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.’

In this most macho of working-class environments, ‘community life’ came in the course of the strike to involve a new and assertive role for womankind. Not merely in collectivising traditional household chores in strike kitchens and other arenas of relief work, but on the platform and the picket line, women played an essential part in sustaining the strikers’ faith and determination. The initiative released in agitating and organising, through such movements as Women against Pit Closures, was quite literally consciousness-raising. ‘I’m not a feminist, but ... ’ was the frequently recorded introduction to expressions of a novel awareness that through collective activism women could influence the circumstances of their social existence. Even if the return to work restores much of the ‘normal’ texture of gender relations, it is difficult to imagine that there will be no enduring changes.

Outside the coalfields, new initiatives and alliances were also reflected in the work of the Miners’ Support Groups. Estimates suggest that donations from sympathetic organisations and street and door-to-door collections raised a million pounds a month, providing the resources for an ‘alternative welfare state’ sustaining strikers and their families. For hardened left activists, the struggle re-charged batteries depleted by five years of Thatcherite hegemony: but no less enthusiastic was the backing of thousands with no such background. Their support might reflect dismay and disgust at the anti-social fanaticism of monetarist economics, admiration for the miners’ courage in fighting back, or purely sympathy for the plight of their dependants. In other cases, participants in different forms of social struggle rallied to the miners’ cause. Ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians (often surprised by the welcome offered in the coalfields), anti-nuclear groups, the cultural fringe: all were prominent in the movement. In part, the unity of these diverse elements reflected shared opposition to the aims and methods of the new Right, a ‘gut anti-Thatcherism’: but it also demonstrated a positive and evolving trust in conviviality, grass-roots initiative, the collective creativity of those with no significant individual influence or resources.

It is remarkable testimony to the strength of this coalition of the weak that the fight continued for so long. For the odds against were enormous, as Digging Deeper systematically demonstrates. Contributors trace the evolution of Conservative policy to nationalised industries and their trade unions – particularly in mining, where the brash ideology of ‘free market’ economics meshed neatly with a visceral determination to avenge the humiliations of 1972 and 1974. In this respect, the discordant factions of current Toryism were substantially at one. Before taking on the NUM it was necessary to overturn traditions and personnel of Coal Board management imbued with the norms of collaborative industrial relations (a pattern which had permitted the massive closure programme of the 1950s and 1960s with barely a murmur of union opposition). With no background, loyalties or long-term future in the NCB (or indeed even in Britain), Ian MacGregor typifies the abrasive commercialism of new-style public-sector management heads. (Ironically this Florida voter, with his anti-union reputation, admiration for Tory economics, and even greater private wealth than Thatcher, was brought to Britain by her Labour predecessor.)

MacGregor was not a media success. But despite some criticism of the style of the NCB chairperson, press and TV largely endorsed the rationality of the Board’s policies. Even programmes and papers which sought to keep some distance from active endorsement of NCB and Government objectives nevertheless tended to function, by the manner of their formulation of the issues, in opposition to the NUM. The focus was primarily on day-to-day events which met conventional criteria of newsworthiness: picket-line clashes, personalities, numbers of working miners (the figures almost always taken uncritically from NCB press releases). The epiphenomena of ‘Scar-gill’s strike’ (never Thatcher’s or MacGregor’s) were typically detached from the underlying issues of employment and the survival of communities. Their actions depicted – whether explicitly or implicitly – as an aggressive exercise in trade-union obduracy and irrationality, the strikers’ attempt to win moral and material aid from fellow workers was rendered all the more difficult.

If violence by strikers hit the headlines, that of the authorities was largely ignored. Almost totally unremarked was the discreet and bloodless violence of the state ‘welfare’ machine: the routine and systematic withholding from strikers and their families of the normal benefits to which as taxpayers they had previously contributed. The Government itself set the scene for this assault with its 1980 legislation which prescribed a deduction of £16 a week (a notional figure for union strike pay, though the NUM is one of many unions which provide no such benefit); and it also prohibited the previously discretionary payments to single strikers in ‘urgent need’. But during the strike the DHSS appeared anxious to evade even those obligations to strikers’ families still specified by law. The impression of ‘a deliberate policy of obstruction and bloody-mindedness’ was fostered by protracted delays in deciding on claims, ‘losing’ papers, refusing entitlements, applying discretion abnormally restrictively, and treating claimants with maximum humiliation. There were many signs of central direction curbing any tendency by local offices to show sensitivity and understanding to miners and their dependants.

