The miners’ strike 40 years on: people versus state

The year-long miners’ strike that began in March 1984 represented the last major battle of the industrial working class in Britain as miners, led by Arthur Scargill, fought the attempt by the Thatcher government to close collieries across the country and break the power of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Despite its eventual defeat, the strike transformed the political landscape, as through bitter struggle against the British state and faced with the treachery of the Labour Party and TUC, a relatively privileged section of the working class was forced to make common cause with those fighting racism and imperialism on the streets of Britain and in the occupied North of Ireland. The potential of such a movement was never realised, paving the way for the virtual obliteration of the industrial working class over the next decade. But as this extract from the introduction to our 1985 book Miners Strike 1984-1985: People versus State shows, those lessons remain relevant today.*

The fight goes on

Perhaps the most politically decisive factor in the miners’ strike has been the fact that, as the strike progressed, the most politically conscious miners and their supporters have recognised the need to ally themselves with the oppressed fighting British imperialism at home or abroad. That is miners are starting to argue for an anti-imperialist standpoint in the British labour movement.

Very quickly the miners drew connections between their treatment and that of black workers in South Africa, the treatment of the Irish people in the Six Counties and that of black youth by the racist British police here at home. This was expressed dramatically in the headline of The Miner in July 1984 ‘Belfast comes to Blidworth’. More recently Kate Whiteside, a member of the new national co-ordinating committee of the NUM Women’s Action Group, relating her growing political involvement during the strike said:

‘Police [were treating people rough: coming in at six in the morning, and frightening the children. Suddenly I said “my God, that’s been happening to blacks for years”.’ (The Guardian 19 February 1985)

It has been because miners have recognised that a defeat for their struggle would force thousands of them into unemployment and poverty that they have fought in such a determined and courageous way. Recognising what awaits them should they be defeated, they have, through the practical experience gained in a determined struggle against the British state, begun to see where their real interests lie and who are their real allies.

A victory in an outright sense for the miners, of the 1972/74 Saltley Gate kind, appeared unlikely throughout the strike because of the bitter split in the NUM and the growing split in the organised trade union movement. After the TUC Conference in September such a victory became virtually impossible. It became clear that the split in the organised working class movement is not simply one between the trade union ‘bureaucracy’ and the rank and file but goes down deeper into the ranks of the working class. Key workers, dockers, power and steel workers, lorry drivers and sections of miners themselves — on the whole the better paid in more secure jobs – were scabbing on the miners’ strike.

However, as many miners have pointed out, and Arthur Scargill has stated on numerous occasions, the year-long struggle itself represented a political victory. The lessons learned, the forms of struggle adopted, and the new organisations thrown up during the strike will have a lasting impact on the working class movement in this country. At a rally in Trafalgar Square just over a week before the end of the strike, Arthur Scargill drove home the essential points:

‘The strike has brought a new dimension to British politics with hundreds of thousands of people involved in support groups not only in this country, but all over the world...

‘We have already achieved a magnificent victory by showing that working people are not prepared to lie down under this Thatcher government. Stand firm. Lift your hearts and eyes to a new horizon and towards saving this industry and our jobs ...’

Lessons of the strike

The miners’ strike has transformed political life for hundreds of thousands of people, in particular for the striking miners and their families and for thousands upon thousands of their supporters. The political gains of the strike are very significant ones and if built on will lead to a lasting advance for the British working class movement. What are these gains?

First, the mining communities and hundreds of thousands of their supporters have come to understand the vicious class character of the British imperialist state as they have experienced its police, courts and prisons. Many now recognise the need for disciplined organisation to defend themselves against it.

Second, thousands of workers have come to know the character of the leadership of the Labour Party and trade union movement and realise that a new fighting movement can only be built after a decisive break with these leaders and the section of the working class which follows them.

Third, the mining communities, themselves forced to fight with the brick, the barricade and the petrol bomb against Thatcher’s national riot police, have come for the first time to see allies in those fighting for freedom in the Six Counties of Ireland and in black people forced to fight against the racist police state in Britain.

Fourth, perhaps the most important political development in the strike has been the critical and often leading role of the women in the mining communities in defending and sustaining the strike through organisation, demonstrations, street activities and defence of their relatives and friends in prison for supporting the strike.

