Archive image: Police and pickets at Nantgarw Colliery Archive image: Police and pickets at Nantgarw Colliery. Source: National Museum Wales - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0

A personal and political insights of the miners strike by George Kerevan

It was difficult in post-war Scotland not to have some family connection with mining. In 1951, there were still 82,000 miners and small mining communities were everywhere. My Uncle George Brown, husband of my mother’s sister Rita, was a miner at the small pit in Patna, on the River Doon in Ayrshire. Patna Scotland was named after Patna on the River Ganges, in Bihar, India. The Scottish Patna was founded in 1802 by Indian-born William Fullarton, whose father had served with the East India Company. The returning Nabobs were a major influence on the development of 19 th century Scottish capitalism. Fullarton developed the early mining industry in East Ayrshire. In the early Sixties, my parents would use my Aunty Rita’s Patna house (which came courtesy of the National Coal Board) as a cheap summer holiday getaway from Drumchapel. I remember happy days fishing in the Doon. I also remember my Uncle George going off to work resplendent in his miner’s hard hat and lamp. The Patna pit closed in 1965.

The defining political moment in the post-war class struggle in Scotland and the UK was the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and its bitter defeat by Margaret Thatcher. Thereafter, the workers’ movement was on the defensive and the road open to the neoliberal reconstruction of British
capitalism. The crushing of the NUM allowed Thatcher to closed down not only the mining industry but also that part of the car industry that was British owned, thus eliminating the two strongest redoubts of trade union militancy. It was class war to the death.

At the time – though the sense of defeat was palpable – most of us did not realise the true existential seriousness of the situation after the strike ended, for there remained obvious signs of class resistance. Tony Benn had returned to Westminster (in March 1984, the very same month the miners’ strike began) to rally the Labour left against Kinnock. And 1986 would see a massive trades union campaign to close Rupert Murdoch’s new newspaper plant at Wapping – a year-long struggle nearly as epic in proportion as the NUM strike.

In addition, revolutionary groups achieved their largest membership in the wake of the miners’ strike – far larger than during the revolutionary Sixties and Seventies. By the end of the decade, the Socialist Workers Party and (inside Labour) the Militant Tendency would both reach around 10,000 members each. Militant, despite Kinnock’s efforts to expel it, had a bigger apparatus and more fulltime staff than the official Labour Party itself. A Marxist movement of 20,000 cadres entering a revolutionary situation is more than capable of increasing its numbers into the hundreds of thousands.

However, in historical retrospect, there was no revolutionary crisis – the defeat of the NUM in 1985 had put paid to that. The surge in membership of avowedly revolutionary organisations was a belated response to Thatcher’s defeat of the workers’ movement, not a harbinger of the end of capitalism. North of the Border, Thatcherism also provoked a temporary return of working class support to the reformist Labour Party, and the SNP lost ground. This effectively took the national question off the agenda for a generation, strengthening the British state. The conventional view is that victorious Thatcherism was rejected in Scotland. It was. But Thatcherism achieved dominance at a UK state level, helped in part by the temporary political eclipse of the national movement in Scotland. As a result, the Scottish economy would be deindustrialised and turned into a neoliberal colony.

Fundamentally, the defeat of the miners in 1984-85 shifted the balance of class forces in favour of the bourgeoisie. But at least the workers’ movement went down fighting. It is a moment worth remembering. What follows is less a history and more a fragment of personal reminiscence.

Background to strike

The National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland (or ‘The Scottish Area’) would play a central role in the class struggles of the post-war era, as would the NUM at a UK national level. In the Thatcherite Eighties I found myself involved as an (unpaid) economic consultant to the Scottish Area, in partnership with my dear friend and comrade Richard Saville. A gifted economic historian in his own right, Richard is the son of John Saville, the renowned Marxist historian of British labour history and long-time collaborator with Ralph Miliband in publishing the influential Socialist Register.

A lifelong Marxist like his father, Richard was virtually brought up with Ralf Miliband’s two sons, David and Ed. The latter, of course, eschewed their father’s brilliant Marxism for a dubious reformist career in Labour Party politics. I remember the surprise on Ed Miliband’s face when he bumped into Richard Saville and myself (then a notorious SNP MP) having coffee in Portcullis House, at Westminster. Richard explained to Ed that he and I were discussing a book supporting the creation of a Scottish currency after independence. Ed Miliband was clearly nonplussed. He muttered an inanity about “the Scottish groat” and quickly fled before anyone noticed he was conversing with the dreaded Nats.

