Category Archives: Miners Strike

Brexit and the Miners Strike, Part Three: The Disorientation of the Left


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 miners and their leaders had not expected the kind of all-out political fight Thatcher was waging, but once the strike began, it generated an intense loyalty to the union, involving communities in a fight for their survival. Although mining was a completely male-dominated industry, women from mining areas mobilized to take the struggle into other sections of the working and middle class while the government cut benefits for strikers’ families. The miners’ moral economy expanded to include collaboration with other communities defending themselves against state attacks.

The Tories’ 1980 Coal Act mandated an end to subsidies by 1984 and this empowered NCB management to aggressively confront miners, provoking a large number of separate pit-level disputes that came together after the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood, when, despite the pleas of Yorkshire area officials, rank-and-file miners streamed into Lancashire and Nottinghamshire to picket out those areas. The strike had not been officially called by the NUM national leadership, who in fact merely recognized a struggle that had already started, driven by the militancy and anger among younger miners. [Richards, 100]

They were the first in the industrial world, after PATCO, to experience the assault of international capital against the concessions they had fought for and won from a national capitalist class over many years. However, the left had not grasped the nature of the changes that had taken place during the 1970s. Its theoretical outlook was guided by Leninist categories that were premised on the national state conceived as a monolithic entity, a “body of armed men” arrayed against a homogeneous working class. The picket-line battles between miners and police appeared to fall into that schema.

The left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

After the start of the strike, the sloganizing of left groups for better organized picketing, for a one-day general strike, even for an all-out general strike called by the TUC, embodied the assumption that the miners were battling a nationally-based capitalist class with which there was the possibility of a political compromise after a change of government. To acknowledge that the strike had connotations that stretched outside of a nationally-based economy would have meant breaking from the illusion that the miners could have won a victory like that of 1972.

A general strike, even if one could have been achieved in the circumstances, posed the same question that it did in 1926: who would rule? The miners and the left assumed that it would be a Bennite government that would restore the social consensus and, like the 1970s Wilberforce inquiry, consider the miners to be a “special case” whose jobs should be protected. However, the Labour party was in disarray and its leadership had already capitulated to the pressure for austerity. While left MPs headed by Benn supported the miners, party leader Neil Kinnock vehemently condemned picket-line violence, and, like Callaghan, attacked Scargill for not calling a strike ballot. When New Labour gained power in the 1990s they signally refused to return to a policy of state subsidies to industry.

While the left in general had little influence within the NUM, the British Communist party had a close historical connection with the union, but by the 1980s the party was divided between a faction that based itself on the tradition of industrial militancy and support for the Soviet Union, grouped around the daily Morning Star, and a “eurocommunist” tendency that advocated a “new realism” of adapting to the changes that were taking place within capitalism. The strike and its outcome destabilized their uneasy alliance, leading to a split and the party’s eventual dissolution.

The failures of the Communist party during the 1970s in relation to mass student protests and the women’s movement, together with opposition to the Soviet military response to demands for Czechoslovak autonomy, had encouraged the eurocommunists’ criticism of the lack of internal party democracy and a focus on the industrial working class. Influenced by postmodernism, they perceived class based politics as obsolete because of the transition from manufacturing in large factories employing thousands of workers to a “post-Fordist” form of production based on small, flexible units of capital. The rise of Thatcher was analyzed by this tendency in the party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today, as a new and powerful form of populism, conceptualizing her government as the authoritarianism of a national capitalist class which needed to be countered by a popular front alliance of progressive forces.

Scargill was close to the “traditionalist” faction, although not a member of the party, but he represented the thinking of the young, militant activists who had mythologized the 1970s strikes and the mass picket of Saltley coke depot. What united them was a syndicalist and industry-centric orientation that thought the miners could defeat the government on their own, as they believed they had in 1972.

NUM officials influenced by the eurocommunists advocated a cautious and moderate response to pit closures, which brought them into conflict with the miners’ growing militancy. In Scotland, calls for strike action against the especially provocative NCB management team there “originated from the rank-and-file in comparatively democratic forums, including mass meetings and area delegate conferences. These calls were never opposed by the two foremost national NUM leaders, Arthur Scargill and National Secretary, Peter Heathfield, but they brought those who made them into collision with bureaucratic structures in the NUM, in particular with the NUM Scottish Executive led by Mick McGahey and George Bolton” who were both associated with the eurocommunist trend. [Brotherstone, 106]

Even today, over 30 years later, the left clings to the conception that a wider strike struggle could have won a victory. Its analysis selectively omits the impact of the global recession that had shut down much of the country’s industrial base. However, Thatcher had mobilized a much-publicized ideological attack, middle class support for her anti-union plans, control of government committees, interest rates, union leaders in key industries, as well as the physical stockpiling of coal, in support of her strategic aims.

