The Miners’ Strike forty years on

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The fortieth anniversary of the start of the Miners’ Strike that began on 5th March 1984 is almost upon us but Channel 4 and BBC2 have already offered their acts of remembrance. I remember the start and had the television permanently on during the Battle of Orgreave, but some of my sharpest personal memories are about the ending and the aftermath.

Throughout the strike I was living and working opposite the Yorkshire National Union of Mineworkers(NUM) Headquarters in Barnsley. Arthur Scargill and his colleagues regularly appeared on the other side of Victoria Road. Our Communist next door neighbour was high up in the Engineering union. Roy Mason, the right wing Labour MP and former member of a Labour cabinet, lived round the corner. I had been the Liberal Alliance candidate for Barnsley Central in the 1983 General Election (where alas my 19.2% still holds the record vote share). So it could be seen as a highly politicised corner of the town centre!

It therefore seemed vaguely appropriate that unexpected police intelligence led to a huge lorry full of Christmas presents from Germany for miners’ children being directed to our Methodist manse. The delegation from the metalworkers union had got lost in Wombwell down the Dearne Valley. Mercifully, we had the connections and a couple of phone calls enabled us to unblock the traffic queues on Victoria Road.

By that stage it was clear that the strike was unlikely to last more than two or three months at most. On 3rd March 1985 I listened to the 6 o’clock news as I drove down the hill to take a 6.30 service in Worsbrough Dale. The NUM had called off the strike without an agreement. The sky grew dark and it started to snow.

Later in 1985 a meeting of Methodist ministers from Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire was organised to think about the future of mining communities. It was not an easy event to set up. Both groups had supported local miners and their families during the strike which was solidly supported in Yorkshire and largely opposed in Nottinghamshire. We invited Peter Walker MP, the Secretary of State for Energy.

We weren’t surprised to see him arrive late. Some politicians need to do that to remind you how important they are. However (perhaps naively) we were shocked by the tone of his remarks. He introduced himself as “Peter Walker, regarded by many as the wettest member of the Cabinet”. He then launched into a rant about Arthur Scargill. At the end of it I said, “I’m sorry but we’ve come here to think about the future of the mining communities. Going on about Scargill is neither here nor there in terms of what happens next.” He responded by claiming these were the most disgraceful words he had ever heard from a Methodist minister.

Naturally I have treasured that as a badge of honour ever since. More importantly we realised at that point that the next decade was going to be even more painful than we anticipated. The way the confrontation had been played out by Margaret Thatcher’s government was eventually seen as part of a wider strategy for industrial reorganisation and, indeed, privatisation.

Arthur Scargill’s predictions proved remarkably accurate. More’s the pity that he emerged from the strike as a very poor General, leading his troops into battle at a time when coal stocks were high and disregarding the history and democratic traditions of his own union. The NUM had been created by slowly bringing together miners from very different coalfields. Picketing out Nottinghamshire, rather than relying on a strike ballot, was inevitably going to be a gift to the Coal Board and Tory ministers, that he should have seen coming.

At the end of “Miners’ Strike: A Frontline Story” (BBC2) a former striker from all those years ago, looking at a wind turbine, suggests, with graceful understatement that a more gradual, more civilised transition would have been better. It was never going to happen. Those of us who thought that Thatcher was the worst that the Conservative Party could throw at us were wrong. The direction of travel over forty years has been inexorable.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • Peter Martin 20th Feb '24 - 11:27am

    @ Geoff,

    “Those of us who thought that Thatcher was the worst that the Conservative Party could throw at us were wrong.”

    I don’t think so. She takes the ‘prize’ on that!

    Possibly Cameron and Osborne ran her close with the needless austerity introduced after during the 2010 – 2015 period but, as the Lib Dems were part of that government, you probably would agree they weren’t worse. The indications are that they realised their mistake mid way through that Parliament and eased off just enough to enable them to win in 2015. Unemployment levels weren’t at the same levels as under Thatcher in the early 80s.

