Sun Tzu, a man who knew a thing or two about conflict, once said that if you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by. If time is a river, then Nottinghamshire’s tiny band of miners’ strike veterans – fewer than 2,000 from a 32,000-strong workforce in 1984 – have been patiently waiting for thirty years.
On 3 January 2014, Cabinet Office documents pertaining to the strike were released to the National Archive. Finally the bodies started floating by. First in ones and twos, then in a deluge as the truth finally emerged. There was a secret hit list of pits earmarked for closure, long and stridently proclaimed by Arthur Scargill during and since the strike, strenuously denied by both Thatcher and Coal Board chief Ian MacGregor.
Thatcher herself had intervened directly in the matter of policing picket-lines, demanding, as one document shows, evidence that the police were “adopting the more vigorous interpretation of their duties which was being sought.” Other discoveries included discussions on every possible aspect of the dispute with Thatcher involved in astonishingly precise levels of micro-management. She was personally involved in every conceivable area of the dispute. The conclusion is inescapable; Arthur Scargill, the most maligned and vilified trade union leader in British history, had been right all along and his nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, had consistently lied and misled both Parliament and the public; before, during and after the strike.
Before the strike there were 174 operational deep-mine pits in the UK, employing over 230,000 people. There are now just three, employing barely 2,000; Kellingley and Hatfield in Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire, with both ‘The Big K’ and Thoresby now earmarked for closure.
During the year-long battle which, in parts of the country, assumed a genuinely insurrectionary character, over 20,000 people were arrested or hospitalised. 200 served time in custody or were convicted and jailed. 966 - 29 of them in Nottinghamshire - were victimised and sacked for fighting to preserve their jobs and their industry. Three died foraging for coal, two were killed on picket lines and another was killed trying to ferry a strike-breaker across a picket-line and into work.
In the Nottinghamshire coalfield, of vital strategic importance to both the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Thatcher’s Government, the battle raged perhaps more fiercely than anywhere else. The story of that dispute is without parallel in British industrial history and those on strike endured suffering, hardship and loss on a scale incomprehensible to many today. For what, though? As the strikers saw things, for nothing less than survival; the survival of their industry, the survival of their trade union and the survival of the jobs and prospects of the generations which were to come.
Nottinghamshire saw men in their fifties, nearing retirement, with absolutely nothing to gain but everything to lose, fighting for the jobs and futures of men young enough to be their sons; in some cases, men who were their sons. Men who crossed picket lines and betrayed the very people who defended them.
We now know that the Tories deliberately rigged the UK’s domestic energy market to artificially present pits as ‘uneconomic.’ Economics, though, were only ever a secondary factor. At the heart of the dispute was an agenda driven by ruthless class considerations, involving the elimination of effective trade unionism and socialism or any alternative to the system, the survival of which depended on the impoverishment of the working-class and the institutions which had, since 1945, sustained it.
It was remarkable, too, for the sheer tenacity, bravery and commitment displayed by its participants. One Hucknall miner spoke of the moment he nearly caved in and went back to work. “It were November and just about everything in the house had been sold to keep the debts manageable and buy food, or burned to keep us warm. I didn’t have any furniture left downstairs apart from a couple of kitchen chairs and a table. Me front room just had a couple of orange crates and I were sat on one chucking shoes onto the fire to warm the house up for the kids coming in from school. The stink were bloody horrible. Leather and plastic and that didn’t burn that well but it were all we had. For some reason, folks seemed to think we were desperate for footwear so they sent all sorts and we had piles of the things. I were burning the shoes and I thought, ‘Why am I putting me kids through this?’ I just burst into tears. I were cracking and were going to go back to work. But we were doing all this for our kids in the first place. We knew the sort of future they’d have if Thatcher won, so I gave me sen a shake and just gor on wi’ it.”
A thirty-year old industrial dispute might appear to have little relevance to people and their lives today, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s employee-employer relations are the legacy of that tumultuous year and the triumph of Thatcherism. So too is the seeming acceptance that mass unemployment is now an acceptable norm; the widespread-resignation that working for a living now involves minimum-wage labour on zero-hour contracts with minimal employment protection in service industries. After all, there are virtually no mines left in which to work. Ditto steelworks, docks and shipbuilding; little manufacturing of any real kind. Today’s Britain is significantly the result of the miners’ strike and the processes that the end of that dispute set in motion. It is the indissoluble link between the post-war social democratic consensus and the neoliberal privatised world in which we live today. A world that could not have existed, in its current British form, without the miners’ strike.
The Tories had suffered at the hands of the NUM twice before. In the strike of 1972 and again in the 1974 strike when the then Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, went to the polls on the question, “Who runs the country?” The country returned its verdict, ousted the Tory PM and the establishment swore vengeance. In 1977 the infamous Ridley Plan was formulated. A blueprint for the conscious destruction of the trade union movement and the successful combating of any future strikes by the trade unions, the NUM in particular.