More overtly, violence was built into the policing tactics applied throughout the dispute. In dramatic fashion, methods of riot control developed in the conflict on the streets of Northern Ireland were brought to the British coalfields. In many pit villages, imported ‘police support units’ constituted armies of occupation, controlling the inhabitants’ movements, imposing virtual curfews and harassing strikers. On the picket lines, heavily armoured police swaggered in military formation, taunted strikers by waving £5 and £10 notes (proceeds from hours of lucrative overtime), and traded insults and obscenities. Symbolic aggression often gave way to physical, as ‘snatch squads’ made arbitrary arrests, or ‘wedges’ of police backed by dogs and horses were deployed to smash through unprotected ranks of pickets. Such provocations were rarely reported, though any counter-violence by strikers received instant publicity. In mining communities, the ‘rule of law’ acquired a new and sinister meaning, as stolid councillors and even magistrates found themselves treated as outlaws. Indeed the Chair of the South Yorkshire Police Committee – no leftist radical – was moved to denounce as ‘Nazi stormtroopers’ the police drafted into his area.

The broader civil liberties implications of these trends form the central focus of Policing the Miners’ Strike. Some of the questions discussed are organisational: the establishment of a national paramilitary police force, without Parliamentary sanction, by backroom administrative initiative. Just as the ‘public order’ functions of the Police assumed new forms during the strike, so did law enforcement methods. Over the course of the year, almost ten thousand strikers were arrested: but less than half of these were ultimately convicted of an offence (in most cases trivial). Once charges were laid, highly restrictive bail conditions were routinely demanded by the Police and routinely approved by the courts. By this means, prominent NUM activists and lodge officials were often removed from the picket lines. Traffic control was also a popular method of obstructing pickets: in one notorious instance, Kent miners were turned back at the Dartford tunnel, 200 miles from their objective. While this case hit the headlines, the everyday use of roadblocks did not; nor did the common practice of stopping coaches of pickets miles from their destination, forcing the occupants to walk. Nor were strikers themselves the only targets of restrictive policing. In the cities, ancient laws against vagrancy or obstruction were resurrected to inhibit supporters of the NUM who sought to collect food or money for strike relief.

The judiciary gave unqualified support to the Police assumption that (whatever the letter of the law) participation in a mass picket constituted a public order offence, and that they possessed absolute discretion to forestall a potential breach of the peace, however remote. Concurrently (and even before the passing of the 1984 Trade Union Act), the courts showed surprising alacrity in adjudicating the internal political controversies of the NUM. At the heart of a series of judgments was the status of the strike within the union rules. Rule 43 required a ballot before any national strike, but under rule 41, the national executive committee could authorise area action on its own authority. Formally, the whole conflict was officially defined as a nationally co-ordinated set of regional stoppages: whether or not this attitude of the executive was sound in principle or tactic, it was not obviously inconsistent with the rulebook. Yet the courts – which only a few years previously had refused to interfere when right-wing NUM leaders had flouted the spirit and arguably the letter of the rule-book – handed down their rulings that the strike was unconstitutional. Sequestration of NUM funds was the end result.

Controversy over the ballot issue is central to Roy Ottey’s ‘shock-horror’ account of the strike. One of the isolated right-wing minority on the NUM executive, Ottey resigned his seat in October 1984 in protest at the majority decision to defy the courts. The theatrical impact of this gesture was seemingly unaffected by the fact that Ottey was in any event to retire in November. The cynic might assume that – unless both author and publisher acted with amazing speed – this book was already in the pipeline.

Ottey provides an autobiography charting his rise from colliery electrician to secretary of the NUM power group, a chronology of some of the events of the strike, and in particular a blow-by-blow account of the internal politics of the national executive. The latter will no doubt be of value as a source for historians of the dispute: but this focus reinforces the attitude displayed by much of the media that the conflict was primarily a matter of the machinations of a handful of leaders. The mass enthusiasm and commitment of so many mining communities are incomprehensible within this perspective. On occasion, hostile pickets shouted ‘Ottey is a Tory,’ and while this was clearly untrue, he emerges as an old-style negotiator of limited imagination who hankered after the harmonious industrial relations of the past and accepted that Government and NCB leaders were honest people acting honourably throughout. He does not question the basis of the Board’s economic accounting, or its conclusion that ‘surplus production from high-cost, low-productivity pits was a crucial problem.’ The social consequences of pit closures seem of little concern to him. Thus his chapter on ‘The Gormley Era’ opens with the declaration that in the late 1960s ‘the industry was now in what I see as the years of consolidation.’ Yet this was a decade when the NCB closed 400 of its 700 collieries, cutting employment by a half!

If this spelled consolidation, it was within the lexicon of costs and benefits which the NUM may have endorsed in the Gormley era but which was decisively rejected by the new rank-and-file assertiveness which brought Scargill to leadership. After the closures of the 1950s and 1960s, the oil crisis of the early 1970s gave coal a new strategic importance; and this coincided with the growing membership militancy expressed in the national strikes of 1972 and 1974. The ‘Plan for Coal’ of 1974 appeared to underwrite the new mood of confidence within the NUM. During 1984, much controversy was to surround the precise meaning of this agreement reached a decade earlier between the NCB, NUM and the new Labour government. The ‘Plan for Coal’ did indeed foresee the possibility of pit closures on ‘economic’ grounds: but this was firmly within the framework of substantial overall increases in production. As the recession took its tell of industrial production, so energy demands declined and the NCB’s targets were trimmed, while at the same time plans to introduce advanced technology implied even greater job losses. It is these changes in the material environment, reinforced by the Thatcher Government’s evident determination to cut coal down to size, which explain the deterioration in industrial relations that Ottey identifies but does not fully comprehend.