    Theresa May wasn’t a serious challenger. She had her hands full with the Brexit negotiations, and so wasn’t able to mount a serious challenge.

    The economic response of the Boris Johnson government to the Covid crisis, whatever its other failings might be, was far better than might have been expected. I seem to remember Lib Dems asking where the money was going to come from. At least Boris and Rishi Sunak knew the answer to that!

    I doubt that Mrs Thatcher and any of her chancellors would have done the same.

  • @ Geoff As the grandson of a proud Durham miner (who went down the pit at 12, who endured terrible things in the 1920’s, but who never lost his bounce and good humour), I’d like to thank you, Geoff, for your thoughtful comments and reflections.

    It wasn’t just the closing of the pits and the destruction of communities under Thatcher – it was the failure to rebuild and provide alternative employment and support for communities afterwards that I find unforgivable. If ever there was a time for Keynesian solutions to a problem it was then. Instead there was only oppressive authoritarian cruelty and haughty bitterness.

  • William Wallace 20th Feb '24 - 12:18pm

    Geoff: Thanks for reminding us of the links between Methodism and miners. Can I have a tutorial on nonconformity and politics one weekend? I’m researching nonconformity and liberalism for the Journal of Liberal History, to explain to our younger and newer members where many of us came from…

  • Peter Martin 20th Feb ’24 – 11:27am:
    Possibly Cameron and Osborne ran her close with the needless austerity introduced after during the 2010 – 2015 period…

    Austerity was imposed on us by the EU who put us into Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty. “Fiscal consolidation” was required by the agreed Convergence Programme. If Labour had been returned they would have had to implement similar measures…

    ‘Alistair Darling: we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher’ [March 2010]:

    Alistair Darling admitted tonight that Labour’s planned cuts in public spending will be “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s,…

    ‘Austerity has not been a Tory choice, but an EU one’ [July 2019]:

    The EU has opened Excessive Deficit Procedure measures against the UK three times (1998, 2004 — 2007, and 2008 — 2017) since the Stability & Growth Pact was signed. It was the most recent recommendations from 2008 which led to all major parties in the UK promising to reduce the deficit through austerity measures. […]

    To achieve this, the EU Council recommended a deficit reduction of 1.75% per year from 2009 to 2015. This was a large figure, not possible through growth of the economy alone. Only by cutting expenditure substantially could this ambitious figure be achieved.

  • @ William Wallace Don’t forget the Presbyterians in Scotland, William….. and the Baptists in Wales…… or the Congregationalists (Donald Wade), Quakers, Primitive Methodists, United Methodists, Wesleyan Methodists, Baptists, Particular Baptists and the Unitarians and a whole host more

    Years ago, in my Bachelors thesis, I examined the Sowerby Division by-election of 1904. 82 people (all male, of course) signed the Liberal nomination papers : 76 were nonconformists – only 6 Anglican. 50 signed the Conservative nomination papers – only 5 nonconformists but 45 Anglicans.

    Don’t forget the Temperance movement and the Balfour Education Act.

  • Peter Martin 20th Feb '24 - 3:12pm

    @ Jeff,

    What you say about the EU is perfectly true but at the same time all parties could have put up a stronger argument against it. We weren’t in the euro so there wasn’t much the EU could have done about it if we’d dug our heels in.

    The parties in the run up to the election are still saying much the same thing and we can’t blame the EU now.

    The way the economy works isn’t that difficult to understand. The Govt creates money as it spends and destroys it when it collects it in taxation. As we saw during the Pandemic it can create as much as it chooses.

    This is not to suggest it should overdo it. This could have inflationary consequences. On the other hand, if it underdoes it we’ll have recession and high unemployment. The job of a democratically elected government is to steer a sensible fiscal mid path. It shouldn’t be the job of an unelected central bank. Their job is to get on with running it!

