The Sound of Thunder

Tom Nairn

  • Marching to the Fault Line: The 1984 Miners’ Strike and the Death of Industrial Britain by Francis Beckett and David Hencke
    Constable, 303 pp, £18.99, February 2009, ISBN 978 1 84901 025 2
  • Shafted: The Media, the Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath edited by Granville Williams
    Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, 176 pp, £9.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 898240 05 1

The Miners’ Strike took place 25 years ago: long enough for many readers to know practically nothing about it, and for others to have forgotten much of what seemed so important at the time. Both the books discussed here describe the strike as more like a civil war than an industrial dispute. It began in March 1984 and ended a year later, after a majority of the miners had gone back to work over the preceding months, disillusioned, scared by the violence, or starved back (miners got little strike pay and no state help, since it wasn’t held by the courts to be an ‘official’ strike). Both books agree that Margaret Thatcher’s eventual victory enabled her to consolidate a free-market programme of deregulation that would soon merge with the wider international movement of neoliberalism. The use of violence by the state was evident in many encounters between police and picketers (though the picketers too had their bad moments). The failure of the strike destroyed the National Union of Miners’ political power, which had been considerable, and reanimated deep divisions in British society, causing considerable bitterness, especially in Northern England. Ten deaths resulted from the events: six picketers, three teenagers searching for coal, and a taxi-driver who had been driving miners to work.

It may also be that many don’t know, or have forgotten, how badly traditional mining communities suffered from the closing of the pits, and the move to neoliberalism. They have in effect become lost tribes, and one side-effect of this is the oddly social-anthropological character of both these accounts: evocations of a way of life that self-consciously represented the values of solidarity and community, and that required a measure of continuity – and thus a belief in the continued viability of the pits – to function at all. Francis Beckett and David Hencke quote one journalist’s description of a mining village near Barnsley:

The village is not big, nearly all the 300 workers in the pit live here with their families. The wages were never very high … but they have cars and many own their little houses. The village with its well tended gardens, pretty curtains and tidy streets looks nice, almost prosperous … chances of finding other work do not exist here … It is the fear of a future without work, the vision of deserted villages and towns, which keep the workers on strike.

Descent into labour-market anomie and disposability was the threat here, a betrayal of the Leninist idea. Himself from another South Yorkshire village, Arthur Scargill, the leader of the NUM, felt the threat strongly, but believed that it might cause the idea to be redeemed and renewed. The British Communist Party, to which he had once belonged, opposed the strike, insisting on adherence to the conventional pattern: redemption by the vanguard alone, via a reliable intelligentsia and a staged process of persuasion. But Scargill believed instead in the power of mass mobilisation, a contagious and revitalising means of struggle against the imposition of Thatcherism.

The most contentious single issue during the strike was the failure of the NUM to hold a union-wide vote on strike action. But Scargill knew how a vote might affect the emotional appeal and instinctive solidarity he counted on. Solidarity was bound to be shaken by it – even had a pro-strike majority been achieved. Surveys from the period indicate a majority was probable, but not certain, and one crucial region was alienated from the mobilisation: Nottinghamshire. Here, the industry had benefited from the success of the 1974 strike, which brought down the Heath government, and mining expansion had continued into the 1980s. The Nottinghamshire miners not only stayed at work, they eventually set up a separate union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. The Scottish-American Ian MacGregor, appointed head of the National Coal Board, was clear that ‘the key to the whole strike was Nottinghamshire and its 31,000 miners. If we could keep this vast and prosperous coalfield going, then I was convinced, however long it took, we could succeed.’ In Scotland and Wales area votes supported Scargill and the strike, but these mattered far less.

More than democracy in the mining communities was at stake: Thatcher was determined to defeat the NUM and reduce the power of the trade unions. Scargill’s substitution of solidarity for head-count democracy made it harder for the NUM to influence and recruit from other social strata. In a country still permeated by older forms of class-consciousness, Thatcher was using the cramped structures of an archaic state to force through socio-economic changes, and was quite capable of defending those structures as ‘democratic’. Serious campaigns to modernise the Westminster system did not emerge until three years after the miners’ action, in the form of Charter 88, and ten years later as devolution for Scotland and Wales. But in 1984-85 neither civil society nor the state was going to be shamed into retreat or collusion, as happened in 1974.

