Support the miners march, London 1984 | Photo: sludgegulper – Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0 | cropped from original Support the miners march, London 1984 | Photo: sludgegulper – Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0 | cropped from original

In the second of a two-part article, George Kerevan continues his personal and political insights of the miners strike

As the strike grew increasingly bitter, Richard Saville and I worked on a major study of the economics of the Scottish coal field, determined to expose the specious arguments of the Coal Board and Tory government regarding the alleged unprofitability of the industry. This work was published at the end of 1984. The title was The Economic Case for Deep-Mined Coal in Scotland and it ran to 110 pages. We received a lot of technical help with the typing, production and distribution from the backroom staff at Scottish Area, including the tireless Ella Egan, daughter of NUM legend Abe Moffat, and who also was a leader of Women Against Pit Closures during the strike. Ella, who died in 2021, was also involved in the campaign to open associate membership of the NUM to members of the Women’s Support Groups. This was agreed by the Scottish Area but rejected by the NUM nationally.

Our plan with The Case for Deep-Mined Coal was to use it as a tool to convince journalists the media that the miners had a strong economic case against pit closures. This was essentially a battle of ideas. In this propaganda war we had some reasonable success. The study was extensively reported, and I did a fair amount of TV and radio interviews. The rigour of our findings also found favour amongst academic economists. The main weakness of this campaign was it came rather late in the day. Had The Case for Deep-Mined Coal been published the year before the strike it would have had a greater political impact. However, I think it served to raise morale among the strikers at a crucial moment and it certainly helped undermine the Coal Board propaganda effort.

The publication of our report also cemented or working relations with the NUM. In particular, as the strike progressed, Richard and I struck a close personal relationship with Dave Feickert (1946-2014), the NUM’s chief research officer. Originally from New Zealand, Dave was appointed Assistant Head of Industrial Relations for the NUM in 1983, just before the strike. In 1985 he became Research Officer and did that job till 1993. After working for the TUC in Brussels, he moved back to New Zealand where he was involved in the campaign to bring justice to the families of those killed in the infamous Pike River coal mine disaster. Sadly, Dave passed away in 2014. A good leftist, Dave was also a practicing Quaker – a commitment that imbued his work for the embattled mining communities. When visiting Scotland, Dave would sometimes stay at my house where he would make a vast New Zealand breakfast.

Dave Feickert was always discrete in his criticism of Arthur Scargill’s handling of the strike but critical for all that. Dave had done significant research into the Coal Board’s development of a new generation of so-called deep-mine ‘super pits’. The first, at Selby, in North Yorkshire, began production in 1983. These giant super pits were highly mechanised and designed to be run from the surface by computer. The commercial aim was to reduce costs through economies of scale, to compete with imported open cast coal from America and Columbia. But there was an obvious political payback: super pits reduced the power NUM. This was because surface operations were run by members of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (NACODS), a union since 1910. And the white collar NACODS traditionally was distinctly less militant that the NUM. However, with the advent of super pits, the NUM began making overtures to NACODS. Dave Feickert thought the advent of the super pits opened the way to a tactical alliance between the union factions.

More importantly, Feickert saw the possibility that the ability to shut down production by turning off the computer put even more industrial power in the hands of the workers than simply downing picks and shovels. This was a strategy he tried to persuade Scargill to adopt. But that would have required patience and the elaboration of the alliance with NACODS. Unfortunately, Scargill was too impatient. Dave confided that he thought the strike was premature but loyal to the NUM he kept his mouth shut. After the strike, the Selby super pit made a whopping profit till it was privatised in 1994.

Richard and I also found ourselves collaborating with the socialist economist Andrew Glyn (1943-2007) who was doing similar economic consultancy work with NUM headquarters in Barnsley. Andrew was for a time a member of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency inside the Labour Party but left just before the 1984 strike (though he continued to write for the Militant newspaper and spoke at its events). In 1972, along with Bob Sutcliffe, Andrew had published British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze, an influential text which provoked a major discussion on the British left about the instability of British capitalism, and correctly foretold the end of the long, post-war boom. Andrew forecast this would lead to massive industrial struggles like the 1984 strike. Incongruously, Glyn was the son of John Glyn, the 6th Baron Wolverton, of the Williams and Glynn Bank banking dynasty. He had a perfect Establishment education, going to Eton and ending up as an Oxford don, where he tutored David and Ed Miliband.