A key part of the Plan was the role of the police. Violence by the police was brutal, calculated and, as the thirty-year old Cabinet Office papers show, sanctioned by Thatcher herself. Former Women Against Pit Closures activist, Iris Wake, from Bestwood Village, recalled her first experience of them on the picket line. “I was just standing there when this policeman came right up behind me and started kicking my ankles” explained Iris. “When I refused to react, he put his head on my shoulder and starting whispering in my ear. I couldn’t believe what he was saying! ‘Miner’s whore, effing slag, scum’ and things like that. Then a working-miner, crossing the picket said, ‘I hope your effing kids die of cancer.’ The police never said anything to him, though. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t heard it myself.”
The Metropolitan Police Force was hated with a passion throughout the county, earning a reputation for thuggery and violence that outstripped that of any other Force. Behaving more like football hooligans than upholders of the law, the Met regularly issued beatings to Nottinghamshire miners and would then affix little stickers to their victims bodies, which read, ‘I’ve met The Met.’
The creation of the National Reporting Centre (NRC) was central to dealing with policing in the coalfields. Operating from a room on the thirteenth floor of Scotland Yard, its purpose was revealed by Douglas Hurd to Parliament on 5 April 1984. “Arrangements for a national reporting centre were first made in 1972. Its main purposes were and are to help in the national co-ordination of aid between chief officers of police in England and Wales, under section 14 of the Police Act 1964, so that the best use is made of manpower and to provide the Home Secretary with information, in the same way as he receives reports from individual chief officers, to help him discharge his responsibilities for law and order.”
Thus the NRC became the management body of an effectively national police force; the paramilitary wing of the Conservative Party. In seeking to combat picketing and deal with an industrial dispute in this way, rather than by simply applying civil law, the police UK-wide, enthusiastically spearheaded by the Met, became a partisan body, forcibly imposing acts of political policy rather than simply upholding the law. Later, the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, was forced to admit to Parliament that Special Branch officers – in practice, agents provocateurs – were operating in Nottinghamshire.
Nottinghamshire’s Chief Constable, Charles McLachlan, sealed off the county and threw thousands of his officers into the battle to enforce Thatcher’s will. Any pretence at neutral policing was soon discarded and his force was crucial in keeping the Nottinghamshire coalfield open.
Since the strike, police abuse of power and corruption is now commonplace. Orgeave, Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence and the use of undercover officers to infiltrate ‘subversive’ groups – even sleeping with activists and fathering their children – has led to widespread revulsion and distrust of the police in many parts of the UK.
The secret state was also instrumental in the establishment of Nottinghamshire’s scab Notts Working Miners’ Committee (NWMC). It was funded by donations from right-wing businessmen, Tories and one David Hart. Hart, an Eton-educated millionaire, was on the hard-right of the Tory party and a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher. Hart’s links to the intelligence services and dubious counter-insurgency types, on both sides of the Atlantic, presented no problem to Nottinghamshire’s working miners. Some of their leaders colluded directly with the security services. Since the strike, much has emerged to confirm some of the strike-breakers were conscious and willing participants in the security services’ campaign to destabilise the
NUM. Silver Birch AKA Chris Butcher, was confirmed as a state asset in 2009. Papers released to Morning Star reporter, Solomon Hughes, under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that Butcher reported to his handler, “... a detective inspector in the Intelligence Office at Nottinghamshire Police Headquarters” on a regular and frequent basis. Butcher founded the Notts Working Miners’ Committee and he rose to national prominence as he toured the coalfields promoting strike-breaking and encouraging other areas to set up their own working miners’ committees. He became an establishment cause célèbre; championed by the Tory press. Harrumphing gin-soaked colonels and the pearl and twinset-bedecked matrons of the Tory shires thrilled to first-hand accounts of the intrepid Silver Birch’s heroic crusade.
When the strike was over and the scab Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) emerged, key NWMC members provided its nucleus. UDM leader Roy Lynk was awarded an OBE for ‘services to trade unionism’ and after paving the way for mass pit closures and privatisation, he and Nottinghamshire’s former strike-breakers settled in for the long period of prosperity and security promised them by a grateful establishment. To their fury, they too were betrayed as Nottinghamshire’s pits were closed in contrast to the promises lavished upon them during the strike.
Today the UDM is a husk, with barely 300 members and its former President, Lynk’s successor, Neil Greatrex, is an acute embarrassment to his former organisation. The former UDM chief had had his fingers in his Union’s till and was convicted on 3 April 2012 of fourteen counts of theft.
The legacy of Nottinghamshire’s working miners is one of greed, cowardice and treachery. Little wonder that legacy should culminate in theft, fraud and outright corruption. And the complete destruction of an entire – and once mighty – industry.
We told you so.Read more from Harry Paterson in his book ‘Look Back in Anger: The Miners Strike in Nottinghamshire 30 Years On’ which is available from Five Leaves books for £9.99.Five Leaves Bookshop website