for example, that it didn’t in fact start at Cortonwood: he interviews miners from Seafield colliery in Fife who had been on strike for several weeks before the Cortonwood action began. Indeed there had been conflicts over closures ever since Thatcher came to power in 1979, including walkouts in Kent, Durham, Scotland and South Wales after 23 pit closures were announced in February 1981. When the National Coal Board decided to keep these pits open, an announcement interrupted the broadcast of Coronation Street to ensure the striking miners got the message.

Both the Scottish and South Wales NUM tried and failed to build on this victory by mobilising against further closures. Pickets gathered at pits across the Scottish coalfield over Christmas 1982 to support twelve ‘stay-down’ strikers who were occupying Kinneil colliery in West Lothian. But most miners worked on regardless, to McGahey’s dismay. The South Wales union leadership was similarly disappointed in 1983, after a stay-down strike at Lewis Merthyr colliery in February gained little support. In a foreshadowing of the events of the next year, pickets met with hostility in Nottinghamshire and only South Wales overwhelmingly backed strike action when a national ballot was called, with only half of the miners in Yorkshire and Scotland voting in favour. As Gildea writes, ‘miners were not going to come out to defend the jobs of other miners in coalfields far away, if their own jobs felt safe.’ This underlines both the NUM’s success in mobilising most of Britain’s miners behind the strike in the spring of 1984 and its reasons for wanting to avoid a ballot.

Such earlier experiences presaged the 1984-85 strike in other respects, not least the use of public resources to divide miners. Scottish National Coal Board managers imposed the closure of Cardowan colliery, on the north-east edge of Glasgow, in the summer of 1983, dispensing with the usual consultation process. A minority of workers agreed to take early retirement with large redundancy packages or were given financial incentives to take jobs at other collieries before this had been agreed by union representatives. Resistance was successfully diluted, and union officials were forced to accept the closure.

Rafts​ of pit closures leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Scotland, Wales and Durham, and the attendant concentration of mining employment in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, were a central feature of British industrial restructuring in the second half of the 20th century. In The Enemy Within, an account of the 1984-85 strike he co-edited, Raphael Samuel claimed that over decades the Scottish and Welsh coalfields produced men with their ‘own distinctive version of militancy – more “educated”, more communist, more statesman-like’ than their English counterparts. One possible expression of this trend was the formation in 1973 of the South Wales Miners’ Library at Swansea University with the support of the NUM South Wales area. The historian and activist Hywel Francis was among the founders; he taught miners the history of the coalfields on adult education courses. Francis and the local miners’ leaders used the significance of the coal industry in South Wales to build common cause with the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities, laying the ground for the coalition that achieved Welsh devolution in the 1990s. It seems that Samuel regarded Yorkshire miners, who adopted the mass picketing of Nottinghamshire collieries with enthusiasm in 1984-85, as more rough and ready activists, reminiscent of the ‘denims’ in David Peace’s miners’ strike novel, GB84. But Gildea’s history of community mobilisation challenges the Conservatives’ depiction of unionised miners as a threat to democracy, Thatcher’s ‘enemy within’.

Raymond Williams thought that the ‘keywords’ of the miners’ struggle were ‘management, economic, community, law and order’. Gildea’s title gives us one of his own keywords: ‘backbone’. The Scottish miner Thomas Watson, when interviewed by Gildea, recalled his father often saying that ‘the miners are the backbone of the nation.’ Coal was central to the industrial economy, powering homes, factories, land and sea transport, steel production and electricity generation. Two world wars and postwar reconstruction were made possible by the miners, and they came to be recognised as the country’s ‘backbone’ when the industry was nationalised after the Second World War. Coal’s importance to the economy was the foundation of miners’ power and explained the use of power stations as targets for flying pickets in the successful 1972 and 1974 strikes, when there were electricity blackouts as a result of the miners’ action. Gildea doesn’t always get the details right here. He refers to miners picketing to prevent coal entering Hunterston power station in Ayrshire in 1984, but Hunterston was nuclear-powered; the miners were targeting the nearby docks where coal was being imported. These details matter because one of the defining features of the 1980s strike was that the Thatcher government was able to use the new capacity in nuclear and oil-fired stations, as well as stockpiled and imported coal, to keep the lights on.

Thatcher’s determination to avenge the defeats that her predecessor as Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, suffered in the early 1970s through the reconstruction of Britain’s energy regime and industrial economy isn’t discussed in detail in Backbone of the Nation. But Gildea does make important distinctions between the conflicts: the 1970s strikes were episodes of ‘class war’ during which the miners were supported by other industrial workers, whereas ‘in 1984 there was above all a mobilisation of mining communities.’ The nature of these communities had changed: by 1984, most miners didn’t live in pit villages. They got the bus or drove to work, but they continued to socialise in miners’ welfare institutes, and work, home and leisure were still integrated. Sons continued to follow their fathers down the pit, and before the violent interruption of the strike, mining settlements were to an extent self-policed.

