What are the lessons from the Miners’ Strike 30 years on?


Archived government papers from 1984, many personally annotated by Margaret Thatcher, have been released recently under the ‘thirty-year rule’, which allows some state secrets to be made public when the authorities deem it safe to do so. Unsurprisingly, they prove that the Prime Minister, and the head of the National Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, did plan to close large numbers of collieries. The government also approved the ‘vigorous’ policing of picket lines and mining communities, and made detailed plans to use troops to drive coal and food trucks in the battle to defeat the National Union of Mineworkers, and its leader, Arthur Scargill.

As we all know the government prevailed, and in March 1985 the miners had to return to work empty-handed, to await the rolling programme of pit closures, which would result in the trashing of pithead gear, the grassing over of colliery yards, and the destruction of communities that had been clustered around them for a hundred and fifty years or more.

In fact, it was the dissolution of communities threatened by pit closures that rapidly came to the fore during the course of the strike. Strong women’s committees on the coalfields came into existence; entire villages and neighbourhoods fought to feed and clothe themselves, month after month, as the strike dragged on. This struggle was more than simply one in which ‘the Brigade of Guards’ of the British working class took on the Tories, it was a battle in which entire communities of working people were ranged against the police and the state – it was this that gave the strike its epic character. It was this that made it a cause célèbre for the entire left, drawing in people from new social movements, like gay and lesbian groups, and a host of other kinds of organizations that in the past might not have been concerned with what they regarded as a purely industrial dispute.

Profoundly conservative and often parochial mining communities found themselves drawn into contact with people and groups that challenged many assumptions cherished by a white, almost exclusively male labour force. Women from within mining communities stepped forward to sustain the strike and it became abundantly clear that the strike could not have lasted for more than a few weeks without their active support and participation. This, and the links that miners’ wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters, established with the wider socialist and labour movement, and with feminists from further afield, made an essential contribution to the struggle as the strike wore on. Consequently the miners’ strike was understood by many people to be a matter of profound importance to the entire working class and to all those interested in fighting for social solidarity against the logic of capital and the profit motive.

So, the strike was always more than an industrial dispute. Yet it is true that in any reflection on this foolhardy yet heroic battle, and the terrible defeat suffered, attention will inevitably be paid to Arthur Scargill’s tactical errors and to the difficulties inherent in cohering the NUM – a federation of more or less autonomous regional organizations, and a number of different trade groups engaged in mining. These problems, together with the failure of solidarity action by pit deputies, dockers, lorry drivers, power station staff, and railway workers, and the treachery of the Labour leadership and Trade Union Congress, will inevitably attract the attention of anybody interested in determining the reasons for the defeat of the strike.

However, all these matters took place in the context of wider changes in society, and of particular anxieties among workers, concerning the structural changes in the way in which we both worked and lived. Thatcher’s government was broadly popular among many sections of the working class and, although there was widespread sympathy for the plight of mining communities, large numbers of working people had no intention whatsoever of supporting Arthur Scargill or the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers. This was because millions of workers distrusted the Labour left and had been troubled by the conduct of industrial disputes throughout the seventies, and because all sections of the working class during the sixties and seventies were embroiled in radical transformations brought about by the reorganization of production processes and by the renewed emphasis employers placed upon productivity. This attitude is best summed up by the view: “We’ve all had to move with the times . . . what’s so bloody special about the miners? Maggie’s just what we need!” The working class was deeply divided in how to respond to what were quite obviously new times.

Margaret Thatcher did not simply drop from the sky upon an unsuspecting public, the Labour Party and the trade unions, including the NUM, had had a history of striving to modernize British industry throughout the sixties and seventies, in an attempt to tailor labour relations to suit the employers and the state. This was, of course, a continuous process, but it was one that was intensified as Britain began to feel the need to modernize under the pressure of sharper and sharper international competition.

On the coalfields these difficulties resulted in National Coal Board managers, and trade union officials, working together to institutionalize the steady and orderly shrinkage of the industry. Worries about pollution addressed by The Clean Air Acts (1956, 1968), the coming of North Sea oil and gas, the more efficient use of coal, and very much cheaper imports from open cast pits around the world resulted in the decline of deep mining in Britain from its high point in 1948, when 720,000 miners dug out 210 million tons of coal, down to 1983, on the eve of the great strike, when 148,000 miners produced 119 million tons. Even before the strike the writing was on the wall – startling improvements in productivity and falling demand made structural change inevitable. By 1984 coal board managers and union officials alike knew that if the industry could be made as efficient across the country, as the new super pit at Selby, around 20,000 miners could in theory bring 120 million tons to the surface. In practice, by 1989 a hundred million tons was dug out by 56,000 men – yet even these phenomenal increases in productivity were insufficient to save the industry. Of 170 collieries in existence at the start of the strike in 1984 only 15 were left ten years later – international changes in mining technology, power generation, and shipping, simply made Britain’s deep mines uneconomic.

Of course the Tories lied about their intentions and of course they were resolutely committed to serving the interests of capital. Consequently, there is nothing novel or surprising in the newly released government papers – this is why the authorities have deemed it safe to publish them. They know that nobody at all will be surprised by the fact that Margaret Thatcher and Ian MacGregor were liars, had planned the destruction of the mining industry all along, or that the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, and other ministers, had made arrangements to beat miners in the streets, and planned to use soldiers to scab on the strikers.

