Labour politicians used to talk about the miners as “the backbone of the nation”. And not only politicians. The miners knew it for themselves. Note the definite article: the miners. One thing. One formation.
In 1984, I was teaching 20 Leicestershire and Derbyshire miners on day release. The course had taken an age to set up and six hours in a classroom full of smokers must have been contrary to the Factory Acts, but even though not one of them was on strike, the National Coal Board (NCB) cancelled their day release halfway through the term without a word of warning to them, or the two universities that taught the class, or the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) which had negotiated it, or the Workers’ Educational Association which had organised it, or Quest House in Loughborough which hosted it. I remember thinking that if the board could act so offhandedly in a piddling little thing like this, how will it act in a strike that was already taking all the wrong turns?
Robert Gildea’s Great Fable of the Strike pits his working-class heroes (that’s something to be) against the White Queen of No 10 and her attack dogs at Hobart House – the London headquarters of the NCB – and the police. It’s a story that has been told many times before and will be told many times again: saints vs scabs, warriors vs traitors, principle vs profits, honest work vs idle luxury. You may not know the literature, but you’ll recognise the language: “clothes off their backs”, “food on the table”, “close-knit communities”, “bad conditions”, “going it alone”. Gildea sits at the feet of the fabulists. Backbone of the Nation includes 148 interviewees, all listed – two hours apiece across six coalfields and over 30 colliery clusters – with chunks of their testimony interleaved with summaries of the situation overall.
Arthur Scargill, former communist and president of the NUM during the strike, is nowhere to be seen near the tape recorder. Everyone else gets a go, however, nearly all of them strike activists. The stars of the show are Dave Douglass, union official, Geordie anarchist and self-styled guerrilla general, representing Hatfield Main, and Hywel Francis, adult educator, close to the Valleys.
Ideologues were prominent on both sides. Privateers and freelance spivs on the government’s side; broad left, hard left, soft left, old left, new left and bonkers left on the miners’.
Coal production in the UK peaked in 1913 at 287 million tonnes, and over a million men. In 1960 there were still over half a million miners at 698 pits. By 1970, after deep cuts by the very institutions the miners had created for their own advancement – the Labour Party and the NCB – the numbers were down to 287,000 miners and 292 pits. Although the county unions had their own ways, the 1966 Power Loading Agreement was a national negotiation that brought coal workers together in one sense but drove them apart in another by introducing hefty incentive bonuses. There had been a brief revival of coal in the 1970s (“People Will Always Need Coal” said the posters), but by the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s government was introducing reforms that would put trade union legislation back a hundred years. Under Joe Gormley, the miners had humiliated Tory governments once too often. Now the NUM was facing a government that had tasted blood in the Falklands and was rewarded with a 144-seat majority at the 1983 general election. Revenge was in the air.
In March 1984, panicked by intimations of the closure of many pits, Scargill led a divided union into a war it could not win. It was the wrong time, with a union membership at odds with itself and lacking the support of key political and industrial allies. Right from the start this was not a class war but a civil war: pit on pit, county on county, family on family, marra on marra. When it was over, one man remembered asking himself if he would go to the aid of an injured man if that man had been a scab. A war of all on all, Barnsley Miners’ Wives Action Group broke away from Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures. Or was it the other way around?
At the bottom of it all was Scargill’s attempt to scramble non-striking coalfields into the dispute when it was clear that a constitutionally minded organisation such as the NUM, with over 100 years of trade union rule books behind it, would want the clarity of a national ballot Scargill was not prepared to give. There was a time when things had been simpler and Scargill had been popular. Leicestershire miners told me that when there was a problem he had a reputation for arriving at a pit and getting into his pit gear to go down and see what the matter was for himself. And yet, out of 3,000 or so Leicestershire miners, only a handful (the “Dirty Thirty”) joined the strike. As the stoppage dragged on, and the flying pickets did their work, Scargill’s jabbing finger failed to convince. “Save our pits and communities” – the cause may have been just, but this was an action mired in complicated legal arguments about what had used to be very straightforward: whose side are you on?
Same pit, same seam, same club, same shop, same school, same family, same street – whichever side you were on, there was no alternative but to keep with it, nowhere to travel but in the direction of your own self-respect. Eight months into the strike and with winter coming on, benefits being cut and state planners targeting striking families to break their will, the cracks began to appear. The NUM was subjected to huge fines for contempt of court: Scargill had kept calling the strike “official” and “national” when everybody could see it wasn’t. Nacods (National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers), which kept the pits safe, and open, withdrew support after yet more internecine wrangling. Then two young Merthyr miners were convicted of the murder of a Cardiff taxi driver ferrying a man to work. They had dropped a concrete block on his car from a bridge. They hadn’t meant to kill him but the moral damage was done. The strike began to crumble in January and by the end of March it was all over – although civil wars never end all at once. Strikers who were taken back were put on unpopular shifts in pointless parts of the pit. One of my former students wrote his dissertation by the light of his Davy lamp.
The left loves to talk about the “lessons” of history. What were the lessons of 1984-85? First, strikes were devised in the modern period to beat capitalists vulnerable to rival businesses and damage to their local reputation. This hardly applies to international conglomerates or state corporations. Second, however high the emotional claim on loyalty, this was not a win in any real sense. It not only smashed brave and skilful workers, it smashed the alternatives to privatisation, demutualisation and globalisation. No strangers to hard work and belonging, mining communities would have responded well to careful injections of new industry and investment as and when the pit was deemed exhausted. This never happened. The threat of closure was held as a gun to the union’s head. Third, it marked the end of Labour as a party of the working class. Indeed, it marked the end of the working class as a working class. Fourth, it showed that for all his errors of judgement and tactics, Scargill was right on the core issue. The government intended to snap the backbone of the nation. Most people sensed this and sympathised with the miners.
Finally, the biggest lesson of all: this country has a politico-business class that will do what it wants, or can get away with, whatever the British people think or say.
Contrary to the blurb, this book is not “gripping” or a “masterpiece”, although it might be said to be “infused with humanity”, if that is your thing. Given that Robert Gildea is an Oxford professor of modern history, he pays almost no attention to the way he gathered and ordered his material. He is not even curious. Oral history comes late and is not unwitting: it needs to be carefully interpreted. Rather, Backbone of the Nation is a niche history, an account of all that violence and illness that was wished upon our people. Whatever else it was, this strike was emphatically not what Gildea says it was: “a model for other struggles against global capitalism”.
Here is Dianne Hogg’s account of strikers in Askern, Doncaster, marching back to work after a year on the picket line: “It were like watching a movie where the heroine dies and all you want to do is sit and cry. It were fantastic, and sad as well. To see the men of this village, heads held high… You just wanted to cry. You had old men, standing on the doorstep, crying. And when they got to the pit, there was a picket line.”
Robert Colls’s most recent book is “This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960” (OUP)
Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85
Yale University Press, 496pp, £25
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[See also: The memeification of George Orwell]
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power