The word​ ‘backbone’ is also used in Gildea’s book by Heather Wood, from Easington in County Durham, to describe the role of women in mining communities. She reflects on her family’s experience: her grandfather was killed in a fatal pit accident in 1928 and her father survived the 1951 Easington colliery explosion. Wood was active in politics before the miners’ strike: she established a union branch in a Sunderland mail-order firm, became a Labour Party constituency chair and helped set up Save Easington Area Mines in 1983. Other working women like her, with experience as trade union activists, helped organise support groups in Fife, South Yorkshire and South Wales. Miners needed the support of their partners, mothers and daughters if they were to survive a year without wages; the decision to go on strike and stay on strike was often a joint one. Changes in gender relations accelerated due to the impact of the strike and women’s increasingly autonomous activism. Fractious relationships, infidelity and marital break-ups are a significant feature of Gildea’s account, with women feeling newly empowered to leave abusive or unhappy relationships.

Many mining areas were ‘twinned’ with support groups in places like London and Oxford, and alliances like the one between the Dulais Valley and LGSM could be eye-opening. The defeat of the strike was painful and costly, although the confidence activists had gained proved formative for some of them, who prospered as teachers, social workers and elected politicians. But many miners found themselves ‘unemployed and languished on sofas in front of the TV’. Others were blacklisted and unable to get potentially lucrative work, such as on the excavation of the Channel Tunnel. The industrial working class as a whole has suffered in the decades since the strike, but problems have been especially marked in former mining areas, and the 2019 State of the Coalfields report confirmed the persistence of economic, educational and health inequalities.

In his essay, Williams wrote that concerns over law and order conditioned perceptions of the dispute. Gildea talked to strikers who were on the receiving end of police batons, horses, the courts and the NCB. Pete Richardson, the leader of a youthful band of Doncaster-based Manchester United supporters turned fervent picketers, was arrested several times and sent to prison twice, leading him to lose his job (‘I’ve come across a lot of police violence. I’ve always hated them,’ he said in 1986). Interviewed in the early 2020s, Richardson still felt that he had been betrayed by his comrades when they returned to work without him. Betty Cook, a leader of the Women Against Pit Closures movement, remembered seeing the ‘blood all over the grass’ after police struck an elderly miner on a picket line in Woolley in Yorkshire. Andrew ‘Watty’ Watson, the son of the man who gave Gildea the phrase ‘the backbone of the nation’, was arrested as a teenage striker in November 1984 after giving a two-fingered salute to a bus of strikebreakers, and sacked after he pleaded guilty to breach of the peace having been advised by an NUM lawyer. Shortly before Watson’s arrest, an older family friend, Doddy McShane, was arrested on suspicion of breaking a strikebreaker’s window. McShane died at 65 in 2008, having suffered mental and physical ill-health after being held for three weeks on remand in Saughton Prison in Edinburgh.

Watty Watson and members of McShane’s family were among the campaigners who succeeded in winning a pardon in 2022 for Scottish miners convicted of strike-related offences. Jim Phillips, who recorded some of the interviews of Fife miners with Gildea, submitted evidence relating to the disproportionately harsh treatment that Scottish striking miners received from the courts and the NCB compared with their English and Welsh counterparts. Testimony from former miners and their families helped mobilise public opinion and change the minds of politicians. Debates still go on and controversies remain alive. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign continues to argue for an inquiry into the violence used by the police when breaking up the mass picket at the coking plant near Rotherham in 1984.

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Vol. 45 No. 23 · 30 November 2023

It’s true, as Ewan Gibbs points out, that a thorough and unsentimental account of the inner workings of mining communities during the 1984-85 strike, as distinct from a ‘high political’ analysis, is overdue (LRB, 2 November). To that end, I’d like to add a couple of notes. The first relates to the Yorkshire ‘super pit’, Kellingley colliery. As Gibbs makes clear, it was part of the NUM’s strategy to make the largest mining area, Yorkshire, the central platform for resistance to the government’s closure programme. Kellingley, as one of the country’s biggest mines, was vital. If the strike was to have a credible chance of success, Kellingley would need to be a solid striking pit. I was a coalface worker at Kellingley for ten years, from 1979 until 1989, and was on strike for the duration. My father was the NUM branch secretary. The effort needed to ‘keep the pit solid’ was enormous. It required strong communal political mobilisation, which was much more important to the prolonging of the strike and its potential for success than the choice between mass or ‘guerrilla’ picketing cited by Dave Douglass, the NUM delegate at Hatfield colliery.

It is often claimed that, prior to the strike, Scottish, South Wales and Durham miners thought the miners of Yorkshire and other areas less politically aware and less militant. I come from three generations of Scottish mining families, and I have never once heard a Scottish miner or activist say as much. The denunciations were reserved for union leaders, who were seen as persistently manipulating and attenuating the potential militancy of the larger areas. From the early 1970s onwards, the leadership in Yorkshire, the North-West and other regions was opposed by the likes of the Barnsley Forum, at the centre of which were ‘incoming’ Scottish and Durham activists. One early attendee was the young Arthur Scargill.

David Miller
Manchester Metropolitan University

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