log in

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now

  • Published in Analysis
An effigy of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is placed in a 'coffin' as people gather to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher in Goldthorpe Photo: AFP

An effigy of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is placed in a 'coffin' as people gather to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher in Goldthorpe Photo: AFP

The year-long miners dispute changed the face of Britain and confirmed Margaret Thatcher's status as a hate figure for the left

When Thatcher died in April 2013, the global media were astonished to see hundreds of people in the South Yorkshire village of Goldthorpe gleefully parading a mock coffin through the streets in broad daylight and then throwing an effigy of the late Prime Minister onto a blazing bonfire. Similar scenes were played out in other areas of the UK blighted by the legacy of Thatcherism.

Nobody who remembers the 1984-85 miners’ strike would be surprised by the intensity of class hatred that inspired this type of reaction. For twelve months the full force of the British capitalist state has been deployed against working class communities in a conscious and uncompromising manner, designed to shatter resistance to the logic of the market. The strike was the most decisive arena of class struggle in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century.

The consequences of the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers reverberated into the following decades and partly explain subsequent developments in British politics such as the rise of neoliberalism, Blair and the current cross-party acceptance of the need to accept the shrunken role of the public sector.  The defeat of the miners was also part of a wider global offensive by the ruling class designed to roll back the advances of workers across the Western world and lay the foundations for the current era of austerity and cuts. Ronald Reagan in the US sent his support to Thatcher as part of their joint project of hammering organised labour:

"Dear Margaret,  In recent weeks I have thought often of you with considerable empathy as I follow the activities of the miners’ and dockworkers’ unions...My thoughts are with you...I’m confident as ever that you and your government will come out of this well. Warm regards. Ron"

Look back in anger

The 30th anniversary of the strike provides an opportunity to salute the heroism of the miners and their families and to dispel the ruling class myth that the dispute represented the inevitable and necessary breaking of union militancy. Declassified material released earlier this year reveals Thatcher and her acolytes felt they were on the brink of defeat on a number of occasions, and at one point were so desperate they considered using military force against the miners.

In the middle of the strike, Thatcher’s attack dog in chief, Norman Tebbit had observed: On our present course, I do not see that time is on our side.

Rather than signalling the last gasp of heavy industrial trade unionism, the strike actually indicates the vital importance of coordinated workers’ resistance and focused organisation as the keys to victory. Learning the real lessons of the dispute could help equip us to reverse the outcome when the next decisive contest between workers and the British state arises.

Rising tide

The declaration of the strike by the NUM on the 12th March 1984 was the climax of a sequence of developments in the coal mining industry-and more broadly-in British industrial relations stretching back to the late 1960s. Arthur Scargill, who would become the personification of the miners’ resistance, had established the Barnsley Miners’ Forum in1967 as a rank and file network designed to overcome the passivity of the prevailing NUM leadership of the time. A rising tide of class struggle across UK society in the following years reached a crescendo in 1972 when Scargill spectacularly utilised secondary picketing to shut down the Saltley Gates coke depot in Birmingham. The mass working class action forced Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath into a humiliating retreat from his pursuit of wage restraint. There was worse to come for the ruling class two years later when a similar confrontation with the miners ultimately forced Heath out of government altogether. As one of Heath’s outgoing ministers, Thatcher would have ruefully noted theimpact ofthe confrontations and dedicated herself to inflicting maximum retaliation on the NUM when the opportunity arose.

The Ridley Plan

When she entered Downing Street five years later, Thatcher had clearly spent the intervening period plotting the downfall of Scargill and the tradition of well-organised labour he represented. The Ridley Plan, concocted by one of her key advisers, was based on the premise that the best way to emasculate the British trade union movement was with incremental attacks on pay and conditions, gradually moving towards a  showdown with the NUM from a position of strength.

Consequently 1980 witnessed a confrontation with steelworkers, who were perceived by the Thatcherites in the cabinet as one of the least likely sections of workers to resist. Over the next couple of years, disputes flared up among public sector employees such as nurses, teachers and local government workers. 1983 saw another sign of the coming storm in the shape of a battle with print unions over the union-busting activities of newspaper proprietor, Eddie Shah, in Warrington.  This dispute also marked the first deployment of paramilitary-style policing that would become a hallmark of the miners’ strike. Just prior to the showdown with the NUM, Thatcher banned trade unions from the government’s secret communications centre, GCHQ at Cheltenham.

As part of the Ridley Plan, the cabinet had also organised the covert stockpiling of coal at power stations and the organisation of lorries in order to wage a long-term confrontation with the miners. The appointment of Ian MacGregor as Chairman of the National Coal Board was the placing of another piece on the chessboard of class war. He was an adversarial American boss with a reputation for breaking union strength, who had already displayed his credentials as boss of British Steel in 1980. It was MacGregor’s decision to close Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire at the beginning of March 1984 that initiated the climactic showdown. In addition, he stated his intention to shut down a further twenty pits over the next year at the cost of 20 000 jobs.

