Look back in anger / FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Look Back in Anger – the miners’ strike in Nottinghamshire, 30 years on

Harry Paterson, Five Leaves Press 2014, 288 pages, £9.99

Harry Paterson’s book is written with class consciousness and engagement. It has a political shrewdness which distinguishes it from some of the more sentimentalised accounts of the struggle of 1984-85. A focus on the Notts miners, in an area where a better-off workforce largely refused to back the strike, evokes the passions and anguish of this huge industrial and political battle. The defeat of the miners, despite their courage, signified a huge blow for the British working class as a whole.

In Nottinghamshire the majority of miners scabbed on the strike. One important reason for this was the Area Incentives Scheme (AIS), promoted by the National Coal Board (NCB) with the deliberate aim of sowing divisions between miners. This scheme was pushed through under the Labour government in 1977, against the wishes of two thirds of miners, but it had the support of right wing NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) president Joe Gormley. The militant Arthur Scargill replaced Gormley in 1982, too late to stop the AIS. Crucially, many miners in the most productive coalfields, such as Notts and South Derbyshire, supported the AIS as it could raise their incomes above the mass of miners in Britain (a short-sighted view, given Thatcher's later plans to shut most pits, including in Notts).

The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979, set about destroying much of Britain’s industrial base. Ultra-right-wing director ‘Sir’ Ian McGregor was first appointed to smash the British steel industry, reduced in the early 1980s from 166,000 jobs to just 71,000. Before McGregor’s appointment as coal board chief in March 1983, the miners had repelled an early threat of pit closures in 1981. By late 1983 an overtime ban was enforced all over the British coalfields, to reduce stocks in anticipation of a fight for jobs. Even the Notts area supported this ban until almost the end of the strike.

The strike began suddenly in March 1984, when the NCB made an official announcement to close 20 pits, with 20,000 job losses. An early disappointment however was the ballot against strike action in Notts, promoted by right-wing union activists such as Clarke and Liptrott who had links with the British state. Significantly the NCB did not announce any pit closures in Notts until after the strike was defeated. Paterson recalls the visits of Yorkshire pickets to Notts and their astonishment at their high living standards, often living in substantial private houses of a kind not seen in most mining areas. A minority of Notts miners did strike, including about 2,000 until the very end. Paterson’s father-in-law was a striker and picket, and his wife joined Women Against Pit Closures. Women became even more important to the struggle after harsh laws banned their husbands from picketing. The Notts ‘NUM loyalists’ were like partisans fighting behind enemy lines, with their home county sealed off by cops operating checkpoints.

Wider working class support is a crucial factor in any strike. As the government moved to cut welfare payments from miners’ families, which Paterson notes had been planned before the strike began, the question of their subsistence was raised. Donations came from sympathetic unions, such as the firefighters and railworkers and from street collections in working class areas. These were often done by miners’ wives, as in Notts, and by leftist political groups. The author recalls a mostly generous response to these, except in areas like Notts where opinions were influenced by the working miners.

Solidarity strike action could have won the dispute easily, given the possibility of paralysing the capitalist economy. Opportunities were lost, such as the dockers strike in July 1984, when their leaders quickly agreed a temporary deal with a government secretly committed to smashing their union. A basic pact with the railworkers banned the movement of coal by scab labour to build up stocks. The government responded by organising private lorries to carry it. Paterson shows why there couldn’t be a much wider general strike, as had happened in 1926. In 1926 the miners were betrayed by the TUC and left to fight alone and in 1984 the same forces were responsible for the lack of anything broader. The TUC had earlier pledged to oppose the new anti-union laws which outlawed solidarity strikes, by any means necessary, but in 1984, faced with further laws enacted by Tory minister Norman Tebbit, the TUC and the largest unions backed down through fear of having their funds ‘sequestrated’. Widespread support for the miners among the working class meant that TUC treachery had to be disguised with verbal solidarity and cash payments. Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party also played a key role in destroying the strike. Like the TUC’s Norman Willis, Kinnock complained about miners using violence, while faking sympathy for their cause.

Paterson refers in detail to the media distortion of the struggle. The biggest flashpoint was at Orgreave, a coking plant in Yorkshire, where 95 pickets were arrested in July 1984. The BBC showed miners stoning the cops, who were then shown ‘defending’ themselves – the exact opposite of what actually took place. The Daily Mirror became openly hostile to the miners after it was bought by the Robert Maxwell, a man with MI5, MI6 and Mossad links. Media interest switched off after the struggle ended in March 1985 – the decimation of jobs was not newsworthy. In 1984 there were 228,440 NUM members, but by 1994, when the Coal Industry Act paved the way for privatisation, only a few thousand mining jobs remained. Not even the ‘privileged’ Notts miners had been spared.

In concluding his book, Paterson details new information that has come to light since the struggle. This confirms what Scargill and other activists said at the time – the Tories had a secret closure plan; Thatcher did intervene to increase cops’ harassment on picket lines; she did plan to involve the army and declare a state of emergency; and the government was seriously worried about a miners’ victory, especially during the July 1984 dock strike. As Paterson puts it, ‘Arthur Scargill, the most maligned and vilified trade union leader in British history, had been right all along and his nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, had consistently lied and misled both Parliament and the public before, during and after the strike.’

Martin Hope