UK miners' strike (1984–85)
The UK miners' strike of 1984–85 was a major industrial action affecting the British coal industry. The strike was led by the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill, although some NUM members considered the strike to be unconstitutional and did not observe it. The BBC has referred to the strike as "the most bitter industrial dispute in British history."
Coal mining, though nationalized in Britain by Clement Attlee's Labour government in 1947, was encouraged to gear itself toward reduced subsidies in the 1980s following the 1979 election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Tensions between the Thatcher government and the public unions mounted as the administration considered the NUM to interfere with the market, risking public inflation. Two million manufacturing jobs were lost between 1979 and 1981, which some ascribe to Thatcherian policies, and others see as the inevitable result of decades of nationalization of unproductive industries in the face of rising competition from lower cost producers. Following a narrowly averted strike in 1981, the government announced on 6 March 1984 its intention to close 20 coal mines, revealing as well the plan in the long-term to close over 70 pits. Mass walk-outs and strikes began following this revelation in March, including the widely reported Battle of Orgreave between 5,000 miners and 5,000 police officers.
The strike ended on 3 March 1985 following a NUM vote to return to work. It was a defining moment in British industrial relations, and its defeat significantly weakened the British trade union movement. It was also seen as a major political victory for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party. The strike became a symbolic struggle, as the NUM was one of the strongest unions in the country, viewed by many, including Conservatives in power, as having brought down the Heath government in the union's 1974 strike. Unlike the strikes in the 1970s, the later strike ended with the miners' defeat and the Thatcher government was able to consolidate its fiscally conservative programme. The political power of the NUM and of most British trade unions was severely reduced. Three deaths resulted from events around the strike: two pickets and a taxi driver taking a non-striking miner to work. The remaining, much reduced, coal industry was privatized in December 1994, ultimately becoming a firm which is now known as UK Coal.
- 1 Background
- 2 Sequence of major events
- 3 Issues in the strike
- 3.1 The question of a pre-strike ballot
- 3.2 Mobilisation of police
- 3.3 Social security
- 3.4 MI5 "counter-subversion"
- 3.5 Public opinion and the media
- 3.6 NUM links with Libya and the Soviet Union
- 3.7 Violence
- 3.8 Fundraising
- 4 Variation in observing the strike
- 5 Responses to the strike
- 6 Mining and mining communities after the strike
- 7 Cultural references
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Coal mining in the UK
Coal mining had been nationalised by Clement Attlee's Labour government in 1947 and was in 1984 managed by the National Coal Board (NCB) under Ian MacGregor. As in most of Europe, the industry was heavily state subsidized- for instance, in 1982/3 the stated operating loss per tonne in the mining areas was £3.05, and international market prices for coal were about 25% cheaper than that charged by the NCB,. The calculation of these operating losses was disputed. By the 1980s, the government insisted that to return to profitability, the mines required investment in mechanisation and subsequent job cuts.
A previous strike in 1974 by coal workers had played a major role in bringing down the Conservative government of Prime Minister Edward Heath. In response Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley drafted an internal report on the nationalised industries known as the "Ridley Plan", which was later leaked to The Economist magazine and appeared in its 27 May 1978 issue. In particular, this report proposed how a future Conservative government could resist, and defeat, a major strike in a nationalised industry. In the opinion of Ridley, in common with other Conservatives, trade union power in the UK was interfering with market forces, causing inflation, and had undue political power, and therefore had to be checked to restore the UK's economy.
The National Union of Mineworkers
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was established in 1888 —initially as the Miners' Federation of Great Britain—and affiliated to the Labour Party in 1909. It became the NUM in 1945. In 1947, most of the collieries in Britain were nationalised (958 nationalised, 400 private). Over time, coal's share in the energy market declined relative to oil and nuclear. There were large-scale closures of collieries in the 1960s, which led to significant migration of miners from the run-down coalfields (Scotland, Wales, Lancashire, the north-east of England) to the richer coalfields (Yorkshire and the Midlands). Miners became known as "industrial gypsies" for their migration across the country. From 1969 onwards anger grew within the NUM due to pay cuts and job security, which led to the national strike of 1972 and overtime ban (and subsequent strike) of 1974 (which led to a Three Day Week in Britain). The success of the NUM in bringing down the Heath government demonstrated its power, but it also caused resentment (including amongst workers in other industries) at the demand to be treated as a special case in wage negotiations. The threshold for an endorsement of strike action in a national ballot had been reduced from two-thirds in favour to 55% in favour in 1969, following an unofficial strike that saw around 40% of pits walk out over the pay of surface workers.
As the Nottinghamshire coalfield had been built up with modern machinery, many miners had moved from closed collieries in Scotland and the north-east of England. There was also a large community of Polish miners in Nottinghamshire (especially Ollerton), and they were often opposed to Communism within the union.
The NUM had a decentralised regional structure, and certain regions were seen as more militant than others. Scotland, South Wales and Kent were militant and had some Communist officials, whereas the Midlands were much less militant. Yorkshire was traditionally seen as the middle-of-the-road region, but it became increasingly militant as Scottish miners moved to Yorkshire in the 1960s and 1970s. The only nationally co-ordinated actions in the 1984-5 strike were the mass pickets at Orgreave.
In 1984, some pit villages had no other serious industries. In South Wales, the miners showed a high degree of solidarity. They lived in isolated villages where the miners comprised the great majority of workers. There was a high degree of equality in life style; combined with an evangelical religious style based on Methodism this led to an ideology of equalitarianism. The dominance of mining in these local economies led the Oxford professor Andrew Glyn to conclude that no pit closure could be beneficial for government revenue.
By 1983 the NUM was led by Arthur Scargill, a Yorkshire miner, militant trades unionist, and socialist, with strong leanings towards communism. Scargill was a very vocal attacker of Margaret Thatcher's government. Prior to the strike, in March 1983, he had stated "The policies of this government are clear – to destroy the coal industry and the NUM".
