The TARDIS Eruditorum blog recently took the opportunity to connect ‘The Caves of Androzani‘ with the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike. In the process, Philip Sandifer (the author of the blog) writes:
…Arthur Scargill, head of the NUM, made an egregious political miscalculation. Faced with an accelerated schedule for closing the pits and afraid that he’d lose the vote, Scargill declined to submit the strike to a national vote. This was against NUM rules and allowed Thatcher to delegitimize the strike, which she wasted no time doing, comparing striking miners to Argentina in the Falklands.
The propaganda war, combined with Scargill’s inept politicking, kept the strike from gaining broad support with the public, and it ended in failure a year later, leaving the mining industry and union a shadow of its former self.
Sandifer mentions police savagery and also the wholesale media propaganda assault against the NUM (though he talks about the ‘redtops’, as though it was a purely tabloid phenomenon). Ultimately, however, he seems to imply a plague upon both Thatcher’s and Scargill’s houses.
In the various permutations that this view takes, the heroic resistance of 150,000 workers and their families over a year of struggle is always deemed to have been overshadowed by the lack of a formal vote on it. Here’s a vital corrective to such apparently reasonable ‘even-handedness’, courtesy of Paul Foot in The Vote: How It was Won and How it Was Undermined:
Scargill had failed to win three strike ballots because of the divisions among miners caused by the incentive agreements that had been pushed through by the employers in spite of a ballot vote against them. The ballot results left NUM leadership with the agonizing prospect that pits could be closed piecemeal, one by one, or two by two, and that the union would be prevented by hostile ballot results from responding. This was the background to the confrontation that was started by the closure, without consultation, and in defiance of all agreements, of Cottonwood colliery in Yorkshire. Encouraged by the executive, and by a wave of flying pickets from the threatened pits, strike after strike led very quickly to a massive national confrontation, in which pretty well all the pits in Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales and most of the Midlands were on strike, leaving only traditionally less militant areas, Nottinghamshire and Leicesterhsire, at work.
To those who bleated, ‘I wish Scargill had had a ballot’, there was a prompt reply: ‘Suppose he had had a ballot and lost it – what then?’ Were the miners leaders expected to stand aside while the Government and its newly appointed Coal Board laid waste to the British coal industry? The truth was that actions spoke louder than ballots. The sheer size and breathtaking solidarity of the mass strike was the fact, and the suggestion that the action should have been put at risk by a ballot was an argument that could be sustained only by the enemies of the miners’ union. Very soon, moreover, the democratic potential of the miners’ strike was every bit as obvious as it had been in 1921 and 1926, if not more so. Anyone who visited any of the areas affected by the strike was struck by the extraordinary changes that took place in the strikers and their supporters. The traditional insularity of the pit villages was shattered by the need to seek support, including financial support, across the country. Miners and their families travelled far more widely than in the strikes of the 1970s – both inside Britain and outside. Even more than in the conflicts of the past, the women in the miner’s areas emancipated almost overnight. Technically, they had been emancipated in 1918 and 1928 by the granting of the suffrage. But the emancipation of women in the mining areas in 1984 and 1985 far outstripped the emancipation of the suffrage. Ideas of women’s liberation, about male chauvinism and the role of women in the household flourished in the mining areas that spring and summer of 1984 as never before.
In the ‘waaaaah waaaah, they didn’t have a ballot!’ version, all this is minimized, if not entirely forgotten. The explosion of democracy ‘from below’ is written-off, as is the specious falsity of democracy ‘from above’. The government conducting this war against the miners had been elected in 1983 with under 43% of the total votes cast, in an election in which under 73% of the electorate turned out. This same government had no mandate to destroy the British coal industry but nevertheless set an unelected Coal Board onto the task. The aim was the destruction of the most militant and powerful union, one which had humiliated the Tories in the past (a story well worth remembering these days). The entirely foreseeable result was the decimation of the lives, livelihoods and communities of hundreds of thousands of working people.
