Thirty years have now gone by since the beginning of the 1984 Miners’ Strike. It remains the bitterest industrial dispute in living memory and marked a turning point in the power relationship between the trade unions and the government; the consequences of which have helped shape our economy today.
This post uses a range of Jisc MediaHub resources to examine how the strike progressed. If you are carrying out your own research you will find many hours of relevant material on this topic in the Newsfilm collections as well as the Amber Films collection and the LBC/IRN radio archive collection. You can access all of these via the ‘Explore by Collection’ page.
Mining in the UK has always been a dangerous job, where each has depended on the other for their safety underground. In addition lives could be cut short by emphysema and black lung disease; illnesses brought about by long term exposure to coal mine dust. As a result mining communities were traditionally close knit as is shown in the following film made about the future of mining in the year before the strike began.
The News from Durham (a documentary made by Amber Films) was based around the centenary of the Durham Miners’ Association in 1983. It shows miners and their families gathering to celebrate and show their solidarity in what they knew would be difficult times ahead. The miners would be fighting for more than just their jobs; it was for their way of life and their communities.
Background to the Strike:
Britain’s industrial revolution had been powered by the mining industry over many generations but following nationalisation in 1947 mining had gradually become unprofitable due to oil imports and the birth of the nuclear power industry. The following film from Channel 4 News looks at the background to the National Union of Mineworkers and why it eventually became left wing.
The increasing militancy of the miners led them to strike over pay in 1971; their first national action since 1926. The resulting electricity cuts and Three-Day Week caused humiliation for Ted Heath’s government which was eventually brought down in 1974. A decade later the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was determined to crush the NUM should they oppose plans for the restructuring of the coal industry. Careful preparations were made by stockpiling coal well in advance to ensure electricity supplies were not interrupted.
The next move in the government’s battle plan was to appoint Ian MacGregor as the new head of the National Coal Board in March 1983. He was a controversial figure due the reputation he had earned as a ‘hatchet man’ during his last job at British Steel where he had made over 90,000 staff redundant in order to make the company more profitable.
Amber Film’s ‘The Future for Miners: Where are we going?’ was produced for the NUM during 1983 to discuss the crisis in the coal industry. It provides a valuable background to how beleaguered the miners were at this time and their thoughts about the future. In it Arthur Scargill, then President of the NUM, talks about a secret hit list of 70 pits for closure: an allegation which was to have consequences for him a short time later. In fact the miners had been used to many pit closures over preceding decades, however in 1974 the NCB produced a report called ‘The Plan for Coal’ in which they confidently forecast an expansion of the coal industry until the end of the century. As a result the miners were deeply suspicious of the Thatcher government’s motives in appointing Ian MacGregor who was already regarded as an asset-stripper.
The Strike Begins:
The strike began in early March 1984 after the NCB announced its intention to close 20 pits. There would be no national ballot – a decision which was to contribute to Scargill’s eventual downfall. Some mining areas (such as Nottinghamshire) did not support the strike: they mistakenly believed their pits were safe. NCB Chairman, Ian MacGregor, wrote to all members of the NUM to tell them Scargill was deceiving them and there was no secret hit list; however documents recently released by the National Archives reveal otherwise.
This ITV News report shows how flying pickets were sent to non-striking pits to persuade them to join the strike; causing much division and violence. The NCB were granted an injunction by the High Court against secondary picketing by the NUM, however this proved ineffective. Police from other parts of the country (especially the Met) were brought in to control the situation but their presence was greatly resented as they were not local and had little understanding of mining communities.
The next news clip gives a flavour of these tensions. Yorkshire miners from Knottingly colliery tried to picket Nottinghamshire mines but were frustrated in their efforts by the Police. Click on the image below to hear them talk about their experiences.
In this ITV News clip you can watch Arthur Scargill’s bravura performance when asked to condemn the violence of flying pickets.
