Misunderstanding the miners’ strike

David Douglass reviews Francis Beckett and David Hencke’s Marching to the fault line: The 1984 miners’ strike and the death of industrial Britain Constable, 2009, pp420, £18.99

undefinedThis book appears with a great fanfare of trumpets and publicity, recommending itself as groundbreaking – the comprehensive history of the strike. So how does it match up?

Using the Freedom of Information Act, previously secret government and National Coal Board archives and for the first time frank and shocking interviews with many key trade union and Labour Party figures, government and NCB officials, the authors do provide new insights. At the same time, though, the book is littered with throwaway, unsubstantiated statements and assertions, not to mention hearsay, gossip and folk tales. Sources are patchy and the bibliography meagre.

For a work of this scope, comprehensive use of all existing sources is a basic requirement. As it is, however, the sources are often unreliable and there are pieces filched from other works, uncredited. There are bland assumptions and unchallenged propositions. The book moves ever more relentlessly away from the presentation of events, and from the behind-the-scenes actors and action, to a merciless condemnation of Arthur Scargill pure and simple.

It is fatally flawed – not for the facts it discloses and the revelations it reveals, but because this information is forced into the narrow perspective of a bias which refuses to see the miners themselves, the rank and file, as having started the strike, taking all the key decisions on how it was conducted. There are frankly just too many inaccuracies to list here. Arthur’s role in the move of the NUM from London to Yorkshire, his relationship with McGahey, his position on the strike and tactics; the origin and function of flying pickets; Arthur’s connection with the Workers Revolutionary Party; the relationship between the women’s movement and the National Union of Mineworkers; picketing operations and planning; the connection with steel, Orgreave, Scunthorpe, Immingham, Hunterson, Ravenscraig and the national dock strikes; all are gotten hopelessly wrong.

Thatcher’s mission

A clash was inevitable. To this extent, the presence of Thatcher and her programme, and the existence of the trade union movement, especially the NUM and the position it occupied in society, meant the conflict was preordained. It is clear from the authors’ own evidence that even if Arthur Scargill had not have been born, the miners were in the cross hairs: either we fought with a chance we might win, or we surrendered without a fight and lost. The industrial history of Britain, and Thatcher’s elaborate and long-term planning strategies, demonstrate that she knew the miners would fight and fight like there was going to be no tomorrow.

At the end of the tale we are told what a good union leader would have done in the circumstances – I will not spoil the story by revealing that, but I have a feeling you can already guess.

One thing this book does nail to the floor is any notion that the government was not involved in the strike: “… Peter Walker chaired a daily meeting to coordinate action during the strike with senior officials from the home office, employment, transport and the NCB and CEGB [Central Electricity Generating Board]. Twice weekly on Mondays and Wednesdays, Thatcher herself chaired MISC101 – the ministerial group on coal. Its purpose was to exchange information, give a ministerial steer to the line with the media and work out policy” (p117).

In 1981 comes the first salvo of the war. Closure plans for anything between 20 and 40 pits are revealed. There is immediate strike action. No ballot – flying pickets call out pit after pit, or else they just strike using their own initiative when the news filters through. Many pits in Nottinghamshire and the Midlands are among them.

Within days, half the coalfields are out and Thatcher is on the back foot. Their plans are not ready yet – they have not yet stockpiled enough coal, and their police operation is not in place. Rightwinger Joe Gormley is still ostensibly national president, though Arthur is president-elect. Gormley and some hand-picked members of the NEC meet NCB chiefs and secretary of state for energy David Howell, who withdraws the plan. He promises that any future pit closure will go through the normal lengthy consultation machinery. Thatcher declares she wants no fight with the miners (p33). The authors call this a government U-turn, Scottish NUM president Mick McGahey called it a “body swerve” – we knew they were coming back. It was our ‘Red Friday’.1

Over the following three years another nine million tonnes of coal was put into stocks – by the start of the strike the total stood at 48.7 million tonnes (p35). But the point is, here was another semi-official/unofficial strike (like the previous one in 1969) driving the bosses and government into a corner – and no ballot. Nobody is crying ‘ballot, ballot, ballot’ because it is the other side that has launched the attack on us, and we are simply responding to it. Miners see stopping the assault as the task, not sticking to the terms of rules drawn up for premeditated and long-considered action.

