As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.
The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.
The standard account of the strike relates how the National Union of Miners, considered at the time to be the strongest section of the organized working class in Britain, was overwhelmed by the state’s unprecedented physical violence against pickets. While the miners fought bravely and made many sacrifices for the sake of solidarity, they were isolated by the TUC and eventually had to capitulate. Their defeat meant that Thatcher had definitively ended the credibility of the unions’ strike weapon.
An article by Donald Macintyre in the New Statesman, published to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the strike, follows this familiar narrative closely. He writes sympathetically about the miners’ fate after the eventual collapse of the coal industry, then blames Arthur Scargill for the outcome by claiming that his intransigence prevented a compromise engineered by other union leaders in late 1984 that could at least have saved “the wider authority of the TUC.” He mourns the loss of Heath-era corporatist bodies on which unions sat on equal terms with employers and “provided a platform from which to challenge, or at least counterbalance, the increasing influence of a deregulated City of London.”
But this is merely wishful thinking: the social and economic basis of the postwar consensus in which unions collaborated in government had been eroded long before Thatcher came into power. Keynesian-style central planning had lost its viability after the inflationary wave and industrial slowdown of the 1970s, and when in 1976 the Callaghan government turned to the International Monetary Fund for a loan to overcome a run on sterling, the US Treasury, together with officials in the Bank of England and the UK Treasury, brought relentless pressure on it to accept severe public expenditure cuts. Defending the value of the pound meant prioritizing the interests of the City of London over industry, and Denis Healey became the first politician to privatize state assets when he sold off British Petroleum shares as part of the deal. Labour’s policy director at the time, Bernard Donoughue, later wrote how “the doctrines later known as ‘Thatcherism’ were first launched … ‘in primitive form’ by Callaghan, the Treasury, the Bank, and above all the IMF and sections of the US Treasury.” [Morgan, 385]
“In the face of successively more intense runs on sterling, climaxing in the IMF crisis, the Labour cabinet’s turn to scaling back the welfare state, confronting industrial militancy, and dismantling capital controls was so thorough that, for the first few years of her 1979-83 government, Margaret Thatcher could claim she was only following Labour’s policies.” [Panitch, 158]
When the miners brought down the Heath government in 1974, they had gained a commitment to coal as Britain’s solution to the rising cost of oil. The “Plan for Coal” of that year assumed a steadily increasing demand for coal from electricity power stations, and so an expansion of output and an end to job losses. But Healey’s policies of monetary targets for nationalized industries under the conditions of the IMF loan meant that there would be no prospect of state support for such plans. [Helm, 71-3]
It was under a Labour government, then, that state policy was changed from upholding full employment and social welfare to the priority of controlling inflation and state expenditure. Thatcher would take this much further, but the globalizing economy was the force driving this development. In many countries globalization had brought pressures for “international standards and wage structures and destroyed the tacit link wage-earners had to the ‘success’ of national capital; and the erosion of national sovereignty reduced the political leverage held by the working class or trade unions on the national state. Trade unions themselves began to face increased antagonism from both capital and the state, with stagnation or even loss of membership beginning to appear by 1980.” [Teeple, 29]
Historically, the miners were to become the most dramatic casualties of this extension of the power of global capital into the British economy, or to put it another way, the start of the financialization of the UK. Unlike the circumstances of their victory in 1972, they were not fighting a government oriented to national capital (despite Thatcher’s regular appeals to chauvinism), but one increasingly impelled by the economic logic of globalization.
