On the Twenty-fifth anniversary of the miners strike, Pete Ramand speaks to former miner Ian Mitchell about the dispute that changed Britain.
It is 25 years since the miners’ strike, which is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in British history. Margaret Thatcher considered the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), especially its leader Arthur Scargill, an “enemy within”. Her allies in the right-wing media portrayed the union as a subversive force in British society and alleged that it operated in consort with international terrorism and the Soviet Union. A seven week strike by the NUM brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1974, and Thatcher made defeating the union a key component of her economic strategy. I spoke to Ian Mitchell, a mental health worker in the Southside of Glasgow who lost his job as a miner, about life in the NUM and the legacy of a strike that divided Britain.
Ian grew up in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham, a Labour Party stronghold dominated by steel, mining, and engineering. Both of his parents worked in the steel industry and were Labour supporters. He left school to work at Silverwood Pit in 1974, at the height of the NUM’s industrial militancy.
He was heavily influenced by a generation of radical young miners that included Arthur Scargill. In the 1960s, they led a campaign for a national pay rate: previously, miners were paid “piece rates” by the units of coal they produced. “Piece rates were seen as divisive and led to huge differences in pay depending on where you worked and what conditions you worked in,” Ian explains. “This led to a number of strikes led by the rank and file which included a young Arthur Scargill. These militants became the Barnsley Miners’ Forum and went on to play a key role in the national strikes of the early seventies.”
Most of these young militants were attracted to some kind of socialist politics. Ian was part of an angry minority who broke with the socialism of their fathers, a socialism which was largely based on electing the Labour Party to Parliament. Ian’s socialism embraced international politics and anti-racism. “In the late ‘70s I was active in the Anti Nazi League which was set up to combat the rise of the National Front,” he told me. “Reading socialist newspapers opened my mind up to a whole range of internationalist issues such as the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and the fight for a united Ireland.”
As Ian embraced socialism, British politics was moving to the right. A series of botched deals between the Labour Party leadership and the trade union bureaucracy weakened both parties, culminating in the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978. Next year’s General Election produced a landslide victory for Margaret Thatcher, whose evangelical support for free markets was equalled only by her vociferous opposition to collectivism and trade unionism.
Thatcher knew that she could not break Britain’s trade unions without assaulting the NUM. I asked Ian why Thatcher took five years to attack the miners’ union: “When it looked like a national miners’ strike would break out over closures in the early ‘80s she backed off and allowed money to be put in to the industry that staved off the closures,” he told me. “She knew that it was too risky to take on the NUM at that moment and she bided her time.”
Thatcher’s strategy to break the miners dated back to 1974, five years before she was even elected. It was the brainchild of Nicholas Ridley, founder of the Selsdon Group, a pressure group of radically pro-market Conservatives. The Ridley Plan advised building up coal stocks at power stations, “slashing benefits to strikers”, employing “good non union lorry drivers” to move coal from rail to roads, and “importing large amounts of coal from abroad”. In addition, it called for “training a large mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law”. Thatcher made Ridley her Secretary for Transport after her post-Falklands War re-election in 1983, and pursued the Ridley Plan to the letter, at considerable public expense.
The man specifically employed to defeat the miners at the National Coal Board was Ian McGregor. McGregor proved his worth to Thatcher during his tenure at another “nationalised monolith”, British Steel, where he halved the workforce in two years. For Ian Mitchell, whose parents worked in steel, McGregor’s reign evokes particular fury: “His appointment was greeted with universal disapproval amongst miners and their families. Both my mum and dad worked in the steel industry at this time, and both lost their jobs thanks to McGregor.”
After stockpiling coal and recruiting anti-union road hauliers, the Coal Board under McGregor announced that they were closing 20 “unprofitable” (the accounting has been disputed) pits without consultation. Miners in Yorkshire, County Durham, Kent, Scotland and other areas walked out in protest. “Thousands of young miners signed up for action and there was massive enthusiasm for the fight,” Ian remembers.
“This was reflected in hundreds of huge branch meetings across the country that, like my pit, voted unanimously to support the strike.”
Even today, this mass walkout is controversial because there was no national ballot of all NUM members. The vast majority of miners backed the strike, but in Nottingham, many workers opposed the strike and later formed the Union of Democratic Mineworkers to oppose the NUM. Ian, like most miners, fully supported the NUM: “We were right not to hold a ballot. As far as we were concerned, the union had already got a mandate from its membership to oppose pit closures. This was taken in 1981 when over 80% voted to strike against pit closures.”
Given that the ballot was being pushed by the right-wing media and the NUM’s opponents, Ian believes that it would have sold out a strike that already had mass support. “For the majority of strikers the fight was on,” he argues. “It was a question of taking sides.”
Many attribute the failure of the strike to its leader, Arthur Scargill. Scargill was vilified in the media as a pro-communist and pro-terrorist traitor to Britain. However, Ian remembers Scargill fondly: “We did not have enough Arthur Scargills during the strike. His biggest mistake was relying on local NUM officials to conduct the strike. While Arthur supported mass militant activity, area leaders preferred more moderate tactics. Arthur should have appealed over the heads of these leaders to rank and file militants like myself.”
Despite the defeat, Ian has many fond memories of the strike. He points to the solidarity organised by working class communities around the country, who ran Miners’ Support Groups to keep the strike going. Support often came from unlikely sources. Lesbian and gay activists in London drove a pink mini bus filled with money, food, and toys to a mining community in South Wales. They challenged the homophobia of some miners and helped to break down barriers. “Gay activists and miners swapped stories of instances of police brutality and harassment,” he recalls. “In 1985 the Gay Pride demo was led by the Welsh NUM banner.”
Ian paid a heavy personal cost for his union activity. “I was sacked in 1988 and placed on a blacklist which obviously made it difficult to get a job.” Nevertheless, he remains a committed socialist. With his partner Gill, who formed a Miners’ Support Group at Leeds University and later led the campaign against the G8 Summit at Gleneagles, he is an active member of the Stop the War Coalition in the Southside of Glasgow.
I asked Ian if the strike could inspire workers facing unemployment today: “Despite the odds we showed daring and initiative when we started the strike, courage and endurance while we waged it, and pride and defiance when we ended it,” he said. “With the present recession we are seeing many workers being told they have to accept wage cuts and redundancy. Some of these workers are being encouraged by their unions to go along with it.
“Fortunately there are others who are fighting back, from Belfast to Dundee, with courage and determination. I hope their example will inspire others to resist and hopefully this time we’ll win.”