Based on the accounts of nearly 150 people directly involved in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Robert Gildea’s new book is a powerful retelling of the seismic struggle that has divided Britain for decades.

Pickets clash with police outside the National Union of Mineworkers headquarters, Sheffield, UK, 13th April 1984. (Photo by John Rogers/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even as its fortieth anniversary approaches, the repercussions of the 1984-85 miners’ strike continue to reverberate. For almost a year, 180,000 miners — alongside their families and allies drawn from a plethora of other social movements — fought valiantly in defence of their pits and jobs, and in defiance of the Thatcher government. Their defeat was an absolute necessity if the Thatcherite neoliberal counter-revolution was to proceed, wiping away most of the economic gains won by the British working class since 1945, and it continues to cast a pall over the labour movement to this day.

Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year tenure as Prime Minister was marked by a long list of set-piece industrial confrontations: the 1980 steel workers’ strike, the Warrington printworkers’ strike in 1983, the 1986 Wapping dispute and the ambulance strike of 1989-90 being prominent among them. But the miners’ strike stands apart as, in Seumas Milne’s words, ‘the decisive domestic confrontation of the Thatcher years’. The strike was not just a clash of conflicting economic class interests but also of diametrically opposed and irreconcilable worldviews: one prizing solidarity and collective uplift above all, egalitarian and rooted in community, and the other radically individualistic, seeking to reimpose traditional social and economic hierarchies and speaking the language of cold financial calculation.

At its best, the miners’ strike pointed the way to a new, more creative and broader kind of class politics, forging links between industrial militants and the new social movements that had emerged during the upheavals of the 1960s. But this unruly grassroots activism ran up against a Labour Party desperate to cleanse itself of any taint of radicalism, and trade union leaders suing for peace with the Thatcher regime. In the aftermath of the miners’ defeat, Britain’s old industrial heartlands — both within and beyond the coalfields — were plunged into deindustrialisation, poverty, unemployment (or fly-by-night precarious work, with dismally low pay subsidised by the state through the benefits system) and addiction. The Labour Party, meanwhile, came to embrace the core tenets of neoliberalism and the inviolability of ‘markets’ — a coy euphemism for untrammelled capitalist class power.

Even now, most accounts of the miners’ strike tend to strip away the complexity of the forces at work, presenting it instead as a personalised clash between two equally intransigent and inflexible ideologues in the shape of Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher. Robert Gildea’s oral history, Backbone of the Nation, thankfully provides an important and long-overdue corrective to hackneyed, top-down accounts of the miners’ strike. Based on nearly 150 accounts from people directly involved in the strikes — striking miners, strikebreakers, miners’ wives and solidarity activists are all among those given their say — the book offers a finely detailed, nuanced and frequently moving retelling of what was a genuinely seismic and still much-misunderstood struggle.

Perhaps the first point that needs to be made about the miners’ strike is that the economics of the coal industry were, at best, a secondary consideration for the Thatcher government. The state was quite content to shoulder an enormous financial burden in order to crush the miners’ resistance, even if this rendered the industry itself as collateral damage. Milne, in his classic The Enemy Within, puts the full economic cost of the war on the miners — including pit closures, unemployment and incapacity benefit payments and other financial ramifications — at around £37 billion in 2012 prices. Nor was Thatcher’s apparent aversion to coal an example of environmental far-sightedness. Instead, her overriding obsession was to smash the trade union movement and restore the authority of capital over labour. Thatcher and her associates entered government in 1979 already bent on avenging the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes that had so humiliated her predecessor, Edward Heath.

In calling the February 1974 general election, Heath famously posed the country a question: ‘Who governs Britain?’ The answer of the electorate was that, whoever it was, it wasn’t Ted Heath. Harold Wilson’s Labour returned to form a minority government, and was reelected with a slender Commons majority that October. But while the Wilson (later Callaghan) government was rocked by mounting industrial unrest, Thatcher’s Tories steeled themselves for the confrontation with the miners that would inevitably follow once they returned to office. Backbench MP Nicholas Ridley, a key Thatcherite ideologue, laid out the plan for battle. He recommended the large-scale stockpiling of coal and the importation of coal from overseas, the installation of dual coal-oil power generators, cutting benefits to strikers’ families, and mobile, nationally-coordinated police squads to counteract the flying pickets that had been so effective in 1972 and 1974. (State security and intelligence services, as Milne’s book documents, would also be deployed in a clandestine counter-insurgency role.) In the longer term, non-union nuclear power would be promoted to replace unionised coal.

