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6 March 2024

The economic consequences of the miners’ strike

The NUM’s defeat in 1985 marked the end of the social democratic era – and the creation of the market society in which government today cannot do even the simple things well.

By Robert Colls

The choices open to women and men today – even amongst the underprivileged – may be more numerous than in the past, but what has been lost irretrievably is the choice of saying: this is the centre of the world.
John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984)

Coal used to get everywhere. Up your nose. Down your socks. Under your fingernails. This was the stuff, according to George Orwell, that was the basis of modern civilisation. Now my grandchildren don’t know what it is.

In the recent three-part Channel 4 documentary, Miners’ Strike 1984, Shirebrook men recount what “t’pit” meant to them. “It were like a mother.” “Every man for everybody.” “Maybe that were bred in me.” “Ah didn’t want anything else.” “Great pit, good colliers.” These sentiments could be 300 years old. Pitmen would speak of themselves as “true bred” in the same way that others in England would speak of themselves as “free born”.

Coal was nationalised in 1947. Along with the NHS, the National Coal Board (NCB) stood at the heart of the new social democratic state. Production peaked in 1913 at 287 million tonnes, but by 1960 manpower was down from well over a million men and boys to 607,000, and by 1970 it was down to 290,000.

The steepest losses happened under Harold Wilson’s Labour governments (253 pits), although Harold Macmillan before him closed 246, and Clement Attlee 101. By 1983, the NCB had improved safety, and raised output per man-shift tenfold, but the move to mechanised cutting had rendered many thin seams practicably unworkable if not strictly unprofitable. In 1951 Durham County Council planned the evacuation of 290,743 of its own people out of their own villages – mainly mining.

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In 1974 the NCB’s Plan for Coal promised the accelerated closure of what it deemed inefficient collieries. Miners were used to it. They knew the drill. The leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were never keen on colliery closures, but they knew it was an inevitable part of an extractive industry. Both sides had negotiated joint consultative frameworks and labour transference schemes to deal with it.

In the worst political crisis of the postwar era – Northern Ireland was on the boil too – Edward Heath went to the country in February 1974 asking “Who governs Britain?” and got his answer twice in the same year when Harold Wilson was returned at the head of a Labour government, albeit on knife-edge majorities. James Callaghan replaced an exhausted Wilson in 1976, but faced the same inflationary pressures driven by the high price of energy and the low level of trust between government and trade unions. After the failure of his incomes policy (in the so called Winter of Discontent) Callaghan went to the country in May 1979 asking essentially the same question as Heath and got essentially the same answer (“Not you”). A new chapter began with a refulgent Margaret Thatcher sweeping into Downing Street calling for peace and concord throughout the land.

On 6 March 1984, the NCB declared its intention to shut 20 pits out of 173 remaining, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. In a period of terrible haemorrhaging of industrial manufacturing – with over two million jobs lost since Thatcher had come to power in 1979, and a new Coal Board chairman, Ian MacGregor, who had already shed over 90,000 in three years at British Steel – the NUM leadership responded by calling for a national strike. The union’s president, Arthur Scargill – a Young Communist in the 1950s, who had joined the Labour Party in 1962 – opposed calling a nationwide ballot of NUM members, concerned that the vote might go against a full-scale strike; instead he proposed that the initial strategy of members voting to strike area by area should continue.

His position was endorsed by a special delegate conference on 19 April, and the miners found they were fighting not only the government and the NCB, but also one another. Numbers fluctuate and are hard to pin down. At the union’s area level, South Wales, Northumberland and Durham, Scotland, Kent and Yorkshire had firmly voted in favour of strike action. The Nottinghamshire, West Midlands, South Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lancashire and Cheshire areas had generally voted against. At the strike’s peak, about 50,000 working miners stood against (and thereby undermined) about 150,000 strikers. Scargill hoped that impassioned calls for solidarity and brotherhood would roll the recalcitrant counties over, but the lack of a decisive national ballot left one shoulder of the union firmly wedged against the other.

By summer, the scrum was breaking up into violent clusters. At Orgreave coke works near Rotherham on 18 June, mass picketing met mass policing in the traditional one-great-shove style – only this time, the shove was followed by battlefield tactics with mounted police, flailing batons, random arrests, false charges and much, much anxiety.

Three Bobbies fighting with the lad from across the road in your own front garden gave a whole new meaning to community policing. The only difference was that under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, NUM intimidation was illegal and police intimidation was not. In a sense, rough-house policing was expected and could be faced down. Less easy to cope with for Midlands mining communities were the incursions of “flying pickets” – striking miners who travelled to pits in other parts of the country to reinforce the picket lines – who were not shy in telling local working miners and their families what they thought of them: “F***ING SCAB.”