Also working in deep coal mines were overmen and deputy overmen, who supervised the miners and ensured their safety, and shotfirers, who assembled and detonated explosions to dislodge rocks and demolish structures. They were in a separate union: the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers. This union was much smaller (numbering 17,000 in 1984) and usually less willing to take industrial action. During the 1972 strike, there had been some violent confrontations between striking NUM members and non-striking NACODS members. The NACODS constitution required a two-third majority for a national strike.
Government economic policy
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and the taming of inflation displaced high employment as the primary policy objective. Interest rates increased to slow the growth of the money supply and thus lower inflation, along with increases to indirect taxes such as VAT. The fiscal and monetary squeeze, combined with the North Sea oil effect, appreciated the real exchange rate. These moves hit businesses—especially the manufacturing sector—and unemployment quickly passed two million, doubling the one million unemployed under the previous Labour government. The government reiterated that it would stand by these policies in October 1980, and 1981 saw taxes increased in the middle of a recession and rioting in London and in inner city areas of several other English cities.
Two million manufacturing jobs were lost during the 1979–1981 recession, Economically, this labour-shedding helped firms deal with long-standing X-inefficiency from over-manning, enabled the British economy to catch up to the productivity levels of other advanced capitalist countries, and brought inflation from an earlier high of 18% down to 8.6%. Socially, however, unemployment continued to rise, reaching an official figure of 3.6 million—although the criteria for defining who was unemployed were amended allowing some to estimate that unemployment in fact hit 5 million. In 1983, discussing the reduced UK industrial base, Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson told the House of Lords Select Committee on Overseas Trade: "There is no adamantine law that says we have to produce as much in the way of manufactures as we consume. If it does turn out that we are relatively more efficient in world terms at providing services than at producing goods, then our national interest lies in a surplus on services and a deficit on goods."
Sequence of major events
A strike nearly occurred in 1981, when the government had a similar plan to close 23 pits, but the threat of a strike was then enough to force the government to back down. It was widely believed that a confrontation had been averted only for the short term, and the Yorkshire miners passed a resolution that a strike should take place if any pit was threatened with closure for reasons other than exhaustion or geological difficulties. In fact, the principal reason for the government's decision to avert a strike at that time was because coal stocks were low, and a strike would have had a serious effect very quickly (see below). In 1982, the members accepted a government offer of a 9.3% raise, rejecting their leaders' call for a strike authorisation. This was based partly on increased productivity, which enabled coal to be stockpiled so that when the expected strike came about, the effect would not be felt for a long time.
In June 1982, the South Wales NUM staged a strike in solidarity with striking NHS workers, but the other areas of the NUM did not partake. This action cost the coal industry £750,000 in lost revenue.
In 1983, the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor as head of the National Coal Board (the UK statutory corporation that controlled coal mining). He had previously been head of the British Steel Corporation, which, according to one of Thatcher's biographers, he had turned from one of the least efficient steel-makers in Europe to one of the most efficient, bringing the company into a near profit. However, this was achieved at the expense of a halving of the workforce in only two years. This reputation raised the expectation that jobs would be cut on a similar scale in mining, and confrontations between MacGregor and the leader of the miners, Arthur Scargill, seemed inevitable. Both MacGregor and Scargill believed that the British media were biased against them.
Pit closures announced
On 6 March 1984, the National Coal Board announced that the agreement reached after the 1974 strike had become obsolete, and that to reduce government subsidies to the mines they intended to close 20 coal mines, with a loss of 20,000 jobs, and many communities in the North of England as well as Scotland and Wales would lose their primary source of employment.
At the time, Scargill said that the government had a long-term strategy to close over 70 pits. Not only did the Government deny this but MacGregor went on to write to every member of the NUM claiming Scargill was deceiving them by making this allegation and that there were no plans to close any more pits than had already been announced. Cabinet Papers released in 2014 indicate that MacGregor did indeed wish to close 75 pits over a three year period.
It was not widely known to the general public at the time, but the Thatcher government had prepared against a repeat of the effective 1974 industrial action by stockpiling coal, converting some power stations to burn heavy fuel oil, and recruiting fleets of road hauliers to transport coal in case sympathetic railwaymen went on strike to support the miners.
Sensitive to the impact of the proposed closures in their own areas, miners in various coal fields began strike action. In the Yorkshire coal field, miners at the Manvers and Yorkshire Main collieries were already on unofficial strike on separate issues before the area NUM called for official action. Over six thousand miners were already on strike when a local ballot led to strike action from 5 March at the Yorkshire pits of Cortonwood Colliery at Brampton Bierlow, and at Bullcliffe Wood colliery, near Horbury. 5 March action was prompted by the further announcement by the Coal Board that five pits were to be subject to "accelerated closure" within just five weeks; the other three were at Herrington in County Durham, Snowdown in Kent and Polmaise in Scotland. The next day, pickets from the Yorkshire area appeared at pits in the Nottinghamshire coal field (one of those least threatened by pit closures). On 12 March 1984, Arthur Scargill, president of the NUM, declared that the strikes in the various coal fields were to be a national strike and called for strike action from NUM members in all coal fields.
The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (NACODS)
In April 1984, a small majority of NACODS voted to strike in support of the NUM, but this fell short of the two-thirds majority that their constitution required for a national strike. However, as there was no mine work being done in areas such as Kent, South Wales and Yorkshire, there was no work for many NACODS members to do. When the number of strikebreakers increased in August, Merrick Spanton, the NCB personnel director, stated that he expected NACODS members to cross the picket lines to supervise their work, which led NACODS to hold a second ballot on a national strike. For the first time in their history, NACODS voted to strike in September by a vote of 81%. However, the government made concessions over the review procedure for unprofitable collieries, much to the anger of Ian MacGregor, and a deal negotiated by North Yorkshire NCB Director Michael Eaton persuaded NACODS to call off the strike action.
MacGregor later admitted that if NACODS had gone ahead with a strike, a compromise would probably have been forced on the Coal Board. Files later made public showed that the Government had an informant inside the TUC, passing information about negotiations.
At its beginning, the strike was almost universally observed in the coalfields of Yorkshire, Scotland, the North-East and Kent. There was less support for joining the strike across the Midlands and in North Wales. The large coalfield of Nottinghamshire became a particular target for aggressive and sometimes violent picketing. Lancashire miners were reluctant to strike, but the majority refused to cross the picket lines that formed from the North Yorkshire NUM. The picketing of Lancashire was much less aggressive than that of Nottinghamshire and was credited with a more sympathetic response from the local miners.
