We shall not see their like again

Paul Routledge reported the defining moment of British postwar history, the miners' strike that bega

The memory of impending doom is as sharp as ever. The scene is the public bar of the Danum Hotel, Doncaster. The date is late October 1984. It is late evening and I am drinking with the lads from Frickley Colliery in Yorkshire. There is an air of subdued elation, because after more than seven hard months of a strike that began in March that year, a whiff of victory is detectable. The pit deputies, whose normal working has undermined the greatest working-class insurrection of modern times, have voted more than four to one to join the strike at last. Without them, the pits cannot operate lawfully, and the Thatcher government's ambition of breaking the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) will be defeated.

As labour editor of the Times, I telephoned the news desk at about 10pm to see how the story was playing. It was the front-page splash, but not as I had written it. Why? Because our man in Birmingham had fresh, reliable information. Key members of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (Nacods) executive had gone home from the ballot declaration stating that they would defy the vote and carry on working the Midlands and Nottinghamshire pits.

I knew then that it would be simply a matter of time before the miners and their families were crushed. I went back to the bar and, two decades later, I can still remember the song that was playing - "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper - as we discussed the prospects. Some miners would not, could not, share my gloomy view. But the deputies did stay at work. Moreover, they signed a deal on pit closures that Arthur Scargill, the NUM leader, rejected with contumely - sealing the fate of the dispute just as surely as the deputies' treachery.

The memory of that evening - more than the picketing, the collective hysteria of the Scargill rallies, the close relationships built up during that awful year - remains the most poignant and distressing of all. I cannot bring it back to mind without feeling hatred for the bastards who did these things to our people.

I was only an observer, if an interested one. I had not lost my home or my livelihood, as so many of these exhausted men and their families would now do. The Tories and their allies tore through the pit villages like an avenging army, destroying jobs, pits, the union and a way of life that had endured for more than a century. The legacy is still with us. Work is scarce, and it does not command anything like the same money. All too often, it is agency work in warehouses and the like, on short-term contracts, with no union. "You take what you can get, because there's nowt else," is the common refrain. The glue of disciplined work in a dangerous environment has also gone. In its place has come drug addiction on an inner-city scale. South Elmsall village is a typical example. Its former miners at Frickley Colliery prided themselves on being "second to none", because only four out of 1,800 men scabbed. "And they were outsiders," they quickly explain. Now rows of terraced houses near the site of the pit, which would fetch a million pounds in Chelsea, have to be demolished, because they are the killing fields of heroin dealers. A few hundred yards away, "executive" homes are going up, likely to fetch £150,000, and be occupied by commuters from Leeds, Wakefield and Sheffield.

The NUM has been a high-profile casualty of the post-strike years. Sundered by a split that led to the breakaway of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) and the re-election of Scargill, this once-proud organisation imploded and today resembles an extinct volcano - rugged, scary, but dead. Scargill took over a thriving union with 270,000 members and a bulging bank account. Under his leadership, it contracted to no more than 2,000 paying members. He remains its £1,000-a-month "consultant", with a £60,000-a-year pension. He could not even leave the NUM a presidency; it now has a chairman, like a working men's club committee. The post is held by Ian Lavery, a decent man who has been overwhelmed by events.

The four-pit Selby complex closes next month. Hatfield Colliery, sitting on Europe's biggest reserves, shut down in January. Yorkshire will have only three deep mines: Kellingley, Maltby and Rossington, the last redoubts of the NUM. Just three where there were once hundreds. Some spirit survives, like gas venting from the crater floor. Kellingley miners have just voted by nine to one to ban overtime over UK Coal's plans to impose longer shifts and 24-hour working.

Then there is the continuing scandal of the mineworkers' pension scheme, set up by the Tories in the aftermath of the strike. The Treasury takes half the annual profits, often amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds, in return for a pledge to maintain the pitifully low level of miners' pensions. Some get £12 a week. Gordon Brown refuses to end this theft of the workers' pennies. Between 1997 and 2001, the Labour vote in Hemsworth - once the party's safest seat in England - fell by 9,000. These were not transferred votes. They simply disappeared.

Yes, shipbuilding, heavy engineering, steel, the railways - all got it in the neck in similar fashion. But the miners had a special role in the British understanding of what we are all about. They once numbered a million men, plus women and children. The nation's wealth was built on their backs, on the pit rows with their ash middens - conditions that did not change until municipal socialism, often a distant cousin of big Labour, brought about reform.