In 1984 Glyn was recruited to help bolster the NUM’s research effort and propaganda. Whatever criticisms one might have of Arthur Scargill, he had a reputation for bringing in outside brain power from the socialist intelligentsia to aid the union. It is a lesson worth remembering. In the aftermath of the strike, Glyn authored an important and influential pamphlet entitled The Economic Case Against Pit Closures. Essentially this covered the same ground for the English pits as Richard and I did for Scotland. Andrew was enthusiastic when he discovered that our financial and economic analysis dovetailed with his own number crunching – a rare convergence in independent social research. My memory of Andrew Glyn is of someone very dedicated to the workers’ cause but rather a serious personality. Like Dave Feickert. Andrew died too early – in his case of brain cancer, in 2007, aged only 64. By then he had parted company with Militant. Andrew left behind an extensive number of books analysing British capitalism from a Marxist perspective. They deserve re-reading.

Birth of the Scottish coal project

In Scotland, most of the men held out to the bitter end. NCB data (not necessarily politically reliable) suggests that only 10 per cent of employees in Scotland were at work at the start of December 1984. On 3 March 1985, the miners – isolated and exhausted – voted to end the strike without reaching agreement with the NCB over closures. The strike finally ended on 5 March. The men marched back to work carrying their branch banners. The Polmaise banner, now on display in the Stirling Gallery in Stirling, led all of the demonstrations in Scotland in 1984 -5, including the last one. When the Polmaise pit gates finally closed, 112 miners joined the dole queue, in an area which already had 36 per cent unemployment. A decade later, most of them are still out of work.

Repression also followed the ending of the strike – proof that the motivation of the government and NCB management was political rather than economic. Some 206 men were summarily dismissed in Scotland – a higher proportion of the workforce than in England and Wales, where 800 to 900 miners were expelled. Scotland suffered 10 per cent of convictions for offences related to the strike. Some Scottish miners were dismissed even when their cases were found not proven. At the same time, the Tory government offered generous financial handouts to those willing to leave the industry – a tactic that would have consequences when it came to defending profitable pits from closure. Thatcher’s carrot and stick approach was aimed squarely at destroying the NUM as the vanguard of working class resistance.

Richard and I continued our work with the Scottish Area, focusing on a pit-by-pit defence of local mines under threat of imminent closure. We decided we needed to put the campaign to save the pits on a war footing. That meant raising cash, setting up a permanent research unit and hiring staff. We intended to fight the closures in Scotland pit by pit, assembling a detailed counter claim to the Coal Board’s so-called evidence of non-viability. We would publish with academic rigor, as far as we could. And we would take the fight to Europe, enlisting European trades unions and the EU in the campaign to save the Scottish pits from Thatcherite de-industrialisation.

The result was the Scottish Coal Project, based at Napier University, where I was then teaching. This was funded by a generous grant from the Coal Communities Campaign, a body set up by local councils in the mining areas across the UK. We also had support from the STUC and a number of local authorities. Apart from Richard and myself, we hired a certain John Swinney, later leader of the SNP and prominent Scottish Government minister. Also on the team was the whiz kid Dr Suzanne Najam, who did our fieldwork. Our international research was handled by Elaine McDougal and Debora Percival. We also had a lot of informal help from the staff at the Financial Times coal and energy newsletters – a nest of Marxists dedicated to undermining the system from within. Of course, in this third decade of the 21st century, faced with the prospect of human extinction caused by anthropomorphic global warming, the idea of a campaign to defend (and extend) coal production in Scotland seems mad. But in the 1980s, though there was already scientific evidence accumulating that global warming was a danger, the politics of the fight against Thatcher continued to centre on defending the mining communities in Scotland.

However, I take some comfort that in our campaign we were the first to try and persuade the NUM that they needed to adopt a greener perspective. Indeed, this became a key element in our strategy to retain Scottish pits, as will be explained below. Over the next four years we produced a vast number of detailed studies and strategy papers aimed not just at saving the Scottish coal industry but giving it a new lease of life. We also extended our work to cover a whole energy plan for Scotland, including retaining a nationalised electricity generating industry. At the same time, we continued our work in defense of individual pits. In 1987 we produced a major analysis of Seafield colliery in Fife, where we proposed a shift to drift mining – using the mine’s unique geology to create cheaper horizonal access to the coal seams rather than bore expensive deep shafts.

