There are many reasons why the miners’ strike still matters. Trade union militancy is starting to re-emerge, albeit in weird forms, and 1984-85 remains the pivotal event in the process that got us into our present mess. Francis Beckett and David Hencke’s Marching to the Fault Line, published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the year-long strike, recognises this significance. “No one under 40,” they claim, “knows what it is like to live in a country where trade unions are a force in the land,” and the defeat of the miners is the main reason. Yet many of us under 30 can remember at least our parents’ vivid stories about this strike-as-civil-war, giving it mythical status as a heroic battle which, if it had gone the other way, could have changed history, stopping in its tracks the Thatcherite offensive that continued until last year’s crash.
The merit of Beckett and Hencke’s book lies in the attempt to prise the history of the strike away from myth, though whether they succeed in doing this without putting another mythology in its place is another matter. Nonetheless, an excellent first chapter describes the lost world of the miners’ union, with its culture of self-education and deep sense of history. The authors note the extent of government preparation, with a secret cabinet committee planning the confrontation since at least 1981; they allude, albeit casually and superficially, to the extensive MI5 campaign against the Scargill-led National Union of Mineworkers; they cite the extreme press bias against the strikers; and they prove that the breakaway Democratic Union of Mineworkers was a puppet of the National Coal Board. A chapter on the Battle of Orgreave describes in sickening detail the extent of the police riot, which they suggest was a brutally effective diversionary tactic.
Yet what makes this such an uneven and eventually dubious book is the manner in which it concentrates on the failings of Arthur Scargill, debunking the mythology of “King Arthur” rather than offering a structural analysis of the cataclysmic strike and its defeat. Beckett and Hencke do not interview him, though not for want of trying – but the authors’ focus on his actions skews the book, and by the end they blame the NUM leader entirely for the strike and its grim consequences.
Scargill was undeniably egotistical, and extremely naive about publicity. Industrial correspondents who could have countered the barrage of pro-government propaganda were needlessly alienated. His refusal to call a strike ballot had some logic: as Ken Capstick argues here, “If you have two armies, would you ballot one of the armies because the other army was screaming at them to do it?” And yet polls indicated that Scargill would have won, making the absence of the strike ballot counterproductive. Sadly, the NUM’s self-defeating suspicion of the media is common among trade unionists.
Beckett and Hencke seem to believe that the strike was unwinnable from the start, Scargill’s intransigence only making the defeat all the more crushing. But although they accuse Scargill of not seeing the “big picture”, their book suffers from just that failing. By their own account, Margaret Thatcher was determined to destroy trade unionism. The NUM was first, and the printworkers, the steelworkers, the dockers and eventually the entire movement bar a remnant in the public sector would follow. This was merely the most extreme version of the worldwide assault on the labour movement and the public sector which we know as “neoliberalism” – but the context is ignored.
Scargill knew this, however, and his repeated claim that the government was out to destroy the miners’ power is borne out by a simple fact: just six of the 186 pits working in 1984 survive today. His assertion that the strike was defeated through lack of solidarity from the rest of the labour movement was correct in essentials, if not always in details: if NACODS, the pit foremen’s union, had come out on strike – as it very nearly did – defeat for the government would have been assured, as the authors themselves imply.
It is bizarre to establish that, as far as the government was concerned, this was civil war, and then blame Scargill for his lack of compromise instead of blaming those, like Neil Kinnock or the TUC, who acted as if there was no war in the first place. We suffer enormously from the defeat of organised labour, especially as we search for alternatives to the bankruptcy of unleashed capitalism.
Beckett and Hencke make a laudable attempt to restore labour’s greatest defeat to history, not myth. Yet, because they lack a wider perspective, they eventually set up a counter-myth – that neoliberalism could have been appeased, that a decent compromise was possible and that the failings of one man destroyed the entire labour movement in Britain – every bit as unconvincing as all the others.