9 August 2021

Decades on, the Miners’ Strike could yet pave the way to a new kind of politics

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“They hate miners, the Tories do. Always have done, always will do”: so said Alan Gascoyne, a former branch secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in Derbyshire, a leading militant in the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike which broke the union and finished the industry. Decades on, mining communities still live in the social debris of that event, a fact which made Boris Johnson’s merry quip last week – thanking Margaret Thatcher for winning the strike and giving the UK “ a big early start” in reducing carbon emissions – ill-judged at best.

Tory hatred was, and substantially remains, an article of faithful grievance among many miners, their families, their communities. It was partially well founded: Churchill, when Home Secretary, at first refrained then did send troops into the Welsh valleys to quell riots on the fringes of strikes: two rioters were killed in Llanelli in 1911. In the 1926 General Strike – called in support of a miners’ strike – he was ferociously opposed, editing the anti-strike British Gazette in which he called the strikers ‘the enemy’. Riots – as trade union leaders of the time recognised afterwards – had to be stopped: but the reckless naming of poor communities as “the enemy” was a characteristic and heartless excess

It was a designation echoed by Margaret Thatcher – for whom Churchill was an unspotted hero – when as Prime Minister she confronted the 1984 strike. Like him, she saw the strike as both an affront to economic rationality and an attack on democracy, and she was largely right in both. But her default position on trade unions was distrust: Churchill had – at least in some moods – a high opinion of trade unions. The historian Andrew Roberts, for instance, reports him commending the TUC for “the enormous value of (its) work”Thatcher shared that last view only in a strictly utilitarian sense: she liked the miners who defied the strike and went through picket lines to work, and she liked the TUC when it resigned itself to pressuring the NUM to end its action.

The Prime Minister, wrote Donald McIntyre, who had covered the strike (as I did) “sought not only to avenge the miners’ victories of 1972 and 1974, but also to erase the mystique attaching to the NUM, its solidarity reinforced by the small and cohesive communities in which miners lived, by the mutual dependence required by the dangers underground, and by widespread public admiration”.

As Thatcher put the same point it in her memoir, she was determined to overturn a consensus that “Britain could only be governed by the consent of the trade unions”. The One Nation strain in her party, was best represented by the 90-year old former Prime Minister (1957-63) Harold Macmillan (Lord Stockton) from his seat in the House of Lords, saying in a breaking voice that the strike was undertaken by “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in”.

The leader of the strike, NUM President Arthur Scargill, did not give in either (as his executive ended it in March 1985, he promised continued defiance).

A Marxist, harder-line than the Communist Party from which he had resigned, he developed a revolutionary syndicalist position, in which the “trade union movement itself (is) exercising , exercising authority and compelling management, be it private or nationalised power, to do certain things”.

For him, the NUM was a New Model Army, weaponised against a Tory government without legitimacy. Of him, it could fairly be said that he hated the Tories: always had done and always would.

Between the miners’ leader and the Prime Minister there came to be no middle way. Each was out for a political end: each saw the other as fundamentally illegitimate. For the militants among the strikers – whose numbers dwindled rapidly in the last months of the strike – the working miners were ‘scabs’, the worst insult in the trade union lexicon, comprehending both greed and cowardice.

The completeness of the Government’s victory allowed it to close pits as quickly as the Coal Board could do so: by the end of the century, the numbers of pits had been cut to 33, with production centred on a few “super pits” with large and easily worked seams of coal: the last of these closed in 2015. As the pits shut, the villages and small towns where mining had been, often for centuries, the main industry, were impoverished: men went into unemployment, or found lower-paid jobs, or moved.

Clearly, Thatcher had little thought for the environment when she pressed home victory in 1985: hers was a politico-economic, not an ecological mission. The closing of the pits did do what she wished it to do: it removed the NUM from its pedestal as the vanguard troops in an organised labour force – and beyond that, greatly weakened a trade union movement which Thatcherite policies had already badly damaged.

The movement’s members, and working class non-members, had witnessed a government and management determined not to cede – before a union determined not to negotiate on any grounds other than complete surrender of position by the Coal Board. The shelter which powerful trade unions had once given to industrial workers was no longer available, save for isolated incidents. The concept of “movement” was itself in question – even more so when the Blair government showed only a limited appetite for buttressing the much-reduced strength of organised labour.

Nearly four decades after the great Miners’ Strike, voices with some authority and fame now call for a revival of trade unions – as part of a revitalisation of civic society at a time when its institutions and habits are being hollowed out. The US philosopher Michael Sandel is to the fore in this: in a recent interview, he commended the late 19th century Knights of Labour, then one of the largest trade unions in America, as one which bargained hard for better conditions and wages – but also called for reading rooms and libraries, where workers could “learn about public affairs, to reflect, to discuss and to be effective democratic citizens (because)…We’ve lost the sense that democratic education and democratic intelligence needs to be diffused throughout the society, not located only or exclusively within academic institutions”.

The call chimes with themes deployed by British writers such as Paul Embery in his book Despised, Jon Cruddas in The Dignity of Labour, and Adrian Pabst in Postliberal Politics – who, with others, argue that democracy should itself be democratised, as effective power and decisions are spread through society, into the hands and minds of people in localities and institutions. Yet, ironically, politics of this kind both comprehends a renewed role for unions – but also demands a wholly new approach, of a significantly different kind from that of a giant power ready to be deployed against government and capital when a section of workers were roused to action.

On this still embryonic vision, a welter of new and old institutions, which might (or might not) include unions at any given time, would seek both change and agreement through constant dialogue and bargaining. Economic inequality would be a large part of these negotiations – calling for a social as well as an economic justification for time-honoured disparities. In such a renewed civil society, political left and right differences would tend to melt – or at least be called upon to make clear their public value to fellow citizens in a more direct way than at present.

The failure of the Miners’ Strike could, 37 years on, have opened the way to a politics in which the armour-clad certainties of both sides would be replaced by a permanent conversation in which political and other philosophes were tested both for their morality and their utility. The Prime Minister might compensate for his jokey crassness by making something of that point. Were such a system to emerge in a post-Covid world, it would be the last gift from the miners’ – now a ghostly presence – to a society whose industrial civilization they had sustained for nearly three centuries.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.