The unfinished business of the minersí strike 1984-85
In the historic and heroic strike of 1984-85, which began 20 years ago this week, miners and their union asked the biggest question of all, one which concerns all wage earners, then and now: who gets to decide about the future of jobs, communities and the direction society should take?
Should the employers and the state continue to have the final word, based on the narrow interests of profit or loss? Or should the fact that all wealth, which is actually created by human labour, become the foundation for decisions based on social, human need?
These were the fundamental questions raised when the miners challenged the programme of pit closures abruptly announced by the National Coal Board under the prompting of the Thatcher government.
The rapid internationalisation of the world economy and financial system that began in the mid-1970s had by the date of the strike resulted in a global market in coal. British coal was declared to be overpriced and unproductive to mine by comparison with competitors and other energy sources.
The businessman Ian MacGregor was made chairman of the NCB in 1983, having already slashed the national steel corporation workforce by 50%. His task was to rationalise the state-owned coal industry on the basis of balance sheets. This is what the miners opposed, defending not just their jobs but their communities too. It immediately became a unique struggle and the most directly political in the history of the trade union movement.
Thatcherís Tories had prepared long and hard for the strike. They had an enduring class hatred as well as a fear of the miners. Thatcher had seen how the miners had helped bring down the Heath government in 1973-4 and was determined on revenge. Coal stocks were built up and the state readied for the confrontation before the closures were announced.
The vast majority of miners responded to NUM president Arthur Scargillís call for immediate strike action against the closure programme. In Nottinghamshire, the right-wing leadership mistakenly thought their areaís jobs were safe and convinced large sections of the membership to stay at work and thus weaken the strike.
Thatcher had decided there would be no repeat of the mass picketing seen in the strikes of the 1970s and deployed the state against the miners. Thousands of police were deployed to attack pickets and terrorise whole communities. Police brutality led to hundreds of injuries and arrests. Illegal road blocks were set up to prevent miners from travelling. Many miners were sacked after they were convicted on trumped-up police evidence. MI5 and the Special Branch bugged and infiltrated the NUM, planting disinformation and disrupting the unionís plans.
It was class war on a national scale never before seen in Britain, between the most militant section of workers and the capitalist state. If the miners thought they could simply repeat the successful tactics of earlier strikes, they were sorely disappointed. This underestimation of the changed nature and balance of forces was perhaps the weakest aspect of the NUM leadershipís approach.
No one will ever forget the sacrifices that the miners and their families, above all their wives, made to keep the struggle alive for more than a year. Led from the front, they never yielded an inch from their demand for the scrapping of the closure programme. Thatcher, it was later revealed, was at one point ready to compromise because she thought her government was in danger. Like the war with Argentina three years earlier, the struggle was a much closer-run thing than legend has it.
During the year, other trade union leaders delivered only financial support and stood back while the miners were battered by the state. They ran scared of the state and anti-union laws and declined to call their members into action. Neil Kinnock and the rest of the Labour Party leadership were hostile to Scargill and the miners. Scargill declined to call on the TUC to bring other workers into action alongside his members.
For all their defiance, the miners could not on their own find the answer to the question they had posed and were forced to return to work, heads held high. Scargill was proved more than right as the pit closure programme began. A deeper closure programme was unveiled by the Tories in the 1990s and now there are few pits or miners left in Britain.
It has become fashionable to denigrate Scargill for allegedly leading the miners to defeat, for failing to call a ballot and for choosing the wrong time to strike. The suggestion is that with a few different tactics, the miners could have won. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was not a mistake or an ill-chosen moment. The choice miners had was stark: accept the Tory closure programme or fight. You canít always pick the ground to fight on Ė the miners did not have the luxury of choice unlike armchair critics.
What is actually involved in challenging the profit and loss basis of capitalist economics and defying the forces of the state? Several related questions arise: What does it mean to defeat the state? How do you mobilise to defeat the state? What are the consequences of defeating the state?
You cannot defeat the state unless that is your perspective. In other words, the declared aim has to be to throw back the forces of the state and make them leave the scene, removing the government in the process. Further, a single section of workers, such as the miners (or more recently, firefighters) cannot defeat the state on their own. It requires action on the level of a General Strike.
Challenging the existing state power means having a plan to replace it with a power that is based on the interests of the majority, of producers and consumers. For if the minersí strike demonstrated one thing, it was the nature of the state. This is not a state simply acting in the interests of the employers, but one that is capitalist in its very nature. It is tied in a million ways to the defence of the profit system that the miners so valiantly opposed. The existing state, therefore, cannot be refashioned to serve our interests.
Trade unions developed as defensive-type organisations to protect their membersí interests. They are not designed to overthrow states and governments and create a new society. British history is proof of this. In 1926, workers held power in their hands during the eight-day General Strike against cuts in minersí pay. The TUC betrayed the miners when they saw the revolutionary consequences of the strike, with workers in control of towns throughout Britain.
The miners of 1984-85 engaged in a living struggle, whose outcome was not predetermined. It is wrong both to look back with nostalgia to those days or to criticise the NUMís gigantic endeavour with the wisdom of hindsight. Miners who struck were liberated for a year in many ways, not least from a terrifying, dangerous and badly compensated job. Few have regretted the experience, despite the impact on their lives and eventually their communities.
The pits may be shut with hardly any physical trace of what was there before. But this history is reborn in new generations and the way they understand and live their lives. It lives on in the descendants of the miners and in the working class as a whole, just as do the experiences of the pioneers of trade unionism like the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists who fought for the right to vote.
Twenty years later, New Labour carries the mantle of Thatcher and has deepened the connection between the state and corporate interests. Free-market economics pervades every area of life, public and private. The state is unreservedly on the side of big business, of the free movement of capital and the unregulated exploitation of labour.
This has proved a real education for millions of people, who reject the naked rule of the corporations and the authoritarian state New Labour has developed. That is why the biggest mobilisation ever against capitalist war took place in 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It was the beginning of a social movement against the fraud of parliamentary democracy, whose mask has slipped away to reveal the real essence of the profit and loss system the miners resisted.
Miners showed that workers were not afraid to take on the enemy and would make the ultimate sacrifice. Theirs was a turning point in the struggle against the capitalist state. The miners left unfinished business. It is the task of new generations to pick up the baton and build the revolutionary organisation and leadership required to finish the job.
for a Socialist Future