UK miners' strike (1984–85)

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A miners' strike picket, South Yorkshire, c. 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.

Coal mining, though nationalized in Britain by Clement Attlee's Labour government in 1947, was encouraged to gear itself toward reduced subsidies[1] 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.


Coal mining in the UK[edit]

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,.[2] The calculation of these operating losses was disputed.[3] By the 1980s, the government insisted that to return to profitability, the mines required investment in mechanisation and subsequent job cuts.[citation needed]

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.[4] 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[edit]

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).[5] Over time, coal's share in the energy market declined relative to oil and nuclear.[6] 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).[7] From 1969 onwards anger grew within the NUM due to pay cuts and job security, which led to the national strike of 1972 and work-to rule action of 1974 (and which was a contributing factor to the Three Day Week in Britain).[8]

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.[9] By the mid-1980s, miners in Nottinghamshire had a very different set of conditions from those in South Wales, for example.[citation needed] 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.[10] There was also a large community of Polish miners in Nottinghamshire (especially Ollerton), and they were often opposed to Communism within the union.[11] This made the question of "national" action a vexed one, and contributed to later disagreement over the question of whether a national strike ballot was necessary;[citation needed] the only nationally co-ordinated actions were the mass pickets at Orgreave.[12]

By 1983 the NUM was led by Arthur Scargill, a Yorkshire miner, militant[13] trades unionist, and socialist, with strong leanings towards communism.[13][14][15] 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".[16]

The more specialist colliers 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.[17] During the 1972 strike, there had been some violent confrontations between striking NUM members and non-striking NACODS members.[17]

Government economic policy[edit]

Margaret Thatcher in 1983

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and the taming of inflation displaced high employment as the primary policy objective.[18] Interest rates increased to slow the growth of the money supply and thus lower inflation, along with increases to indirect taxes such as VAT.[19] The fiscal and monetary squeeze, combined with the North Sea oil effect, appreciated the real exchange rate.[20] 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,[21] 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,[20] Economically, this labour-shedding helped firms deal with long-standing X-inefficiency from over-manning,[20] enabled the British economy to catch up to the productivity levels of other advanced capitalist countries,[20] and brought inflation from an earlier high of 18% down to 8.6%.[20] 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."[22]

Sequence of major events[edit]

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.[23] 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 5.2% raise, rejecting their leaders' call for a strike authorisation.[24] 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 1983, the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor[25] 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.[26] 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.

Pit closures announced[edit]

A badge produced by Kent NUM in support of the 1984 UK miners' strike.

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[27] 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.[28]

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.[29]

Action begins[edit]

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 strike action began when workers at the Manvers complex walked out over the lack of consultation. Over six thousand miners were already on strike when a local ballot led to strike action from 5 March at 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)[edit]

The decision of the NACODS union not to strike created a tense situation in the mines, with NACODS deputies being labelled as "scabs" by union hardliners. On 23 October, one thousand pickets attempted to prevent a sole bath attendant from entering the threatened Emley Moor colliery.[30] Some of the NACODS members felt that going on strike would actually work against the cause, as lack of maintenance below ground could allow geological conditions to deteriorate to a state that would prevent the pit from reopening – defeating the whole goal of opposing closures; however, hard-line strikers were not always sympathetic to this line of argument. The first two pits to close in 1985 were Barrow colliery at Worsbrough Bridge and Ackton Hall colliery at Featherstone. Both were closed as they were unsafe for the miners to return to work in rather than because continued operation would have been "uneconomic".[citation needed]

Observation of the strike[edit]

Miners' strike rally in London, 1984

At its beginning, the strike was almost universally observed in the coalfields of Yorkshire, Scotland, the North-East and Kent. Lancashire miners had originally been lukewarm about striking, but, ignoring the wishes of the working members, its leaders announced on 22 March that the strike was official.[31] Many miners in South Wales resented how their previous attempts to launch strikes in support of the steel workers and health workers had been largely unsupported, but there were enough pits in the region under threat of closure to gain momentum for the strike in the area. Support was less strong in the Midlands and North Wales. In Nottinghamshire, most of the pits had modern equipment and large coal reserves; most of the Nottinghamshire miners remained at work and the Nottinghamshire NUM disagreed with the decision to launch a national strike without a ballot. Many within the NUM condemned them as strikebreakers, and the Nottinghamshire branch eventually broke away to form the core of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers.

