Strategic confrontation in the making

In the first of a series of articles Ian Donovan examines the background to the miners' Great Strike

Twenty years ago this week, the most important class battle in Britain in the second half of the 20th century began. For the British ruling class, and indeed for the working class, the outcome of this strategic fight was to shape the whole subsequent period, a period that has stretched as far as the present day.

The working class movement in Britain still lives to a very large extent in the shadow of the defeat Margaret Thatcher and her government inflicted on the most militant, most organised, and most conscious section of our class as the outcome of that heroic, year-long strike. While a new ‘awkward’ squad of more militant - or at least more militant-talking - trade union leaders have been placed in office by growing discontent below, still the movement has not succeeded in defeating Thatcher’s anti-union laws, which could only be enforced as a result of the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers.

The attack on the miners in 1984 had been carefully planned in British ruling class circles since the mid-1970s, as a reaction to and in revenge for the defeats it suffered in the earlier part of that decade. The trade union movement, in successfully defending itself against earlier attempts by both Tory and Labour governments to weaken it by placing legal restrictions on strikes, had inflicted a series of humiliations on the 1970-74 Conservative government of Edward Heath.

Two victorious miners’ strikes, in 1972 and 1974, along with a 1972 dockers’ strike that came within a whisker of turning into a general strike when the government tried to break it by jailing five of its leaders, forced the Heath government to climb down in the face of mass working class action. The 1972 strike, primarily about maintaining pay rates in a period of high inflation, is most remembered for the magnificent mass mobilisation of the Birmingham working class at Saltley Gates, where miners struggling against the police to shut down a coke depot were aided by tens of thousands of workers, notably from the engineering industries, marching to the depot and forcing the police to close the gates.

The 1974 strike led the Heath government in panic first to introduce a three-day working week in a bid to avoid the power cuts that crippled industry during the 1972 strike. When that failed, and the lights went out anyway, Heath called a general election on the basis of ‘Who rules the country? The government or the unions?’ He narrowly lost, and a minority Labour administration took office after campaigning to ‘pay the miners’. In another election called by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in October 1974, Heath was further humiliated: this time Labour gained a small parliamentary majority, and Heath was deposed as Tory leader in favour of Margaret Thatcher.

The subsequent years of Labour government under Wilson and then James Callaghan were a period of ‘softening up’ the working class ready for a concerted ruling class counterattack. The wage-cutting social contract was the means of introducing demoralisation into our class - wages were held down while inflation ran riot, this time with the cooperation of the reformist leaders of the trade unions - even lefts like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. It was under Labour chancellor of the exchequer Denis Healey in 1976 that major cuts were made to public expenditure, in particular health and social services, as a condition of a loan from the IMF to bale out a Labour government faced with a major run on the pound in the international currency markets. Thus the working class, which had thrust Labour into office through class struggle, found the capitalist crisis being unloaded onto its back through wage erosion and deep cuts in the social wage, welfare, etc. Real wages in that period declined by around 2%.

In the mines, one important and insidious attack carried out by the Labour government, with important consequences for the future, was the imposition of an ‘incentive’ scheme, paying considerable bonuses to miners from pits that were more productive in terms of coal output. This in practice meant that miners were paid more purely by virtue of the accident that a particular pit or coalfield had more accessible or plentiful coal, thus encouraging an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality in the favoured areas, and undermining the unity of the workforce in the nationalised coal industry. It is worth noting that this scheme was imposed on the NUM by the government, which included energy secretary Tony Benn, despite the miners clearly rejecting the scheme in a ballot.

Given the hysterical denunciation of the NUM later for refusing to call a national ballot in the Great Strike, it is indicative that no equivalent campaign was waged by politicians and the rightwing media over this anti-democratic imposition. This is of course typical - when the bosses hypocritically lecture the working class about ‘democracy’, what they are really concerned about is not the interests of the workers, but rather strengthening the bosses against the workers.

The Callaghan government’s social contract of strikebreaking and wage cuts thus led to a major growth of rightwing reaction (including an aggressive National Front fascist movement). However, it was the 1978-79 ‘winter of discontent’, when public service, council and many other workers engaged in a concerted, but politically leaderless strike wave, that effectively led to the collapse of the government, burying the social contract once and for all. This led directly to the election of Thatcher’s Tories in May 1979, with a clear majority and an evident determination to embark on new, and decisive, attacks on the working class.

Thatcher’s first term in office, from 1979 to 1983, was spent in laying the basis for the assault that was to come in her second term. Unlike the Heath administration, the Thatcher government embarked on a more gradual approach. Heath had engaged in a full-frontal attack on ‘union power’ by means of the Industrial Relations Act, with unions obliged to register for scrutiny by a National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC), which had the power to order strikers back to work to ‘cool off’ during disputes, to impose massive fines, to jail strikers, etc. Seeking to fragment resistance, Thatcher instead employed ‘salami tactics’, mainly involving the gradual removal of legal immunities from civil action (for breach of contract, etc) that had been won in struggle by the trade unions over a century and codified in law. Thus if unions did not call a ballot before a strike, or for ‘secondary’ action, or whatever, they would be open to legal action.