In the 1980s, Richard was teaching at St Andrews University, though hiding from right-wing academia by illicitly domiciling in nearby Cuper. I first met Richard when he got involved with Tom Nairn’s journal, the Bulletin of Scottish Politics, which I was helping Tom to edit. We hit it off and Richard invited me to contribute a chapter to a book he was editing on the Scottish economy. Unfortunately, I had just been elected as a Labour member of Edinburgh Council and pressure of work meant my chapter got abandoned. But we were soon to find ourselves jointly embroiled in the miner’s struggle.

The roots of the 1984-85 strike lie in the defeat inflicted on the Heath government by the miners in 1972. Heath was elected unexpectedly (gaining 80 seats) in the 1970 election, as a result of mass working class disappointment with the outgoing Labour administration of Harold Wilson. Labour had fulfilled its historic mission of trying to contain working class discontent by seeking (and failing) to introduce laws to curb trades union autonomy. Heath focused on gaining British entry into the then European Common Market as a solution to the decay of British capitalism. However, Heath’s technocratic administration soon found itself beset by the collapse of the Protestant Bantustan in Northern Ireland and rising working class militancy on the mainland. Underlying this uptick in the class struggle was the first intimations that the long, post-war boom was drawing to a close in overproduction, falling profit rates and subsequent inflation.

The NUM had not had an official strike since the union was defeated in the 1926 General Strike. But the erosion of the miners’ real wage – plus the advent of a more radical leadership in the Sixties – saw the union take on the Heath administration first in January 1972. The miners pioneered tactics new to trades disputes in Britain, including the flying picket – columns of miners sent out to other regions to blockade the movement of coal and encourage other trades unionists to come out in support of the miners. The Heath administration responded in kind. A new Cabinet committee (called COBRA) was set up to coordinate anti-
NUM activity. It still exists today to deal with civil threats to the state. In 2003 it was revealed that the Scottish Office had been working on secret plans to create a volunteer force to break strike, by recruiting hundreds of drivers to crash through the picket lines. In England, a miner
from Hatfield Colliery, Freddie Matthews, was killed by a lorry while he was picketing on 3 February. However, Heath backed down in the face of electrical power cuts and the miners won a great victory, including a 27 per cent pay hike.

After the 1973 Israel-Egypt war triggered a four-fold increase in energy prices and rampant inflation, a surge in working class militancy threatened the state itself. The NUM launched a second strike against the Heath government in 1974, causing major power blackouts. Heath
countered by calling a general election on the question of “who rules Britain?” Heath lost but for a few days clung to power in a bid to form a new government in coalition with the Liberals. During this interregnum there were calls for a general strike. Eventually the crisis defused with the return of another Labour government. However, the working class intuitively now believed that the NUM and the miners were their first line of defence. Class militancy surged and won dramatic wage gains in the face of high inflation, shifting the burden of adjustment on to the bourgeoisie. It was a class victory that Margaret Thatcher – education minister under Heath – would vow to avenge by destroying the NUM.

The mood in the mining communities was jubilant for the rest of the Seventies. I remember doing weekly paper sales of the International Marxist Group (IMG) newspaper around the miners’ social clubs. The response was always positive, even from many of the old Stalinists. It was also very obvious that higher wages and better conditions were attracting a freshgeneration of young workers into the mining industry, bringing with them post-1968 ideas and radicalism. Plus a generous voluntary redundancy scheme available to men over 50 had shed many miners from the Heath era. This turnover in NUM membership would underpin the militancy of the 1984-85 strike.