Seumas Milne’s book, The Enemy Within, is a devastating exposé of Thatcher’s use of the deep state to spy on the NUM leadership and target Scargill individually as an instigator of the miners’ militant resistance to the restructuring of the industry. In the introduction to the fourth edition, he writes: “Success for the miners in 1984-5 could not, of course, have turned the neoliberal tide by itself. That was a global phenomenon … But it would have at least seriously weakened Thatcher, reined in her government’s worst excess and put a brake on Labour’s headlong rush for the ‘third way’ – which would eventually turn into New Labour and its embrace of the core Thatcher settlement.” [xi]

Although Milne refers in passing to the global nature of neoliberalism, he explains the motive for the covert operations he uncovered as the Tory party’s determination to avenge its humiliation in 1972, an explanation that confines his account within a national context. Thatcher’s monetarist budgets had already crashed manufacturing and boosted the City of London’s international financial role. What her government did in order to usher in the neoliberal model was to build on this induced recession with a political assault on the miners’ union to break organized resistance to privatization. Thatcher couldn’t have done this so effectively if the Callaghan government had not already initiated monetarist controls on the nationalized industries; moreover, political pressure from the City and the US Treasury makes it clear that neoliberalism was not Thatcher’s personal legacy but that she acted in line with an international reorientation of capital circulation.

The Mitterand government in France, for example, quickly followed the UK and US in restructuring its economy on neoliberal lines: “what above all determined the French Socialist government’s U-turn on economic policy was the severe market pressure on the franc in the context of the high-interest-rate and austerity policies being pursued by the US, the UK, and particularly Germany. … in June 1982 … the franc was devalued alongside the revaluation of the mark, in an agreement with the Germans that was conditional on the French Socialist government’s promise … to bring its fiscal deficit below 3 percent of GDP. … It did not take long before the French Socialist Party leaders even supported the privatization of the firms they had earlier nationalized.” [Panitch, 197]

After the strike the “traditionalist” faction in the Communist party was expelled as the leadership moved closer to the eurocommunist wing.  “The strike, and its eventual defeat were to accelerate the push towards the modernisers’ agenda within the party. Although many Communists from both wings of the party were pulled into the organisation of a solidarity which mushroomed from the late summer of 1984, attitudes to the strike and to the tactics of NUM president Arthur Scargill, were to lead to further bitter divisions. … The criticisms of ‘Scargillism’, which had been relatively muted and coded during the dispute, came out into the open in 1985 as the party, by now rid of the Chater [Morning Star] group carried out a post mortem. The lessons drawn from the defeat of the miners appeared to reinforce all of the key assumptions of Eurocommunism; the economism and narrowness of the trade unions epitomised by Scargill, the authoritarianism of the state shown in the hostile press coverage and the harsh policing tactics and hence the need for ‘broad democratic alliances’ rather than class politics.” [Eaden, 176]

The CP’s political disorientation after the 1970s was also reflected in the left generally. “The way in which the miners’ strike intensified the crisis in the CP was part of the more general theoretical crisis, and, in some cases, practical implosion on the left. The heroic militancy of the miners’ strike exposed, in a most necessary way, the inability of the then dominant leftwing thinking as a whole (notwithstanding the disputatious variety within it) to meet the theoretical needs of labour. In the new situation, the pressure of militant trade unionism to secure, from capital and its servant state, measures of reform and progressive change, was no longer an historically viable strategy.” [Brotherstone, 120]

Conclusion

The miners’ moral economy considered the blood, sweat, and lives expended down the pits to have given them a form of ownership, and that nationalization had made the mines a community resource that the government was wilfully breaking up with unnecessary closures. “We are protecting the people’s coal,” wrote Mick McGahey in April 1984.  “They are weak because they are nothing but industrial vandals and bully boys.” [qutd Phillips, 110]

Although the miners’ defeat was not inevitable – there were moments when the government could have been forced to retreat – its Thatcherite leadership had been quick to respond to the industrial crisis and the increased specific weight of the City of London in the economy. It did not act merely as the agent of Tory revenge, but also as the personification of the drive of international capital to break up national accommodations with the working class and to bring nationalized industries back into the orbit of circulation through the dispossession of public capital. “The deliberate destabilization of industrial employment and occupational communities was, to be blunt, a consciously constructed and carefully executed assault on the collective culture and material position of the working class.” [Phillips, 175]

