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1960-2000 (Part 7) The 1984-85 Miners' Strike
Poster - National Union of Mineworkers, 1984
The 1984-85 Miners' Strike

The 1984-85 Miners' Strike

After a period of relative stability in the Second World War and the early post-war period, the British coal industry (nationalised in 1947) underwent a massive contraction from 700,000 employed in 1957 to 300,000 by 1970, as alternative fuels were used to produce energy. The two highly successful national strikes of 1972 and 1974 then catapulted the miners up the pay league, and the international oil crisis of late 1973 made coal an attractive proposition once again for electricity generation.

Employment generally stabilised for the rest of the 1970s, but the economic recession of the early 1980s, by cutting the demand for coal, exposed the less productive pits. The Conservative government's long-term agenda, the privatisation of the energy sector, required a restructuring of the coal industry. An attempt at large-scale closures in 1981 was dropped when unofficial strikes spread rapidly and government ministers found themselves unprepared to fight at the time. This situation had changed by 1984 and the National Coal Board (NCB) had a new chairman, Ian MacGregor.

In March 1984, when five pits were announced for closure without proper review, official area strikes started in Yorkshire and Scotland. These were endorsed by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) executive which called on other areas to support them. It believed that there was a large hit list of vulnerable pits and that a stand had to be taken before the heart was ripped out of the industry and coal communities were shattered. Many of the other coalfields stopped work as a result of pickets, sometimes from other areas, though this was not generally successful in Nottinghamshire, where many miners considered their jobs safe. Calls for a national ballot (which was the NUM tradition, well before it ever became law later that year) foundered on the activists' view that no miner has the right to decide that another should lose his job. Where only a minority of the union was affected by closures at any one time, what would happen if a national ballot was called and lost?

The government used its limitless resources (particularly the deployment of police on a national stage) to defeat the miners, though for many months such a result was far from inevitable. There were divisions within the government and within the NCB, though these were eventually resolved in favour of the hardliners. At the beginning of the strike, the NCB won a court injunction against secondary picketing but a high-level decision was made not to pursue it. State emphasis shifted to mass policing rather than court action, which might have solidified the strike. A case brought by a private haulage contractor did lead to the sequestration of the South Wales NUM's assets, while working miners (encouraged by anti-union supporters) took cases, claiming breach of rules, against the national union that eventually led to its funds being seized.

Played out nightly on television screens for the rest of the nation, it became a titanic struggle lasting until March 1985 when, by the tiniest margin, a majority of conference delegates voted to return without a new agreement on managing closures in order to control the unorganised drift back to work and to salvage the union.

During the strike 11,291 people were arrested, of whom 8,392 were charged, mainly for breach of the peace, obstructing the police and obstructing the highway. There were some more serious charges, though those for riot were dropped for lack of evidence. Several hundred miners were dismissed and never taken back, often for being arrested on relatively trivial charges (even when found not guilty). The biggest confrontation of pickets with police took place at Orgreave in Yorkshire in the early summer of 1984 when Arthur Scargill, the NUM President, was arrested. A huge support network sprang up across the country, led particularly by Women Against Pit Closures in the coal communities. It had a radicalising effect on its participants but other trade unionists, in an official or unofficial capacity, were unable or unwilling to give the level of support that had been so effective in 1972 and 1974 in besieging the power stations and forcing the government to back down.

This was without doubt the most important defeat for the trade union movement since the collapse of the General Strike and the TUC's abandonment of the miners in 1926. As in 1926, the strike spawned a breakaway union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, again based mainly in Nottinghamshire. As in 1926, it created or reinforced for another generation a hatred for Conservative politicians. The pit closure programme accelerated, almost as an act of collective punishment. The death knell for the industry sounded in 1992, despite huge national demonstrations against the proposed butchery announced by Michael Heseltine. Soon afterwards the remnants of the industry were returned to private ownership.

Dave Lyddon, Centre for Industrial Relations, Keele University

Further Reading:

There is an enormous literature on the strike but an overview of most of the issues is given by Brian Towers, 'Posing Larger Questions: The British Miners' Strike of 1984-85', Industrial Relations Journal Vol. 16 No. 2 (1985), pp.8-25.

A useful collection of essays was published during the strike itself, edited by Huw Beynon, Digging Deeper: Issues in the Miners' Strike (Verso, 1985).

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