A death in Wales
The miners needed to defend themselves. Mark Fischer discusses how difficult that was.
The theme of violence - on and off the picket line - was a constant and contentious issue throughout the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. Almost alone on the left, The Leninist - the forerunner of today’s Weekly Worker - consistently agitated for the formation of workers’ defence corps. If organised and under the democratic control of the militant rank and file in the National Union of Mineworkers and the miners support committees, we argued, such bodies could have transformed the defensive actions of the miners - the spontaneous retaliation against police attacks, the sporadic attacks on scabs or coach companies transporting them - and put the strikers on the front foot.
In glaring contrast, the bulk of the left in Britain - whether ostensibly revolutionary or Labourite - were decidedly squeamish on the subject.1 At best, they simply echoed Arthur Scargill’s limp apologetics about the use of force being legitimate on the picket line alone. At worst, they moaned about the attacks of the police or totally ignored an issue that clearly made them extremely uncomfortable. Then a death in Wales on November 30 1984 posed the issue point blank.
David Wilkie worked as a cabby for a small firm in Cardiff. He had seen business pick up during the strike, as he was regularly booked to transport scabbing miners to work and, on that fateful morning for him, his fare was one David Williams, who was breaking the strike at the Merthyr Vale pit. Wales was more or less solid in the strike, and the Merthyr Tydfil area in particular had a reputation for being amongst the most militant in the country.2 The solid proletarian traditions of this part of the UK, plus the huge support the miners in Wales were able to rely on during the 1984-85 struggle, should have left no room for doubt in the minds of both Williams and Wilkie that their actions that morning would have been viewed as beneath contempt by masses of people, not simply striking miners. In case they had any confusion on the issue, they could simply have looked out of the cab’s windows. They were being accompanied by two police cars and a motorcycle outrider to protect them from potential attacks.
Just after the Rhymney Bridge roundabout, two young striking miners - Dean Hancock and Russell Shankland - dropped a large concrete block from a bridge above the road. Williams was slightly injured, but Wilkie was killed instantly. Hancock and Shankland were convicted of murder in May 1985 - on hearing this verdict, 700 miners walked out of the Merthyr Vale pit in protest.
Of course, Wilkie’s death was seized on by the likes of Labour leader Neil Kinnock and other traitorous wretches in the workers’ movement, such as TUC general secretary Norman Willis. (Kinnock actually addressed a rally on the night of the killing, and was continuously heckled after he started his speech by saying, “We meet here in the shadow of an outrage” - he went on to repeat his condemnations of miners’ violence in general.) But as this front page of The Leninist from January 1985 makes clear, it was not simply outright traitors such as Kinnock who felt politically queasy in the aftermath of Wilkie’s death.
By any means necessary!
The miners’ strike is undoubtedly historic in its importance. On its outcome hangs the balance of forces between labour and capital in the period ahead. Its strategic importance is well recognised by a state which has thrown into the struggle the full power of its courts, its police force, and its mind-bending media machine. And such has been the determination of the Tories to secure victory that they have been prepared to see the social peace which has characterised Britain since World War II shattered in their efforts to crush the National Union of Mineworkers.
Against the concerted offensive of the state, the National Coal Board and the Tory government, the usual methods of trade union struggle have proved woefully inadequate. Even the militant flying picket tactics, first developed by the miners themselves in 1972,3 have come off worst against the dogs, batons, riot shields, cavalry charges and snatch squads of the newly organised national police force.
As a result of this the miners have been forced to look to new tactics; they have even had the temerity to reply to state terrorism through organising their own violence, including guerrilla actions. And how the assorted misleaders of the working class - above all Kinnock and Willis - have berated them. These lovers of parliamentary rhetoric, these parsons of class-collaboration, these lackeys of the bosses, who have utterly failed to deliver the promises of solidarity passed so resoundingly at the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conference, now have the gall to sit in pompous judgement over the miners, as they desperately and alone fight for their jobs, communities and indeed the entire working class.
The killing of taxi driver David Wilkie provided both the bosses’ media an opportunity for a new propaganda assault on the militant miners and the Kinnocks and the Willises with a new justification to stab the strike in the back. Because of this some revolutionary posers, so-called champions of the rank and file, like the Socialist Workers Party, have come out against what they moronically call “individual attacks”. They declare that fire-bombing, beating up scabs on their way to work or in their homes, and the dropping of the three-foot concrete block onto Wilkie’s taxi let the TUC and the Labour Party off the hook when it comes to delivering genuine solidarity.
But do these Labourites need an excuse to scab? The truth is that the Labour Party carries out the same policies when in office as the Tories. Remember In place of strife4and Labour’s attempt to chain the unions - the social contract, which saw workers’ wages fall by an unprecedented extent this century,5 and how they deployed troops to break the firemen’s strike. And what about foreign policy? As with the Tories, Labour has pursued undeviatingly the interests of British imperialism: from calling British workers to kill their German brothers on the fields of Flanders and Verdun to sending troops into the Six Counties in August 1969. And didn’t they back Thatcher’s Falklands/Malvinas war and celebrate British imperialism’s victory? So it’s Neil and the Labour Party tops who play “Maggie’s game”, not the miners. No wonder militant miners have been tearing up their Labour Party cards in disgust, no wonder tens of thousands are looking for a revolutionary alternative to the Eurocommunists’ favourite Labourite.