A widely reported clash, known as the 'Battle of Orgreave', took place on 18 June 1984 at the Orgreave Coking Plant near Rotherham, which striking miners were attempting to blockade. This confrontation, between about 5,000 miners and the same number of police, broke into violence after police on horse-back charged the miners with truncheons drawn – 51 picketers and 72 policemen were injured. Arthur Scargill was himself arrested after refusing to move to a grassed area opposite the works. Scargill was also hospitalised with concussion, although the accounts of how he became injured vary, with some claiming that a policeman struck Scargill in the back with the edge of a riot shield, and others saying that Scargill fell backwards over some fencing and hit his head.
In 1991, the South Yorkshire Police paid compensation of £425,000 to thirty-nine miners who were arrested during the incident. This was due to the fact that those arrested were charged with the wrong offences in law. Other less well known, but also bloody, battles between pickets and police took place, for example, in Maltby, South Yorkshire.
Following the 1981 steel strike, many hauliers blacklisted any drivers who refused to cross picket lines to prevent their obtaining any work in the industry, which led to drivers' being much more willing to cross picket lines in the 1984-5 miners' strike than in previous disputes. The picketing failed to have the widespread impact of earlier stoppages which had led to blackouts and power cuts in the 1970s; electricity companies were able to maintain supplies throughout the winter, the time of biggest demand.
From September onwards, some miners returned to work even in the areas where the strike had previously been universally observed. This led to an escalation of tension, and to some riots in villages such as Easington in Durham and Brampton Bierlow in Yorkshire.
At the beginning, the Nottinghamshire NUM officially supported the strike, but the majority of its members continued to work and many considered the strike unconstitutional without a national ballot. As many working miners felt that the NUM was not doing enough to protect them from the intimidation that they were suffering from pickets, a demonstration was organised on May Day in Mansfield, in which the representative Ray Chadburn was shouted down, and fighting ensued between protesters for and against the strike.
In the NUM elections of Summer 1984, members in Nottinghamshire voted out most of their leaders who had supported the strike, so that 27 of the 31 newly elected were opposed to the strike. The Nottinghamshire NUM then opposed the strike openly and stopped all financial payments to local strikers. The national NUM attempted to introduce "Rule 51", which toughened discipline on area leaders who were seen as working against the national policy. This was nicknamed the "star chamber court" by the Nottinghamshire working miners. It was eventually prevented by an injunction from the High Court.
A group of working miners in Nottinghamshire and South Derbyshire resolved to set up a new union: the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. This new union gained members from many of the isolated pits in England – including Agecroft and Parsonage in Lancashire, Chase Terrace and Trenton Workshops in Staffordshire, and Daw Mill in Warwickshire.
Although the vast majority of Leicestershire's miners continued working during the strike, its members voted to stay within the NUM. Unlike in Nottinghamshire, the NUM leadership in Leicestershire had never attempted to enforce the strike, and Leicestershire official Jack Jones had publicly criticised Scargill. There were also some pits in Nottinghamshire where roughly half the workforce stayed in the NUM, such as Ollerton, Welbeck and Clipstone.
The formal end
The number of strikebreakers increased further from the start of January, and this group was sometimes referred to as the "hunger scabs" as the strikers were struggling to pay for food as union pay ran out towards the end of the strike. The hunger scabs were frequently not treated with the same contempt by strikers as those who had returned to work earlier in the strike. In several collieries, fights broke out between the hunger scabs, some of whom had previously been active pickets, and those who had broken the strike earlier.
The strike ended on 3 March 1985, nearly a year after it had begun. The South Wales area called for a return to work on the basis that those sacked during the strike would be reinstated, but the Coal Board rejected this argument and had improved its bargaining position by the increased number of miners' returning to work. Only the Yorkshire and Kent regions voted against ending the strike. One of the few concessions made by the Coal Board was to postpone the closure of the five pits originally under dispute: Cortonwood, Bulcliffe Wood, Herrington, Polmaise and Snowdown.
Kent NUM leader Jack Collins said after the decision to go back without any agreement of amnesty for those sacked during the dispute, "The people who have decided to go back to work and leave men on the sidelines are traitors to the trade-union movement." The Kent NUM organising a continuation of picketing across the country, which delayed the return to work at many pits for another two weeks.
In several pits, miners' wives groups organised the distribution of carnations at the gates on the day the miners went back, the flower that symbolises the hero. Many pits marched back to work behind brass bands, in processions dubbed "loyalty parades". Arthur Scargill led a procession, accompanied by a Scots piper, back to work at his local Barrow Colliery in Worsborough, but this procession was stopped by a picket of Kent miners. Scargill said, "I never cross a picket line," and marched the procession away from the colliery.
Issues in the strike
The question of a pre-strike ballot
The issue of whether a ballot was needed for a national strike had been complicated by the actions of previous NUM leader Joe Gormley. When wage reforms were rejected by two national ballots, Gormley declared that each region could decide on these reforms on its own accord; his decisions had been upheld by courts on appeal. Scargill did not call a ballot for national strike action, perhaps due to uncertainty over the outcome. Instead, he attempted to start the strike by allowing each region to call its own strikes, imitating Gormley's strategy over wage reforms; it was argued that 'safe' regions should not be allowed to ballot other regions out of jobs. This decision was upheld by another vote five weeks into the strike.
The NUM had previously held three ballots on a national strike, all of which rejected the proposal: 55% voted against in January 1982, and 61% voted against in both October 1982 and March 1983. Before the March 1983 vote, the Kent region, which was one of the most militant areas, argued for national strikes to be called by conferences of delegates rather than by ballots, but this argument was rejected. As the strike began in 1984 through unofficial action in Yorkshire, there was pressure from those already on strike to call it official immediately, and those NUM executives who insisted on a ballot were attacked by pickets at an executive meeting in Sheffield in April. In contrast, a sit-in down the mine was held by supporters of a ballot at Hem Heath in Staffordshire.