On the ballot question, Scargill gives his side of the story – replete with details that contextualise the matter – here. To quote:
The NUM’s rules permitted areas to take official strike action if authorised by our national executive committee in accordance with Rule 41. If the NEC [National Executive Committee] gave Scotland and Yorkshire authorisation under this rule, it could galvanise other areas to seek similar support for action against closures.
On 6 March, at a consultative meeting at NCB [National Coal Board] London headquarters, the coal board chairman, Ian MacGregor, not only confirmed what we had been expecting, but announced that in addition to the five pits already earmarked for immediate closure, a further 20 would be closed during the coming year, with the loss of more than 20,000 jobs. This, he said, was being done to take four million tonnes of “unwanted” capacity out of the industry, and bring supply into line with demand.
The Scotland and Yorkshire NUM areas did vote to seek endorsement from the NEC for strike action, and at the NEC meeting on 8 March were given authorisation under Rule 41. South Wales and Kent then also asked for authorisation. The NEC agreed, and confirmed that other areas could, if they wished, do the same. We realised that the NCB announcement on 6 March had amounted to a declaration of war. We could either surrender right now, or stand and fight.
A question that has been raised time and time again over the past 25 years is: why did the union not hold a national strike ballot? Those who attack our struggle by vilifying me usually say: “Scargill rejected calls for a ballot.”
The real reason that NUM areas such as Nottinghamshire, South Derbyshire and Leicestershire wanted a national strike ballot was that they wanted the strike called off, believing naively that their pits were safe.
Three years earlier, in 1981, there had been no ballot when miners’ unofficial strike action – involving Notts miners – had caused Thatcher to retreat from mass closures (nor in 1972 when more than a million workers went on strike in support of the Pentonville Five dockers who had been jailed for defying government anti-union legislation).
McGahey argued that the union should not be “constitutionalised” out of taking action, while the South Wales area president, Emlyn Williams, told the NEC on 12 April 1984: “To hide behind a ballot is an act of cowardice. I tell you this now … decide what you like about a ballot but our coalfield will be on strike and stay on strike.”
However, NUM areas had a right to ask the NEC to convene a special national delegate conference (as we had when calling the overtime ban) to determine whether delegates mandated by their areas should vote for a national individual ballot or reaffirm the decision of the NEC to permit areas such as Scotland, Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent to take strike action in accordance with Rule 41.
Our special conference was held on 19 April. McGahey, Heathfield and I were aware from feedback that a slight majority of areas favoured the demand for a national strike ballot; therefore, we were expecting and had prepared for that course of action with posters, ballot papers and leaflets. A major campaign was ready to go for a “Yes” vote in a national strike ballot.
At the conference, Heathfield told delegates in his opening address: “I hope that we are sincere and honest enough to recognise that a ballot should not be used and exercised as a veto to prevent people in other areas defending their jobs.” His succinct reminder of the situation we were in opened up an emotional debate to which speaker after speaker made passionate and fiercely argued contributions.
Replying to that debate, I said: “This battle is certainly about more than the miners’ union. It is for the right to work. It is for the right to preserve our pits. It is for the right to preserve this industry … We can all make speeches, but at the end of the day we have got to stand up and be counted … We have got to come out and say not only what we feel should be done, but do it because if we don’t do that, then we fail.”
McGahey, Heathfield and I had done the arithmetic beforehand, and were truly surprised that when the vote was taken, delegates rejected calls for a national strike ballot and decided instead to call on all miners to refuse to cross picket lines – and join the 140,000 already on strike. We later learned that members of one area delegation had been so moved by the arguments put forward in the debate that they’d held an impromptu meeting and switched their vote in support of the area strikes in accordance with Rule 41.