The Battle of Orgreave:
The worst violence of the strike took place at the Orgreave coking plant on 18 June 1984, when up to 10,000 picketing miners clashed with 5,000 police in a bloody confrontation. The miners were trying to blockade the plant to prevent coke being transported to British Steel. That day huge police reinforcements had been brought in along with dogs, police horses and riot gear; whereas the miners were clad in light summer clothing which gave them no protection. Never before in the UK had police in riot gear attacked citizens exercising their right to picket – it was a watershed moment.
The following extensive unedited rushes from ITN give an indication of the atmosphere on the day:
Both police and miners were injured that day but arrested miners could not be succesfully prosecuted due to lack of evidence. Today the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is calling for a public enquiry into the police brutality which took place.
‘The Enemy Within’
On 19th July 1984 Margaret Thatcher addressed the Conservative back bench 1922 Committee on the striking miners, during which she described them as ‘the enemy within’:
We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty
A short time later she gave the following interview to ITV News in which she said the government had given the miners ‘the best deal in history ……and the best investment in the future they’ve ever had’ Click on the image below to listen in full.
The following month David Jenkins, the controversial new Bishop of Durham, took the opportunity to make an inflammatory speech about the strike in which he argued why the miners ‘must not be defeated’ and that the government were ‘indifferent to poverty and powerlessness’. Click here to listen to his words via our LCB/IRN collection.
Meanwhile miners’ families were starting to suffer great hardships. Everyone had hoped the dispute would be resolved after a few months but as winter approached the cold weather and increasing poverty was starting to take its toll . Miners’ wives had mobilised to form support groups such as ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. They set up kitchens in community centres to feed the strikers’ families and many had also joined in the picketing.
End of the Strike
The miners eventually returned to work on the 5th March 1985; a whole year after the strike began. For most of them it was a very emotional time; they were not sure what they had achieved despite having faced so many difficulties.
In the following clip, from the Channel 4 Special ‘The Miners Decide‘, Welsh miners speak passionately about what the strike meant to them. Arthur Scargill blamed the end of the strike on a hostile government, judiciary and Police together with the media and a year later was to say the NUM had not been fighting an employer but the Tory government and the state machine.
In this overview made by Channel 4 News you can hear a report on the long term legacy of the dispute and how it had weakened ties between the NUM and the rest of the trade union movement. The human cost of deprivation endured by miners’ families was very great and would have ongoing consequences in the following years and across generations. This Channel 4 Special looks at the village of Grimethorpe a year after the strike ended and its effects on the mining community. A further clip from ITV News shows the effects of the strike on the Nottinghamshire village of Wellbeck where the community had suffered from divisions between striking and non-striking miners.
By the end of the 1980s trade union power was significantly weakened by legislation which limited the extent of industrial action. It is now illegal to carry out secondary picketing and police have special powers to stop a mass picket where they think there is a danger of serious public disorder. Today trade union membership has dwindled to less than half its total in 1980 and it is unlikely we will see industrial conflict on the level of the Miners’ Strike again. However, the recent strike by London Underground workers signals a possible return to using strikes as a method of solving industrial disputes.
The UK coal mining industry continued to decline and was privatised in 1994. Today only three deep coal mines currently remain open from the 170 pits which employed 190,000 people in 1984.
Now We See What Was Really At Stake In The Miners’ Strike: Guardian review article by Seamus Milne 12/03/14
Cabinet Papers reveal ‘secret coal pits closure plan’: BBC News article 03/01/14
Thatcher vs the miners: official papers confirm the strikers’ worst suspicions: Channel4 blogpost 03/01/14
Margaret Thatcher and the Pit Strike in Yorkshire: BBC News article 08/04/13 following the death of Baroness Thatcher
BBC Radio 4: The Reunion: The Miners’ Strike: Those divided by the picket line discuss the legacy of the strike 30 years on
The Women of the Miners’ Strike: ‘We caused a lot of havoc’ : Guardian article 07/04/14
Kellingley and Thoresby deep mines to hit 1300 jobs: BBC News article 10/04/14 reporting on the closure of two of the three remaining deep mines belonging to UK Coal
Taking part in industrial action and strikes: a guide from Gov.UK
Coalfields Regeneration Trust: Charity founded in 1999 dedicated to improving the quality of life in Britain’s former mining communities