The international dimension of the strike
While the miners indeed fought bravely in 1984, they did not receive the same kind of industrial support from other workers that they had got in 1972. While supporting the miners with generous donations of food and money, uncertainty over industry closures and high unemployment meant other sections of the trade union movement were reluctant to spontaneously join in mass picketing as they had in the previous strike; the steelworkers were said to be “shellshocked” from the plant closures of the previous three years. [Saville, 312]
There is little chance that calls from union leaders for strike action without a movement among their membership would have been successful. In any case, the TUC was itself divided between unions like the NUM who argued for defiance of the anti-union laws the government had begun to apply after the 1983 election, and others who wanted to maintain a low profile. In particular, the electricians’ unions which organized workers in the power supply industry refused to recognize the miners’ call for support action, and went as far as instructing their members to cross picket lines. [Richards, 136]
Reflecting on the defeat of the strike, “[a] miner at Penallta colliery commented: ‘I think why we didn’t get a lot of support was … people were frightened … very frightened, because the Government had proved that they intended to win and never mind what it cost.’ A colleague at the pit agreed: ‘why we didn’t get that support … is because … the propaganda that Thatcher was putting about, a lot of people unemployed, who were fighting for jobs, and there was people then that were employed who knew that if they didn’t play ball with the employers they would be pushed out.’ The Branch Delegate at Sharlston colliery in Yorkshire spoke similarly: ‘The whole trade union movement has gone through a low ebb … I believe people were looking after their own jobs – they were threatened with ‘if you do support the miners with industrial action, you could close your own factory down.’”[Richards, 138]
The international recession of the late 1970s had hit the trade union movement hard. By 1978, 1.5 million workers were unemployed, disproportionately in areas that had been union strongholds. “By 1983 a continuous spatial tract where at least one-third of the total unemployed were long-term unemployed stretched from the Mersey to the Humber and penetrated both south into the Midlands and north through Lancashire and Yorkshire into the heartland of the British industrial economy.” [Salt, 1985] At the same time, “The number of strikes fell dramatically: in 1981 only 4.2 million days were lost in industrial disputes compared with an average 13 million per year throughout the seventies. Union membership had fallen from over 13 million in 1980 to below 10 million three years later.” [Morgan, 450]
Rapid deindustrialization in the north of Britain was accompanied by an expansion of new industries in the southeast based on microelectronics, which created a broad area of relative prosperity. This gave Thatcher a social base: her government “had coincided with the rising prosperity in the expanding towns of southern England and East Anglia. High-tech industries, based on computer software and the like, had meant near-boom conditions for such places as Cambridge, Basingstoke, Winchester, and especially Swindon, the outstanding growth town of the decade.” [Morgan, 467]
The technology industries tended to be smaller and non-union, and ideologically supportive of the government: “many of the companies making the information technology revolution happen were innovative and enterprising small firms, run by entrepreneurs. Clive Sinclair’s business success over the early 1980s was all the more marked because the demise of Sinclair Radionics in the 1970s was associated, to an extent, with the heavy hand of state control via the National Enterprise Board.” [Lean] The overall effect of their expansion was a radical change in job structures, with a small number of highly-paid technicians alongside a large number of low-paid production workers, and consequently a differentiation of the working class that undermined traditions of trade union solidarity.
These were the social conditions in which the miners began their strike in April 1984 after the enforced closure of Cortonwood in Yorkshire and Polmaise in Scotland. Although industrial support from other unions was not forthcoming, the majority of miners stayed on strike until the end of 1984, many until early 1985. The miners had their own idea of a “moral economy” in which their right to jobs and the welfare of their communities came above capitalist economics. “[M]ost miners … clung tenaciously to an alternative vision of the market – one which encompassed different economic, social and moral dimensions. … miners sought the restoration of a system of negotiation and consultation to which they were accustomed and which they felt was being undermined in the early 1980s. Coupled with this was a clear awareness that the future of their communities was at stake” [Richards, 119-120, 122] Their determination to stick it out, once the strike had begun, stemmed from the fact that the NCB and the government had broken the precepts of this moral economy.
