March this year marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the historic coal strike of 1984/5. It was a momentous and, after the 1926 General Strike, the most important struggle in the 20th century history of the British working class.
The progress of this year-long strike revealed, on the one hand, the moral regeneration of the working-class movement, which it helped to bring about, and, on the other hand, the hideous class reality of capitalist society, which inflicted such horrific violence, misery and starvation on the miners and their families, as well as the revolting nature of social democracy, which joined the forces of the imperialist state to defeat the miners, just as it had done six decades previously to defeat the general strike.
No one who lived through that glorious period and listened to the miners’ leaders – national and local – could have failed to get the flavour of the ideas, the moods, the spirit of collectivism, which permeates those who stand up and fight for the interests of the oppressed and the exploited, something which sets them apart from the run-of-the-mill insipid, law-abiding and servile lackeys of social democracy.
From the day that the Thatcher government took office in the spring of 1979, it was bent upon forcing a fight with, and inflicting defeat on, the miners – for the sole reason that, at the time, the miners alone stood in the way of the government and the entire class of employers in achieving complete victory and depressing the conditions of work and living standards of the working class in Britain.
The government had built up coal stocks and prepared a secret plan to close 95 pits at a cost of 100,000 jobs. Learning of these plans, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) called a special delegate conference for 21 October 1983. At this conference, the decision was taken to call for an overtime ban as from 1 November until such time as the National Coal Board (NCB) agreed to withdraw the closure plan and to negotiate a wage increase for the miners.
The overtime ban succeeded in cutting production by a third and reducing coal stocks to the levels that had prevailed during the miners’ unofficial strike in 1981.
By way of an escalation of the dispute, on 2 March 1984, the NCB announced the closure of five pits – two in Yorkshire, one in Durham, one in Kent and one in Scotland. As the NCB had plans to close pits on an area basis, the NUM responded in similar fashion, as permitted by Rule 41 of its constitution. Under this rule, Yorkshire and Scotland sought NUM permission for strike action, which request the NEC granted at its meeting of 8 March.
Meanwhile, two days earlier on 6 March, Ian MacGregor, the chairman of the NCB, provocatively announced plans to shut 20 pits, in addition to the five already announced, with job losses of around 20,000. This was nothing short of a declaration of war on the miners and, by extension, on the entire working class.
The NUM and its leadership received much criticism at the time from the ideologues of the ruling class and their flunkeys in the working-class movement for not holding a national ballot before taking strike action, allegedly because of the aversion of Arthur Scargill, President of the NUM, to democratic practice.
The truth is that a special delegate conference of miners held on 19 April democratically and legitimately decided to reject the call for a national strike ballot and decided instead to call on all miners to refuse to cross picket lines and join the 140,000 miners already on strike. Twenty-five years on, the mindless assertion about democracy continues to be repeated by the mercenary journalist fraternity and the leading lights of social democracy, to say nothing of the representatives of the ruling class.
The strategy of the NCB, the government and of the entire bourgeoisie had been to isolate the miners in militant areas (Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent) from those in moderate areas (Nottinghamshire), to isolate the NUM from the rest of the organised labour movement, to combine all this with an avalanche of propaganda, police intimidation, and bribery of miners to agree to further redundancies, and thus force the NUM to hold a national ballot, with the hope that such a ballot would fail to secure the necessary majority.
To the disappointment of the NCB, the NUM managed to avoid falling into this trap, choosing instead to permit the regions to strike against pit closures. Within days, the strikes had spread like wildfire, with 80 percent of the mining workforce on strike. To have called for a ballot in these circumstances would have risked demoralising the strikers and sending them a mixed and confusing message. Had the NUM leadership done such a thing, would we not have the right to reproach it on that ground?
Bourgeois criticisms of the NUM
Just as during the strike, so now, 25 years later, bourgeois journalists, despicable Labour party bigwigs, contemptible members of the labour aristocracy – all of whom weighed in on the side of the ruling class to defeat the miners, supporting every government, police and judicial outrage against the strikers – instead of blaming the latter’s enemies, continue to blame the miners for the rundown of the industry. They accuse, out of ignorance or malice, the miners’ leadership of scaremongering, intransigence, incompetence, not holding a national strike ballot, and going on strike at the wrong time when the weather was warm and coal stocks were high.
Far from scaremongering, the leadership of the NUM has been proved more than right. If it said that nearly 100 pits were on the NCB’s hit list with a loss of 100,000 jobs, this has turned out to be over-optimistic, for 164 pits and 160,000 jobs have since disappeared. There remain presently a handful of collieries, all privatised, with a couple of thousand colliers in Britain as a sad reminder of a once-powerful industry, with its lively and thriving communities.
Far from the NUM leadership being intransigent and averse to the very idea of negotiations, facts, on the contrary, prove that it was the Thatcher government, fully backed and egged on by the monopoly media, that acted most truculently.
The NUM reached agreement with the NCB to settle the dispute on five occasions, the first four of these deals being scuppered through the personal intervention of prime minister Thatcher. The last agreement, that of 12 October 1984, was scuppered because of the treachery of the leadership of the pit deputies’ union, Nacods.