When we come to the strike itself, the authors think they have found an earth-shattering piece of evidence, which proves the strike was all a mistake. The strike proper started on March 1 1984, when George Hayes, the South Yorkshire NCB director, announced that Cortonwood would close in five weeks time (although the book actually says March 1 1985 – p47). This was a challenge we could not ignore. The authors now say it was a mistake – Hayes had misunderstood his brief. So what? They go on to say that NCB chair Ian MacGregor was to have announced plans to cut 20,000 jobs six days after Hayes jumped the gun. Which in fact MacGregor went on to do, confirming the suspicions that Cortonwood was the tip of a very big iceberg – 20,000 jobs equates to roughly 20 or more mines.2

The authors claim that Hayes spoiled the national strategy. Had he planned to make the announcement to the union as a whole, the union’s executive would call a conference and a national ballot, we would lose the vote and the closures would sail through. But by the time of the announcement the troops were in the field, the pickets were already flying and Yorkshire was solid. The strike had started by other direct means. But who says Yorkshire, or any of the areas now gearing up for strike action to defend their own mines and those of other areas, would have waited for a conference and national ballot? Even without the existing Yorkshire ballot, branches would have held mass meetings and taken decisions to strike off their own bat. The authors are making far too much of a small and slightly amusing feature, which would make no long-term difference to the outcome.

Our picketing operations, according to MacGregor’s own biography, were highly effective, especially in the first weeks. He goes crying to Maggie asking for American-style cops to get stuck in and break it up. Then he hits on the second front strategy – firstly getting British Steel/Corus and the ISTC steel union to abandon their agreement with the NUM and start using unlimited supplies of scab fuel. Next, he comes up with the strategy of putting a scab into every pit in Britain, not with the view to them actually producing any coal, but purely to force the pickets into their own back yards. “All you had to do was to make it known that you were going to get men back at a particular pit and all the pickets from that particular area would disappear from Nottingham or the other areas to cope with it”, said MacGregor (p91). But the book reveals that NCB chiefs were being fed constant polls and surveys of professional opinion takers testing the waters. They knew the strike was actually strong and holding.

So why did MacGregor decide to kick-start the strike in March by confirming the closure programme? It matters not whether Hayes jumped the gun. MacGregor himself intended to provoke a reaction and a strike ballot, which he thought would lose, but why at that time? The authors cannot answer that without contradicting a subsequent point they make about the overtime ban being ineffective. In fact, it is because it was thoroughly effective and draining away stocks that things had to be brought to a head. Thatcher was warned by Sir Walter Marshall from the CEGB that if the overtime ban continued through the summer months a short strike in the winter would rapidly shut the power stations and end generation.

The authors put the coal stocks at 48.7 million tonnes – roughly four months’ production for the entire industry. Stocks would be exhausted and could not be replaced in sufficient quantity to keep the lights on. That is why the strike had to be kick-started prematurely. We did not pick the date to start the action – they did.

So could we have ignored the challenge, let the 20 mines close and keep the overtime ban in place until more favourable times before launching all-out strike action? Hardly: we would have arrived at the optimum period for action, but without any rationale for calling it, having allowed more than 20 mines to close already with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

But the authors do not believe any of this: “Unfortunately for the union, it [the overtime ban] was too late to dent significantly the stockpile which had been built up since November 1981” (p44). This throwaway conclusion, like much else in the book, is unsourced, undocumented and unsubstantiated.

Similarly, they write: “Many people, including most trade union leaders, thought Scargill had been outmanoeuvred into calling a strike in March, and he would have to struggle to sustain the strike all through the summer before it started to bite in the cold days of winter, when a lot of fuel would be needed” (p56). But this ignores their own evidence. Despite the fact that the NCB and MacGregor had chosen the optimum time from their point of view, all their advisers told them that victory was far from certain. Peter Gregson, head of the economic secretariat at the cabinet office and chair of MISC57, the secret cabinet committee established in 1981 to take on and defeat the miners, prepared a brief informing Thatcher and MacGregor stocks would last months or even weeks, not a year (p56).