Despite the way nationalization was carried out after 1945, creating state-owned enterprises with no change in management, it still embodied meaningful egalitarian and collectivist principles. For the mining industry, starved of capital when in private hands, “Nationalization was as much about workers’ rights [as economic efficiency] in the land fit for heroes returning from the war. The bitter industrial relations battles of the 1930s in the mines were to be solved by internalizing them within the new industrial structures.” [Helm, 30]

While enabling the government’s Keynesian economic planning, nationalization also had a great social significance. Capacity in the nationalized electricity supply industry, for example, was substantially increased through the creation of a national grid that allowed technical improvements like higher voltages, but it also facilitated social integration in a way that a market-based industry could not. “A cohesive society provided the basic social primary goods not only regardless of the ability to pay, but also regardless of location. To the extent that rural customers were too expensive to justify connection, they were to be paid for by the urban masses. Connecting up the Scottish Highlands, rural Wales and other upland areas was subsidized by revenues from central locations, and, perhaps more significantly, transmission and distribution charges tended to be averaged.” [Helm, 31]

The dissolution of nationalized industries and subsequent privatizations by the Thatcher government and its successors has led to the breaking down of essential services and intensive rent extraction by capital. It is not surprising, then, that there is popular support today for the re-nationalization of certain industries, like the railways, where privatization has brought chaos. After the economic meltdown of 2008, political opposition to neoliberalism has begun to strengthen.

But with an economy dominated by international finance, how can austerity be resisted? Global capital still needs nation-states to maintain the social discipline necessary for its circulation. The orientation of the state is an important factor: even a small country like Malaysia was able to resist the IMF and US government and impose capital controls after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. “The more important effect of globalization has been on the political will to undertake state regulation, rather than on the technical feasibility of doing so.” [Kotz]

The left has to re-think the nature of the many partial movements against austerity and the relation of international capital to state power. The class struggle is fought out on many levels, inside and outside of political parties, within state institutions and regulatory bodies as well as on picket lines. If state power was not important, then the plutocracy would not spend so much effort on gaining control of it. What should the left be doing to guide the fight back?

Works cited

Terry Brotherstone & Simon Pirani, “Were There Alternatives? Movements From Below In The Scottish Coalfield, The Communist Party, And Thatcherism, 1981–1985,” Critique, 33:1, 99-124 (2005)

James Eaden and David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, 2002

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

David M. Kotz, “Globalization and Neoliberalism”, Rethinking Marxism vol 12 #2, Summer 2002:64-79

Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within, Verso, Fourth edition, 2014

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

Jim Phillips, Collieries, communities and the miners’ strike in Scotland, 1984-85, Manchester UP, 2012

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Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, British Labour party, deindustrialization, finance capital, Jeremy Corbyn, militarized police, Miners Strike, Neoliberalism, NUM, police violence, Thatcher, Trotskyism, Uncategorized

Brexit and the Miners’ Strike, Part Two: Thatcher’s political war for neoliberalism


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 miners’ victory in 1974 had won them the promise of an assured future for the industry, formalized in Labour’s “Plan for Coal.” It had also won them the enmity of the new Tory party leadership, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, who were determined to prevent the recurrence of a government defeat.

Their rise to power in the Tory party had come out of a revolt of the grassroots against patriarchal leaders like Heath and Macmillan who were identified with a Keynesian corporatist approach to government. Thatcher’s small-minded hatred of organized labour would have ended in political isolation if it had not aligned with the interests of US big business and the US Treasury. While it was relentless US pressure that forced Callaghan to embark on austerity measures, Thatcher was a willing accomplice, whose outlook merged the mentality of small business anti-union and anti-social democratic attitudes with monetarist ideologies geared to “liberating” national economies from restrictions on the circulation of international capital.

Although Thatcher cultivated her “iron lady” image, she hardly stood alone. Her determination to take on the unions was shored up not only by monetarist economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, but also by the entrenched resistance to social democratic policies from the financiers of the City of London. Like the banks, Thatcher accepted that “Keynesianism had to be abandoned and that monetarist ‘supply-side’ solutions were essential to cure the stagflation that had characterized the British economy during the 1970s. She recognized that this meant nothing short of a revolution in fiscal and social policies, and immediately signalled a fierce determination to have done with the institutions and political ways of the social democratic state that had been consolidated in Britain after 1945.” [Harvey, 22] Thatcher’s determination to defeat the miners didn’t just stem from her visceral hatred of unions but also from her ideological commitment to destroy obstacles to capital accumulation.