Two polls by MORI in April 1984 found that the majority of miners supported a strike. Ken Livingstone wrote in his memoirs that Scargill had interpreted a Daily Mail poll that suggested a comfortable majority of miners favoured a national strike to be a trick and that he would actually lose a national ballot.
In local votes in South Wales, only 10 of the 28 pits voted in favour of striking, but the arrival of pickets from Yorkshire led virtually all miners in South Wales to strike. According to an article published by Workers' Liberty in November 2008, area ballots taken on 15 and 16 March saw verdicts against a strike in Cumberland, Midlands, North Derbyshire (narrowly), South Derbyshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire (with around 90% against), Nottinghamshire and North Wales, with Northumberland being the only area to vote in favour of strike during this period. Nottinghamshire NUM executive Henry Richardson argued that the Nottinghamshire miners would have probably voted for strike had they not been subjected to so much intimidation within days of the walk-out in Yorkshire.
The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher enforced a recent law that required unions to ballot members on strike action. On 19 July 1984, Thatcher said in the House of Commons that giving in to the miners would be surrendering the rule of parliamentary democracy to the rule of the mob; she referred to the striking miners as "the enemy within" and claimed they did not share the values of other British people.
"We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty". On the day after the Orgreave picket of 29 May, which saw five thousand pickets clash violently with police, Thatcher said in a speech:
I must tell you... that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [cheering] It must not succeed. There are those who are using violence and intimidation to impose their will on others who do not want it.... The rule of law must prevail over the rule of the mob.
We've had riot shields, we've had riot gear, we've had police on horseback charging into our people, we've had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground.... The intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state.
In August, two miners from Manton (a colliery in north Nottinghamshire that was grouped in Yorkshire by the NUM) took the union to court on the grounds that the strike was illegal without a ballot. The miners at Manton had overwhelmingly voted against the strike, but police had advised that they could not guarantee the safety of working miners against pickets. In September the High Court ruled that the NUM had breached its own constitution by calling a strike without first holding a ballot. Scargill was fined £1,000 (which was paid for him by an anonymous businessman), and the NUM was fined £200,000. When the union refused to pay its fine, an order was made to sequester the union's assets, but they had already been transferred abroad. By the end of January 1985, around £5 million of NUM assets had been recovered.
The situation in Scotland was different. A High Court decision in Edinburgh ruled that Scottish miners had acted within their rights by taking local ballots on a show of hands and so union funds in Scotland could not be sequestered. "During the strike, the one area they couldn't touch was Scotland. They were sequestering the NUM funds, except in Scotland, because the judges deemed that the Scottish area had acted within the rules of the Union" – David Hamilton MP, Midlothian
Mobilisation of police
The government mobilised the police (including Metropolitan Police squads from London) from around Britain to uphold the law by attempting to stop the pickets preventing the strikebreakers working. Police attempted to stop pickets travelling between Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, an action which led to many protests. The government claimed these actions were to uphold the laws of the land and to safeguard individual civil rights.
The police were given powers to halt and reroute traffic away from collieries, which led to some areas of Nottinghamshire being very difficult to reach by road. In the first 27 weeks of the strike, 164,508 "presumed pickets" were prevented from entering the county. On 26 March 1984, pickets protested against the police powers by deliberately driving slowly on the M1 and the A1 around Doncaster.
When a group of Kent pickets were stopped at the Dartford tunnel and preventing from travelling to picket the Midlands, the Kent NUM applied for an injunction against use of this power. Sir Michael Havers initially denied this application outright, but Mr. Justice Skinner later ruled that this power of the police may only be used if the anticipated breach of the peace were "in close proximity both in time and place".
In addition, bail forms for all picketing offences set restrictions on residence and movement in relation to the Coal Board's property. Tony Benn compared these powers to the pass laws of the Apartheid regime.
During the industrial action 11,291 people were arrested and 8,392 charged with offences such as breach of the peace and obstructing the highway. In many former mining areas antipathy towards the police remained strong for many years afterwards.
On 16 July 1984, Thatcher convened an urgent Ministerial meeting and seriously considered declaring a state of emergency, with plans to use 4,500 military drivers and 1,650 tipper trucks to keep coal supplies available.
The provision of welfare benefits became controversial. Welfare benefits had never been available to workers on strike but their dependants (i.e. spouses and children) had been entitled to make claims in previous disputes. However, Clause 6 of the 1980 Social Security Act banned the dependants of strikers from receiving "urgent needs" payments and also applied a compulsory deduction from the strikers' dependants' benefits. The government viewed this legislation as not concerned with saving public funds but instead "to restore a fairer bargaining balance between employers and trade unions" by increasing the necessity to return to work. The Department of Social Security worked on the assumption that striking miners were receiving £15 per week from the union, but this was based on payments early in the strike and were not made in the later months when union funds had become exhausted.
Dame Stella Rimington (Director-General of MI5, 1992–96) published an autobiography in 2001 in which she revealed MI5 'counter-subversion' exercises against the NUM and the striking miners, which included the tapping of union leaders' phones. However, she denied that the agency had informers in the NUM, specifically denying that then chief executive Roger Windsor had been an agent.
Public opinion and the media
Public opinion during the strike was divided and varied greatly in different regions. When asked in a Gallup poll in July 1984 whether their sympathies lay mainly with the employers or the miners, 40% said employers; 33% were for the miners; 19% were for neither and 8% did not know. When asked the same question during 5–10 December 1984, 51% had most sympathy for the employers; 26% for the miners; 18% for neither and 5% did not know. When asked in July 1984 whether they approved or disapproved of the methods used by the miners, 15% approved; 79% disapproved and 6% did not know. When asked the same question during 5–10 December 1984, 7% approved; 88% disapproved and 5% did not know. In July 1984, when asked whether they thought the miners were using responsible or irresponsible methods, 12% said responsible; 78% said irresponsible and 10% did not know. When asked the same question in August 1984, 9% said responsible; 84% said irresponsible and 7% did not know.
The Sun newspaper took a very anti-strike position, as did the Daily Mail, and even the Labour Party-supporting Daily Mirror and The Guardian became hostile as the strike became increasingly violent. The Morning Star was the only national daily newspaper that consistently supported the striking miners and the NUM.