Mrs Thatcher had been inclined to settle the dispute on the miners’ terms following a Nacods ballot, in which 82 percent of the membership voted for strike action in support of the NUM. For reasons which remain unknown, Nacods called off the strike, instead accepting a ‘modified’ colliery review. On learning of the Nacods decision, Thatcher promptly withdrew the government’s backing for the settlement.
Those who accuse the NUM of incompetence for holding the strike at the wrong time fail to understand that, in the arena of class struggle, as in ordinary warfare, one cannot always choose the time and place of battle. If the miners had not struck when they did, the time and the reason for striking would have passed them by, for by the time the ‘right moment’ to strike arrived, the pit closures would have long been a fait accompli , to which the miners would have effectively acquiesced. It would have been a poor Soviet general who, on 22 June 1941, advised the USSR not to fight against the Hitlerite invaders because the timing for such a fight was not perfect. Such a general would have deserved to have been shot!
Insofar as it was within the power of the NUM to improve the terrain on which it fought, it had done so through the overtime ban, which had begun to have an effect on coal stocks. Precisely because of its effectiveness, the NCB announced its closure plans to provoke the dispute. The miners were thus forced with a choice: surrender without firing a shot, or accept the challenge and fight. Only fainthearts, incurable capitulationists and renegades would suggest that the miners should have waved the white flag without a fight.
Every fight, every battle, every war, carries the possibility of defeat. That in itself is no reason never to accept a fight. Only cretins who have spent their lives immersed in the world of insurance would have demanded an insurance policy against defeat before embarking on any meaningful struggle. It is to the credit of the miners that they accepted the challenge thrown at them and put body and soul into making a success of it. For this they deserve warm praise from every class-conscious worker, who well understands that it is better for the working class to be sometimes defeated in the arena of class struggle than desert the battlefield at the start for fear of losing.
The truth is that people who show such forbearance as the miners did in the face of hardship, such ingenuity in adversity, such calm in the face of provocation, such valour and heroism in the face of danger, and such persistence and perseverance in the course of struggle, are far from beaten. Such people can never be beaten.
Reasons for defeat
So then how did it happen that, despite such a magnificent fight, the miners did not win the strike?
There are two main reasons for this. First, the bourgeoisie, realising from the very beginning the full political significance of the strike, threw the whole panoply of the state machine into defeating it.
The government and the NCB used every trick to break the strike. Large bribes and massive police protection were given to scabs who continued to walk through the picket lines. Cabinet ministers, newspaper and TV journalists indulged in an orgy of vilification of the miners and their leadership. The judiciary shamelessly joined in the battle to beat the NUM. Cavalry charges were organised by the police against the pickets.
The bourgeoisie, correctly from its class perspective, saw the miners as a greater danger than any foreign enemy. On 19 July 1984, speaking before the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, Mrs Thatcher characterised the miners as “the enemy within” who presented a greater threat to democracy than did the Argentinean military dictator Galtieri, with whom she compared the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. She went on to say that once the coal strike was over “we have to take on the militants in the other unions”.
Second, the miners were defeated because of divisions within the NUM (the Nottinghamshire miners refused to strike) and the betrayal by the TUC and Labour leadership.
From day one of the strike, the role of this pusillanimous (cowardly), impotent and, above all, treacherous leadership had been to work overtime to defeat the NUM. At best it dissociated itself from the strike, and at worst, especially at the crucial junctures, it openly joined the NCB, the government and the media in denouncing the strikers – while paying lip service to supporting the miners because of the groundswell of rank-and-file, if unorganised, support for the NUM.
Unbelievably, the leaders of the TUC Liaison Committee set up to monitor and support the NUM actually publicly blamed the NUM for the continuation of the strike, while the despicable Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, accused the miners of using violence precisely at a time when the police were staging cavalry charges against peaceful, unarmed, picketing miners and tearing lumps out of them.
The Labour and TUC leadership was mortally afraid of a miners’ victory; consequently, it did everything to bring about their defeat by joining forces with the other side. In the inimitable words of Seumas Milne: “The Scargill affair depended on a coincidence of purpose between an exotic array of interests, foremost among which were the Thatcher administration and the Labour leadership.” ( The Enemy Within: MI5, Maxwell and the Scargill Affair , 1994)
Flying in the face of the above facts, shallow journalists continue to hurl the same old calumnies at the NUM and its leadership that they were hurling 25 years ago. One example of this is the recent book by two hacks, Francis Beckett and David Hencke, entitled Marching to the Fault Line .
Lacking all objectivity and scholarly merit, this scandalous piece of journalism is a perfect example of the bourgeois falsification of history. With unbelievable ignorance, its authors write that the coal strike brought Britain “nearer to civil war than it has come for 400 years” . Obviously, the writers are totally unaware of such a trivial event in English history as the civil war in the 17th century, which wiped out 10 percent of the English population, let alone of the Chartist uprisings of the 19th century and the general strike of 1926.
Scargill, they write, betrayed the miners by letting them down. Evidence? None at all. The “nation trusted Margaret Thatcher” , they assert. Which “nation” , and when? Nothing to back up this assertion either.
Instead of clarifying what was at issue during the strike, and what each of the parties was fighting for, the authors reduce this momentous struggle to a personality clash between two “iron egos” – Scargill and Thatcher.
Without a shred of evidence, they blithely state that Scargill was sympathetic to the Trotskyites, especially of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) variety. In fact, shortly before the strike, Scargill had been subject to a scurrilous and vitriolic attack in the pages of the WRP’s newspaper, Newsline , on account of his principled defence of socialism in Poland and his refusal to back the counter-revolutionary Solidarnosc ‘trade union’.
Again without evidence, and attempting to hit below the belt, they say that Scargill broke off contact with his daughter. Even if this were to be true, what in Heaven’s name is the relevance of this contemptible piece of gossip to the great event that was the coal strike?
The authors do their best to acquit the horde of journalists who did so much to undermine the strike of their dirty role in supporting the Thatcher government to the hilt – functioning as a propaganda arm of the state. In the preface to their book, they assert with great aplomb that Seumas Milne’s book, The Enemy Within , was about the “tangled finances of the miners’ union” . Actually, it was about the state’s assault on the NUM. They simply cannot have read the book – obviously following in the fine tradition of the bourgeois journalist who said he never read any book he reviewed so as not to allow its contents to affect his judgment.
Salute the miners
The NUM paid dearly in the course of this strike – 11,000 miners were arrested; 7,000 were injured; over 2,500 suffered broken ribs, broken arms and torn shoulder muscles as a result of being dragged handcuffed across the ground; several dozen were imprisoned; NUM funds were sequestered; and over 700 people were unjustly dismissed from their jobs.
All the same, they were right to fight, for, in the conditions of those days, the miners alone stood between the total autocracy of British capital and the total submission and humiliation of the British working class. A working class that ceases to struggle soon loses its humanity and must sooner or later find itself thrown by capital into the depths of savagery and degradation. It was precisely to prevent such a possibility becoming actuality that the miners threw themselves en masse into the struggle.
Theirs was no ordinary labour dispute of the type that occurs daily and hourly under the conditions of capitalism. It was no mere strike over pay. It was a strike not only for the future of the coal industry but also for the future of the working class. It started as, and became, the longest strike in British history against unemployment. It was a strike for the right to work . Therefore, in the final analysis it was a strike, albeit instinctively, against the capitalist mode of production – for the latter by its very nature is incapable of guaranteeing this right.
The leadership of the NUM had rightly warned that, should the strike be defeated, not only would the coal industry be obliterated, but also the entire working class would be reduced to a state of prostration for years to come.
Sadly, since the strike was lost, both these predictions have come to pass. The British working-class movement during the last 25 years has been characterised by its total impotence, while Thatcherite neo-liberalism has ruled the roost. In letting the miners be defeated, the rest of the movement only signed up to its total subjection to the whims of capital for all the years since then.
The assertions of the bourgeois scribblers and the hired coolies of British imperialism notwithstanding, in no way can the leadership of the NUM, in particular its three chief functionaries – Arthur Scargill, his vice-president Mick McGahey and the general secretary Peter Heathfield – be blamed for the failure of the strike.
The NUM leadership gave a superb account of itself, and, in the face of such heavy odds, such hostility on the part of the bourgeois press and other media of disinformation, distortion and lies, moved heaven and earth to mobilise the membership, the overwhelming majority of whom performed miracles.
The leadership and the rank-and-file of the NUM suffered for a whole year a most scurrilous campaign of distortion, hatred and calumnious propaganda directed at them. They braved for a whole year police brutality on the picket line and a most oppressive denial of civil rights on and off picket duty. They bore with fortitude the pangs of hunger imposed by a cruel government, which denied them and their families their social security entitlements. They stood firm in the face of the most vicious judicial onslaught on the working people of this country since the general strike of 1926.
For all the failures of the strike, the NUM leadership and the striking miners emerged from the year-long ordeal as the real heroes and the real victors of this contest between the ruling class and the British proletariat, for they had shown by their example of self-sacrificing heroism and commitment to principle, by their adherence to the interests of their class – the working class – and their perseverance in struggle, what working people are capable of achieving once they make up their minds to stand up and fight.
For our part, ignoring and treating with contempt the carping of the social-democratic traitors, mercenary journalists and snivelling petty-bourgeois, all of whom, throughout the coal strike, desired nothing more than the defeat of the miners and the victory of the bourgeoisie, we salute the miners who struck for a whole year, and their leadership, for their singular contribution to the development of the class struggle of the British working class.
Their example shall continue to inspire, and instil hope into, the working class of this country and elsewhere.
Now that the capitalist system is in the midst of the worst slump of the last 80 years, it is to be hoped that the working class, learning from the miners’ struggle, arming itself with the revolutionary theory of Marxism Leninism, and endowing itself with a Leninist party of a new type, will take up in earnest the struggle for its own social emancipation through the overthrow of this historically outmoded system – capitalism.
> Letters: Band Aid and the miners strike – April 2005
> Lessons of the great miners strike of 1984/85 – Lalkar September 2004