Women’s strike support groups sprang up across the country and waded in. Local miners’ clubs became nerve centres. As well as hubs for food banks and soup kitchens, nurseries, adult education and somewhere to get warm, it was here that strike tactics were planned and families dug in to come together emotionally.

By the autumn, fear and loathing were joined by legal injunctions, sequestrations and inter-union wrangling in the courts. By Christmas, despite widespread public support for the strike (including two giant much-loved teddies, bravely handed over by our daughters), enthusiasm for the strike was running low.

Neil Kinnock, elected leader of the Labour Party after the disastrous trouncing of Michael Foot in 1983, came from classic mining origins. Kinnock was born in Tredegar – Nye Bevan’s birthplace – the son of a miner and a nurse; he was member for Bedwellty (later Islwyn) mining constituency, a great speaker in the Welsh tradition and firmly on the decent communitarian left of the party. Everything had seemed primed for Kinnock’s entry into the field. Except that it was impossible for him to unambiguously endorse a national strike without a national ballot. After all, Labour lived or died by national ballots. There were other reasons too: the violence and the division.

Kinnock continued making “the case for coal” but kept his pleas for a national ballot private while stepping warily round the picket line. Picketing was an instrument of industrial relations that had always been contested – nowhere more so than in the miners’ and builders’ resort to mass picketing in the 1970s. For Kinnock, if it was a question of Arthur Scargill’s jabbing finger or Labour’s electoral chances, it could never be the finger.

On 3 March 1985 the NUM declared an end. Many miners had gone back to work already. Some marched back under their banners. Some, unbelievably, still manned the picket lines and called the marchers scabs. Once back at work, many men were victimised. The miners had taken their deepest loyalties into battle and lost.

“Save our pits and communities” was essentially a moral call. There were economic arguments to be made, of course – among them fortifying Britain’s energy security, and ensuring communities’ survival through self-help (which would have been cheaper than supporting them via the dole) – but deep down the miners believed pits and communities were their business and nobody else’s. This was their land, not Thatcher’s or MacGregor’s. They used to call their unions “mutual confident associations”. Note the words. If they believed in anybody, they believed in each other.

Thatcher’s government claimed the moral high ground too. It wasn’t that they were against subsidies. Not at all. They were in favour of subsidies. Indeed, they were about to give Nissan subsidies to build its new Sunderland car plant in the old Durham coalfield, where there was no shortage of ex-miners ready and able to make it the most productive of its kind in Europe. It was more that the prime minister and her key ideologue, Keith Joseph, believed that too many subsidies were awarded according to political opportunism, not market strength. In a 1980 ministerial briefing, Joseph said the government was against “all obstructions” to the free play of the market – “obstructions” he defined as “institutional, psychological, cultural, economic and legislative”; “obstructions” which, in other contexts, might be said to constitute a whole way of life.

No matter. Parliament wanted utmost adaptability in the supply of labour and passed a string of trade union and employment acts (1980, 1982, 1984, 1988) to ensure they/we got it. Shirebrook Colliery in Derbyshire, for instance, was in time replaced by 1.8 million square feet of Sports Direct – a company so adaptable that, according to a 2015 parliamentary inquiry, it did not treat its workers as human beings. On the other hand, the old Orgreave coking plant at Rotherham was replaced by Sheffield University Advanced Manufacturing Centre – a research outfit so advanced (“We can take an assembly process down from 60 minutes to 60 seconds”) it might seem reluctant to treat its human beings as workers.

With the NUM out of the picture and the other unions cowed – and coal imports, as well as North Sea oil and gas, growing as market options – the way was clear for the privatisation of nationally owned industries and public services. Everything went, from British Telecom and British Gas to health and prisons. Privatisation happened across all Western democracies and (it could be argued) might have happened anyway, but the miners’ defeat in 1985 was the signal, the flare, that allowed Thatcherism to go on the offensive. From now on, the government’s embattled economics began to look exemplary. From now on Thatcher was a “conviction politician”.

The new economic dispensation broke capital and labour into global fragments. Andrew Marr has written in this journal that capitalism integrates people. In fact, it’s the opposite. Why is my local NHS GP surgery owned by an American conglomerate? How come my children’s state school is privately owned? Who allowed universities to dive into global markets instead of local adult education? Who is lobbying against the Lobbying Act? Who is answerable for HS2? Who owns Thames Water? Or the Post Office? (Don’t ask.) Or Southern Railway? (Which is itself a brand name of Govia Thameslink, which is a subsidiary of Govia, which is a joint venture between the British Go-Ahead group and French Keolis, itself jointly owned by SNCF and CDPQ.) Divided and confused? You should be.