Socialist groups stated that the mainstream media deliberately misrepresented the miners' strike, saying of The Sun's reporting of the strike: "The day-to-day reporting involved more subtle attacks, or a biased selection of facts and a lack of alternative points of view. These things arguably had a far bigger negative effect on the miners' cause". Writing in the Industrial Relations Journal immediately after the strike in 1985, Towers also commented on the way the media had portrayed strikers, stating that there had been "the obsessive reporting of the 'violence' of generally relatively unarmed men and some women who, in the end, offered no serious challenge to the truncheons, shields and horses of a well-organised, optimally deployed police force."
The stance of the Daily Mirror varied throughout the strike. Having initially been uninterested in the dispute, Robert Maxwell took a supportive stance in July 1984 by organising a seaside trip for striking miners and by meeting with NUM officials to discuss tactics. However, Maxwell insisted that Scargill condemn the violence directed against strike-breakers, which he was unwilling to do. The Daily Mirror then adopted a more critical stance on the strike, and journalist John Pilger published several articles on the violence directed against strike-breakers.
As the strike went on, a series of media reports sought to cast doubt on the integrity of senior NUM officials. In November 1984, there were allegations that Scargill had met Libyan agents in Paris, and other senior officials travelled to Libya. Links to the Libyan government were particularly damaging coming 7 months after the murder of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London by Libyan agents. In 1990, the Daily Mirror and TV programme The Cook Report claimed that Scargill and the NUM had received money from the Libyan government. These allegations were based on allegations by Roger Windsor, who was the NUM official who had spoken to Libyan officials. Roy Greenslade, the Mirror's editor at the time, said much later he believes his paper's allegations were false. This was long after an investigation by Seumas Milne described the allegations as wholly without substance and a "classic smear campaign".
In 2007, the Daily Mail published an article based on declassified Soviet documents where Arthur Scargill personally contacted Moscow to secure sufficient funds, that were to be transferred through Warsaw. Soviet miners who wished to send money to the NUM would not have been able to obtain convertible currency without the support of the Government of the Soviet Union and Thatcher claimed to have seen documentary evidence that suggests that the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, authorised these payments. The diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev, a senior party official in the Soviet Union at the time, also lends credence to the interpretation that the funding was provided at the behest of the Soviet government.
Surveillance by MI5 on NUM vice-president Mick McGahey found that he was "extremely angry and embarrassed" about Scargill's links with the Libyan regime, but he did not express his concerns publicly. In contrast, McGahey was happy to take money from the Soviet Union.
The then banned Polish trade union Solidarity criticised Scargill for "going too far and threatening the elected government", which influenced some of the Polish miners in Britain to oppose the strike. Scargill opposed Solidarity as an "anti-socialist organisation which desires the overthrow of a socialist state". The supply of Polish coal to British power stations during the 1984-5 strike led to brief picket of the Polish embassy in London by striking miners.
The strike was unusual in British history for the high amount of violence. Instances of violence directed against working miners by striking miners were reported from the start of the strike, with the BBC saying on 12 March that pickets from Polmaise colliery had punched miners at Bilston Glen who were trying to enter their workplace. In some cases, this extended to attacks on the property, the families and the pets of working miners. Ted McKay, a North Wales secretary who supported a national ballot before any strike action, said that he received death threats and threats to kidnap his children. The intimidation of working miners in Nottinghamshire (often vandalism of working miners' cars but also pelting of working miners with stones, paint or brake fluid) was one of the main factors in the formation of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers. When questioned by the media, Scargill refused to condemn the violence, which he attributed to the hardship and frustration of pickets, with the one exception being after the killing of David Wilkie (see below).
There was also violence in Nottinghamshire directed towards those who were on strike or who supported the NUM national line. NUM secretary Jimmy Hood reported that his car was vandalised and his garage was set on fire. In Leicestershire, the word scab (mainly used against strikebreakers) was chanted by the working majority against the few who went on strike.
However, there were some pits that continued working during the strike without the levels of violence seen in Nottinghamshire. In Leicestershire only 30 miners went on strike for the full twelve months (they were nicknamed "the dirty thirty" and produced badges with this name) and in South Derbyshire only 17, but these areas were not targeted by pickets in the same way as Nottinghamshire.
Death of pickets
Two pickets, David Jones and Joe Green, died during the strike, and three teenagers (Darren Holmes, aged 15, and Paul Holmes and Paul Womersley, both aged 14) died picking coal from a colliery waste heap in the winter. The NUM names its memorial lectures after the two lost pickets. Green was hit by a truck while picketing at Ferrybridge power station in West Yorkshire. David Jones's death was an early event that raised tensions between those on strike and those who continued to work. On 15 March 1984, Jones was hit in the chest by a half-brick thrown by a local youth who opposed the strike, when he went to confront him over vandalising his car, but the post-mortem ruled that this had not caused his death and that it was more likely to have been caused by being pressed against the pit gates earlier in the day. News of his death led to hundreds of pickets staying in Ollerton town centre overnight. At the request of Nottinghamshire Police, Arthur Scargill appeared and called for calm in the wake of the tragedy. However, several working miners in Ollerton reported that their gardens and cars had been vandalised during the night.
Beating of Michael Fletcher
In Airedale, Castleford (an area where the majority of miners were on strike), a working miner named Michael Fletcher was savagely beaten in November 1984 in a case that attracted much media attention. A masked gang waving baseball bats invaded his house and beat him for five minutes, whilst his pregnant wife and children hid upstairs. Two miners from Wakefield were convicted of causing grievous bodily harm in the incident, whereas four others were acquitted of riot and assault.
Killing of taxi driver David Wilkie
- See main article: Killing of David Wilkie
A taxi driver, David Wilkie, was killed on 30 November 1984. He had been taking a non-striking miner to work in the Merthyr Vale Colliery, South Wales when two striking miners dropped a concrete post onto his car from a road bridge above. He died at the scene. The two miners served a prison sentence for manslaughter.