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.[32] In 1991, the South Yorkshire Police paid compensation of £425,000 to thirty-nine miners who were arrested during the incident.[33] This was due to the fact that those arrested were charged with the wrong offences in law. Other less well known, but also bloody, police attacks took place, for example, in Maltby, South Yorkshire.[34]

Events that encouraged the end of the strike included an assault on a working miner in Castleford in November[35] and the manslaughter at the hands of the strikers of a taxi driver driving a miner to work in South Wales in December.[36] The strike 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.[37]

The union's funds had also run too low to pay for pickets' transport, and many miners had been unable to pay for heating over the winter. Some mining families resorted to scavenging for coal on spoil tips, a desperate move as most of the "spoil" was very dangerous and liable to slip. Three children died in this manner. Many others found themselves arrested for trespass and theft.

The formal end[edit]

The strike ended on 3 March 1985, nearly a year after it had begun. Some workers had already returned to work of their own accord, a symbolic victory for the Coal Board management, although ministers later admitted that the figures of returners were inflated to hurt the strikers' morale. To save the union, the NUM voted, by a tiny margin, to return to work without a new agreement with management. In the special conference that ended the strike, only Kent voted to carry on the strike. Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and South Derbyshire did not send any delegates to the conference.

The end of the strike was felt as a terrible blow by some NUM members, though many understood that the extreme poverty being suffered after a year without wages was difficult to bear. Indeed, in many areas, striking miners made a distinction between those who had returned to work after a couple of months strike, and those who felt forced to return to work for the sake of their children, many months later.

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".

Issues in the strike[edit]

The question of a pre-strike ballot[edit]

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.[38] 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.[39] 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.[40]

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.[41]

Arthur Scargill's response to the incident was:

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.[42]

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.[43] 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.[44] By the end of January 1985, around £5 million of NUM assets had been recovered.[45]

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[46]

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) did not support the NUM but seemed to support Thatcher's call for a national ballot. Solidarity action was taken, however, by the railwaymen of the National Union of Railwaymen and by dockers, who were both threatened with dismissal if they refused to handle coal. The Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, actively opposed the strike; Ian MacGregor's autobiography[47] detailed how its leaders supplied the government with valuable information that allowed the strike to be defeated. The steelworkers' unions did not support the strike, a stance widely resented by the miners after the support that they had given the steel strike in 1980 and concessions were made by the NUM on deliveries of coke to steel works during the strike. The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (NACODS) nearly went on strike in September; this was one point where the balance seemed to be tipping in favour of the miners, but Scargill's subsequent contempt of court orders caused the NUM to be fined and lost it wider support in the trade union movement. 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.[48]

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.[49]

Strike-breaking and journalism[edit]

The refusal of some miners to support the strike was seen as a betrayal by those who did strike. The opposite positions of miners in the adjacent coal fields of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, where the former were striking and the latter strike-breaking, led to many bitter confrontations in the region. Instances of violence directed against working miners by striking miners were reported. In some cases, this extended to attacks on the property, the families and the pets of working miners.[50] 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 went on. The Morning Star was the only national daily newspaper that consistently supported the striking miners and the NUM.

Some acts of intimidation were recorded by the media and the publicity affected support amongst the wider public. One of the most significant cases 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.[51]

Government action[edit]

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. Many picketers were subject to intimidation and often violence from the police[citation needed]. Police attempted to stop pickets travelling between Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, an action which led to many protests.[52] The government claimed these actions were to uphold the laws of the land and to safeguard individual civil rights.

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. Former striking miners have alleged that soldiers in police uniform were also used on the picket lines to avoid publicising the necessity of bringing in the military (this has never been proved). In many former mining areas antipathy towards the police remains strong to this day because of the violence meted out. The government was criticised[53] for abusing its power when it ruled that local police might be too sympathetic to the miners to take action against the strike and instead brought in forces from distant counties. The Labour MPs for Doncaster North and Castleford and Pontefract both raised concerns in Parliament over suggestions that the police had asked miners held in custody about their political allegiances.[53]

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.[54]

This strike was also the first in which the provision of welfare benefits were restricted in a way that miners saw as being used as a weapon against strikers. 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.[55]

The majority of miners and their families had to survive the strike on handouts, donations from the European Economic Community's "food mountain" and charities. Poverty and hunger became rife in the mining heartlands.