Women’s support groups – major gain of strike

The women’s support groups in the mining areas and miners’ support groups in the towns and cities are a major gain of the strike. Their work is still crucial to continue the struggle against victimisation of striking miners and to defend the imprisoned miners. Increased activity from these groups now the strike has ended will mean solid organisation and experience exists to defend miners and other workers in the future.
At a Chesterfield rally in commemoration of International Women’s Day on 9 March 1985, Scargill acknowledged these important points when he urged the women’s support groups to rededicate themselves to the struggle even though the strike had ended.

‘This is not the end. It’s the beginning because you are part of this union and must remain part of the miners’ union…
‘We’ve got to take this fight forward and step up the campaign. The women’s support groups have got to take on a broader role.
‘You must become involved in the wider issues. Learn and understand that rate-capping affects each and every one of us and that the peace movement is absolutely important...’

Political prisoners

Scargill went on to demand of the Labour and trade union leaders that they stop equivocating on the demand for an amnesty for all miners victimised during the strike. He made it clear he was referring to all miners when he said:

‘Those men who have been arrested and gaoled as far as I’m concerned are political prisoners. They’ve been gaoled because they fought for this union...’

Scargill demanded that any future Labour government ‘wipe clean’ the stain against all those arrested.
Finally he launched a bitter attack on the union leaders, particularly those in the power industry, who he said:

‘...should hang their heads in eternal shame for what they have done during this dispute.
‘They can come forward with whatever arguments they wish but they will never be able to erase the fact that when the chips were down they supported Margaret Thatcher and turned their backs on the NUM’ (Newsline, 11 March 1985).

Scargill’s speeches continually pose a way forward for the working class which goes beyond the traditional methods of struggle of the trade union movement. It would indeed be progress if the working class women who have been involved in the support groups took their experience into the movements for peace, against rate-capping, took a stand in solidarity with those fighting racism, and with those fighting imperialism in Ireland, South Africa and throughout the world.

To become ‘involved in the wider issues’ they will have to fight many Labour Party and Communist Party members within the NUM and outside in the wider trade union movement for the right to exist and develop their work. For there are those who will not follow the path of these new class organisations and are intent on reasserting the deadly grip of traditional labour movement methods of organisation, negotiation and compromise.

The British left and miners

The major organisations to the left of the Labour Party have without exception ignored the split in the working class which has deepened throughout the strike. In the case of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) they have attempted at every stage to cover up for it. The dangers of this are already becoming clear. The Morning Star reported on 9 March that:

‘Scottish miners’ leaders yesterday were greatly encouraged by positive support from Labour leader Neil Kinnock in their campaign to get hundreds of sacked miners their jobs back.’

Kinnock has, in fact, refused to support an amnesty for all miners sacked. The Vice-President of the NUM, Mick McGahey, a leading member of the CPGB, has already met Kinnock and an invitation has been extended to Kinnock and Willis to take part in the Scottish Miners Gala later this year. The crucial lessons of the year-long strike are being thrown aside as some NUM leaders and officials are all too ready to build bridges with the opportunists who did so much damage to their strike.

Real communists oppose any attempt at reconciliation with such opportunists. Those advocating ‘unity’ with such forces are, as Lenin argued, ‘objectively defending the enslavement of the workers by the imperialist bourgeoisie with the aid of its best agents in the labour movement’. Communists and socialists have to abandon their pre-occupation with the privileged minority of the working class and their leaders, and go down ‘lower and deeper to the real masses’. That Lenin said is the ‘whole meaning and whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.’

The miners’ strike has not only confirmed this by exposing the role of the organised trade union movement during the strike, but also because a year of bitter struggle has thrown up new class organisations of the kind that would be capable of taking the struggle of the working class forward. The work of women’s support groups and the miners’ support groups made a crucial contribution to the strike precisely because they were outside the control of Labour and trade union bureaucracies. If these support groups continue to carry out the work necessary to defend miners victimised and imprisoned during the strike, and take their experience into other working class struggles then indeed the miners’ strike 1984-5 will have ‘brought a new dimension to British politics’.

David Reed

* Miners Strike 1984-1985: People vs State, David Reed and Olivia Adamson, Larkin Publications, 1985, p8-11.