Police across the country reported that the incident had a sobering effect on many of the pickets and led to a decrease in aggression. Scargill said in December that those who returned to the strike after having taken the NCB's incentives for strikebreaking should be treated as "lost lambs" rather than traitors.
Trapping of safety inspectors at Rossington
One of the most publicised acts of violence came on 9 July 1984 when a group of pickets at Rossington colliery attempted to trap eleven NCB safety inspectors inside the colliery. Camera teams were present as two police vans arrived to assist the safety inspectors and were attacked by missiles from the pickets.
Attacks on lorries
Following the breakdown of relations between the NUM and the ISTC, NUM pickets threw bricks, concrete and eggs full of paint at lorries transporting coal and iron ore to South Wales. In September 1984, Viv Brook, the assistant chief constable of South Wales Police, warned that throwing concrete from motorway bridges was likely to kill someone, which was later referenced by the chief constable when David Wilkie was killed in late November
Many families in South Yorkshire complained that the police were abusive during the strike and often damaged property needlessly whilst pursuing pickets. A motion at the Labour Party conference in 1984 won heavy support for blaming all the violence in the strike on the police, despite opposition from Kinnock.
During the Battle of Orgreave, television cameras caught a policeman repeatedly lashing out at a picket on his head with a truncheon. The officer was later identified as a member of Northumbria Police, but no charges were made against him.
Union funds struggled to cover the year-long strike, so striking miners had to raise their own funds. The Kent area was particularly effective in raising funds from sympathisers in London and in continental Europe, which was resented by other areas of the NUM. The Yorkshire area's reliance on mass picketing led to a neglect of fundraising, and many of the striking Yorkshire miners were living in poverty by the winter of 1984 owing to a lack of union funds.
Soup kitchen were opened in Yorkshire in April 1984, for the first time since the 1920s. Wakefield Council provided free meals for children during school holidays. The Labour-dominated councils of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Wakefield provided deductions from council-housing rents and local tax rates for striking miners, but the Conservative-ruled council of Selby denied any assistance.
Many local businesses in pit villages donated money to NUM funds, although some claimed that they were threatened with boycotts or vandalism if they did not contribute.
The Soviet Union's official trade union federation donated £1 million to the NUM.
The group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners held "Pits and Perverts" concerts that raised money for the striking miners. This led the NUM to become vocally supportive of gay rights in subsequent years. The groups deliberately prioritised aid to pits in South Wales, as they felt that Scargill was distributing donations in favour of the more militant pits, which were mostly in either Kent or Yorkshire.
The ISTC donated food parcels and toys during the summer, but did not give money as they did not want to be accused of financing the aggressive picketing.
A wide network of several hundred miners' support groups were set up, often led by miners' "wives and girlfriends groups", such as Women Against Pit Closures. These support groups organised thousands of collections outside supermarkets, communal kitchens, benefit concerts and other activities. The strike marked an important development in the traditional mining heartlands, where feminist ideas had not previously been strong.
Variation in observing the strike
|Area||Manpower||% on strike 19 November 1984||% on strike 14 February 1985||% on strike 1 March 1985|
No figures are available for the 1000 N.C.B. staff employees.
Within the large Yorkshire area, there was regional variation in observing the strike: miners from the Doncaster area were considerably more militant than those from mines in North Yorkshire. Although the Yorkshire area had a policy of opposing a national ballot, this was opposed by the NUM branches at Grimethorpe, Shireoaks and Kinsley.
Responses to the strike
Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, the son of a Welsh miner, did not support the strike despite his opposition to the pit closure programme. He condemned the lack of a national ballot and the violence directed against strikebreakers, although he also condemned the police aggression towards striking miners.
Kinnock was scheduled to appear at a Labour Party rally alongside Scargill in Stoke-on-Trent on the day of the killing of David Wilkie (see above). Kinnock's speech developed into an argument with some hecklers who saw him as having betrayed the NUM by failing to support the strike. Kinnock began by saying, "We meet here tonight in the shadow of an outrage." When interrupted, Kinnock accused the hecklers of "living like parasites off the struggle of the miners." As Kinnock went on to denounce the lack of the ballot, the violence against strikebreakers and the tactical approach of Scargill, he was asked by hecklers what he had done for the striking miners. Kinnock shouted back, "Well, I was not telling them lies. That's what I was not doing during that period." This was a thinly-veiled attack on Scargill, who he later admitted that he detested.
The Communist Party supported the strike and opposed Thatcher's government, but expressed reservations about Scargill's tactics. Peter Carter said that Scargill had "the idea that the miners could win the strike alone through a re-run of Saltley Gate". The 39th congress of the party passed a motion that the strike could not succeed without sympathy from the wider public and other unions, and that the aggressive picketing was dividing the working class and alienating public support.
Trade Union Congress
In contrast to the close cooperation with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the 1970s, the NUM never asked the TUC to support the strike and wrote at the outset to say that, "No request is being made by this union for the intervention or assistance of the TUC." Scargill disliked Len Murray and blamed the TUC for the failure of the 1926 General Strike.
Part way through the strike, Norman Willis took over from Murray as general secretary of the TUC. Willis attempted to repair relations between Scargill and Kinnock, but to no avail. When speaking in a miners' hall in November 1984, Willis condemned the violence of the strike and advocated a compromise deal, which led to a noose being lowered slowly from the rafters of the hall until it rested close to his head.
The NUM had a so-called "Triple Alliance" with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and the numerous railway unions. Solidarity action was taken by railway workers and few railway workers crossed miners' picket lines, but the NUM never formally asked the railway unions to go on strike. In contrast, Scargill demanded that steel workers not cross miners' picket lines and only work enough to keep furnaces in order. Bill Sirs of the ISTC felt that Scargill was reneging on an agreement to deliver coke during the strike. British Steel was planning on closing another steel plant at the time, and steel workers feared that support for the miners might make their plant more likely to be closed down.
National Union of Seamen
The National Union of Seamen supported the strike and limited transported of coal. Like the miners' strike, this decision was taken by a delegates' conference and was not authorised by a ballot.
Transport leaders Ross Evans and Ron Todd supported the NUM "without reservation", but an increasing proportion of lorry drivers were not unionised and they failed to have much influence over the transport of coal during the strike.
Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union
The Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, actively opposed the strike; Ian MacGregor's autobiography detailed how its leaders supplied the government with valuable information that allowed the strike to be defeated. The EETPU was strongly supportive of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers and met with its leaders before the TUC had extended formal recognition.
Mining and mining communities after the strike
Market for coal
During the strike, many pits permanently lost their customers. Much of the immediate problem facing the industry was due to the economic recession in the early 1980s. However, there was also extensive competition within the world coal market as well as a concerted move towards oil and gas for power production. The Government's own policy, known as the Ridley Plan, was to reduce Britain's reliance on coal; they also claimed that coal could be imported from Australia, the USA and Colombia more cheaply than it could be extracted from beneath Britain. The strike subsequently emboldened the NCB to accelerate the closure of many pits on economic grounds.
The tensions between those who had supported the strike and those who had not continued after the strike. Many of the strikebreakers left the industry as they were often shunned or even attacked by other miners. For example, almost all of the strikebreakers in Kent were found to have left the industry by April 1986, after suffering numerous attacks on their houses. At the Betteshanger colliery in Kent, posters were put up with photographs and names of the thirty strikebreakers. A wildcat strike took place at South Kirkby Colliery, and was supported by neighbouring Ferrymoor-Riddings, on 30 April 1985 after four men were dismissed for attacks on strikebreakers, and another wildcat strike occurred at Hatfield Colliery in April 1986 after it emerged that there was one strikebreaker who had not been transferred away from the pit, as the NUM had assured that all Hatfield's strikebreakers had been. In contrast, many other pits that had been divided by the strike managed to work without any problems of harassment of one group by the other.
The National Coal Board was accused of having deserted the strikebreakers, as abuse, threats and assaults continued, and many requests for transfers to other pits were declined. Michael Eaton argued that "a decision to return to work was a personal decision on the part of the individual."
Challenges to Scargill in the NUM
Many miners were demoralised by the strike and sought work in other industries. Arthur Scargill's authority within the NUM was challenged increasingly, with his calls for a new strike in 1986 being ignored. Mick McGahey, who had stayed loyal to Scargill during the strike, became vocally critical of him afterwards. McGahey claimed that the leadership was becoming separated from its membership, said that the violence during the strike had gone too far and argued for reconciliation with the UDM. On the last point, Scargill said that it was a "tragedy that people from the far north should pontificate about what we should be doing to win back members for the NUM."
Nevertheless, Scargill was able to become president for life of the NUM in 1985.
In the aftermath of the strike, miners were often offered large redundancy payments in ballots, and these offers were accepted even at the most militant pits. The manager of the militant Yorkshire Main colliery said at the time of the pit's vote to close in October 1985, "I know people who abused us and threatened us on the picket line and then were the first to put in for redundancy."
The coal industry was finally privatised in December 1994 to create a firm named "R.J.B. Mining", now known as UK Coal. Between the end of the strike and privatisation, pit closures continued with a particularly intense group of closures in the early 1990s. There were 15 former British Coal deep mines left in production at the time of privatisation, however, by March 2005, there were only eight major deep mines left. Since then, the last pit in Northumberland, Ellington Colliery at Ellington, has closed whilst pits at Rossington and Harworth have been mothballed. In 1983, Britain had 174 working mines; by 2009, this number had decreased to six.
Poverty in old coalfield areas
The 1994 European Union inquiry into poverty classified Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire as the poorest settlement in the country and one of the poorest in the EU. The county of South Yorkshire was made into an Objective 1 development zone and every single ward in the City of Wakefield district of West Yorkshire was classified as in need of special assistance.
Although mining is now only a very small industry in Britain, as of 2003 it was reportedly more productive in terms of output per worker than the coal industries in France, Germany and the United States.
Film and television
Independent filmmakers in 1984 documented the activities of the miners strike including questionable behaviour conducted by the police, the role of miners wives and the role of the media. The outcome was the Miner's Campaign Tapes.
The strike was the background for the 2000 film Billy Elliot, based around County Durham mining communities Easington Colliery and Seaham. Several scenes depict the chaos at the picket lines, clashes between armies of police and striking miners, and the shame associated with crossing the picket line. The film also showed the abject poverty associated with the strike, together with the harshness and desperation of not having coal for heat in winter. The strike is also involved in the background to the plot of the 1996 film Brassed Off, which is set ten years after the strike when all the miners have lost the will to resist and accept the closure of their pit with resignation. Brassed Off was set in the fictional town of Grimley, a thinly disguised version of the hard-hit ex-mining village of Grimethorpe, where some of it was filmed.
The satirical Comic Strip Presents episode "The Strike" (1988) depicts an idealistic Welsh screenwriter's growing dismay as his hard-hitting and grittily realistic script about the strike is mutilated by a Hollywood producer into an all-action thriller starring Al Pacino (played by Peter Richardson) as Scargill, and Meryl Streep (played by Jennifer Saunders) as his wife. The film parodies Hollywood films by over-dramatising the strike and changing most important historic facts. The film won a Golden Rose and Press Reward at the Montreux Festival.
The "1984" episode of the 1996 BBC television drama serial Our Friends in the North revolves around the events of the strike, and the scenes of clashes between the police and striking miners were re-created using many of those who had taken part in the actual real-life events on the miners' side. In 2005, BBC One broadcast the one-off drama Faith, written by William Ivory and starring Jamie Draven and Maxine Peake. Many of the social scenes were filmed in the former Colliery town of Thorne, near Doncaster. It viewed the strike from the perspective of both the police and the miners.
The British film The Big Man casts Liam Neeson as a Scottish coalminer who has been unemployed since the strike. His character has been blacklisted due to striking a police officer and has served a six-month prison sentence for the offence.
Airline Virgin Atlantic's 2009 television ad titled "Still Red Hot" commemorating its 25th year opens with a scene set in 1984 in which a newsagent yells the news of the day: "Miners' strike! Miners' strike!", showing the headline of a nondescript newspaper: "IT'S THE PITS".