  • Peter Martin 20th Feb ’24 – 3:12pm:
    We weren’t in the euro so there wasn’t much the EU could have done about it if we’d dug our heels in.

    That would have meant breaking “international law” (as some call breaching an EU treaty.) In theory, we only had to “endeavour” to meet the deficit criteria and could not be fined. In practice, we were treated no differently to eurozone members. The ECJ confirmed that all members were subject to the provisions.

    ‘EC reprimands Brown over UK deficit’ [January 2006]:

    The chair of the Centre for a Social Europe, Labour MP Ian Davidson, stood up for the chancellor, accusing Brussels of “trying to run Britain’s budget”. Although the UK – like Denmark and Sweden – is not a member of the euro, its economy is subject to the provisions of the stability and growth pact.

    The commission will begin “excessive deficit procedure” against the UK, warning the chancellor he should cut the deficit by at least £6bn, although Britain’s self-imposed exclusion from the single currency means it is not liable for fines.

    The commission has been criticised for not in the past imposing fines on member states that did breach the rules,…

    Previous commission attempts to rap national treasuries over the knuckles have ended in bitter confrontation and even a court case, which the commission won when European judges said member states had to comply with the pact’s deficit provisions.

  • Back on the topic of the 1984 strike… Scargill was indeed a disaster for his members – not holding a ballot undermined the strike from the start.
    But while it may be the subject of history programmes now, the impact didn’t end in the 1980s.
    What the programme makers might like to do now is look at ‘what happened next’ – how closing the pits affected local communities and economies immediately, in the following decade, and how areas such as the Welsh Valleys are still suffering social consequences today.

  • I was just about to start secondary school when the miners’ strike happened, so was aware of it growing up in North East Fife – but it wasn’t until I spent time as a councillor for Rosyth between 2007 and 2012 that I really began to understand the effect both the strike and Thatcher’s decision had in South Fife.

    The damage there still exists. The major employer in villages such as High Valleyfield and Comrie was basically removed with no alternative and no real infrastructure put in place to ensure people had the opportunity to move for work. This wasn’t any sort of managed switch, or even “managed decline” as Geoffrey Howe described it in Liverpool, but complete abandonment with little regard or thought for what would happen in the future.

  • William Wallace 21st Feb '24 - 10:47am

    David Raw: How could I forget about the temperance movement? Saltaire was famous for having nowhere in the village where alcohol could be bought until 40 years ago. And the tea urn from the Wyke Gospel Temperance Mission (sadly now demolished) is in our living room. My father-in-law was a radical liberal, a Congregationalist and a teetotaler – always happy to be in the minority but campaigning for what he believed in.

  • Of course I know you won’t forget, William.

    I can still remember my Great Uncle George signing me up as a little blue ribboner aged five and teaching me the words of ‘Hail Smiling Morn’. Some things linger.

  • Christopher Haigh 21st Feb '24 - 12:33pm

    Thanks for bringing back sort of nostalgic memories of that time Geoff. The country had an economic nervous breakdown since the late 61960s. Constant balance if payments crises, industrial strife, three day weeks, power cuts etc etc. Socially people deemed to be happy though I was studying economics in Sheffield under Prof Jack Gilbert a down to earth Keynesian in the early 70s and he chatted about the rise of Hayek and Friedman in the Conservative party philosophy .He used to say he was sitting on the fence about all this..He said Keith Joseph and Geoffrey Howe were the intellectual wing of the Tory party who later went on to support Mrs Thatcher as their puppet.

  • Peter Wrigley 21st Feb '24 - 4:29pm

    Re the post-2010 Austerity and the wickedness of the Liberal Democrats in conniving at, even promoting, it – It is interesting to note that Rafael Behr in today’s (21 February ) Guardian, writes that: “Single -party Tory rule has been a lot more chaotic and fractious than the formal coalition that preceded it.” We can use that, as well as reminding Labour of their own austerity plans, when they throw bricks at us.

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