The President and dominant leader of the Scottish Area throughout this period was the redoubtable, gravel-voiced Mick McGahey, a miner since the age of 14. McGahey was also NUM National Vice-President and effectively number two in the hierarchy; first under Joe (later Barron!) Gormley, a right-wing social democrat who tried to put a break on the rising tide of militancy; then under the charismatic but headstrong Arthur Scargill, an avowed Marxist whose arrogance and power complex McGahey distrusted. Mick was, of course, a staunch member of the Communist Party. However, his politics – like that of many trade union activists in the Scottish CP – tended towards syndicalism. This left Scotland permanently dominated by a right-wing (and anti-devolution) Labour Party which tolerated CP influence in the unions as long as the party stayed out of mainstream electoral politics. While McGahey retained a filial piety towards a decaying and decrepit Soviet Union, he was not a sectarian. I remember singing the Red Flag – along with much of the Scottish left – at his cremation in 1999.

However, by the time of the 1984-85 strike, age and illness – he suffered from emphysema and pneumoconiosis contracted in the pits – had begun to exact a toll on Mick. This was exacerbated by the hard living typical of Scottish working class men of the era. As a result, he played less of a central role in the strike than he might have – an absence compounded by Scargill’s ruthless centralisation of power. Much of the handling of the strike in Scotland thus fell to the VP of the Scottish Area (and later President), the redoubtable, rumbustious George Bolton. He was another Communist Party member. I can remember George holding loud, jolly telephone conversations with comrades in Eastern Europe – his feet on his desk – at the old Scottish Area HQ in Edinburgh’s elegant Hillside Crescent. I always suspected that these
high-volume conversations were a gentle prod at my Trot background. But like McGahey, Bolton was no sectarian. It was he who brought myself and Richard Saville into Hillside Crescent as a bit of intellectual firepower to counter the specious Thatcherite claims that the mines had to be closed on economic grounds, when they were in fact profitable.

Fighting the coal board

In February 1981, the new Tory government announced plans to close 23 pits across the country, but the threat of a national strike was enough to force Thatcher to climb down. Extant coal stocks would last only sixweeks. The NUM and the left misunderstood that Thatcher had merely staged a tactical retreat. She knew she needed at least a six-month supply of coal to starve the NUM back to work. In 1982, NUM members accepted a 9.3 per cent pay rise, rejecting a call for another strike from their new President, Arthur Scargill. Meanwhile the Tory government began serious preparations for the next round.

In 1984, having won another election victory in the aftermath of the Falklands War, the Tories announced a fresh wave of pit closures – a deliberate bid to goad the NUM into another strike. By the 12 March, half of the UK’s 185,000 miners were on the picket lines to stop the loss of 20,000 jobs. This time Thatcher was prepared. Coal stocks were high, and the winter was over. It was a trap. But rather than risk another rebuff, Scargill avoided calling a national ballot. Instead, NUM areas balloted individually. This questionable tactic allowed NUM districts under right-wing control to continue working. These included Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, South Derby, North Wales, and the West Midlands.

In this fractured situation, it was imperative to win the argument publicly that the proposed pit closures were a sham. This was not a strike against an inevitable consolidation of the industry. Thatcher wanted viable pits closed in order to crush the union. The jobs of those miners still at work were every bit under threat as the rest. This is where Richard Saville and I came in. Our task was to undermine the Tory case for pitclosures in Scotland.

The Area VP George Bolton had an unkept office that felt straight out Scrooge’s place in A Christmas Carol. But therein a fantastic opportunity jumped out at us. In a backroom Richard and I found a forgotten mass of papers. The pile had fallen over and was sprawling everywhere. On examination they proved to be detailed reports of each pit in Scotland giving output and costs. It transpired that the National Coal Board was obliged to give this information to the NUM on a regular basis. The problem was that the local NUM lacked the technical expertise to make very much of the data, so it was allowed to languish in a cupboard. But to Richard and me this stuff was a treasure trove. It became the statistical basis for us and the Scottish Area to launch a campaign to oppose pit closures and save jobs.

The strike in Scotland

The 56-week strike began in Scotland at Polmaise Colliery in Fallin, Stirlingshire – the first pit to strike in the whole UK. The Scottish region of the nationalised Coal Board was bossed by the taciturn, pugnacious Albert Wheeler, whom I met and negotiated with on a number of
occasions. Wheeler saw himself as a hard man determined to bring the pits and the NUM under control. He pursued a strategy of favouring some mines over others in a clear bid to divide the union. In January 1984, Wheeler announced that Polmaise was to close due to “geological faults” and a lack of a market for its coal. The announcement was a shock at the pit. From the end of the national overtime ban in 1974, until the fight over pit closures began in 1981, there had not been one day’s stoppage due to strike action at Polmaise. In fact, the pit’s miners had produced a 16-point plan on how to raise productivity. They had also agreed to between 200 and 300 men being transferred or taking voluntary redundancy. The miners at Polmaise had done everything they could to maintain the pit’s viability. Now they were being stabbed in the front.