On May 14 Peter Gregson, also of the department of energy, sent a blunt memo to Thatcher. The NCB could deliver only 1.85 million tonnes of coal to power stations. There would be huge costs to the taxpayer to keep the power stations going. Gregson’s memo revealed that even if the strike was called off at the end of May, 350,000 tonnes of oil per week would have to be delivered until mid-September to keep the power stations open. If it ended in June, huge oil deliveries would be needed until December, while if it continued to July oil deliveries could not be reduced until March 1985.

He concluded: “This has serious implications for costs, bearing in mind that the net extra cost of burning oil rather than coal is £20 million per week and that during the recovery period, the CEGB would be buying oil in addition to buying coal, so that the relevant figure would be the gross cost of £50 million per week” (pp88-89).

So what was the reaction to these warnings? The authors tell us: “Like Gregson, MacGregor saw grounds for hope that the strike might be quite short. He told Peter Walker, the energy secretary, that the strike would be certain to be over by May when deductions of benefits hit miners and their families came into play” (p58). This was apparently revealed to the authors without any sort of shame by Walker himself. The government intended and planned in a cold, calculated way to punish the miners’ wives and children in order to break the strike.

By the start of the strike, however, MacGregor was placing his faith in a new saviour, a breakaway movement in Nottingham: “If we could keep this vast and prosperous coalfield going, then I was convinced, however long it took, we could succeed” (p72). With this in mind, there would be unlimited police resources, no-holds-barred tactics, including the prevention of picketing, roadblocks, mass arrests, violence, intimidation and second fronts. Ultimately, the creation of an anti-union, yellow-dog organisation, built, funded and directed by Thatcher, MacGregor and the state counter-insurgency forces.

Scargill ‘called the strike’

The myth that the strike was down to one man comes about for two reasons: the press wants to believe it true because it fits in with the idea that Scargill was a labour dictator who had some sort of magnetic hold over our minds; secondly, Arthur likes to play up his own importance in everything he was involved in.

On March 4 miners at Cortonwood branch voted to strike and instead of picketing, as they could easily have done, submitted a resolution to the area council calling for support: ie, for solidarity strike action against the threatened closures. If I recall correctly, there were three other strike resolutions on the agenda that day, including one against a pit merger, and one about a snap time dispute. We voted that we would recommend support for Cortonwood and leave the other issues on file.

The decision to strike, however, could only be taken by the members, regardless of the previous ballot decision. We had to seek endorsement that this issue was the one on which we would move. The book, quoting Ken Capstick, obviously speaking off the cuff, gives the impression that ‘we’ – ie, the delegates – off our own bat, and without mass endorsement of the membership, “embarked on a strike in Yorkshire”. We embarked on the process which would lead to that action, but the decision was made and could only be made by the members themselves (p49).

On March 7 MacGregor met the NUM NEC and announced 20,000 job losses and over 20 pit closures. The executive proposed we strike from March 9 – effectively March 10, as that would be the first day branches could meet to endorse the action or vote against it. My own pit met on that day and 1,800 men turned up to have their say. We voted, as did all the other pits in Yorkshire, to strike until the closure programme was withdrawn (there were three votes against).

In fact, the NEC decision came directly as a result of Cortonwood’s own resolution, whatever Arthur may have written on the back of a brass band programme at the time. Both the press and Arthur himself often think he was of far more importance than he actually was to many situations.

From March 12 every pit in Yorkshire was out, with the enthusiastic mass support and votes of the members. These were the facts. The book announces on the fly cover that Arthur Scargill called on the miners to strike on March 5 – ie, the day after Cortonwood struck. But this was an expression of his own opinion – it had no constitutional weight.

