In the coalfield of South Wales, a version of events has gone down in folklore that bears little resemblance to the facts. Conventional wisdom dictates that Margaret Thatcher had some kind of mad vendetta against the mining communities in general, and that her policies are somehow to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in these communities in the years since. This crude, caricatured thinking conveniently ignores numerous inconvenient truths, such as that Harold Wilson’s government closed far more coal mines than Thatcher ever did (Wilson closed 260 to Thatcher’s 154).
The Thatcher blaming rhetoric also ignores the reality that between 1997 and 2010 Labour had an unbroken period of government (on-going if we include the Welsh Government), and did little to seriously improve these communities or the lives of ex-miners and their families. It’s easier and more comfortable to run with the theory than to face up to the reality that the miners themselves need to shoulder much of the blame for letting themselves be manipulated by National Union of Mineworkers President’s, Arthur Scargill’s, vanity, hypocrisy, and madcap leadership. On this sad anniversary, it’s time for a reassessment.
First must come truth, for without it those 30-year-old wounds cannot heal. It’s not morally right to continue to indoctrinate the young with the ‘Thatcher’s evil’ version of events, nor is it right for the miners themselves to continue to present Scargill as a hero, for it was his recklessness that led to ultimate defeat and the eventual destruction of the mining industry.
Let’s start at the beginning; the coal mining industry of the early 1980’s required enormous government subsidies. In 1982/83, the stated operating loss per tonne was £3.05 (around £10.20 in today’s money), and international market prices for coal were about 25% cheaper. The industry itself was losing around £1.5 million per day (around £4.6 million by today’s figures), making it an intolerable and unsustainable burden on the taxpayer. Several years before the strike, the Thatcher government made it clear that to return to profitability, the mining industry would need to modernise, invest in mechanisation, and yes, there would inevitably be subsequent job cuts.
The pretext of the strike was a very modest proposal by Ian MacGregor, head of the National Coal Board, to close, over a period of time, just 20 of Britain’s 170 coal mines with the loss of 20,000 jobs, spread across northern England, Scotland and Wales, undoubtedly difficult for those communities affected, but peanuts compared with what happened in the years immediately after the strike. Three years earlier, the Thatcher government backed down from plans to close 23 pits after Yorkshire NUM members passed a resolution to strike if any pit was threatened with closure for reasons other than exhaustion or geological difficulties. Following MacGregor’s announcement, Scargill made an unsubstantiated allegation that the government had a long-term strategy to close 70 pits.
There was absolutely no room for manoeuvre with Scargill. Not a single job loss, whether as a result of pit closure or modernisation in working practises would have been acceptable to him. His demands were to intensify to an absurd degree later on. Crucially, Scargill, a man of infinite vanity, never called a full, national ballot, which would have strengthened his moral case enormously, and would become a legal requirement when the Trade Union Act 1984 came into law shortly after the strike began.
Upon the enforcement of the Act, striking miners were not entitled to state benefits due to the lack of a national ballot, and Scargill shamefully decided he would rather force miners, their wives and children to rely on handouts and charity for food and clothing rather than call a ballot and ensure they had the safety net of state benefits to keep them in an acceptable standard of living for the strike’s duration.
Each mine had an individual ballot, with 18 of the 28 pits in Wales voting against strike action. The way ballots were held in pits that voted in favour was also highly dubious, with Betws and others holding a show of hands rather than a secret ballot. In other words, miners may well have felt intimidated into voting in favour of action, even if they knew it would be self-defeating. Indeed, that year’s Trade Union Act, soon to be enforced, made secret ballots a compulsory precursor to strike action.
Intimidation was the main method used by NUM militants of spreading the strike across the many South Wales pits that didn’t vote for it and didn’t want it, with flying pickets appearing at mines as men arrived for work. This was confrontational, anti-democratic and bullying behaviour from Scargill and his apparatchiks. Scargill’s other gross miscalculation was to begin the strike in the spring, when demand for coal had peaked. Unknown to most at the time, the Thatcher government was well and truly ready for the strike.
It had stockpiled enough coal to fulfil the country’s energy needs well into the future, thus ensuring the NUM could not hold her government to ransom the way they did with Heath, Callaghan, and indeed Thatcher herself in the near-strike of 1981. By the summer of 1984, Scargill’s demands had intensified and become even more ludicrous. Preventing pit closures was no longer enough. He now also demanded, amongst other things: A four-day working week; a substantial increase in wages; retirement age brought down to 55; consolidation of the incentive bonus scheme, development of 40 million tonnes of new capacity; new investment to expand all existing pits. There was no way the Thatcher government could possibly give in to them.
Scargill himself was now a regular fixture not just on the heavy political TV programmes, but also on light entertainment chat shows, where he made no secret of the fact he was a Marxist who wanted to bring down the democratically-elected Thatcher government. This was now a straightforward battle between parliamentary democracy and mob rule led by a union baron who didn’t even legitimise his own strike with a full, secret ballot. We should all be glad that parliamentary democracy won, including the miners who lost their jobs.
As time went by, a minority of miners in South Wales returned to work, believing the strike to be futile and knowing it wasn’t in the best interests of themselves, their families, or the long-term future of the industry. They were subjected to cruel taunts of ‘scabs’ by their colleagues, for abandoning a strike that was only ever going to end one way. It wasn’t just name-calling. Many strike-breaking miners had their properties vandalised, faced physical violence, and were shunned by former colleagues when the strike eventually ended.
Striking miners depended on money gathered from charity collections in town centres to pay their household bills, with public sympathy gradually eroding as the months rolled by as the futility of the strike became apparent, all while Scargill lived a life of luxury cars and properties paid for by his members. Strains were put on marriages, long-standing friendships were tested, and there were several violent incidents where innocent people tragically lost their lives.
Due to the sheer length of the strike, many pits permanently lost their customers, at a time of extensive competition in world coal markets as well as a concerted move towards oil and gas power production. There was to be no way back. The NCB accelerated the closure of pits on economic grounds, resulting on a far greater loss of jobs over a far shorter period of time.
The knock-on effect of widespread pit closures was massive. In many valley towns, the pit was the main employer. It was going to be extremely difficult to encourage new jobs to the affected areas to fill the gaps.Long-term unemployment became a very real problem. Areas that were known for their Protestant work ethic, close families and tight-knit communities began a downward spiral into crime, poverty, drugs and welfare dependency.
Of course this is something to be regretted, but former miners owe it to themselves, and to future generations, to acknowledge that were it not for Scargill’s gross mishandling of the conflict, the speed and scale of pit closures would have been far less severe, as indeed would the social impact that followed.