While working on the Seafield I came across the insidious effect of Thatcher’s carrot and stick method of destroying the industry. Seafield colliery was plagued by mechanical breakdowns in the underground conveyor belts that brought the coal from the advancing pit face to the lift shaft. These breakdowns were playing havoc with Seafield’s economic viability. However, on closer inspection of the maintenance reports, I discovered that these breakdowns were not random but took place on a particular shift. On inquiry, it was obvious that the conveyor belt was being sabotaged – or at least not being taken care of properly. The likely explanation was that some of the miners on this particular shift were seeking to accelerate the closure of Seafield so they could take the generous redundancy payments on offer. I was discouraged from making this public. Mining in those days was a dirty and dangerous job, so I cannot bring myself to be too harsh on men who saw the chance of funding a better life. But the upshot was that the Tories were able to divide the miners during but also after the strike.

Into Europe

We also expanded our work into Europe. The European Commission had come up with a plan to crack down on state coal subsidies in favour of increasing cheap foreign imports. Part of the logic was to reduce German use of very dirty lignite (soft coal). But as ever with the EU, there was more to this than met the eye. The French wanted to sell more nuclear generated electricity. The Dutch wanted the dock fees from facilitating foreign coal imports. Everybody wanted to dish the European mining unions. We quickly saw the advantages of creating a common front of the mining unions and developing a pan-European strategy for local coal.

In this endeavour we soon formed an alliance with the Labour MEP Alex Falconer (1940-2012). Alex’s political aide was a certain Richard Leonard, later to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party. An old-style left social democrat, Alex was big-hearted, generous, funny and passionate about his class. For several years we camped out in his European Parliament office in Brussels as we lobbied anyone in Europe who would listen to us about coal.

At that time, the UK Labour MEPs (or at least the lefty ones) frequented the old, Art Nouveau Metropole Hotel in central Brussels. Of an evening Alex, Richard, myself and other Labour MEPs would retire to the Metropole for a drink and to chew over the rightward drift of the party under Kinnock. The Metropole had been Gestapo HQ in Brussels, so the Labour MEPs considered they had reoccupied it for the left. However, when it came to eating out in Brussels, Alex and his comrades always took Richard and I to Chinese restaurants. This struck me as peculiar given that the Belgian capital is one of the gastronomic centres of the world. However, the explanation was prosaic: the foreign language skills of the Labour MPs were limited but they could understand the menus in Chinese restaurants.

The Commission plan disappeared less because of our lobbying and perhaps more because of German political resistance. But we did our bit in making a nuisance of ourselves with the Commission. In this we were also helped by Winnie Ewing, then an SNP MEP. Winnie at that time truly was ‘Madame Ecosse’: she knew everyone in the European Parliament. I remember Richard Saville and I shmoozing with her in the Parliament building in Brussels, sipping whisky and hearing the gossip. We also made links with the miners’ section of the French CGT, the communist union federation. I remember visiting CGT headquarters in Paris. This was located in the old Paris Red Belt, but in a wonderful new, modern office building. The rooms were arranged around a central atrium which had a café and an orchestra playing. The Red Belt, of course, has long since voted for Le Pen.

‘Green’ coal

To resist the Thatcherite plan to demonise deep mining as uneconomic, we had to find new markets for Scottish coal. At that point in time, steam coal was still used for electricity production in most of northern Europe, especially in Scandinavia. One obvious ecological side effect was that burning coal with a high sulphur content was precisely the cause of acid rain. The sulphurous content of the burned coal turned to a diluted sulphuric acid in the cloud formations and descended on Scandinavian forests with disastrous results.

However, after a close reading of the Coal Board data lodged with the Scottish Area of the NUM, I discovered that Scottish coal was low in sulphur compared with cheap, imported American coal then in use. A straight switch of Scottish coal for its imported US equivalent would reduce the creation of the sulphuric acid in the atmosphere. I remember doing a little dance when the implications of this finding hit me. We reported the idea to George Bolton. All this was before there was any general appreciation of the role of carbon emissions (especially from burning coal) in inducing global warming and climate change. But the fact we were alert to environmental issues proved to be significant. The ‘green Scottish coal’ argument (even if it now sounds rather incongruous) proved an important lever in combatting the Tory and NCB case for closing Scottish pits in favour of American imports.