The Cortonwood branch (of which Arthur Scargill was not a member) passed a motion calling for Yorkshire to strike and presented it to the area on March 5 and the Cortonwood men lobbied the meeting. Arthur did not make any recommendations or speak at that crucial meeting because he was not in Yorkshire – as national president he did not attend area meetings. The decision to strike was taken at pitheads, by the members, over the weekend of March 10-11; Scargill was not present at any of them.

So, whatever he may or may not have said to the media, it was not Arthur Scargill who called the strike – he had no means of doing so. Miners do not get called out on strike except by their mates. The NEC met on March 8 and ruled that it would endorse, as official, strikes against closures in Scotland and Yorkshire which they presumed would result from the branch meetings over the following two days.

The authors raise questions about whether rule 41 – ie, endorsing area strikes as official – was appropriate: rule 43 stipulated that national strikes could only be called by a national ballot. What we had here was an area seeking the support of another area by picketing and requesting solidarity action. It could de facto become national. The NCB was attacking us area by area, so it was sensible, initially at least, to test resistance area by area. The point for us was fighting pit closures – taking solidarity strike action to halt the government and NCB in its tracks. Did it matter how we achieved that goal?

By March 15 only 21 pits out of 174 were working.3 By contrast, the authors choose to report: “By Monday March 12 only half the 184,000 miners were on strike” (p53). Erm, but that was the first day of the strike in Yorkshire – 160,000 were out three days later!

The vexed question of the ballot is of course raised with gusto by the authors, but it is unclear whether they understand the process that that led to the decision not to hold a ballot being endorsed as official NUM policy.

Every area had debated whether to have a ballot and every branch in Britain voted on the question. So just who “denied the miners the right to have a ballot”? Amazingly this question is not addressed. The authors think – because that is what every one of their colleagues thinks – that Arthur Scargill made that decision. He did not. A conference was convened in Sheffield to consider a rule change in a national ballot, with the proposal to drop the requirement for a 55% ‘yes’ vote for a national strike to a simple majority. This was to prepare the way for a national ballot on strike action. All subsequent polls – and at least one is quoted in this work – predicted that a ballot, if held, would be won.

The second issue considered in Sheffield was whether we should in fact hold a ballot. Twelve branches voted for an amendment to that effect – so there were 12 votes in favour, with the rest against. The Kent Area opposed holding any ballot and this was seconded by Yorkshire. The Kent resolution gained 69 votes, with 54 against. Scargill was in the chair and so did not speak for or against and of course did not vote.

These are the facts, none of which are reported in this so-called comprehensive and definitive book on the strike. Whether this decision was tactically sound is another issue, but it was not Arthur Scargill’s decision to make. Like the strike itself, it was ours.

There is another related point. Why did the majority of miners reject a national ballot? Since the authors do not understand who it was who made the decision, they do not even ask the question. In retrospect we now know that the government, NCB and all their allies were terrified we would hold a ballot, because they knew we would have won it and derailed the elaborate scab-herding, strike-breaking operation they were putting into place. The evidence for this is also found in the book. MacGregor was warned: “There is just the possibility that Scargill will seek agreement at the conference for a snap ballot” (p107).

What is clear from Marching to the front line, although very little is made of it, is that one of Mac’s responses to a successful strike ballot would be to plough on with the manufacture of the blackleg organisation, to permanently entrench the split and consolidate the scabs outside the NUM organisation, regardless of any ballot result, within what became the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. Walker, Thatcher and Lord Falconer agreed on this course and set about legal procedures with top lawyers to bring it about. What is not drawn out from this, though, is that the scab operation would continue, regardless of any national ballot, or its result. It skittles sideways all of the authors’ central focus on the ballot question, but they seem unaware of the implications (p107).

So is this book of any value? Yes, it is. It exposes the extreme vulnerability of the power stations and the power supply, the vulnerability of the NCB and the whole government shooting match. The facts it goes on to disclose flatly contradict earlier assertions on the inability of the miners to pull it off, on the ineffectiveness of the picketing, the overtime ban and the strike itself.

A dead loss?