The contributors to these two books look back at the strike with a mixture of rage and regret. They feel that something vital was at stake, and then lost in the defeat. Their commemorations are intended both to remind readers of this, and to suggest the possibility of a reprise today. Beckett and Hencke have put great effort into describing the background to the NUM’s final surrender in their concluding chapter, ‘Not an Industrial Dispute, But a War’. Both books emphasise the government’s deployment of huge numbers of police and their use of violence and force, and straightforwardly blame the NUM president for poor generalship: ‘The miners trusted Arthur Scargill with … everything they had, and he let them down, bravely shouting, “Onwards and forwards, brothers, the future lies ahead,” without thinking through the dangers and hardships into which he was leading them.’ In his contribution to Shafted, the journalist Paul Routledge – the author of a biography of Scargill – concludes dolefully that the ‘war is over. Nothing is gained by remaining in the trenches of 1984, powerful though those experiences and memories are.’

The best Granville Williams can do to soften the wounds of retrospect is an afterword on ‘Coal and Climate Change’, in which he maintains that the closure programme that led to the great strike was mistaken. It may have damaged the NUM, disabled the foundations of the working-class movement and helped Thatcher win another election in 1987, but in 2009 the landscape is at last coming to look quite different: ‘The case for coal, and a new energy policy which recognises the importance of serious research and investment in clean coal technology, is growing stronger.’ Apologists for those vanquished in 1984-85 now claim to be ‘part of the struggle to save the planet, not part of the problem’. Today’s NUM sees worldwide coal production rising from four billion tonnes at present to seven billion or more in 20 years’ time. Last year’s environmental protests at Drax power station in Yorkshire and against proposals for a new coal-fired plant at Kingsnorth were misconceived, they believed.

It is difficult to judge such a new twist to the story, since it all depends on the validity of the clean coal scenario. Opinions vary greatly, but a majority seems to have its doubts, and a significant minority is extremely sceptical. Probably the best overview was given by Fred Pearce in New Scientist last year: ‘We are unlikely to give up burning coal any time soon, and CCS’ – carbon capture and storage – ‘could eventually have an important part to play by allowing coal to be used without doing unacceptable damage to the global climate. But that isn’t going to happen tomorrow. And as to the dream of coal becoming a zero-emissions source of power – forget it.’ The dream even so continues to appeal to both coal-using industrialists and the government, though the combination of the enormous investment needed, and the unavoidable risks of leaks and spillage in underground (or undersea) storage, are just as likely to be an excuse for doing far too little, much too late.

In any case, there’s surely less need now to redeem the miners’ cause this way than at any time since they returned to work in March 1985. No one will read these new volumes without the sound of thunder in their ears: the collapse of the world that Thatcher and her over-zealous ministers championed. Anyone can now see that her victory was much worse than Pyrrhic. Nothing has fallen back into business as usual. Globalisation means it never will; the events of 1984-85 were like a troubled anticipatory dream of the time now upon us. Both books worry about Scargill’s obdurate, lonely silence, about his own errors and about the meaning of the events. But what words could possibly make up for the former, or begin to encompass the latter?

As it happened, I began reading these books on a long-haul flight. Passengers were also handed copies of that day’s Financial Times. It was 18 April and the paper’s centre pages were devoted to the imminent bankruptcy of General Motors. Unnerved by receiving a mere $13.4 billion from US taxpayers, the company’s chief executive, Fritz Henderson, was reported as wanting more. What was bad for GM, he argued, was bad for America, and other places too. The British ‘fault line’ of 1985 has turned into a global earth-shift.

In his contribution to Shafted, Michael Bailey argues that since the spectre of socialism and historical materialism continues to haunt society, it’s legitimate to invoke Walter Benjamin, to keep ‘control of that memory’, and to ‘blast open the continuum of history’. Tony Benn, in his foreword, still dreams of coming ‘together with a similar programme and campaigning for it relentlessly’. The alternative must be to get out of those trenches for good: or, better still, to fill them in with fragments of neoliberal wreckage, holy relics of both left and right, tattered copies of Milton Friedman and Hayek, Blairite posters and Gordon Brown speeches. On top, some combination of a cross and a hammer and sickle could be suitably laid.