The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) knew perfectly well that Thatcher was coming for them. In 1981, the National Coal Board (NCB) duly announced plans to close 50 collieries, with 30,000 job losses expected. Flying pickets sprung into action, successfully calling out miners in the affected areas on wildcat strikes. Reluctantly, the government and the NCB were forced to retreat, withdrawing the closure plan without making any commitment to keeping pits open for the long term; as NUM militant David Douglass notes in Ghost Dancers, his memoir of the period, the episode gave the government advance notice that wildcat strikes would be the likely response to any future closure plan as well. Despite their tactical retreat, the NCB and the Thatcher government continued working to exacerbate divisions between NUM area unions, while adding a further nine million tonnes to their coal stockpiles over the following three years.

The NUM’s federal structure — a legacy of its formation as an amalgamation of regional miners’ unions — left the national union vulnerable to these machinations. Area unions retained a high degree of autonomy, and the government and the NCB recognised that miners in some areas — namely Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and South Derbyshire — were much less likely to join a national strike against pit closures. They therefore worked assiduously to drive wedges between these area unions and the rest of the NUM; Gildea emphasises that the Midlands coalfields were less isolated than those elsewhere, with a wider variety of employment options and, as a consequence, weaker ties of solidarity. The Thatcher government would ultimately serve as midwife to the so-called Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM), the breakaway yellow union which would continue to undermine the NUM years after the miners’ strike ended.

The timing of the strike, which got underway in March 1984, has been the subject of much ill-informed discussion in the years since. The reality is that it was the government that decided the timing. The NCB was under pressure from an NUM overtime ban which threatened to undermine its stockpiling of coal, and it wanted to pressure the union into striking at an unfavourable time. It thus announced another pit closure plan, stating that it planned to close twenty pits at the cost of 20,000 jobs. Scargill maintained that the NCB was holding back a secret plan to close a further fifty collieries, to the furious denials of the Thatcher government. (Scargill would be vindicated long after the event, when documents released in 2014 revealed that the NCB did, in fact, plan to close seventy-five pits over three years.) The union had to act; it could not sit on its hands while more pits closed and its ranks were further decimated and still retain credibility in the eyes of its members.

A manager at Cortonwood Colliery, in South Yorkshire, inadvertently gave the game away when he told miners there that the pit was to close in five weeks, eschewing the usual consultation process. The Yorkshire NUM had already held its own ballot, giving the area executive a clear mandate for strike action in the event of a local pit being threatened with closure. Over the weekend of 10-11 March, before there was even any talk of a national ballot, miners — far from acting at the beck and call of Arthur Scargill — voted to strike at pithead meetings, thereby turning the dispute into a de facto national strike. (The following month, an NUM delegate conference voted not to hold a national ballot.) The strike was not, then, the product of some sinister Scargillite plot — with NUM members as mere puppets on a string — to unseat Thatcher, though she would have struggled to survive had the miners won: it was a defensive struggle, with rank-and-file miners themselves taking the initiative.

Groups of Yorkshire miners descended on Nottinghamshire before the area union there had had a chance to ballot its own members, resulting in ill-tempered physical and verbal confrontations. Gildea suggests that this impulsive action was counter-productive, alienating Nottinghamshire miners who might otherwise have been sympathetic. It seems unlikely, however, that the bulk of them — assuming as they did that they were safe from pit closures — would have joined the strike in any event. (Even when Nottinghamshire pits were threatened, miners in the area had proven largely unwilling to strike to save them; miners of an earlier vintage recalled how Nottinghamshire had broken the 1926 general strike by forming a breakaway scab union under the direction of Labour MP George Spencer.) The minority of Nottinghamshire miners who did join the strike were subjected to harassment, threats and abuse by those strikebreakers routinely lauded in the press as ‘moderates’ and principled democrats. Effigies of Scargill on the gallows were paraded around by strikebreaking miners on their ‘right-to-work’ rallies.

Demands from Nottinghamshire for a national strike ballot — which the NUM leadership would likely have won had one been called — were met with contempt by their counterparts who were already out on strike. Striking miners felt, justifiably enough, that Nottinghamshire — far from upholding the principles of trade union democracy — was actively seeking whatever pretext it could to continue working. Indeed, Nottinghamshire’s interpretation of trade union democracy had already been shown to be selective. Just a few years before, Nottinghamshire had defied the will of the national NUM conference — even to the point of dragging the matter through the courts — in order to obtain a more favourable regional incentive scheme for itself from the Coal Board, undermining the national agreement in place at the time. In light of this, Nottinghamshire’s calls for a national ballot were seen, in David Douglass’s words, as ‘an excuse for cowardice’.

Strikebreaking miners in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and South Derbyshire were lavished with media plaudits and financial rewards, as the divide-and-rule policy bore fruit. Even before the strike, Yorkshire miners visiting Nottinghamshire had been shocked to see just how much better off their counterparts there were, taken aback by the sight of miners living in semi-detached houses. But the strikebreakers too, for all their loyalty to the Thatcher government, were safely discarded once they had outlived their usefulness, and some even fell victim to their so-called comrades. In 2012, Neil Greatrex — former president of the UDM scab union — was convicted on fourteen counts of fraud, having stolen a total of nearly £150,000 from a charity fund earmarked for sick and elderly UDM members. Greatrex had spent part of the proceeds on sprucing up his garden, including the addition of an ornamental pond for his koi carp.