Nearer the national knuckle, why have we not been able to field a full armoured division since 1991? Why are our two aircraft carriers out of service? I say “we” and I say “our”.

The point is, the products or services people once believed somehow belonged to them – or were being delivered for them, or by them – have now been outsourced across various lines of contract and consultancy to distant third parties. They might range, in hospitals, say, from security and car parking to nursing agencies and private health insurance.

Not only that. Government itself was privatised and marketised from 1986 in the Next Steps initiative to reform the civil service. Not only that, but the Stock Exchange was also reprivatised and globalised with the so-called Big Bang from 27 October 1986.

Now you see who is responsible for what you need. Now you don’t. In any case, the website doesn’t give a number, and even if it did, the enquiry would be pinged to some other company, perhaps some other country.

Economists talk about the “moral hazards” of global interconnected financial risk-taking. With mass immigration and the export of manufacturing jobs (down since 1982 from 21 per cent to 8 per cent of the UK workforce) labour was subject to its own forms of global interconnected risk-taking too. And labour was never just a factor of production. “Labour” lived somewhere. “Labour” had families. “Labour” was full of obstructions.

For the men and women of the coalfields, the economic consequences of the strike were horrible. The government got its 20 closures by 1985, plus three. The NCB was dissolved in 1987, with a further 97 closures  up to full privatisation in 1994. Kellingley in North Yorkshire, the “Big K”, was the last deep mine in the UK, closed in 2015. The closures’ economic results were ambivalent: UK GDP per capita 11th in Europe in the 1980s; 13th now. UK debt as a proportion of GDP 30 per cent in 1998; 98 per cent now.

For the mining communities, what should have been a simple question – “Whose side are you on?” – became mired in a civil war fought on the street, in the club, at home. For the British people, what should have been obvious – “We are all in this together” – got lost in the economic consequences of the strike.

The labour movement was founded to take back control from an Industrial Revolution that had broken customary restraints. Fifty years a miner at Harton Colliery, South Shields, Tommy Turnbull remembered being brought up in “what was really just a tiny hovel owned by a colliery that could put us out at a moment’s notice”, and he compared that with all that he and his family had achieved on the eve of his retirement in 1968. They lived in a council house with bathroom and garden. He could walk home from work “in clean clothes like anybody else”. His daughters were healthy with free healthcare and education up to university. They had good food, good teeth, good clothes, and shoes that fit. They went to Butlin’s every other year. For Tommy, as quoted in Joe Robinson’s 1996 account A Miner’s Life, “there was little else I could ask for. I only wish my mother and father could have had some of it… But recently my chest had been giving me quite a bit of bother.”

The point is: Tommy knew where all this came from (including the chest), and he was grateful. There were no mysteries about who or what was responsible for their good house, his decent wages, their free dentistry and the like. This was the life he wanted, only a bit better and more secure. South Shields, on Tyneside, was Red Wall but never fell to the Tories. On the other hand, it lost its mines and shipyards years ago.

In the battle for the Falklands, Thatcher called the Royal Marines heroes. But miners and marines were the same sort of men: same grit, same loyalty, same physical risk, same black humour, often the same mothers and fathers. Both fought trying to defend a national identity based on belonging: belonging to the regiment or the pit – a politics not unknown to the Tory philosopher Michael Oakeshott or to the Ruskin College Marxist historian Raphael Samuel.

Samuel described the strikers’ disposition – one they were willing to fight for – with the same words that Oakeshott used to explain the Tory: “a defence of the known against the unknown, the familiar against the alien, the local and the human against the anonymous and the gigantesque”. The hard left may have provided the soundtrack to the strike, and Scargill hinted at a great northern rising, but the miners wanted nothing new.

Harold Macmillan (Eton, Balliol, Grenadier Guards, Loos, Ypres, the Somme) remembered the miners as “the best men in the world”. Each in their own way, old left and old right saw mining folk as the backbone of the nation – a people who were to the British what peasants were to the French: the country unthinkable without them.

What is Labour? The strike destroyed the conditions that made this question credible. “Labour” in the old class-in-itself sense, in the old industrial-pride sense, drained away down the dole queue. Who are the Conservatives? “Conservatism” in the old Oakeshott sense, if it ever existed, was lost forever in a world of infinite adaptability free from “obstruction”. Nobody knows what either party stands for these days, least of all the parties themselves.

We live in a time when our social democracy is being stretched to breaking point, and the very shape of our national life has been (is being) rendered untraceable. Government can’t do even the simplest things well. You don’t need examples from me, as you’ll have your own. If Keir Starmer wants a slogan, he can forget all that giving our future back stuff and simply promise to get things working.

Robert Colls is on the advisory board for the Durham Miners’ Association project at Redhills

[See also: When the lights went out]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain