Saturday, 7 March 2009

Unfeasible 'What If?' of the Miners' Strike 1984-5

This is very much a British focused posting that probably means very little to anyone under the age of 35 unless you grew up in the coal mining and former coal mining areas of the UK. It is twenty-five years since the last (coal) miners' strike in British history broke out. At the time there were around 180,000 miners (working at 170 mines) of whom around 130,000 went on strike, the notable area not going on strike being Nottinghamshire mines which employed 49,000 miners. These days there are about 6,000 coal miners working at 12 mines in the UK. The strike started on 3rd March 1984 and there has been a lot of media coverage of the 25-year anniversary of the strike which ran officially for a year to 3rd March 1985. The divisions it provoked are still felt in many locations across Britain and it is often seen, along with the Falklands Conflict in the foreign field, as defining Thatcherism. The leader of the miners' union, the NUM, Arthur Scargill, is still around and is still incredibly bitter especially towards the Labour Party and other trades unions who he feels betrayed the miners by not giving them sufficient political support and effectively causing a general strike in order to bring down the Thatcher government. Interestingly, in an article in 'The Guardian' today he claims that Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party 1983-92 would have become prime minister in 1992 if he had given stronger support to the miners. I am going to look at this argument.

In some ways I respect Arthur Scargill. What he said about the longevity of coal mining in Britain (the country had 300 years supply of coal remaining at 1980s levels of consumpton) and the fact that the Conservative government was going to destroy the industry for political reasons was all true. However, Scargill has been unable to accept defeat and continues very bitterly to look for scapegoats. People condemn Scargill as having brought misery to thousands of miners and leading a strike which at times became violent (though much less so than the media portrayal of it). Eleven people involved in different sides of the strike were killed and the battles between strikers and police led to the injury of hundreds more. The iconography of events lasts longer than the facts of what happened, so we are left with a legacy of something resembling a medieval conflict, with shield walls of police opening to allow mounted police to ride down strikers with batons as knights would have come down on peasants 600 years earlier and hussars did on strikers of the 19th century. Scargill is also condemned for bringing about a strike which did not have only industrial goals but also political ones, namely to end the Thatcher government, and possibly, bring about some kind of Socialist revolution.

It is clear that Scargill is a Socialist, perhaps a revolutionary too, but the main element of the strike was to protest the systematic accelerated destruction of the UK's basic industries brought about by the Thatcher governments (1979-90). Of course UK coal mining would have faced challenges no matter what government had been in power as the 1970s and 1980s saw a shift in the pattern of industry across the globe. As early as 1974, a year after the USA, the UK first generated more income from service industries than manufacturing. No-one was really in a position to halt that shift. Coal mining alongside steel manufacturing, ship building and many other forms of engineering was facing decline. Scargill, loyal to his followers, was unwilling to consider any coal mine in the UK was 'uneconomical' so closing any was a real challenge to him. Of course many were profitable and very modern and yet Thatcher seemed to be keen to rid the UK of the industry. Thatcher's New Right monetarist policy smashed through so much industry in Britain anyway pushing unemployment up to 4 million (when it is properly counted, not the way the government manipulated the figures) but with coal mining she set out on a path of utter, planned destruction. Scargill says that NUM had negotiated five settlements with the NCB (National Coal Board - the employers) even while the strike was on, the last coming in October 1984, but these were derailed directly by the government.

I think a lot of this stems from how Thatcher saw coal miners as a political challenge just by their very existence. This was on two bases. First that in the 1973-4, 'three-day week' period they had shown how powerful they were in disrupting all kinds of industry by choking off coal supply to power stations. Second coal mining villages had a strong sense of community that (in many areas, not all) the Thatcherite policies of bribery did not seem to penetrate. She also wanted revenge for the miners strikes 1972 (their first strike in almost fifty years) and 1974 which effectively brought down the government of Conservative Edward Heath in 1974. Thatcher had no love for Heath but I think she felt the Conservative Party itself had been humiliated and so she wanted to get revenge by closing down the industry which had been nationalised in 1947. Of course Thatcher hated trades unions anyway, but the NUM was seen as the epitome of what she despised in them, by destroying the coal mining industry she knew she could destroy the union. Norman Tebbit, the very nasty leading light of the Thatcher regime, saw the battle with the NUM as a 'war on democracy', so not only elements of the NUM but clearly the Conservative leadership went into what should have been an industrial dispute with the perspective that it was more widely political.

We know that Thatcher envisaged a final showdown because of the preparations she made. In 1984 the UK had enough stocks of coal to provide sufficient for two years and everyone knew no strike can last that long; even a year meant incredible sacrifice by strikers. The moment this stockpile was secured the miners had lost because however much they striked they could not impinge on anyone outside their own communities. Thatcher was going to closed the bulk of the mines anyway, she had no need to negotiate. The harsh police action, which set many officers up for life with the amount of overtime payments they accrued, also showed other unions that they could expect merciless action if they struck. What always strikes me as curious is why the NUM was not aware of the stockpiling of coal. Even if it was a mix of UK dug coal and certainly of cheap foreign coal, probably from Poland and Australia, why was no-one aware of its build up? Surely there were seamen and dockers who noticed it coming in week after week; surely there were workers at power stations who knew they had big stocks. To put it in context, multinational oil companies such as Shell and BP have long argued that it is almost impossible to stockpile more than 90 days' supply of oil, even during the 1950s and 1960s when consumption was less. The Ministry of Defence used to hold around 5-10 days' worth of oil. So where do you put 2 years' worth of coal without anyone noticing? I accept that it might have been bought and held overseas ready for import, but I doubt Thatcher would have run the risk that seamen and dockers would refuse to ship and unload it once a miners' strike was underway.

Scargill believes he 'had' victory in October 1984 and was undermined by the pit deputies' (the health and safety staff in mines) union NACODS returning to work. This is a delusion on Scargill's part. Even a deal with the NCB would have been insufficient, Thatcher would have found a way to either provoke the strike into continuing or simply to introduce the mine closures she wanted all along. Scargill's harping on the failure of the five settlements, suggests he did not have wider political goals, but simply wanted to save the jobs of miners. However, even if this is true and his focus was purely industrial, there is no dispute that Thatcher was seeking no settlement, she simply want to destroy the mining industry and the NUM in particular. There could be no 'victory' for the strikers, in fact there could have been no compromise even, it was always going to be utter defeat.

The other thing that Thatcher put in place before the miners' strike was legislation, notably on a compulsory ballot before a strike. This was not as radical as it might appear, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle had proposed the same approach at the end of the Labour governments 1964-70, though the penalties such as fining unions and sequestering their funds that Thatcher added on were harsher. Scargill would not call a ballot and simply relied on his charisma to get tens of thousands of miners to strike for him and probably 10,000 or so to be active on picket lines. Thatcher's legislation had been set up to mean immediate hardship for strikers. They could not claim benefits and because of the attempts to sequester the union's funds, the money was moved abroad and so there was no strike pay. Clearly this was what Thatcher had intended and I imagine she was quite stunned by the level of self-sacrifice that the miners were willing to go through to maintain the strike so long.

The lack of a ballot was the most divisive element among the Labour Party and other trades unions. Scargill argues that Neil Kinnock used it as an excuse not to support the strike. The Labour Party was supportive of strikers in need, but were undermined by Scargill's dictatorial approach to calling and sustaining the strike. Scargill claims he has evidence of Kinnock's 'treachery' and the 'class collaboration of union leaders' notably of the EETPU electricians' union and the EMA managers' union. To some extent Scargill was already out-of-date even in 1984. He had not learned the lessons even of 1972-4 let alone of 1926 (the year of the 9-day General Strike), that there has never been strong working class consciousness in the UK, this is a very individualist society and that individualism had been increased by consumerism of the 1970s and the Thatcherite policies of the early 1980s. Scargill tended to think that the whole of the UK was like a mining village, but community and a sense of being part of a class was something that much of the population had turned their backs on in the preceding twenty years. In addition, I imagine many unions and many industries feared they would be next and were not keen to draw attention to themselves. Scargill's cockiness also did not endear him to others in the labour movement.

Seeing footage of Thatcher at the time of the Falklands Conflict, my mother said the prime minister was unsettling as she seemed to revel in the loss of life of British soldiers in the fight. Her appearance at the time was alarming and she certainly seemed energised by a sense of violence. The famous footage of her swathed in cream clothing, riding a tank, also gives that feel. If there had been anything close to a general strike, she would have been literally ecstatic, I have no doubt, to be able to move troops in. She spoke of the miners as the 'enemy within' and clearly would have relished a shift to martial law. I have recounted the events of 1910-11 and it is certain we would have seen something similar, especially as the powers of military intervention without declaring a state of emergency had been so strengthened in the mid-1970s. Thatcher would have held back from declaring a state of emergency as it would have made her look too much like Heath who declared five of the eleven that have been declared in Britain. However, she would not have held back from using military force if the strike had spread beyond the miners and that would have meant at least people crushed below military vehicles if not the gunshot injuries of the type of 1911.