In the course of his narrative, Ottey comments on acts of personal kindness by Arthur Scargill; for him, the NUM President represents ‘a strange mixture of ruthlessness and sensitivity’. A similar sense of contradiction informs Crick’s critical yet not hostile study. The second edition has appeared only two months after the first – a considerable publishing coup – with the earlier uncertainty as to the outcome of the strike displaced by a new chapter, ‘Going down fighting’. This ‘life and times’ examines Scargill’s personal rise: Young Communist militant; Area Council delegate at the age of 26; compensation agent in 1972 at the age of 34, having just attained national prominence in the ‘battle of Saltley gates’; Yorkshire president a year later; national president in 1982. Scargill’s biography is set in its broader context: the material discontents of mineworkers which fuelled the successful leftist challenges to right-wing ascendancy, first in Yorkshire and then in the union nationally; the growing contention over pit closures; the intensified conflict after Thatcher’s election, culminating in Corton-wood and the 1984 strike. Crick provides a clear account of the issues involved and the shifting balance of forces, and also helps illuminate the distinctiveness of the Nottinghamshire coalfield. High earnings from the production bonus scheme, secure employment and relatively easy working conditions were associated with (and perhaps partially explain) a conservative political orientation; the consequent reluctance to support the strike led to fratricidal conflicts that contributed to the eventual defeat.

Crick identifies a number of ‘Questions of Leadership’ which are now being widely debated within the NUM itself. Questions of principle aside, would it have been tactically advantageous to legitimise national action through a ballot (which surveys suggested would have been won comfortably after the first few weeks of the dispute)? Was too much emphasis placed on mass picketing (hoping for a repeat of 1972) rather than on winning the strikers’ case by gentler means of persuasion? Could public support have been more effectively canvassed? And should the possibility of compromise – achieving at least partial success in diverting the NCB from its objectives – have been pursued at an earlier stage?

Callinicos and Simons, in the first full-length post-mortem on the strike, cast aside all such suggestions. Mass picketing failed, not – as many NUM activists have suggested – because it is inherently counter-productive, but because it was not pursued with sufficient vigour. The reason for defeat was betrayal by the leadership: the failure of the TUC and Labour Party to provide effective support; the equivocation of the local officials in the main left-wing areas of Yorkshire, Scotland and South Wales. In this catalogue of criticism, the most sympathetic treatment is reserved for Scargill himself: perhaps in atonement for the attacks made on him in the early stages of the dispute by Socialist Worker, with which both authors are connected, and which merely served to discredit their organisation among miners themselves.

The premise of this analysis is inherently contradictory. For Callinicos and Simons, rank-and-file trade-unionists were poised to offer militant solidarity: yet this powerful latent force, capable of toppling Thatcher and MacGregor, was held back or diverted by a few timid bureaucrats. It seems more plausible to suggest that among NUM members and trade-unionists more generally there was much diversity of opinion concerning the issues in dispute; that there were many who were ambivalent about aspects of the conflict; and that considerable numbers of these were susceptible to argument yet resistant to bludgeoning. It is for this reason that the issues of the ballot and mass picketing are central to most debates in the aftermath of the strike. Arguably at least, a different strategy by the NUM leaders would have proved more effective: winning greater unity within the industry, more substantial aid from other unions, and a settlement which would have constituted a significant setback for Thatcher and her government.

Why, then, did the union’s leaders cling to a disastrous course? Most public comment, focusing on the question of the ballot, has denounced as undemocratic the behaviour of Scargill and his supporters. Yet paradoxically, the problem may be viewed as an excess of democracy. Within his primary constituency of Yorkshire at least, Scargill has shown himself a faithful representative of grass-roots opinion. The original action of picketing the Notts collieries, from which so many of the subsequent divisions followed, was a spontaneous initiative on the part of the Corton-wood miners. The most vigorous denunciation of the ballot proposal came from rank-and-file strikers. The refusal to dilute the initial rejection of any pit closure on ‘economic’ grounds stemmed from the dogged insistence of the mass of striking miners, if anything intensified by the deprivations of the protracted stoppage; and it was Scargill’s unbending identification with this stand which won him his members’ loyalty up to and even after the eventual defeat. The populist bonds between Scargill and the Yorkshire membership can be traced back to his own tireless and dedicated work as compensation agent and strike organiser in the early 1970s.

Ironically, then, the course of the miners’ strike is a dramatic refutation of many of the central themes of Michelsian sociology. To meet the standards of ‘democratic’ leadership demanded by most critics outside the NUM, Scargill would have needed to behave less responsively to the immediate demands of his members. A more detached, manipulative, bureaucratic mode of conduct would have been required. Would this have served the miners better?