What makes a pit viable or non-viable? As Richard and I were to discover reading the data on individual mines that languished in the NUM cupboard, individual mines were usually economic, i.e. generated a financial surplus on operations. The problem arose with how the Coal Board’s large overhead costs – engineering, stockpiling, transport, marketing and management – were allocated. It was perfectly possible to make any individual pit look uneconomic if it was allocated an unfair portion of area or national overhead costs. In fact, the NCB was adept at rejigging the numbers in order to close down the pits it had decided should go on political grounds. Sometimes this led to bizarre decisions.

For instance, at Polmaise a modernisation plan had been implemented starting in February 1980. Some £15.8m was invested between 1980 and 1983 – approximately £85m today. New surface facilities were constructed and two, state-of-art cutting machines purchased. The
railway line from Polmaise to Stirling was refurbished to carry the coal. As a result of this investment, the miners at Polmaise felt confident in the future of their pit. The absenteeism rate at Polmaise was one of the lowest in the UK. Then Albert Wheeler and the Coal Board pulled the plug.

In response an official strike was called at Polmaise, starting in February. This involved the 260 miners at the pit plus another 400 who were due to start work once the modernisation was complete. They were led (ably) by the diminutive, passionate John McCormack, whom Richard and I got to know. A lad of parts, McCormack was also a professional footballer with Falkirk and Alloa Athletic, training before starting back-shift in the afternoon.

The Polmaise miners received immediate help from the local community. In a matter of days, a delegation arrived from Stirling trades council led by the council’s tireless chair Rowland Sheret (1945-2008). He offered to raise money and provide aid to the striking miners. This was
emblematic of the level of class solidarity during this period. Rowland was a worker at the United Glass factory in Bridge of Allan and a key figure in local community and working class politics.

He was also a leading member of the International Marxist Group in Scotland, where I got to know him well. Later Rowland was a member of the SNP and then the Scottish Socialist Party. Rowland also started the influential tenants’ group in Stirling’s Raploch housing scheme after being approached by the local residents who assumed he was a councillor, because he always wore a suit and tie! Rowland’s final campaign secured a successful vote against the housing stock transfer in Stirling, in 2006. In the 2005 General Election, he stood for the Scottish Socialist Party.

However, events at Polmaise did not signify a united response in the union in Scotland. Though other pits came out, the NUM leadership failed to secure a majority in support of a strike across all the Scottish pits. Miners at Polkemmet, Killoch, Barony and Bilston Glen Collieries continued to work. Flying pickets were sent out to persuade union comrades to come out. The strike became a bitter internal feud. There were violent clashes on the picket line with the police. Across the UK, two-thirds of miners were on strike – but a third continued to report for work. This resistance was partly down to men rejecting Scargill’s unwillingness to call and abide by a national ballot – which on these numbers he would likely have won. On the other hand, Scargill and others claimed that the refuseniks had no right to condemn their fellow miners to unemployment.

Regardless of the arguments, the strike was bitter in Scotland with violence on the picket lines at Bilston Glen in Midlothian and Monktonhall in East Lothian. Bilston Glen was one of the NCB’s most successful Scottish pits. It was a new pit complex sunk after nationalisation and designed to go much deeper than neighbouring mines. Much of its output went to electricity generation – a problematic market that will feature later in this account. The Ravenscraig steel plant also saw bitter clashes between pickets and police. The miners were determined to halt the transport of coal into the steel works.

People today don’t realise the level of state violence directed at the miners during the strike. On 3 May 1984, nearly 300 men were arrested at Ravenscraig alone. There was also police intimidation in local communities far from the picket lines. Key NUM activists were persistently harassed. Despite Polmaise being 100 per cent solid for the strike, the police kept a large presence in the village.

This article was originally published on Conter.

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