What clearly demonstrates the big gaps in the authors’ basic understanding of the strike and what actually occurred is their chapter on the key, strategic question of Orgreave. It is my view, and has been since the days of the battle itself, that Orgreave was a diversion set up by MacGregor with the help of British Steel/Corus and the outright enthusiastic collaboration of Bill Sirs, leader of the ISTC steel union. MacGregor goes on to admit as much in his own autobiography.

Not until Sirs and BSC decided to break the agreement on exempted supplies of union-sanctioned coke did Orgreave become an issue. They then set off with daily fleets of lorries to carry coke from Orgreave through the heart of strike-torn south Yorkshire and into the steel plant at Scunthorpe. That is what caused the mass picketing at Orgreave. Strangely this little fact is not mentioned – perhaps the authors do not know about it. The men from my pit picketed the railway bridge at Immingham and stopped all supplies of coke and iron ore from the docks to the steel works. In time, this led to two national dock strikes and a near surrender by Thatcher, now facing generalised strikes of transport, rail, shipping, docks and mines.

That potential was lost when the Immingham Transport and General Workers Union dockers broke the blacking and their own National Dock Labour Scheme by allowing scab minerals to be moved by non-dockers onto non-union scab lorries and into the steelworks. That led to a fleet of iron-clad coal lorries under mass police protection snaking through the coalfields twice a day.

That was what caused Arthur to direct all pickets to Orgreave. He did not have the authority to do that, by the way, but the pickets followed this instruction and – supported by the left, who thought Orgreave was Lourdes – they encouraged all pickets to ignore our appeal to picket the scab coalfields. That is how Orgreave happened – and it opened up a second front against our crucial picketing operation in Notts and the Midlands, and the even more crucial fight at the power stations. I will be exploring these subjects at length in my own book,4 but we will get no help in that direction from this one, because frankly the authors do not know what happened.

They cover Bill Sirs’ decision to accept scab fuel and break the miners strike later, after the Orgreave chapter, as if Orgreave had nothing to do with steel and Sirs. This chronology thus makes nonsense of the actual events, even though the facts are actually in the book (p109). They demonstrate that the breaking of the agreements with the NUM to provide ‘tick-over’ fuel to the plants was a calculated move – providing steelworkers with scab fuel was a deliberate strategy to open up a second front against the strike with the complicity of Sirs, the ISTC, BSC and the government.

Three months into the strike and by chapter 5, the authors conclude there is already no way for the miners to win … then the rest of the book contradicts this conclusion. For example, in July the ORC government-commissioned opinion poll found that eight out of ten miners were “certain” they would not go back to work within the next few weeks and that the NCB would lose (p106). On July 18, in talks brokered by left Labour MP Stan Orme, between MacGregor and Scargill at the Rubens Hotel, the two sides came within a wisp – actually a word – of agreement.

The problem for all of us was Thatcher, who, dictating behind the scenes, turned hot and cold during negotiations and was torn between her need for a settlement and her desire to crush the miners. MacGregor, left to his own devices, actually conceded much of the NUM’s case, until he was suddenly grabbed from behind by direct representatives of the cabinet. The talks had progressed to the stage where the only sticking point was around the term “beneficially developed”: ie, that all coal reserves which could be beneficially developed would be mined. Scargill and the union obviously saw this as meaning ‘economically’ in terms of the NCB’s profit and loss yardstick. In other words, uneconomic pits would close – the point of the strike.

The NUM tried to remove the word “beneficially” from the agreed text, but the NCB insisted that something which addressed the question of ‘loss-making pits’ would have to take its place – which made it clear what was meant by “beneficially developed”. The authors, like many commentators before them, say that this was the nearest to victory the NUM could hope to get. They claim that an agreement that a pit would not be closed so long as reserves could be “beneficially developed” was a long way from the previous position that they would be closed if they were ‘uneconomical’.

Frankly it would have represented a draw. It would have left us exactly where we were before the announcement of the closure list. It would have left the door open to future negotiations, pit by pit, area by area, but with the management in control of what “beneficially” meant to them, and the threat of renewed action from us if we failed to agree. Had we come this far, at such cost to simply go back to the pre-strike battle lines? Scargill thought it was not a commitment to ensure the survival and expansion of workable reserves.

