Miners Strike Starts
The miners’ strike of 1984 – 1985 started shortly after plans by the Conservative government and the National Coal Board to close 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs became public on March 4 1984. Ian MacGregor had been brought in to rationalise the then nationalised coal industry, as he had recently done with British Steel.
In 1972 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had brought down the government with a strike. In 1981 the Conservative government had backed away from a confrontation, fearing the consequences. But it would appear that the lesson had been better learned by the Thatcher government , which prepared for the inevitable clash with the NUM by building up stockpiles of coal.
Some pits had already come out on strike when the plans for change in the industry were announced: Cortonwood in Yorkshire was to close very soon, and another five pits around the country said to be beyond economic hope were also likely to follow. The first actions were spontaneous and local, starting in Cortonwood, Manvers and in Ossett , areas where the future was threatened by pit closure.
Controversially, on March 12 Arthur Scargill , President of the NUM, called for a national coal mining strike. The legal position was less than clear: government legislation indicated a national ballot should be held before a national strike could go ahead. But in previous actions the then President, Joe Gormley, had been able to act without such backing, and was subsequently found in the right by the courts.
The strike was a bitter and often violent one, lasting a full year. With the benefit of hindsight Scargill’s failure to hold a national ballot was probably a serious tactical error, facilitating the eventual split of the union, this split meaning the cause was lost for those remaining on strike. Public support was also limited, with memories of the strike-ridden seventies fresh in British minds. Strangely this support grew at times as stories of brutal anti-striker methods circulated, and what many regarded as unacceptable tactics became public knowledge – peaceful coach-loads of supporters prevented from travelling to their destinations, for example.
Arthur Scargill’s prophesies about the government wish to bring the whole industry to an end were borne out by events. Had he and the NUM chosen a different path, saving the economically viable pits and allowing the closure of the basket cases, perhaps more than the handful of pits now left could have survived and prospered even.
It is easy to criticise after the event, but time to react was limited. The timing of the closures, as the winter was ending, and with stockpiles of fuel high, was to prove important, and the lack of consultation about the announced closures was also perhaps not without significance, almost an invitation to react, a challenge.
Perhaps the strike could not have been won: the age of subsidy was coming to an end, the era of globalisation was beginning, with coal from cheap foreign sources readily available. That such resources should have been wasted is tragic, that an industry should all but disappear likewise.
The Thatcher government won a highly symbolic victory, and trade union power was radically reduced. Arthur Scargill remained as NUM President until 2000, watching the industry crumble, to be followed by much more of the country’s traditional industrial base.
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