Of course, Sandifer is right to say that the decision not to take a ballot handed the Tories and their compliant media a stick with which to beat the strikers. But, as Paul Foot pointed out, it was either that or give up before the start of the fight. The government wasn’t playing nicely by any rule book. They weren’t letting an absence of democracy impede them in their ferocious prosecution of class war. And can anyone really be naive enough to think that the government and the media wouldn’t have found some other equally-effective pretext for declaring the illegitimacy of the strike and its leadership? Indeed, a glance at the media coverage of the time shows that they could and did. The media constantly harped on about false and unverified reports from the Coal Board about a ‘drift back to work’. Coal Board figures turned out to have been artificially inflated… with Murdoch’s Sun simply adding numbers itself. Stories about police brutality were consistently ignored or downplayed. This was a media environment in which BBC television news could reverse the order of filmed events in their report of a clash between miners and police at Orgreave, making it appear that the miners had attacked the coppers (when in fact it was the other way round), and never apologise, passing the lie off as a mistake made during editing. They didn’t do that, or get away with it, because Scargill didn’t hold a ballot.
Undoubtedly, some used the lack of a ballot as an excuse to weasel out of supporting the strikers. The Labour Party under that cowardly windbag Kinnock basically allowed the miners to sink or swim on their own, showing an utterly shameful refusal to support a mass working-class action that had created its own legitimacy. Scargill may not have balloted NUM members, but he was the elected president of the NUM (by a majority of more than 100,000), his decision to call the strike was ratified by a national conference, and the majority of the NUM members responded to his call with awesome determination and solidarity. The call for action was only ignored in areas (like Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire – see above) where the miners thought (wrongly) that their jobs were safe. Scargill was widely derided at the time for his predictions of the scale of Tory plans to close pits… predictions that were eventually proved optimistic. To put the blame upon his “inept politicking” is a classic example of blaming the victim. In this view, he should have made every effort to play by rules that the other side was ignoring, and tried to placate a media establishment ferociously hostile to him.
And the supposed failure of the strike to win the support of the country obscures just how much support was forthcoming. In one instance, the print workers at the Sun refused to print a proposed front page featuring a picture in which Scargill had been photographed to look as though he was giving a Nazi salute. The planned headline was ‘MINE FUHRER’. The Sun journalists didn’t think that way because Scargill hadn’t held a ballot. The printers didn’t let the lack of a ballot stop them putting their foot down to stop it. A bit more of that kind of thinking, and a bit less victim-blaming, and maybe things could’ve been different.
But it wasn’t just a “propaganda war” anyway. To quote Seumas Milne, in his explosive book The Enemy Within – The Secret War Against the Miners, the Thatcher government launched
the single most ambitious ‘counter-subversion’ operation ever mounted in Britain. This was a covert campaign which reached its apogee during the 1984-5 strike, but continued long afterwards. In its breach of what had long been seen as the established rules of the political game, it went beyond even the propaganda, policing and industrial effort openly deployed by the government to destroy the country’s most powerful trade union. As far as the Thatcherite faction in the Cabinet and their supporters in the security services were concerned, the NUM under Scargill’s stewardship was the most serious domestic threat to state security in modern times. And they showed themselves prepared to encourage any and every method available – from the secret financing of strikebreakers to mass electronic surveillance, from the manipulation of agents provocateurs to attempts to ‘fit up’ the miners officials – in order to undermine or discredit the union and its leaders. It is a record of the abuse of unaccountable power which is only now returning to haunt those who pulled the strings and those who carried out the orders.
Given the forces ranged against them, I think Scargill, the NUM leadership (with the exception of those members who were spooks) and the miners can be congratulated on doing as well as they did.
However, there is something to be said about mistakes made by the union leadership. It wasn’t their failure to be well-behaved boys and surrender in advance, thus staying in the good books of the media. It was their failure to take the fight further. To quote Paul Foot again, the Government’s victory was by no means inevitable, but it had been
assisted at least in part by the consistent failure of the NUM leaders to use the power at their disposal – the involvement of mass pickets. In area after area, even in Yorkshire, the management of the strike was left to the leadership. Again and again, too, there were opportunities for other unions, notably in the docks and railways, to invigorate the strike by solidarity action. That these opportunities were not taken was largely due to the passive reaction of the TUC, whose officers, like the Labour Party leaders, intervened again and again to discourage such action.