The TUC, we are told, was now blaming Scargill for the failure of the talks. That this form of words would have allowed us to proclaim a victory. “Had Scargill been a proper negotiator, they said, he could have grabbed the chance before Thatcher had time to whip it away from him. The Engineer and Managers Association leader, John Lyons, who always maintained that Scargill had been offered the nearest thing to a victory that any trade union leader could ever expect, most forcibly expressed this view: “It was 95 % of what they were after” (p114).

Did we want a draw in July, with the first seven months of the year already gone and autumn on the way? In August, the supplies of coal were becoming scarce throughout the UK and especially in Ulster. Rising electricity prices were threatening to hand the miners a PR victory we were looking for. “Contrary to public statements, [the strike] was biting already, even in high summer” (p119).. It was clear Thatcher needed a settlement.

When we refused to settle, the government then decided to turn the heat up on Scargill as an individual, and let the press hounds loose. Press conferences were convened: “Ministers had launched a crusade to destroy Scargill and all he stood for.” According to Walker, “This is not a mining dispute. It is a challenge to British democracy and hence the British people.” The signal to the press barons was now to unleash a deluge of black propaganda against Arthur and the pickets and the union in general (p119). Then followed Maggie’s ‘enemies within’ speech – a declaration of war on the coal communities, in which members of the cabinet lined up to condemn the strike.

That this was orchestrated and fed to a compliant media is established in the book. The line was that Scargill was asking the impossible – no closures, no matter how expensive the unit of coal production. But neither the authors now nor the government then actually considered that British coal had the lowest operating unit costs on average of any of the deep-mined coal industries in the world and, particularly, in Europe. British taxpayers subsidised through the European Economic Community all the coal-producing countries of Europe to help offset their high-cost production to allow it to come back to Britain, in order to displace the lower-cost British coal.

To say that has nothing to do with import controls or being anti-European. It was about recognising what game was being played here: the attack on the coal industry was a cover for a concerted attack on the NUM. The excuse was economics and high-cost coal production, but the fact was, this was a myth. British coal was always the cheapest deep-mined coal in the world. By this yardstick, there were no uneconomic pits as an overall operating average. Needless to say, the authors do not engage with this central point.

The authors are wrong, though, in thinking the power of the NUM was broken in 1985. In fact, Thatcher did not achieve her aims, though we certainly lost ours. In 1986, the NUM won a successful national ballot for industrial action by an overwhelming percentage. The power was given to the NEC to take the board on again, but they shit a brick, as we say, and dropped it. But Thatcher had not won – John Major had to come back again in 1992-93 with the ‘final solution’ to the problem of those miners. There is nothing of that, or the mass movement which rose to challenge it, in this book.

Notes

  1. On June 30 1925, in response to a mass strike and threatened solidarity action, the government enabled the mine employers to withdraw a wage reduction and a lengthening of hours through a subsidy. The state was not ready on the original Red Friday either, and the subsidy simply bought time while emergency powers were being put in place. When they were, the subsidy was withdrawn and the cuts re-enacted.
  2. National Archives (Coal) 26/1410 reveals that Cortonwood should never have been included on the hit list which sparked the strike in Yorkshire, Scotland, Durham and Wales. But it did not have to be Cortonwood specifically to cause miners to walk out.
  3. See B Wilson Yorkshire’s flying pickets in the 1984-85 miners’ strike Barnsley 2004.
  4. Ghost dancers, the third part of my autobiographical trilogy Stardust and coaldust.

David Douglass is a former executive committee member of the Yorkshire area NUM, and Doncaster regional picket coordinator. He is a miners’ historian and remains a member of the NUM after 44 years.

His three-part autobiographical trilogy Stardust and coaldust is published by Christie Books: Wa mental 2008, pp352, £9.95; The wheel’s still in spin 2009, pp480, £12.95; Ghost dancers – out soon. Available from Central Books Ltd, 99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN; 0845 458 9911

The full version of this review can be read at: www.minersadvice.co.uk/reviews_%20marching_to_the_fault_line.htm

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