Another alternative would be to admit that Benjamin’s ‘continuum’ was an illusion. No revived programme or relentless campaign can possibly restore it. In another new verdict on the struggle, David Marquand points out that, after her victory in the South Atlantic, it was Thatcher’s ‘Tory nationalist blunderbuss’ that won the day in 1984-85, against what she called ‘the internal enemy’: that is, ‘the syndicalist myth of a heroic proletariat taking direct industrial action to destroy the capitalist state, and the Leninist myth of a disciplined elite leading the rest of the working class to victory’.[*] Scargill’s defeat also marked the end of ‘the dream of industrial citizenship at the point of production, which had flickered intermittently in the psyche of the Labour movement for the best part of a century, and now faded away.’

Its disappearance helps us to define the strange location of Arthur Scargill, the lost messiah. No student of the great strike, or of Scargill’s brooding presence, will doubt the applicability of the title. Here the preface to the Beckett and Hencke book is particularly useful, a record of their failure to interview a leader still unable to concede past mistakes. He continues to think the strike would have been successful had it not been for traitors in the Labour movement and party, notably the party’s then leader, Neil Kinnock. But what would an NUM victory have entailed, for today?

Scargill’s misfortune was to come to power between two worlds: the older one of class plus international socialism, and the returning one of democratic nationalism. He was the victim of this mid-point limbo, too late for Leninism but too early for reanimated English nationality politics. Instead, Thatcher’s ‘blunderbuss’ offensive appealed to the Great British embodiment of the nation, in decline but some way from today’s demoralised wreckage. She was able to mobilise what remained against an ‘enemy within’ apparently disloyal and indifferent to national standing and power.

Most far left leaders and groups in Britain have been drawn to the model of the rebellious exile Leon Trotsky. But Scargill has always preferred Trotsky’s enemy Joseph Stalin. He is an unswerving member of the British Stalin Society. In Heroes and Hero-Worship, Thomas Carlyle pointed out that modern leader-figures must give voice to emerging currents of social passion and aspiration: they need to feed souls in need of faith and identity. Scargill’s powers of leadership and inspiration were never in doubt. But as for redressing the continuum of history, what these writers can’t help showing is that his charisma is largely out of tune with the times. Scargill’s South Yorkshire can be reasonably depicted as the heart of England. But English identity was, as it still is, configured by what one might call the ‘larger than’ complex: fixed in the outward-looking mould of Anglo-Britain and overseas empire, while Little England is imagined by contrast as a place of loss, shrinkage and mere ethnicity. Instead of contesting the over-reach complex, socialists have largely adopted it, in their own terms, as ‘internationalism’ (whether Trotskyite or Stalinist). In Marquand’s terminology, British Blunderbuss Socialism would have been the fruit of a 1984-85 victory, no doubt captained by Tony Benn. Is this a continuum we should blast a way back to? A memory we need to reconsecrate, in order to make good the tragedies of that moment? I suspect the complex, too, was a symptom of the advancing earth-shift, naturally misconstrued at the time by partisans of one or other continuum, Thatcherite or Scargillite. At this distance, it’s more important to understand the machinery, and to estimate how the actual shift is working out.

One further sign of the times deserves mention – a tribute in effect to the ‘cunning of history’. The greater salience of coal-mining in Wales meant that the defeat had more enduring side effects there, political as well as social. Hywel Francis’s study History on Our Side maintains that one delayed result of the disaster was that the Welsh realised they had to depend more on themselves: to put it differently, there was a stirring of nationhood.[†] This was represented ten years later by the workers’ takeover of the Tower colliery at Hirwaun, which continued until the pit’s final closure last year. But, according to the Welsh Assembly’s presiding officer, Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the strike ‘was when it all began’ – the shift towards a wider national awareness that culminated in the Assembly, and its ruling coalition of Labour with Plaid Cymru.

[*] Britain since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy (Phoenix, 477 pp., £14.99, November, 978 0 297 64320 3).

[†] History on Our Side: Wales and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike (Iconau, 97 pp., £9.99, March, 978 1 905762 45 3).