I think Scargill would have won a ballot easily. Given how much support he had for the strike anyway, over such a long period, he could have had the ballot and still had his strike. This would have wrong-footed the Nottinghamshire miners and would have made it harder for the Labour Party and other unions to be lukewarm. Of course we would not have had a general strike along the lines I think Scargill still dreams of, but the NUM could not have been sequestered and there would have been far more funds coming to the strikers. In terms of international support the NUM did very well in attracting funds (though of course not from Libya despite what the newspapers said at the time and have subsequently retracted) and with a ballot, I imagine that would have raised even more funds. This would not have won the NUM the strike but it may have reduced the hardship of tens of thousands of families. Not having a ballot led to the creation of the UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers) as a breakaway, collaborationist union. Of course, this step did not spare them from the destruction of the mining industry which was a foregone conclusion and many now regret joining this union which gained them nothing though to those individuals seemed right at the time.

Scargill argues that if Kinnock had been more active in supporting the strike, Thatcher would still have fallen in 1990 (so even on Scargill's scenarion, having won the 1987 election, not brought down by the strike) but Kinnock would have won in 1992 rather than losing closely as he did. This is an entirely flawed counter-factual. Scargill forgets how frightened the electorate was of a Labour government in the 1980s. Again, he needed to get out of miners' villages and travel to working areas elsewhere in the UK. He would have found lifelong Labour supporters hesistant at voting Labour because the Conservatives had successfully convinced them that a Labour government meant higher taxes. If Kinnock had supported the strike more openly, whether with or without a ballot, not only would there have been no Labour government in 1992 there might not have been one in 1997 either, because it would have been so easy for the Conservatives to play on the fears (and fear rather than hope is what wins elections, just ask George Bush and ironically Barack Obama, viz economic fears) of voters that a Labour government would not only mean higher taxes but a government that permitted industrial violence. Even Blair, let alone Smith, would have had difficulty shaking off this image if Labour leaders were seen supporting the miners' strike of 1984-5 especially with the success in associating it with violence and the dictatorships of Libya and the USSR.

The Conservatives use of the media was very skillful. I always think it is ironic that the Conservatives attacked the BBC so much for its apparent bias towards the left-wing, notably Norman Tebbit. In fact as has been revealed careful editing of footage of the Orgreave battle the most renowned conflict of the strike, made it appear that the police was simply responding rather than initiating the attack as was later revealed to be the case. So much of the media saw the labour movemement in all its forms as at best ridiculous and at worst evil and used such terminology. Among many people there was a dichotomy, they drunk down the media bias even though in fact it was referring to people just like themselves. The irony is, of course, is that UK trade unionists have always been conservative and often Conservative. Portraying them as being dangerous revolutionaries or even in Scargill's case, just seeing them as a force for political change, has always been mistaken. By definition someone who joins an organisation, pays their fees, works within often strict rules and has pride in the heritage of their organisation is not reckless nor wishing to bring down the society which allowed the union to prosper.

Travelling around the UK it is stunning today how little evidence of a huge industry now remains and Scargill's fears of 1984 have come true. Some communities are left as wastelands, some have managed to survive and even thrive. Even without Thatcher there would be less coal mining in the UK in 2009 than in 1984, but the harsh crushing of an industry so quickly would not have happened. The miners' strike of 1984-5 is a part of modern British society. For many people it seems so distant, lumped in with events of the decade before. For others it remains painful, almost current. The after-effects for families divided by the strike are akin to the countries coming out of occupation by the Germans 1944-5. People remain hostile to collaborators but that ignores the often immense pressures on individuals to do right by their families. The language of 'treachery' and betrayal just stokes up that hostility that is so current still for thousands of people. Admitting that there was no hope of winning and that individuals did what they felt right, given the limited information that everyone had at the time, should be a basis for reducing hostility. Out of such division only the heirs of Thatcher can benefit.

The coal miners were doomed the moment Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. She was going to destroy them and put in place in the years up to 1984 a structure which gave her more than enough tools to do that. On this basis, really no matter what Scargill, Kinnock, the NUM or the Labour Party did was going to make any difference. Certainly the Labour Party could have been wrecked by greater involvement in the strike the way that the NUM was and we might have Kinnock sitting around today bitterly complaining about what went wrong in 1984. I do think, however much Scargill, squirms, he blundered in not calling a ballot. However, given that he had been defeated by Thatcher before the strike started, that was more about his reputation than any political gains it would have had. However, perhaps we are all looking at the strike the wrong way. Given that the NUM never had any hope of victory, to have caused so much of an upset to the political system, to marked British history with an event it will never forget, to exhibit so much self-sacrifice with so much dignity in the face of overwhelming odds were the 'wins' of the dispute for the workforce.

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