The storm breaks

Thatcher’s victories in the various disputes leading up to 1984 had led her to believe a similar outcome with the NUM could be achieved in a matter of months. Scargill’s failed attempts to organise strike action at the beginning of the decade had also led her to think there was no stomach for a fight among the miners. She had underestimated, however, the level of anger that had been accumulating since 1979 among the working class as a whole and among the miners in particular.  Unemployment in Britain had intentionally been allowed to skyrocket from 5% to 12% in accordance with monetarist dogma. Nearly 2 million jobs were being shed in the manufacturing sector.

A steadily rising number of unofficial protests about productivity deals had been occurring across the coalfields, mainly inspired by a new generation of miners who were not part of the battles of the seventies but were conscious of the damage being wrought on working class communities by the Tory government. Scargill and other regional leaders of the NUM were veterans of the battles of 1972 and 1974 and, to their credit, did not shrink from the fight when it came in March 1984. Unfortunately, this layer of the union structure also insisted on keeping a tight rein on the conduct of the strike, downplaying the importance of rank and file initiatives among the younger generation of NUM activists.

This led to the notorious failure of the Nottinghamshire Area to join the strike and to overwhelmingly vote to continue working for its duration. Thatcher and others used this as pretext to attack the legitimacy of the strike as undemocratic and consequently authorised the police to turn the Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire border into a quasi -military state to prevent the movement of flying pickets. Thatcher’s hypocritical calls for a national ballot ignored the facts the NUM’s constitution did not require it and that there was no such demand for a ballot among GCHG workers when she abolished their union!

Turning point at Orgreave

By summer 1984 it was apparent Thatcher had miscalculated and that a clear-cut victory over the miners was not immediately achievable.  Chief Constables had been berated by Thatcher’s Home Secretary for not being tough enough on the movement of pickets. Magistrates were ticked off for dragging their feet with the imposition of draconian punishments. The dispute was actually at a turning point in which victory for the NUM-or at least a creditable settlement-was a distinct possibility. The newly released material indicates Thatcher was, in fact, getting so desperate she had resorted to counting down the rapidly depleting coal stock herself. One of the declassified documents from that period displays her nervy hand-written comments in the margin:

"13 RoRo, 1,000 tons a day, 50 lorries a day…"

The nightmare scenario-from her viewpoint -of other sections of the working class joining the struggle began to loom on the horizon.  A dock strike erupted in summer 1984, only to be almost immediately bought off with a promise to suspend a de-recognition plan.  Print workers at the ‘Sun’ newspaper had refused to publish a front page that had been manipulated to portray Scargill giving a Nazi salute. Workplace collections for the strikers and their families had become a regular feature of many people’s routine. Women in the mining communities had become the backbone of the resistance and were participating in one of the most spectacular examples of recent times of how struggle can transform consciousness.

Thatcher resolved she needed a decisive breakthrough to undermine the resistance and resilience of the miners. Orgreave coke depot in South Yorkshire was selected as the location for the key confrontation. Unfortunately, the outcome turned out to be Saltley Gates in reverse. On two occasions in May and June 1984 Scargill and thousands of pickets found themselves outnumbered and out-fought by up to 5000 police, equipped with dogs, horses, shields and batons. The naked power of the British state that is usually camouflaged by the trappings of parliamentary democracy was unveiled in a shocking manner. Television news that summer often resembled scenes from a Hollywood historical epic in which two masses armies charged at each other with no holds barred. Unlike 1974, however, the miners could not rely on other sections of workers to join them in a physical battle with the state. The Thatcher-inspired recession has sapped the strength from other parts of the working class, such as engineers and car workers who had overwhelmed the police at Saltley Gates.

Class warrior in Downing Street

Despite the crushing defeat at Orgreave there was still an opportunity for the NUM to prevail. In August the pit deputies’ union, NACODS, was threatened by MacGregor with mass sackings if its members refused to cross NUM picket lines. When the pit deputies voted overwhelmingly for strike action in response, Thatcher was faced with the prospect of being forced to shut the working mines on health and safety grounds. MacGregor was hastily summoned to Downing Street to be instructed by Thatcher:

"I’m very worried about it. You have to realise that the fate of this government is in your hands Mr MacGregor. You have got to solve this problem"

Once again, as a seasoned class warrior, Thatcher acted decisively to secure her own position and the NACODS dispute was neutralised before it could damage her and the NCB.

Denting the Iron Lady

Eventually the miners were effectively starved and beaten into submission and a drift back to work at Christmas 1984 led to the abandonment of the strike in March 1985. The strike had demonstrated however that the ‘Iron Lady’ was not invincible, as she herself recognised:

"Throughout the coal strike events swung unpredictably in one direction then another - suddenly things would move our way, then equally suddenly move against us - and I could never let myself feel confident about the final outcome."

Thatcher had won the physical battles  with resistance from below in 1984-85 but five years later similar confrontations would bring her downfall over the poll tax.  Establishment politicians and pundits on left and right subsequently promoted a skewed narrative of the strike that viewed it as doomed from day one. This became the ideological legitimation for swallowing the neoliberal consensus as presented by Cameron and Osborne today. Examination of the actual course of events, however, indicates it was a major example of the importance of coordination, organisation and will to win as decisive factors in class conflict.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History