The lesson of the great miners strike, like the lesson of the dockers’ struggle against containerization, or that of the print workers against digitalization, is that the relentless process of technical innovation will result in capital remodeling the labour process, the work place, and the entire working class, according the needs of capital accumulation.  Of course, there is nothing new about this either, but many socialists have a tendency to see the spontaneous struggles of workers against the disappearance of old industries and outmoded technologies as an opportunity to throw their lot in with workers dismayed by the immediate threat to their livelihoods, rather than raise concrete demands for new employment, new social infrastructure, and the retraining that the redundant workers will need to maintain and improve their living standards.

Linking the welfare and social demands of workers to the retention of outmoded technologies and redundant industries is absurd because governments and capitalists can always argue the case for the logic of modernization, productivity, and prices. And, in doing so, can always mobilize significant numbers of working people behind such arguments. In 1984 Arthur Scargill’s insistence that “we produce the cheapest deep-mined coal in the world!” inevitably fell on stony ground, because despite the undoubted truth of his assertion, there was no reason to suppose that expensive deep-mined coal was any better than open-cast coal shipped from Australia, or South America, at half the price.

We simply cannot win such arguments.

The lesson of the miners strike is that we must be unequivocal in understanding that the disputes, which arise around redundancies, around new working patterns, and the introduction of new technologies, cannot be dealt with simply as ‘industrial disputes’.  Traditional trade union approaches to defending wages and conditions are not fit for purpose because these disputes are not, strictly speaking, ‘industrial disputes’ at all. The real tragedy of the miners strike is that it was fought as an industrial dispute by Scargill and the union’s leaders, and as a deeper social struggle by some elements within mining communities and the wider labour and socialist movement. Yet because the communitarian struggle was fought simply against pit closures, and in support of the NUM’s demands, no forward strategy or set of demands concerning the future of workers and communities no longer needed by the mining industry were developed.

To do so would, in the year of the strike, have been tantamount to conceding defeat from the outset. So, the illusion that victory was possible was sustained – it was argued that the survival of the mining industry in Britain was in some sense vital to the wellbeing of the country in general and the working class in particular. Indeed, some people are still arguing that because the release of the secret government papers reveal the extent of Thatcher’s panic in the face of various solidarity actions it would have been possible to force the government to surrender.

Sadly, this is not what happened. More than a quarter of miners (26.3%) never joined the strike – by the end, in March 1985, forty per cent of miners were working. Tens of thousands of miners in Leicestershire, the Midlands, North Wales, Nottinghamshire, and South Derbyshire, continued to produce coal throughout the strike. The labeling of a quarter of the men in the industry as scabs and the absence of any strategy to win them over regarding the future of the industry revealed the inability of Scargill’s leadership to convince them that uneconomic pits and coalfields could and should be defended.

There was incoherence and disunity at the heart of the NUM’s strategy. The union had never been opposed, in principle, to pit closures, and it failed to make a case convincing enough to bring the majority of miners in Nottinghamshire, the Midlands, or South Derbyshire, into the struggle. Alternatively, the communitarian movement fronted by Women Against Pit Closures, anchored as it was, to the NUM leadership’s strategy proved incapable of raising wider demands or of inspiring new forms of solidarity, or new forms of social action.

Thirty years ago, in the midst of the trouble and strife, these lessons were not so easy to pick out or to learn, but today matters are clearer. By and large we are not faced with battles over pay and conditions within a relatively stable setting. On the contrary, we are in fact confronted by the disappearance of particular jobs and activities, as well as the disappearance of entire industries. We know that technical innovation is poised to destroy checkout jobs in shops and supermarkets, we know that digitalization, coupled with the invention of new materials and processes, is going to destroy one area of employment after another. It is a foregone conclusion that the march of automation that has produced robots that do everything from making cars to milking cows will render more and more workers surplus to requirements.

Early in the industrial revolution the Luddites were wrong-footed by the introduction of new machinery because the overall expansion of industrial activity rapidly compensated for the destruction of particular trades and activities. We now, however, are faced with a ‘neo-Luddite’ crisis in that the jobs destroyed by new machines and processes are unlikely to be fully compensated for by future growth in overall employment.

Yet, it is evident, that the need for reduced hours of work, and the need for workers to be trained in activities like education, personal services, creative industries, and entertainment, is in fact inexhaustible. However, the capitalist class will be unable and unwilling to transfer the profits made in more or less workerless enterprises to pay for school class sizes of eight or nine pupils per teacher, or to increase the ratio of care assistants in old people’s homes to one care worker per two or three residents. The capitalists will continue to make great profits with fewer and fewer living workers and will find it increasingly difficult to maintain social stability as the low-wage and no-wage economy spreads inexorably into wider and wider social circles.

Consequently, we must try to develop demands and support for policies that reveal the emancipatory potential contained within robotics and super automation that can only be realized if a way is found to transfer the benefits won by phenomenal improvements in productivity in industrial and commercial sectors, to the service of the education, entertainment, health, and wellbeing of society at large.



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