The NUM leadership had expected the strike’s economic impact to force an early climbdown over pit closures. But what was at stake was much more consequential. Despite the NCB’s production loss of £1.1 billion and the eventual economic cost to the government of an estimated £3 billion, “in challenging the assumed prerogatives of management over employment levels in the coal industry, the miners struck at the very heart of Thatcherism’s strategy for the restructuring of the British economy. Its central thrust … was to break with the institutions of corporatism and interventionism, to dismantle the public sector and ‘to reestablish the conditions for free markets. The state had to be strong if the market was to be free.’ Furthermore, given its monetarist goals of eliminating state subsidy of the public sector, and of breaking the power of public-sector trade unions, a ‘public defeat of Scargillism would demonstrate that unions could not interfere with the restructuring of the economy’.” [Gamble, qtd Richards, 123]
Scargill initially thought that the miners alone would be sufficient to defeat the government, but the use of mass pickets in the early part of the strike to prevent British Steel from moving coking coal from the Orgreave coking plant in Yorkshire was defeated by a phalanx of police organized in paramilitary fashion. “The NUM national leadership hoped for a repeat of the Saltley episode in 1972; instead, Orgreave was ‘the pickets’ Waterloo.’ As thousands of miners from all over the country converged on Orgreave, they were met by 8,000 policemen equipped with riot helmets, shields and truncheons, and with dogs and horses at their flanks.” [Richards, 127]
The Thatcher government had made extensive preparations to isolate the miners and cut off their support. The anti-union laws passed in 1982 “were always intended to be relevant to the NUM, and legal action started to have a serious impact on the NUM’s ability to persevere with the strike in the summer. It was to take two main forms. The first was to mobilize the police to protect working miners and to keep the pits clear of pickets. The second was direct action against the NUM and its assets. … There was only one serious fright for the government before the drift back to work began to erode the strike. This was the vote by NACODS to strike, which led in turn to major concessions by the NCB, including those in relation to the closure programme and the associated procedures.” [Helm, 86]
Large coal stocks had been built up at power stations, which had also been converted to use oil as an alternative fuel. Although ASLEF and NUR had told their members not to cross miners’ picket lines, as the strike continued, “more and more coal was transported in massive convoys of lorries – many of them privately owned. As such, a Derbyshire surfaceworker reflected, the miners’ failure to turn back many lorry drivers at picket lines became a major strategic weakness of the strike: ‘The TGWU – most of their members went through the picket lines … if the TGWU … had stopped the transportation of coal, that would have been better than money coming in’.” [Richards, 136-7]
Thatcher was able to use the opposition of the Nottinghamshire miners to strike action to further undermine the strike politically, although this was more of a propaganda advantage than an economic one. When Peter Walker announced at the start of 1985 that there would be no power cuts in the coming year, a turning point was reached. The NUM leadership had not been prepared for the extended war of attrition that the government had launched. The miners’ job security was based on a continuing high output of coal, which itself depended on the close relationship of the Coal Board with the nationalized electricity industry. Both industries were ultimately based on a social-democratic compromise between labour and capital in a closed national economy. This era had been ended.
The miners’ isolation originated in the international context of the strike: the recession in the global economy had led to the rapid decline of heavy industry and the growth of new industries based on microelectronics that had undermined the class basis of social democracy. The resolve of the Thatcher government to defeat the miners was likewise not solely motivated by national political pressures. It had an international dimension not only because it mirrored a US-supported trend to cut back government spending, dismantle heavy industry and privatize national assets, but also because it was influenced by the example of Chile in restructuring the economy through a drastic offensive against workers.
Next: The international sources of Thatcher’s resolve.
Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.
Tom Lean, Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016
Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)
Andrew J. Richards, Miners on Strike: Class Solidarity and Division in Britain, Berg, Oxford, 1996
Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso, 2012
John Salt, “The geography of unemployment in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.” In: Espace, populations, sociétés, 1985-2.
John Saville, “An Open Conspiracy: Conservative Politics and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,” The Socialist Register, 1985-86
Gary Teeple, Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform: Into the Twenty-First Century, Humanity Books, New York, 2000