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.[56]

MI5 "counter-subversion"[edit]

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.[57]

Public opinion and the media[edit]

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.[58] 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.[58] 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.[58]

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".[59][60] 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."[61]

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.[62] However, Maxwell insisted that Scargill condemn the violence directed against strike-breakers, which he was unwilling to do.[62] 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.[62]

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,[63] and other senior officials travelled to Libya.[64] 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.[65] This was long after an investigation by Seumas Milne described the allegations as wholly without substance and a "classic smear campaign".[66]

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.[67] 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.[68]

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 supported Scargill in public.[69]

The hint of a link tarnished Scargill, but trust of him amongst striking miners remained firm. Scargill was perceived as a militant hero by the unions,[70] and as a Marxist thug by most of the mainstream press. Scargill always denied these accusations and accused the government of fuelling a smear campaign. The ex-head of MI5, Stella Rimington, wrote in her autobiography, "We in MI5 limited our investigations to those who were using the strike for subversive purposes."[71]

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.[11] Scargill opposed Solidarity as an "anti-socialist organisation which desires the overthrow of a socialist state".[72] 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.[73]


Coal mining in England by county. Red shows counties where deep excavation mining still takes place. Grey shows counties where mining took place in 1984 at the time of the most recent miners' strike.

Two pickets, David Jones and Joe Green, died during the strike,[74] 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.[75] Green was hit by a truck while picketing at Ferrybridge power station in West Yorkshire.[31] David Jones's death was an early event that raised tensions between those on strike and those who continued to work. On 14 April 1985, Jones was hit in the chest by a half-brick thrown by a local youth, 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.[76] News of his death led to hundreds of pickets staying in Ollerton town centre overnight.[77] At the request of Nottinghamshire Police, Arthur Scargill appeared and called for calm in the wake of the tragedy.[77] However, several working miners in Ollerton reported that their gardens and cars had been vandalised during the night.[78]

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.

The impact of the strike was nowhere near as hard-hitting as previous strikes such as those of the early 1970s. With most homes equipped with oil or gas central heating and the railways long since converted to diesel and electricity, the only remaining significant sector of Britain's national infrastructure that was still reliant upon coal was the electrical generation industry under the Central Electricity Generating Board. The problem of potential power-shortages as a result of a coal strike had been recognised by the Thatcher government which insisted that Britain's coal-fired power stations create their own stockpiles of coal which would keep them running throughout any industrial action. This strategy turned out to be successful during the miners' strike as the power stations were able to maintain power supplies even through the winter of 1984. It also meant that the striking miners themselves, unable to pay their energy bills without wages, were the only ones who lost out.

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.[79] The strike subsequently emboldened the NCB to accelerate the closure of many pits on economic grounds.

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.[80] 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.[81] 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."[80]

Variation in observing the strike[edit]

Levels of participation in the 1984–85 strike by area[82]
Area Manpower  % on strike 19 November 1984  % on strike 14 February 1985  % on strike 1 March 1985
Cokeworks 4,500 95.6 73 65
Kent 3,000 95.9 95 93
Lancashire 6,500 61.5 49 38
Leicestershire 1,900 10.5 10 10
Midlands 19,000 32.3 15 23
North Derbyshire 10,500 66.7 44 40
North-East 23,000 95.5 70 60
North Wales 1,000 35 10 10
Nottinghamshire 30,000 20 14 22
Scotland 13,100 93.9 75 69
South Derbyshire 3,000 11 11 11
South Wales 21,500 99.6 98 93
Workshops 9,000 55.6 50
Yorkshire 56,000 97.3 90 83
NATIONAL 196,000 73.7 64 60

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.[83] Although the Yorkshire area had a policy of opposing a national ballot, this was opposed by the NUM branches at Grimethorpe, Shireoaks and Kinsley.[84]

Mining and mining communities after the strike[edit]

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,[85] however, by March 2005, there were only eight major deep mines left.[86] 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.[87] During the strike, Scargill had constantly claimed that the government had a long-term plan to reduce the industry in this way. The miners' will to resist deteriorated rapidly and there was a very apathetic response to the intensive period of closures in the early 1990s, despite evidence that there was much more sympathy for the miners then than in 1984.[citation needed]

Nottinghamshire miners had hoped that their pits were safe, but they too were mostly closed in the 1985–94 period. This was widely resented as a betrayal of the promises that had been made to working miners in the strike; they had been told that their jobs were safe and their industry had a future. The subsequent behaviour of the Conservative government was seen by most on the left, and in the "heavy" industries, to confirm fears about how they had been used to divide the miners' union.[citation needed]

The effect of the strike has been long and bitter for many areas that depended on coal. Many miners were forced into debt as the union did not make strike payments to its members, only paying money to strikers on picket. The problem was compounded as the union's failure to hold an official ballot meant that the strike was illegal and social security rules prevented benefits being paid to participants of illegal strikes. Further, the rules meant that any benefits paid to partners or dependants of striking miners were calculated as if strike pay was being received.[citation needed]

The closure of pits also affected engineering, railways, electricity and steel production, which were all interlinked with the coal industry. Unemployment reached as high as 50% in some villages over the following decade. Migration out of old mining areas left many villages full of derelict houses and earning reputation as ghost towns. The tensions between those who had supported the strike and those who had not, or who were police officers at the time, lasted for many years afterwards (and sometimes continues today, having been passed down to the next generation), eroding the strong sense of unity that had previously existed in such communities. A murder in the former mining town of Annesley, Nottinghamshire in 2004 was a result of an argument between former members of the NUM and the UDM, an indication of continued tensions.[88]

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.[89] 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.[90] In Merseyside, the Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley, had contained the "Cronton" pit and the neighbouring Metropolitan Borough of St Helens contained Sutton Manor, Bold and Parkside collieries.