Such were the stakes not just to the mining industry but the political direction of British society as a whole, the miners’ strike called into being a sprawling but vibrant solidarity movement. The miners, the militant vanguard of the labour movement, joined forces with partisans of the feminist, anti-racist, LGBT rights and anti-nuclear movements. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), in particular, was immortalised in the 2014 film Pride, a charming and endearing account of the campaign, if also one that sanded down the rougher edges of LGSM’s Marxist politics for easier mainstream consumption. The women of the pit communities emerged as political actors in their own right through Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC). In doing so, they defied both the emotional blackmail of the Tory press — always eager for accounts of miners’ wives pleading desperately with their men to return to work — and the ingrained patriarchal assumptions of their own husbands.

These alliances could be fraught, however. The working-class women of the pit communities at times resented what they saw as the tendency of their middle-class allies to assume control of their campaigns. But, as Gildea makes clear, the women involved in WAPC often discovered capacities and talents they didn’t previously know they had, emerging as organisers, orators and political cadres. A number of WAPC activists went on to careers in politics, academia and public service after the strike; one leading WAPC campaigner in South Wales, Sian James — who features prominently among Gildea’s interviewees and is also portrayed in Pride — subsequently served as a Labour MP for a decade. LGSM, too, would leave a lasting mark on the labour movement by broadening its conception of social and political struggle. As noted in the closing scenes of Pride, the NUM supported a motion to the 1985 Labour conference on lesbian and gay rights, the first such motion passed by the party.

But decisive sections of the trade union leadership, and the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, were much less keen to throw themselves into the miners’ struggle. Rocketing unemployment had already badly weakened the unions, and their leaders generally preferred to seek a kind of social peace from a government determined to roll back trade union rights and present employers with a compliant working class too intimidated to fight. These efforts were, predictably, entirely futile. This ‘new realism’ had its political counterpart in the Labour Party. The so-called ‘dream ticket’ of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, elected to the leadership and deputy leadership respectively after Labour’s calamitous defeat in 1983, were particularly keen to present themselves as a reliable alternative management team. Kinnock and Scargill had fallen out bitterly in 1981, when the former pointedly refused to back Tony Benn for Labour’s deputy leadership against rightwinger Denis Healey.

Nevertheless, given the strength of feeling in the constituencies and among sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Kinnock could not come out openly in opposition to the strike. Instead, he resorted to carping about picket-line violence — putting the lion’s share of the blame for this on the miners, rather than on Thatcher’s increasingly feral police — and the lack of a national strike ballot, ignoring the very real pressure Scargill was under from his own rank and file not to call one. Chris Mullin, then editor of Tribune, later remarked with some dismay that the Archbishop of Canterbury had found his way to an NUM picket line before Neil Kinnock did. Despite the huge mobilisation from below (and the steadfast backing of some union leaders) in their support, the miners, already divided among themselves, could not win without having the Labour leadership and decisive sections of the TUC leadership behind them. But Gildea’s focus on oral testimony, while correcting top-down histories, can bend the stick too far the other way. As a result, this aspect of the strike — though crucial to its eventual outcome — goes underexplored.

The defeat of the miners’ strike proved momentous for the Labour Party itself, coming as a hammer blow to the entire socialist and trade union left, and giving its right-wing ‘modernisers’ — who needed the miners to lose almost as much as Thatcher did — a free hand to set it on a trajectory that would culminate in Blairism’s giddy, credulous embrace of the ‘free market’. (Years afterwards, Thatcher herself bragged, rightly enough, that New Labour had been her greatest achievement.) The Left’s attempts, during the heyday of Bennism, to reorientate Labour towards active engagement with grassroots campaigns, social movements and trade union struggles were rapidly reversed as Kinnock steered the party back into the safe, tepid confines of parliament and the state. Though the intention was to present British capital with a reliable second XI, it would not be needed during Kinnock’s own tenure as Labour leader.

Gildea suggests that the miners’ strike was an important source of inspiration for the recent revival of trade unionism, which produced the largest strike wave in at least three decades. But it must be said that, with no political alternative on offer, this upsurge in industrial militancy has done little to move the dial politically. What is in short supply today is the conviction — which did much to animate the miners’ strike — that a fundamentally different kind of society is both conceivable and possible. But there is one parallel between then and now which we should note: namely that, as in 1984-85, we once again have a Labour Party leadership determined not to channel legitimate anger at injustice into the struggle for social change, but to douse it so as to reassure the rich that their wealth and power will remain unchallenged. Starmer, like Kinnock before him, fears and despises activism; his entire strategy for government — perceived, of course, as nothing more than the dutiful management of British capitalism — depends on a pacified party and quiescent trade unions.

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