In class war, as in war between nations, there can be deaths. Innocent victims we regret. But, as to death or injury amongst the enemy - the bourgeoisie, the lords of finance capital and their mercenary army of hirelings - we shall lose no sleep. Let’s be brutally frank. Taxi driver David Wilkie regularly drove scabs. He supported them, he knew the risks and was well paid for taking them. Those who languish in gaol accused of his “murder” are soldiers of the class war. Far from distancing ourselves from them, condemning them, treating them like pariahs, the working class has a sacred duty to give them full moral and material solidarity. Not to do so is to commit a contemptible act of cowardice.
In the past we praised Arthur Scargill for what we said was his “refusal to condemn miners’ violence”. Unfortunately this can now no longer be said. Under pressure of a sanctimonious Kinnock, a virulent media campaign, a TUC which could starve the NUM of vital cash, and perhaps in order to court the bishops, he caved in and “disassociated the NUM” from the guerrilla action which killed Wilkie. This is as much a folly as it is unforgivable.
Scargill, having failed to organise workers’ defence corps to protect miners’ picket lines and mining communities from police terror, forced militant miners to take matters into their own hands and organise hit squads and fighting formations themselves. Of course, this has had its cost. Violence is inevitably misdirected, blunt, uncoordinated. But the fault for this must not, cannot, be placed at the feet of the militant miners. The fault lies at the top! And not just with Arthur Scargill, Mick McGahey and Peter Heathfield, but those who falsely claim to be the leadership of the proletariat.
The executive committee of the Communist Party stands exposed. They have made no move, no call, to organise miners’ counter-violence. And what goes for them goes for the petty bourgeois pretenders like the already mentioned SWP, as well as the Trotskyite entrists into the Labour Party like Militant and Socialist Action. And hasn’t Scargill’s retreat on violence shown up the tailists and the scab-lovers? Following it, those who had been for so long dumb suddenly found the power of speech. The Welsh congress of the CPGB voted for a motion denouncing the attack on Wilkie’s taxi as “senseless” and having “no place in the legitimate struggle of the miners”; while Morning Star editor comrade Tony Chater discovered that for nine months the “Tory media” had been focusing “on violence no trade unionist would condone”; and the Young Communist League general council decided to by 13 votes to 11 to “express its condolences” with Wilkie’s widow.
It is these charlatans who must be condemned, not the militant miners who have, against great odds, heroically, audaciously and trail-blazingly, fought fully trained scab-herders equipped with the latest anti-personnel gear.
In his statement attacking miners’ violence Scargill went out of his way to make it clear that his condemnation did not apply to picket-line violence, but he refused to go the whole hog and condemn all violence, as Kinnock insists he must. If this is the case, we would ask Arthur, what’s the difference between violence on and off the picket line? If violence on the picket line is justified when does it stop being so? Ten yards from the picket line? 100 yards? One mile? It is like asking how long is a piece of string.
When the capitalist state sets in motion its monstrously repressive machinery to destroy the NUM, when pickets are mercilessly clubbed down, when whole areas are turned into virtual police states and when the police invade miners homes, isn’t it fully justified to use any means to resist? We say yes! And to make resistance really effective, to give the thugs in blue a taste of their own medicine, to ensure that violence is well aimed with the minimum of mess, we yet again call for the formation of workers’ defence corps.
We are the last to counterpose one form of struggle against another. We say all forms must be considered, taking into account the concrete situation and its demands. We must learn from the successful general who combines the strategic tank thrust with air strikes, black propaganda, artillery bombardment and assassination and sabotage behind enemy lines. So, while advocating the organisation of violence through workers’ defence corps, we do not counterpose this to leafleting, mass picketing, reasoned argument, blacking, national demonstrations, let alone the general strike. For us they are complementary.
1. An exception was the Workers Power group, many of whose tactical demands in the strike were parallel to ours. And thus, ironically enough, given Trotskyist orthodoxy about its ‘betrayal’, with those of the CPGB in the 1926 strike. Our party’s record in 1926 was an important source of inspiration for our own tactical approach in 1984-85.
2. See The Times December 1 1984.
3. The 1972 dispute - over pay - was the first official miners’ strike since 1926 (although there had been numerous unofficial disputes). It lasted seven weeks and was tipped in the miners’ favour by the battle of Saltley Gate, when 2,000-plus miners’ pickets outside a coke works in Birmingham were joined by thousands of other workers from the city, mobilised largely by industrial militants of the CPGB.
4. The government white paper In place of strife was proposed by the Labour secretary of state for employment and productivity, Barbara Castle. It was an attempt to rein in the power of the unions that anticipated many of the attacks later launched by the Tories. It met with concerted opposition in the form of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Union which organised a series of mass protest strikes.
5. The 1970s ‘social contract’ was an attempt by Harold Wilson’s Labour government to embroil the trade union movement in voluntary wage restraint