The Miners’ Strike: Forty Years On

By Niamh Flanagan

“It was great. Yeah. It was community, community spirit… It was brilliant. I could go shopping and not worry that I’ve got enough money to pay for my shopping.” 

This is how Anne* recalls life in her pit village, as a mother of two young children whilst her husband worked down the pit. This of course, was before the infamous strike of 1984-5, incited by the closure of Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire, and marking the beginning of a transformative year of strike action which would conclude in the defeat of the miners and ultimately, the wholesale demise of the mining industry. So if life before the strike was brilliant, what has life been like for those striking miners and their families in the decades that have succeeded it? Forty years on, and for those whose lives were invested in and built around the rhythms of the industry and it’s specificities, adjustment to a Britain wedded to  post-industrial energy provision has been difficult. 

I’ve known Anne for about a year now. The first time we met, she immediately struck me as an impressive and formidable character; she had, during the year of the strike, travelled up and down the length of the country giving speeches and raising money for the strike effort, to prevent the miner’s and their families going hungry and to raise awareness of the miners’ plight. Anne fearlessly thrust herself into the arena of male dominated union politics, commanding stages at Labour party and National Union of Mining (NUM)  meetings in spite of the insidious and sometimes overt misogyny that pervaded such spaces. Anne picketed throughout the strike alongside the men, uncompromising in her conviction that the fight against “scabbing miners” and the police was bigger; it was an existential fight against  the pit closures, against Thatcher’s government, and the right of working class people to defend a way of life that provided stability, dignity and purpose. 

This month, I sat down with Anne to discuss the fortieth anniversary of the strike and her reflections on how life had changed since Thatcher’s Tory party had dismantled the industry that had underpinned her way of life and that of her family for a century previous. 

Like many families on strike, Anne’s incurred a large amount of debt as they failed to make mortgage repayments and cover household bills on a strike wage of £22.50 a week. In the face of such immediate financial hardship, mining communities responded with the creation of soup kitchens and welfare centres, generally operated by the wives of striking miners, which pooled available provisions to feed those in need throughout the strike. The principle of collective responsibility underpinned these institutions; where it was a given that those most in need would be prioritised:

“At first we didn’t get food parcels because the single lad wasn’t getting any money. So of course we had to look after them… And so they had to get food parcels first. I can remember, I got my first food parcel the day my dad died, which was the 20th of May.”

It was common practice for mining families to house fellow striking miners who were travelling the country to picket, or raise money and awareness. Anne remembered the time she herself hosted miners from Liverpool, “ I got people coming from Liverpool and I used to have a 50p meter slot for my electric. I remember I hid my purse because I’d got no money in it. I was just praying to God my electric won’t go out because I know when they landed they’d want a cup of tea. So I’m saying, please God let me make them a cup of tea before I take them down to the strike centre. But no, the electric went off. So I had to pretend to look for my purse, which I knew where it was, but there was no money in it. But they were quite happy, they stopped an hour down there and then of course had to make their way back to Liverpool and I went up to see how much money I’d used on the electric and bless me every time they must have went upstairs they’d put a 50 pence piece in. I’ll never forget that. I’d got electric for a full week”

The emotional resonance of this incident has endured in the succeeding decades for Anne. Simple reciprocity and generosity of spirit, cups of tea and 50 pences freely given, is something she believes to be emblematic of a time gone past-  “Well we helped each other as much as we could because if I didn’t have no sugar you can guarantee me a next-door neighbour had no sugar and if they did they shared it.” The strike was fought by and through community; people who had nothing helping other people who had nothing; leaning on one another to endure a time of hardship, and united in a belief that collectively, they had the ability to reckon with the British establishment and stay the tide against a wave of deindustrialisation that would prove to be devastating to working class ways of life. 

With the conclusion of the strike and the return of the miners’ to work in March 1985, the reality of year survived on food parcels and neighbourly generosity was brought into sharp focus, as bills and mortgage repayments gone unpaid caught up to families who had been financially crippled. Anne’s husband had been injured prior to the strike and was unable to return to work at the conclusion of the strike, which coincided with a diagnosis of cancer for Anne. “I mean I was very lucky because I nearly got my house repossessed. And if it weren’t for one of the unions that paid me mortgage for six months my house would have been repossessed because that was the same day I got my letter to say they were going to repossess my house that I got cancer.”

Being one of the “lucky” ones that managed to hold on to their house, did not mean that life for Anne and her family was easy  in the years succeeding the strike. “Everything’s been like an hardship… We’ve gone backwards instead of forwards now. This government don’t care about working class people. They don’t care about us pensioners. I mean actually to be quite honest I’ve just put my heating on because I thought you were coming to my house. I’m just saying we’re limited on what we can do with the price of stuff today. And we don’t get the money to cover it. So like heating, for example. Yeah, we don’t put it on until six o’clock. Because John* worked at pit we got coal free. We didn’t have to worry about heating. Not like we do now, we have to worry about what we’re doing all the time, it’s terrible” 

Anne is fiercely proud of being working class. But she’s also deeply angry – because to be working class has not always meant to go without, to feel marginalised, excluded, and forgotten as she does now. Life in the pit villages were comfortable, meaningful existences, “We managed to save a bit of money. Instead of going into debt for things you could buy them cash. It was brilliant. I could go shopping and not worry that I’ve got enough money to pay for my shopping.” 

It’s not just financial security that Anne believes working class culture has been stripped of, but a sense of community and togetherness. For Anne, community was knowing your neighbour’s name, “When it was a pit village it was brilliant. And just like any other pit village, everybody knew everybody. Now you don’t know a soul.” When asked how this shift makes her feel in her old age, Anne describes it in a word, as “Lonely”.

“I mean, even during a strike you could go to anybody’s house, get a cup of tea and that and have a natter and you can’t do that now. You know, you didn’t even have to, you have to have your doors locked now. You didn’t used to have your doors locked. I could go to school, my dad would be at work, my mum would be at work and doors were left open. I mean don’t get me wrong, they never had nowt you could bloody rob, but you can’t do that now”. 

The miners’ strike has been a subject of cultural fascination for decades since it’s conclusion, and there’s no denying that it’s political weight can still be felt today. Communities like Anne’s have never recovered from the vacuum created by the gutting of the mining industry. Talking with Anne, I am struck by the juxtaposition of a woman on the one hand so animated by her recollections of the radical political activism of her youth, simultaneously rendered so defeated by the reality of life under a political system that has failed to insulate industrial workers from globalising modernisation, leaving them disillusioned and isolated by a society they feel has all but left them behind. 

The 2019 general election saw the abandonment of the working class communities of the so-called “red wall” of the Labour party, having been it’s key voter base for decades. Anne’s community was one such that swung away from the Labour party. Despite the NUM’s association to the Labour party, and her personal and family history of voting Labour, Anne no longer feels any political party represents the needs of people like her. “They don’t do anything for you. They’re not bothered. I mean, you see them going out to all these different places, but I’ve never seen them in my bleeding village – Starmer or anybody? No. So why would I vote for somebody that I don’t know? Why should I vote for somebody that don’t do any good for my village?”

“What they forget is the working class kept the wheels going in this country. It wasn’t them with money. It were working class people that done it. And they didn’t give a damn about what they’d done to us. We were fighting for jobs and we were fighting for security for my kids” 

The political homelessness of a once so partisan and politically homogeneous demographic raises questions about the future landscape of British politics and the question of which party – if any, has the political will and ability to rehabilitate subsequent generations of working class communities into a system that they feel represents them and speaks for their needs. If Anne’s testimony is anything to go by, we’re still a long way off. 

*names changed


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John Harris
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