Forty Years On

Support the Miners March, London, 1984
sludgegulper, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Forty Years On is the name of a play by Alan Bennett based on the title to the Harrow School Song. This year is forty years since the start of the Great Miners’ Strike and the Harrow School Song title seems an appropriately inappropriate name for some personal insights on it. I suppose an alternative would be JB Priestley’s novel on the last days of the music halls, “Lost Empires.” Certainly the coal industry was a vast industrial empire which has entirely disappeared as if it never existed.

I had a good seat in the junior stalls for the end of it and its aftermath as a keen and intensely inquisitive twenty something, hoping to “climb the greasy pole” of an industry which collapsed before the decade was out. It marked starkly the end of the post war consensus which otherwise limps on in the increasingly archaic form of rNHS and in time is now closer to VE day and “vesting day” (1st January 1947 when the coal industry was taken into public ownership) than today.

An alien from another planet would have been hard pressed to make the slightest sense of the pre strike British coal industry. So many of its problems were historic. Britain was the world’s first industrial nation and fuelled by its own coal. Unfortunately , although vast reserves still remained, the flat, level, unfaulted, thick seams capable of being extracted to profit had largely been exhausted by two hundred years of intensive coaling. Much that remained could be mined but at nothing approaching world coal prices. By then, the market for housecoal was small and diminishing, there was still demand for solid fuel central heating systems, fuelled either by West Wales anthracite or processed smokeless fuels from other coalfields, some coking coal was still needed for a declining steel industry but most coal production was destined for the power stations of the Central Electricity Generating Board. The annual negotiations between the NCB and the CEGB now seem quite quaint. The CEGB would tell the NCB the tonnages required and from which coalfields (power stations were designed with the steam producing qualities of the local coal in mind- Welsh coal for example needed to be burnt at Aberthaw, Uskmouth or Didcot power stations) and the NCB would calculate how much it would cost, taking into account output per coalfield and its need to average its production between profitable and unprofitable pits, taking care not to exhaust profitable pits too quickly, before reaching a figure and agreeing it. The world market price of coal was all but irrelevant. At the last year pre strike, it would have been more economic for the NCB at many collieries to have paid its workforce in full to stay home and import a similar tonnage to its production from abroad to provide to the CEGB and show a profit. This was no reflection on the workforce. I recall one colliery where production was taking place in a seam less than two feet thick many miles from the pithead. Ironically there was one Division making a considerable profit. Per gigajoule of energy it was more profitable than North Sea oil. That was opencasting, allegedly first introduced here by a unit of Canadian Army engineers on their own initiative, producing coal from the hills above their base in Blaenavon, using techniques familiar to them. However environmental difficulties on a small, densely populated island always made it difficult to expand such production here and for twenty years relied on wartime emergency legislation to permit it.

So entered Sir Ian McGregor, a Scottish American industrialist, who had been sent to the US by HMG during the War as part of the British Military Mission dealing with our industrial requirements and had subsequently stayed on there. The new Thatcher government in 1979 had hired him to sort out the British Steel Corporation which was famously losing £1m per day according to Fleet Street. The £1.8m compensation package to his previous company was revealed in the House of Commons by Sir Keith Joseph to a mixture of derision and consternation from the Labour benches ( “have they signed Kevin Keegan ?” was one of the comments). There then followed the almost forgotten steel strike of 1980 and the subsequent large scale contraction and rationalisation of the steel industry that ensued. Mrs Thatcher was impressed. Here was the man to deal with the Coal Board and its gigantic losses (and incidentally deal with the NUM which had finished Heath’s administration and its firebrand hardline new leader, Arthur Scargill, in particular.)

Arthur Scargill was at that time only in his mid forties but had led the Yorkshire miners through the successive strikes of 72/73 and 73/74 and had directed the mass picket of the Saltley Coke Depot in Birmingham which was the defining image of those disputes. He had been National NUM President since 1981. When McGregor was appointed Chairman of the NCB, Scargill stated “the policies of this government are clear-to destroy the coal industry and the NUM”. The stage was set.

In March 1984 the Board announced that it intended to close twenty unprofitable pits. An unofficial strike almost immediately started in Yorkshire and it soon spread to Scotland, another militant area. Scargill then declared NUM support for the dispute and called for action in all areas but crucially failed to call the national ballot required by the rules of the union, a decision which was ultimately to destroy him. The Midlands pits were heavily picketed but nearly all of the workforce continued to work. With pit stocks and power station reserves at an all time high, the tables had been turned.

As this is a short overview, I am not going to discuss the notorious events of the strike such as the “battle of Orgreave”  or the death of taxi driver David Wilkie, killed by a concrete post dropped on his cab by two strikers whilst driving a working miner to Merthyr vale colliery. Instead I shall look at the battles consequent on the dispute.

Scargill vs Thatcher

The irresistible force met the immovable object. The High priest of militant Marxism and later stalwart of the Stalin Society against the Iron Lady. Scargill, very properly never had a chance over the victor over General Galltieri. Bluster and rhetoric stood no chance against a British state which was in 1984 far more formidable than the current shambles. Scargill thought he was the new Arthur Cook who had led the miners into the 1926 General Strike, but with the difference that he would succeed in destroying the Establishment. There is a classic quote from the 1973 strike when he telephoned Dai Francis, the then Secretary of the South Wales NUM to send pickets one Saturday. “Can’t do it, Arthur. Wales are playing Scotland at the Arms park that day.” “But Dai, the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley.”