Other areas have recovered and now boast a good standard of living. Recovery was quickest in areas where the economy was more diverse, such as in Kent or the West Midlands. Brodsworth boasted the largest mine in the country and is also enjoying relative affluence. Old colliery sites have often been turned into new industrial parks or retail parks. Xscape, an indoor ski-slope, forms part of an entertainments centre and outlet shopping complex built on the former site of Castleford's Glasshoughton colliery.

The Daily Mirror, which had been hostile towards the strike at the time, began a campaign to raise awareness of the social deprivation in the coalfields. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust is an organisation that makes grants to aid the redevelopment of former mining areas.[91]

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.[92][93]

Andrew J. Richards' book, Miners on Strike, dedicated a chapter to how unusual it was in 1984 for a large-scale strike to be launched in protest at job cuts. In Britain, trade unions had traditionally launched strikes for claims on wage rises and rights at work, but strikes in defence of jobs had been very rare. Since the example of the 1984-5 miners' strike, union leaders have been much more likely to call for action in defence of jobs. Coincidentally, 1984 was the year when Harvard economists Richard B. Freeman and James Medoff published the book What do Unions do?, where such a strategy was seen as good for productivity and less of a pressure on inflation.

Cultural references[edit]

Film and television[edit]

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.[94]

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.[95]

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".[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[96]


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[97] 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.[36][98][99] 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.[100]

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.

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.[citation needed]

Visual arts[edit]

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.[101]

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.[102]

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)


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.[103]

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).

The strike also inspired English composer Howard Skempton in 1985 to write a 5-minute-long piece for solo piano called "The Durham Strike", in memory of the Durham Coal Strike of 1892.[104]

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.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Francis Beckett, David Hencke (2009). Marching to the Fault Line: The Miners' Strike and the Battle for Industrial Britain. London: Constable. ISBN 978-1-84529-614-8. 
  • Callinicos, Alex; Simons, Mike. The great strike: the miners strike of 1984–5 and its lessons. London: Socialist Worker. ISBN 0-905998-50-2. 
  • Campbell, Adrian, and Malcolm Warner. "Leadership in the Miners Union-Scargill, Arthur Rise to Power." Journal of General Management 10.3 (1985): 4-22.
  • Coulter, Jim; Miller, Susan; Walker, Martin (1984). State of Siege: Miners' Strike, 1984 – Politics and Policing in the Coal Fields. Canary Press. ISBN 0-9509967-0-X.  A critique of policing methods in the coalfields during the strike
  • Crick, Michael. Scargill and the Miners (Penguin, 1985)
  • Holden, Triona (2005). Queen Coal, Women of the Miners' Strike. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-3971-0. 
  • Hutton, Guthrie (2009). Coal Not Dole – Memories of the 1984/85 Miners' Strike. Catrine: Stenlake Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84033-329-9. 
  • MacGregor, Ian (1986). The Enemies Within: The Story of the Miners' Strike 1984-5. William Collins. p. 384. ISBN 978-0-00-217706-1. 
  • Milne, Seumas (1994). The Enemy Within – The Secret War Against the Miners. London: Verso. ISBN 978-1-84467-508-1.  Pages 18–19 give details of the 1991 payouts to miners from the Battle of Orgreave.
  • Peace, David (2005). GB84. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-22174-2.  A novel.
  • Parker, Tony (1986). Red Hill, A Mining Community. Coronet Books. ISBN 0-340-42365-X.  Compilation of eyewitness accounts of the miners' strike from both sides of the dispute
  • Peter, Gibbon. "Analysing the British miners' strike of 1984–5." Economy and Society 17.2 (1988): 139-194.
  • Routledge, Paul. Scargill: the unauthorized biography (HarperCollins, 1993)
  • Wilsher, Peter, Donald Macintyre, and Michael CE Jones, eds. Strike: Thatcher, Scargill and the miners (A. Deutsch, 1985)
  • Winterton, Jonathan, and Ruth Winterton. Coal, crisis and conflict: the 1984-85 miners' strike in Yorkshire (Manchester University Press, 1989)

External links[edit]