Maybe the people in the Labour Party or the TUC who sold out the miners were worried about the lack of a ballot. Maybe that was why leaders of other unions (like the EETPU or the Engineers and Managers Association) instructed their members to cross picket lines. If so, it was a grotesque failure of proper priorities.
Speaking of which… Sandifer goes on to say:
In more fundamental terms, of course, the strike is a classic example of the false opposition. Of course closure of collieries had to happen. The coal industry was increasingly unprofitable, and even in 1984 it was clear that in the medium to long term a transition away from coal mining and towards other forms of energy was necessary. Equally, however, closing the pits devastated local economies and communities. The unexamined assumption here, however, is that economic progress and development has to carry a human price. Thatcher’s government was never going to seriously consider coupling the pit closures with efforts to provide new economic stimulus to the affected regions, and Scargill opted to defend the moribund coal industry in the general case. In the end, every side was mercenary and aiming primarily to protect their own wealth.
Sandifer here makes his own unexamined assumptions: that profitability is how one decides if an industry is worth preserving; that Scargill must take all the responsibilities for decisions made by his union; that his choice was to defend “the moribund coal industry” rather than, say, the lives of working people.
But Scargill was part of a leadership that took a decision that was ratified by conference… and then overwhelmingly supported, with great courage and grit, by the membership. They were fighting to keep their jobs, to stop their communities being laid waste. To call this “mercenary” is, frankly, as bizarre as it is offensive. The other side were the ones concerned about profits… and, even more, about the power of the miners.
That’s called the class struggle. It’s not a “false opposition”. And it doesn’t go away if you play nice. This is the biggest “unexamined assumption” in the paragraph: that there was some way in which the whole thing could just have been sorted out sensibly, with no fuss and no suffering and plenty of economic hard-headedness ameliorated with compassion… if only the two warring parties had just been sensible. Well yes… except that the irreconcilibility of the two sides was not a folie à deux. Their interests and priorities were – are – fundamentally opposed. In a panglossian world where the rulers of society might base their decisions on anything other than naked self interest and shoring up their own power, maybe the workers of society could sit back and wait for their mining jobs to be smoothly and gradually replaced by new jobs at wind farms… but that ain’t the world we live in.
Sandifer realises that Thatcher was “never” going to take the nobler course. But still, there seems to be an idea lurking beneath this paragraph: that, if only people like Thatcher and Scargill did realise that “economic progress and development” doesn’t have to “carry a human price” then, hey presto, it wouldn’t have to. But that isn’t how capitalism works. Capitalist ‘progress’ is built on the exploitation of labour. That is its inbuilt “human price”. Capitalism sucks ‘progress’ out of the people it exploits. It can’t be changed by people examining their assumptions, unless it’s the people who are being sucked from. They can realise that they don’t have to lie back and let ‘progress’ steamroller them. And when that happens, you get explosions of resistance like… the miners’ strike!
And then there’s that word: “wealth”!
In his recent book Chavs – The Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones writes:
Unlike most Nottinghamshire miners, Adrian Gilfoyle went on strike until the bitter end. Above all, he remembers the comradeship of working down the pit. ‘The strike were important because of saving jobs,’ he says. ‘I’ve got two lads – obviously I wouldn’t have wanted them to go down pit if they could get another job, but at least, when they grew up, there was that opportunity if there weren’t any other jobs, to go there, and it was a good apprenticeship. It was worth fighting for.’
This guy wasn’t fighting for the “moribund coal industry”. He was fighting for his kids’ right to have a chance at a job when they grew up. You can equate that kind of self-interest with the self-interest of people like Margaret Thatcher, Nicolas Ridley and Ian MacGregor if you like. You can call what they have “wealth” and use the same term to apply to the chance for a working person to toil underground… if you like. But I think the elision obscures more than it reveals.