Whilst some of you reading this will probably be nursing and cursing a bit of a hangover tomorrow, those amongst us who harbour a curiosity about political history tend to find the most anticipated aspect of a New Year to be the public release of 30-year-old governmental files from the Whitehall vault. This has become something of an annual tradition for yours truly, even if it’s a sobering reflection on the swift passage of time that when I first became interested we were unveiling the secrets of the early 1970s. Now we’re already onto the mid-1980s. To anyone over 40, it doesn’t seem that long ago; and some things, it seems, never change. Perennial squabbles over Europe may still be intrinsic to the Tory Party’s DNA; but listening to the portrait painted of the country on a Radio 4 programme about the newly-released files reminded me of how distant that England really is. As we re-enter 1985, the imminent end of the Miners’ Strike is perhaps the greatest pointer to what really has changed.
Unlike many workers in blue-collar industries, the miners were afforded a unique reverence by the British public, filtered down the ages via the likes of DH Lawrence, George Orwell and the ‘Bevin Boys’ of the Second World War; they were hard, honest men doing a dirty job that it took a special kind of working-class hero to put himself though. Even during the hardships that were a by-product of the strikes of 1972 and 1973/’74, there was a general consensus that blame lay not at the door of militant miners’ leaders, but Prime Minister Edward Heath. The February ’74 Election that brought down Heath’s Government was a defeat largely attributed to the policies Heath had pursued against the miners, and when Margaret Thatcher came to power with an avowed intention to reform the unions, she was determined to succeed where her predecessor had so spectacularly failed.
In 1983, the appointment of Ian MacGregor as head of the National Coal Board was seen as provocative; MacGregor had been transferred from his job as head of British Steel, in which he had overseen the workforce being cut by half. Fears that he would wield the same axe in the mining industry were bound to lead to conflict, and within a year, the NCB announced its intentions to close 20 pits, leading to the loss of 20,000 jobs. As with the manufacturing industry, the most affected areas of the country would be in the North of England, as well as in Scotland and South Wales. Whole towns and villages had grown around the mining industry and the mines continued to be their main source of employment; the devastation such closures would bring about were incalculable, and a confrontation was now unavoidable. The national strike that began in March 1984 and ended twelve months later proved to be the watershed industrial dispute in post-war British history as well as another turning point in the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher.
The images of the strike remain seared on the collective memory of those who lived through them via the TV news – the volatile clashes between pickets and police, the bitter divisions between the miners who remained on strike and the ‘scabs’ who returned to work, the intimidating orations of NUM leader Arthur Scargill, the resolution of Thatcher to stick to her guns, the sense of observing a particular kind of Britain in its agonising death-throes; for this was a conflict in which ambivalence had no place. Even the media found it impossible to retain a balance and reporting tended to be partisan; battle lines had been drawn and sides were taken; you were either for the miners and therefore against the Government, or vice-versa. Yet, it would be too simplistic to paint the strike in black & white terms, to define heroes and villains or saints and sinners depending on which vantage point one took; to do so would be to absolve those whose actions during the height of the strike remain questionable – on both sides.
However, the stakes were painfully high for all parties involved; the miners knew defeat would lead to the decimation of communities that the strike had already fractured, whereas Thatcher knew that victory for the Government was imperative if she was to carry out the wholesale programme of changes she had in mind for the country. Neither side was prepared to back down, but the Government was in the strongest position almost from the start. Dependency on coal as a primary source of fuel was not the same in 1984 as it had been in 1974, certainly not in the nation’s households; and the toxic divisions that the strike brought about within pit villages and towns was bound to weaken the miners’ resolve. By the time the dispute had dragged on into 1985, morale was especially low on the miners’ side; despite relatively strong support from the public, the hardships that the strikers and their families endured were seeing more and more returning to work, and there was too much disunity within the mining communities to sustain the strike or guarantee victory. Eventually, on 3rd March 1985, the strike formally ended.
The proposed pit closures that had sparked the strike action a year earlier went ahead, but the damage had already been done during the strike, forcing customers to look elsewhere for coal supplies when their regular suppliers were indefinitely out of action. The impact on those parts of the country where mining had been the traditional life-support system of the entire community was devastating, and it’s true to say that in many cases, these areas have never really recovered from the loss of the pits, becoming notorious black-spots of terminal urban decay and cradles of hopelessness. Social deprivation, high unemployment, high crime rates and high drug abuse have come to characterise neighbourhoods in which there was little or no investment following the collapse of the industry that had given birth to them. Many former mining areas were transformed into ghost towns or ghettos, with those who remained being abandoned and effectively left to their own devices. The economic recovery that was to propel Margaret Thatcher to an historic third term as Prime Minister in 1987 was not one that everyone had a stake in; the divisive nature of her premiership was never better exemplified than by those who fell through the cracks in 1984.
In retrospect, the Miners’ Strike was the last defiant roar of a working-class united by a sense of shared values and common grievances; but perhaps the fatal divide between the miners themselves was an indication that this roar emanated from a toothless old beast about to be put out of its misery. After 1985, what had long been a clearly defined social group would be too fragmented to come together as one again, at least for a cause with any genuine substance; in the future, what once passed for the working-class would unite only when engaged in voting-off contestants from a televised circus that had been cynically sold to them as having the gravitas of a life-and-death struggle. And if the likes of Arthur Scargill had been painted as a self-aggrandizing Marxist thug during the strike and after it, Margaret Thatcher emerged from the battle with her reputation as a modern-day Boudicca strengthened further.
Thatcher had done the country an undoubted service in neutering the powers of bully boys within many of the leading trade unions, but the rights of those with genuine grievances to make their grievances heard in a democratic forum were arguably damaged by the legislation she subsequently drafted, and the bullish spirit of the militant trade unionists merely resurfaced in areas of industry that Thatcher vigorously endorsed. But the Britain for which she reserved her most indefatigable fury is gone, whether by manslaughter or hara-kiri. 30 years later, the jury is still out.