1980s satirical television show Spitting Image made fun of the miners' strike during the early seasons including a spoof McDonald's advert, called MacGregor's, with lines such as "there's an indifference at MacGregor's you will enjoy". In addition, MacGregor is seen addressing a line of miners saying "You're fired!" to each in turn, before shooting them.
The 2014 film Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus, is based on a true story of a group of LGBT activists who raised funds to assist and support families in a Welsh mining village affected by the strike.
The film Billy Elliot was turned into a musical, Billy Elliot the Musical by Elton John, and has been successful on London's West End. The musical has been brought to Broadway and won a Tony Award in 2009 for Best Musical (the highest award given to musicals in the US).
A British children's book, The Coal House, written by Andrew Taylor and published in 1986, uses this strike as an important element of the story.
In 1996, William O'Rourke, an American, published Notts (Marlowe & Co.), set contemporaneously during the strike in 1984–85, filled with scenes in pit towns (especially Ollerton), among strike supporters in London, Cambridge, and elsewhere, but was never published in the UK, and barely read, even, or especially, in America.
There is a book based on Lee Hall's screenplay Billy Elliot. The book by the same title is by Melvin Burgess, published in 2001.
A 2005 book, GB84, by David Peace combines fictional accounts of pickets, union officials and strike-breakers. Graphic details are provided of many of the strike's major events. It also suggests that the British Intelligence services were involved in undermining the strike, including the making of the alleged suggestion of a link between Scargill and Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Val McDermid published the novel A Darker Domain in 2008 which has one of its plot lines set in the strike. Multiple reviewers gave the book acclaim for exploring the social and emotional repercussions of the strikes. One reviewer pointed out that McDermid was raised in Fife, so much of her understanding of the events must have been shaped by her childhood there.
A book about the strike, focusing on the women of a fictional South Wales mining community torn apart by the dispute, is Until Our Blood is Dry by Kit Habianic (Parthian Books, April 2014), which was named Welsh Books Council book of the month for May 2014. It is running in 350-word instalments as Morning Serial in the Welsh national newspaper The Western Mail throughout the 12 months marking the 30th anniversary of the strike.
Kay Sutcliffe, the wife of a striking miner at Aylesham in Kent, wrote the poem Coal not Dole, which became popular with the Women Against Pit Closures groups across the country and was later made into a song by Norma Waterson.
The 2013 book Hope Now by A L Richards, an epic poem set in the mining communities of the South Wales Valleys, is based on the 1984 strike. The book is published by Landfox Press.
In 2001, British visual artist Jeremy Deller worked with historical societies, battle re-enactors, and dozens of the people who participated in the violent 1984 clashes of picketers and police to reconstruct and re-enact the Battle of Orgreave. A documentary about the re-enactment was produced by Deller and director Mike Figgis and was broadcast on British television; and Deller also published a book called The English Civil War Part II documenting both the project and the historical events it investigates (Artangel Press, 2002). Involving the re-enactors, who would normally recreate Viking battles or mediaeval wars, was a way for Deller to situate the recent and controversial Battle of Orgreave (and labour politics themselves) as part of mainstream history.
On 5 March 2010, the 25th anniversary of the Miners' Strike, a new artwork by British visual artist Dan Savage was unveiled in Sunderland Civic Centre. Commissioned by Sunderland City Council, Savage worked with the Durham Miners Association to create the large scale commemorative window, which features images and symbols of the strike and the North East's mining heritage.
In August 1984, photographer Keith Pattison was commissioned by Sunderland’s Artists’ Agency to photograph the strike in Easington Colliery for a month. He remained there on and off until it ended in March 1985, photographing from behind the lines a community rallying together against implacable opposition.
Twenty-five years later, on 6 May 2010, Election Day, Pattison took David Peace to Easington to interview three of the people caught up in the strike. A selection of the photographs together with the interviews were published in book form – 'No Redemption' (Flambard Press)
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (April 2012)|
The strike has been the subject of songs by many music groups. Of the more well known are the Manic Street Preachers' "A Design for Life", and "1985", from the album Lifeblood; Pulp's "Last day of the miners' strike"; Funeral for a Friend's "History", and Ewan MacColl's "Daddy, What did you do in the strike?". Newcastle native Sting recorded a song about the strike called "We Work the Black Seam" for his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, in 1985. Billy Bragg's version of "Which Side Are You On?", encapsulated the strikers' feeling of betrayal by the perceived indifference of wider elements within British society.
Chris Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson and Lindsay Cooper from Henry Cow, along with Robert Wyatt and poet Adrian Mitchell recorded The Last Nightingale in October 1984 to raise money for the striking coal miners and their families.
Dire Straits' "Iron Hand", from their 1991 album On Every Street, refers to the Battle of Orgreave. Folk singer John Tams' "Harry Stone-Hearts of Coal" which featured on his 2001 album Unity and which won Best Original Song at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards is set against the backdrop of the Battle of Orgreave.
In December 1984, Paul Weller of the Style Council put together his own charity ensemble, The Council Collective, to make a record, Soul Deep, to raise money for striking miners, and the family of David Wilkie, he also wrote a song called "Stone's Throw Away" which can be heard on the number one album Our Favourite Shop from 1985. The Clash played two benefit gigs for the miners at the Brixton Academy (6 & 7 December 1984).
In 2014, songwriter Brenda Heslop wrote a cycle of 12 songs to accompany Keith Pattison's Easington photographs, titled "No Redemption Songs", the songs will be released during 2014 on the Shipyard label, performed by her band Ribbon Road.
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To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch-phrase—the U-turn—I have only one thing to say: you turn if you want to; the lady's not for turning.
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-  – Report Digital – archive of photos of the 1984–1985 strike.
- Miner's Advice – website providing help and information to ex-coal miners
- The official NUM website
- A look at present day mining
- Women in the miners' strike 1984/85 in the north-east of England
- Norman Strike's Diary – an online version of a diary kept by one of the striking miners
- Sources for the Study of the Miners Strike in South Yorkshire Produced by Sheffield City Council's Libraries and Archives
- Cabinet office documents from 1984 concerning the strike (PDF format)
- (French) (English) The strike, video Radio Télévision Suisse, dated 1984.
- Colliery Maps – Online mapping of collieries of the British Isles (Northern Mine Research Society)