The international sources of Thatcher’s resolve

What monetarist economics meant in practice became clear when the US Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker raised interest rates sharply in June 1981. Over the next three years, unemployment soared, the construction and auto industries plunged into depression, and the American Midwest became known as the “rust belt” with much of the steel industry shut down; internationally, whole countries, like Mexico, that had borrowed from US banks to overcome the 1970s recession were bankrupted. The US government had abandoned Roosevelt’s New Deal promise of full employment and promoted the reduction of inflation to save confidence in the dollar. Soon after, newly-elected president Reagan faced off the PATCO air traffic controllers’ union in a long and bitter strike and fired them all when they refused to return to work. [Harvey, 23-5]

After winning power in 1979, Thatcher’s first actions were to remove constraints on capital circulation. The government’s 1981 budget, like the “Volcker shock,” focused on deflating the economy and had the effect of accelerating the decline of manufacturing. “For the nation as a whole, the visible effect was a huge rise in unemployment and a vast drop in the gross domestic product, with factories, mills, and pits closing down all over the country. In 1979-81, while other nations saw their GDP rise by 5.3 per cent, Britain’s fell by 2.5 per cent. Unemployment rose to 13.3 per cent, the highest in Western Europe.” [Morgan, 446]

Deindustrialization was a feature, not a bug. It was driven by the government’s need to enforce discipline on the working class; high interest rates attracted capital that the City diverted into low-wage economies in third world countries, shifting manufacturing offshore. “The Prime Minister, urged on by her newest economic adviser, Professor Alan Walters, forced through the most resolutely anti-Keynesian budget of modern times. It imposed Britain’s biggest-ever tax increases … A total of £3,500 million was taken out of the public sector borrowing requirement. Never before had there been so savage a fiscal squeeze; not since the thirties had there been a comparable increase in unemployment, now approaching 3 million.” [Morgan, 446-7]

But this was just the first step in imposing a neoliberal agenda on Britain. The other necessary condition was to defeat the most militant and organized section of the working class. As part of the fiscal squeeze, the external financial limits (EFLs) on the National Coal Board inherited from the Callaghan government were constricted, abandoning the production targets of the 1974 Plan for Coal. “The recession – and particularly the decline of large-scale energy users – reduced demand further, thereby increasing the stranglehold of the EFLs. … [The NCB] therefore decided in February 1981 that it would be necessary to accelerate the rate of colliery closures. The NUM responded by threatening to call a strike ballot, and the miners in South Wales jumped the gun and went on strike.”  [Helm, 74]

Thatcher had learned from the success of Reagan’s gamble with PATCO that governments could gain politically from a dramatic confrontation with unions. The Tories’ 1980 Employment Act virtually replicated US labour laws to prohibit secondary picketing and remove unions’ legal immunity. However, Thatcher was not politically ready for a confrontation with the miners at this stage; her cabinet was still dominated by Tory “wets”, and the government did not have the full support of its middle-class base. Above all, she wanted to avoid Heath’s fate. So she ordered the NCB to back down, while continuing to implement strategic preparations for a strike.

The monetarist economist Friedrich Hayek urged Thatcher to implement yet more drastic increases in interest rates, citing the example of Chile. Thatcher replied: “I was aware of the remarkable success of the Chilean economy in reducing the share of Government expenditure substantially over the decade of the 70s. The progression from Allende’s Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons. However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution.”

The subtext of Thatcher’s reply bears analysis. She did not disagree with Hayek’s lionization of Pinochet’s “remarkable success” in achieving economic “reform,” despite her distaste for mass killings of trade unionists. But she was able to create within British institutions – Parliament, the police, the judiciary – the consent for shock tactics of a different kind in order to restructure the economy.

At the end of 1981 the government was at its lowest ebb. Riots in the inner cities broke out against unemployment. But in March 1982 Argentina occupied the Malvinas islands, known to the British as the Falklands, and Thatcher made a strategic gamble that her ideological kinship with Reagan would result in American assistance for a British military response, succeeding in getting the use of a US airbase on Ascension Island, advanced weapons technology, and intelligence help. Her sympathies for Pinochet were also returned: the Chileans installed a long-range military radar opposite Argentina’s main air base that supplied early warnings of Argentine air attacks to the British invasion fleet. When the radar had to be switched off for maintenance one day in June, the Argentinians were able to launch a surprise attack and sink two troopships.