It is not possible to romanticise about the miners, because their achievement was so real. The others talked. They did it. The council estates of South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Fife, the Welsh valleys and the Midlands are a tribute to their struggle. They put the baths indoors, and they did not put coal in them. What we have lost is not just the NUM's hard hats, with their Labour Party block votes, but also unsung individuals whose daily efforts brought improvements for the people they represented. We shall not see their like again. Who can put his hand on his heart and say that Peter Mandelson is a more important figure than the unknown miner who stood at the gates of hell for a year, living on the charity of fellow trade unionists and the uncertain handouts of a Labour council in fear of voter disapproval?

The smirking, smarmy face of new Labour tells us everything we need to know about the political generation that never had to face the great crisis that confronted Neil Kinnock. He was torn between loyalty and expediency. It showed in his face. But at least it showed. With supreme irony, Tony Blair lives in a former mining village in Durham. The daft Spanish name of his house - Mirabella - gives away the dysfunctional relationship he has always had with the miners. He routinely fails to answer invitations to the annual Durham Miners' Gala, held a few miles from his home. He allows his staff at No 10 to denigrate those who fight for higher wages as "Scargillites". There is no greater insult in his (admittedly limited) political vocabulary. This should come as no surprise, since he has never had a proper job, or been on strike, or felt the hot breath of the boss down his neck. Blair has never shown an ounce of understanding for what the men and women - the very men and women who sustained his party in the bleak years of opposition - went through. He thinks bread and dripping is a side order in the nouveau-bourgeois Quality Chop House, a "progressive working-class caterer" in London.

Forgive me if I fail to suppress my wrath. It is not invented. It resurfaces at the oddest moments. A few months ago, I was asked to talk to a supper meeting of a Tory club calling itself "The Britons". Norman Tebbit was among the speakers. Somebody mentioned the miners. I got to my feet and said something like: "Call yourselves Britons? Don't you think the miners and their families were Britons? Don't you remember what you people did to them - especially him [Tebbit]?" I could have machine-gunned them, wallowing in their Chateau Whatsit and ignorance.

What do they know, for instance, of the work of Father Peter Needham, the Roman Catholic priest parachuted into St Luke's, Grimethorpe, where not only the pit but a coking plant and a power station closed? The village hit rock bottom, with 50 per cent unemployed, and an average wage of £8,000 a year for those "lucky" enough to be in work. Needham, an omnipresence with his dogs Mary and Joseph, fought to rebuild the disintegrating community and his efforts are slowly bearing fruit. "Nobody else from outside seemed to want to help," the former miner Trevor Wassall told a radio programme.

On 20 March, the annual David Jones/Joe Green memorial lecture will take place in Barnsley. It commemorates two pitmen who died in the Great Strike. In both cases, on the picket line. No politicians died, only a few reputations. Nor any policemen.

This year, inevitably, the ex-pitmen wanted to hear Arthur Scargill. He is still a cult figure in the mining communities. You rubbish him at your peril, not least because so many ex-miners have yet to come to terms with the grief, the horror and the sense of defeat. He is there for the funerals, and other social occasions. Unbelievably for outsiders, he is not criticised for never having been there to negotiate miners' wages, or colliery closures, after the strike was over. Or for pulling out of health and safety forums to pursue a vendetta against the renegade UDM. "Scaggsie is a bastard, but he is our bastard," you will hear. Nobody closes ranks against the outside world like the miners do - to this day. They remember that he was prominent in the 1972 and 1974 strikes - real victories, victories that improved pay and conditions and ultimately brought down the Heath government.

It comes as no surprise to hear that former NUM leaders such as Terry Thomas in South Wales do not want to take part in 20th-anniversary media programmes. There is much to think about, not much to celebrate. Those idiot media children who want to exploit an event of which they could have had no contemporary experience, who see the strike as an event to be filmed before they move on to the next fixture in the calendar, should stay out of Pit Row. Those who went through it are the only people who know. I leave to the end the Frickley miner who, when the strike was over and Scargill declared a victory, said: "Well, I lost the car, and my life's savings, and I nearly lost the house. Good job we didn't get beat, isn't it?" In that sentence, you know they never were.