I set off on a tour of Denmark, Sweden and Norway to persuade their governments and their energy departments of the advantages of importing low-sulphur Scottish coal. I also attempted to alert the economic officers in the various UK embassies of the potential benefits of promoting this ‘clean’ Scottish coal to the Scandinavian countries. This was less a serious commercial project and more a way of publicly undermining the Thatcherite disinformation campaign against local deep-mined coal. It was soon apparent to me that British commercial attaches in the embassies did not give a hoot about British industry. De-industrialisation and the shift to what was to b christened “neoliberalism” were now the order of the day.

What did we achieve?

Despite our best efforts, Thatcher was successful in defeating the miners. The Bogside, Frances and Polkemmet pits were shut down in 1985, in the immediate aftermath of the strike. Comrie and Killoch followed the year after. In 1987 Polmaise finally closed despite our best efforts. Our biggest fight centred on the threat to the Seafield pit in Fife, which was eventually closed in 1988. In 1989 Barony and Bilston Glen closed and Monktonhall was mothballed. By 2002 even the Longannet complex had disappeared. Deep mining in Scotland was dead.

What did the Scottish Coal Project achieve? I think we helped delay the ultimate closure of some Scottish pits and we helped expose the deliberate policy of the Thatcher government and the NCB management to close the industry on political grounds. The lesson here is that the bourgeois state is quite capable of destroying capital investment and value in search of political stability. As the (cynical) saying went during US intervention in Vietnam, ‘we destroyed the village in order to save it’. The Coal Project also tried to develop a detailed plan to revive the Scottish coal fields – a form of workers’ planning. Had there been a Scottish Parliament at the time, we would certainly have put demands on Scottish politicians to implement some of our ideas. In fact, the absence of a devolved parliament in 1984-85 and thereafter – the result of sabotage by Labour backbenchers in the Seventies – proved to be a disaster for Scotland’s miners and mining industry.

The Scottish Coal Project also pioneered a mini united front between the labour movement and the national movement in Scotland. I love the fact that our little Coal Project involved both John Swinney and Richard Leonard (as Alex’s assistant), both future leaders of their respective parties. And that in Brussels, both Alex Falconer and Winnie Ewing were batting together for the Scottish miners. Faced with Thatcherite deindustrialisation, a de facto united front was created involving members of Scottish Labour, the SNP and the Scottish Communist Party – though we never called it that. That could be a lesson for the future.

Could the strike have been won? By 1984 the Seventies’ revolutionary wave had passed. Thatcher’s manipulation of the Falkland’s War had given her a big election victory. These were not auspicious times for the working class. But I still think a tactical victory was possible. Launching the strike just when coal stocks were at their highest and failing to call a national ballot were mistakes, even if Thatcher seemed to force the NUM’s hand. Perhaps a prolonged guerrilla war was called for. The upsurge against the poll tax in 1989 suggests that mass popular resistance to Thatcher and neoliberalism was still possible. The balance of forces is not predetermined but is created by class struggle.

What the 1984-85 strike proved was that there was a lot of fight in the working class, particularly in Scotland. I don’t think the ultimate problem was Arthur Scargill who, whatever his faults, was a class fighter. I think the weakness at root was Scargill’s and the NUM’s inveterate syndicalism. To defeat the Tory government required raising the fight to a state rather than an industrial level. It sounds trite, but the moment required the creation of ‘councils of action’ (or the modern equivalent) involving other militant workers and local communities. Political demands should have been inserted into the struggle: an end to police occupation of mining communities, recalling all Labour MPs not supporting the strike, even a general strike to save the mines, car companies and steel plants. Thatcher saw the 1984-85 events as existential. The entire workers’ movement should have responded in similar fashion.

One final memory of our work in Europe. Saville and I were accompanying George Bolton to a sitting of the European Parliament in Strasburg. We were in a lift on the way to a meeting. Suddenly the lift doors opened and who should enter but Arthur Scargill himself. Clearly, he did not expect to see Bolton in Strasburg, nor Bolton him. There were nods but no conversation. The frostiness was palpable. Bolton remained critical of Scargill and Arthur was quietly fuming that Bolton should be trespassing on his day at the European Parliament. The tensions and conflicts of 1984-85 were still there. They still are.

This article was originally published on Conter.
Part 1 can be read here

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