Although demonstrating Britain’s political and economic dependence on the US, the war’s success changed the political climate to one of belligerent chauvinism, and within the government Thatcher was able to centralize cabinet decision-making in her own hands, bypassing the “wets” in the cabinet. She worked to dissolve the collectivist spirit of the country into the responsibilities of individuals, an ideological message aimed at the aspirational middle class and skilled working class, that lay behind the selloff of council housing to more prosperous tenants. In late 1984 the privatization of British Telecom “made privatization part of a wider cultural shift among the British people, including wide swathes of the working class. Many hundreds of thousands of trade unionists were among those who became shareholders for the first time. … There followed the privatization of British Aerospace and Britoil, and finally the huge sale of British Gas for £5.434 million in December 1986.” [Morgan, 469]

The real beneficiaries of the selloffs were the financiers in the City of London whose central role in mobilizing capital for the privatizations did not mean the strengthening of nationally-based capital, but enhanced its power as a key conduit for the circulation of global finance. The pressures for privatization did not originate within the nation-state but were imposed on it by international capital.

The Thatcher government won re-election in 1983 with renewed political confidence and the results of four years of preparations to take on the miners. The coal industry represented capital locked up in a nationally-circumscribed economy, tightly linked to the electricity industry, and as such was a barrier to the circulation of international capital. But the global economy had already undermined these national arrangements: “The real underpinning of the coal industry lay in the demand for electricity. The 1980-82 recession decimated heavy industry, and, thereafter, the structure of the economy changed to one in which economic growth no longer needed ever more electricity generated.” [Helm, 81]

While in opposition, the Tories had prepared a report on nationalized industries that called for: (a) the building up of maximum coal stocks, particularly at the power stations; (b) contingency plans for the import of coal; (c) the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; (d) introduction of dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible. There should also be “a large, mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing. ‘Good nonunion drivers’ should be recruited to cross picket lines with police protection.” [Saville, 296]

The government’s tactical retreat in 1981 meant that surplus coal was being produced and coal stocks built up at the power stations. The closures of Cortonwood and Polmaise, two of the left’s traditional strongholds, made a strike inevitable, despite the tactical disadvantages of starting a strike in the spring. “[T]he stark choice [for the NUM leadership], faced with MacGregor’s closure programme, was either to capitulate and accept what the NUM had resolutely opposed since the late 1970s, or to fight as best they could … The EFLs were tightened, and hence the Treasury squeeze could only force closures. … Without the new labour laws, without the stocking policies, without the more gentle treatment of what became UDM areas… and without the generous redundancy packages, it would have been more close-run.” [Helm, 87]

During the strike the miners were consistently portrayed as violent, when large numbers of police escorted a very small number of “working miners” into pits. While the violence against pickets was unprecedented in British terms, by international standards it was mild: the police were armed with riot shields, helmets and batons, and nobody got shot, unlike miners in South Africa or South America. Public opinion about the rules of engagement still mattered, but the government were able to prejudice this opinion through its control of the media message. In the course of the strike paramilitary techniques developed in Northern Ireland were refined and the police were “in effect allowed by the courts to re-write the law.” [Saville, 326]

What a focus on the violence of the police against pickets obscures, however, is that Thatcher was carrying out a political war against the miners, that involved an all-round ideological campaign to manufacture consent for her government. The police, as well as being a physical force, were also a means to an ideological end. Her rhetoric of the “enemy within” framed the strike struggle as a conflict contained within national borders; the more she channeled the interests of international capital by harnessing the state to neutralize trade union militancy, the more she appealed to national chauvinism to bolster the legitimacy of the state’s violence against its own citizens.

Her hectoring bombast targeted the social democratic institutions of the postwar consensus; she invested the ideas of “democracy,” “liberty” and the “rule of law” with the content of “obeying orders from superiors,” framing the strike as one that challenged the rule of an elected government and democracy in general. When she said there was “no alternative,” she was able to do so unchallenged because the Labour party elite had already conceded the necessity for austerity in the course of the IMF crisis.

What Thatcher actually achieved through the defeat of the miners was to remove the most important political obstacle to a transition from an economy embodying barriers to global production and exchange in the form of the nationalized industries, to one open to international capital circulation. For this she won the applause of global corporations and their shareholders.

Next: the left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

Works cited

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford, 2005

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

John Saville, “An Open Conspiracy: Conservative Politics and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,” The Socialist Register, 1985-86

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Brexit and a Reappraisal of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Part One: Its International Dimension


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.

Works cited

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

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