Scargill is still alive in his middle to late eighties, still a vehement Marxist but with a history of later dispute with the union, principally over money. A later General Secretary commented “I’ve always said that if Arthur can no longer control the NUM, he’ll try to destroy it. That’s what I believe.” The Union still exists although deep mining has all but disappeared being confined to “small mines” and the Aberpergwm drift anthracite mine above Neath. Scargill, as the joke went, started in a small house with a big union and finished in a big house with a small union.

Civil War in the NUM

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once said that there were three organisations that no British Government should ever take on- the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers. As throughout history, formidable entities have their greatest weaknesses from within and the NUM was brought down by Scargill ignoring its own rulebook and not balloting a strike, compounding his folly by attempting to impose it by intensely menacing flying picketing. Not only did it fail as a result of a massive and sustained policing operation but he hung out the Midland NUM leaders to dry and they saw their own men desert them to form the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. The “shock troops of the Trades Union movement” disintegrated from within and the industrial trades unions never recovered. People who do not remember the 1970s would be astonished at the power they once wielded. They have gone along with their industries. Trades unionism is largely now confined to the public sector and a few former nationalised industries such as the railways.

Scargill vs the Labour Party

In 1983 the Labour party under Michael Foot had suffered a cataclysmic defeat after standing on a manifesto described by one of its own MPs as “the longest suicide note in history”. Its new leader, Neil Kinnock, came from the soft left and represented a South wales mining constituency. He was in a near impossible situation.. He supported aim of the strike, the keeping open of the collieries, but realised that Scargill and his aims and methods repelled the general public. Labour could not be seen to support the absence of a strike ballot or violent picketing to have any hope of being viewed as electable. The usual suspects (Benn and his acolytes) supported the strike. Kinnock had to condemn the tactics. Years later he said of Scargill, “Oh I detest him. I did then, I do now and it’s mutual. He hates me as well. And I’d much prefer to have his savage hatred than even a hint of friendship from that man.”

McGregor vs the NCB

This was personally the most interesting and the conflict that history is most likely to forget. McGregor arrived at Hobart House, the headquarters of the NCB, and did not like what he saw. In his view too many of the “old guard” were out of touch with commercial reality and far too close to the workforce. The old mantra of the Board was to “mine coal safely”. McGregor wished to add “and profitably”. He fell out with many. His relationship with , for example, the South Wales Area Director (and former national Director of Mining), Philip Weekes, was notoriously poor. He deplored Weekes’ relationship with the senior officers of the South Wales NUM and his efforts to keep relative peace in South Wales (the Wilkie case notwithstanding) and subsequently resented Weekes’ pushback when he objected to the haste and extent of the post strike closures which were in contrast to the Board’s previous protocols and procedures. He sidelined many senior members at Hobart House causing immense ill feeling, in favour of a hand picked team of subordinates answerable to him directly, ignoring the ostensible “chain of command”, notably ignoring Ned Smith, the Director General of Industrial Relations. I recall that the head of public relations simply resigned. He relied on his deputy, Jimmy Cowan and on the Area Director of North Derbyshire and later Technical director, Ken Moses to  be his “hatchet men”. Ken Moses had started as a face worker and rose to the top to finish his career as Deputy Chairman shortly before his early death in 1992. I can attest to his reputation. In company with a far more senior and usually unflappable colleague, I encountered him at a conference around 1986. My colleague was clearly intimidated by a line of unnecessary questions shot at him.. As a youngster so far down the food chain to be irrelevant I was able simply to observe the proceedings with interest.. McGregor left in 1986 with a knighthood from a grateful government but the decline continued and , indeed, accelerated. It seemed then that the internal conflict had taken its toll on the Board at senior level. It never regained confidence.

Forty years on I see Labour MPs ae calling for an enquiry about Orgreave. I would simply observe that would have like asking for an enquiry about a wartime incident at the time of the strike in 1984 which would have seemed absurd. Socialists revel in long ago defeat and betrayal. It gets them up in the morning. But I will finish on a counterfactual. In October 1984, problems with the Deputies union, NACODS, became critical. Concessions needed to be granted to them otherwise the pits themselves, starved of routine safety and maintenance work, might become incapable of reopening at the end of the strike . A settlement was negotiated by the Area Director of North Yorkshire, Michael Eaton, under government pressure and much to McGregor’s fury. NACODS accepted it but it was also put to the NUM. The consensus is that if the union had still been led by its previous leader, Joe Gormley (who would have undoubtedly called a ballot anyway), he would have recommended that it be accepted and would have had cause to have declared it a successful conclusion to the dispute, if not quite a total victory. Scargill would accept nothing short of total victory and so gave them total defeat instead. However what would have subsequently happened in those circumstances ? The coal industry would still have been substantial in 1997. Would New Labour have closed the industry down ? How would Ed Miliband’s climate change legislation under Brown have fared ? Miliband sat for a Doncaster constituency, the headquarters of the Yorkshire coalfield. Ironically, perhaps Margaret Thatcher enabled Labour to dodge a very problematic bullet indeed.

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