In addition, through strict codes on the election of trade union officials and requirements of the unions to regularly ballot their members on such matters as the political fund, the Tories sought to exploit the democratic deficit that undoubtedly existed in many bureaucratically run unions for anti-strike, anti-militancy purposes. Also in this regard, the closed shop was made unlawful as a supposed breach of the human rights of anti-union workers. At the same time there was no central focus for the movement to mobilise against as with the NIRC - (under Heath it was TUC policy for unions to refuse to register under Industrial Relation Act - a defiance of the law in itself). Instead, employers and others were given the power to sue unions in the ordinary civil courts.

Over time, with the introduction of further legal amendments, more and more immunities were removed, until the situation we live under today (in a slightly modified form, given the Blair government’s slight tinkering with the Tory laws while leaving the mass of prohibitions still in place) was arrived at. But the key qualitative moments when the Thatcher government effected a major change in the balance of class forces, made its anti-union legislation stick and thereby inflicted the strategic defeat on the British trade unions that Heath had attempted and failed, were in the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85.

A central figure in the various ruling class think-tanks that worked out the bosses’ strategy was the late Nicholas Ridley, who in 1979 came up with the infamous ‘Ridley plan’, involving the accumulation of huge stockpiles of coal, the opening of channels for the importation of coal on a massive scale, the increase of oil, nuclear and gas-fired power stations to reduce the dependence of the British economy on coal.

Together with the systematic milit-arisation of the police, using methods of repression that had been practised in Northern Ireland (methods which police chiefs had in fact tested out in Britain during the Wilson-Callaghan years with full governmental cooperation, and had in fact been given something of a trial run in the 1977 Grunwick strike), the stage was being set in terms of economic and state repressive capacity to take on the most strategically important section of the trade union movement: the NUM. This work was carried out methodically during Thatcher’s first term, but it was not until the second that the political conditions were in place to actually carry out the plan and take on the miners in open class warfare.

The ‘salami tactics’ previously mentioned were accompanied by an overall attack on the working class which used mass unemployment, rather than overt strikebreaking, as a weapon. In the darkest days of the Wilson-Callaghan government, unemployment had risen considerably, reaching a high of around 1.65 million in 1977. These were figures unprecedented since the dark days of the great depression in the 1930s - in the post-World War II boom in the 1950s and 1960s, unemployment had become quite a marginal phenomenon. But these figures were to be considerably exceeded under Thatcher, through a deliberate policy of economic ‘shock treatment’: using high interest rates as a method of driving ‘inefficient’ capitalist enterprises to the wall, combined with swingeing cuts in public spending, to create a veritable jobs massacre.

Unemployment had in fact fallen from its peak under Callaghan to not much more than a million by the time Thatcher gained office in 1979. By the following year it had reached two million and over the next couple of years it rose to over three. The spectre of a return to the conditions of mass unemployment and poverty that existed in the 1930s was a haunting fear among the working class in the early Thatcher period - while in fact the real percentages were lower due to the considerable increase in the normally employed section of the population in Britain since the 1930s. The government also began the process of fiddling the unemployment figures, changing the manner in which the unemployed were counted, in order to brazenly deny the real impact of its own actions in terms of impoverishment and suffering inflicted on working class people.

However, it was impossible to hide, as the jobs massacre hit the most oppressed the hardest - particularly among those sections of the working class subject to racial discrimination. The result was the eruption of major riots in inner-city ghettos - first in Bristol in 1980, then the following summer in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

Taken as a totality, what was happening was the deliberate rolling back, by a hard, ruling class regime of class war, of the post-World War II social democratic consensus (also known as ‘Butskellism’, after its most prominent advocates: the late 1950s Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, and the liberal Tory politician Rab Butler). Class compromise, a relatively ‘generous’ welfare state, and considerable freedoms for ‘non-political’ trade union activity were the hallmarks of this period in British history.

The Heath government had been too ham-fisted and irresolute to push home its own version of laissez-faire economics - when it became clear that such policies would lead to a massive growth of unemployment, it retreated. But now the ruling class saw mass unemployment as the weapon that could cripple the working class and avenge the defeats of the Heath period. ‘There is no alternative’ and ‘The lady is not for turning’ were the watchwords of what became the most hated government in post-war British history.

At the same time there were major political polarisations and convulsions within the British labour movement. The experience of the Wilson/Callaghan government, with its social contract, wage cuts and strikebreaking - from the betrayal of the Grunwick workers to the use of troops against the firefighters - and culminating, of course, in the ‘winter of discontent’, caused real disillusionment. But, while in society as a whole this resulted in a temporary shift to the right - growth of racism and fascism, popular support for the union-bashing and anti-immigrant Tories - within the Labour Party itself discontent was channelled in a leftwing direction.

After Callaghan’s defeat, this burst out into the open. At the 1980 Labour Party conference, there was a major revolt of delegates, both from constituency Labour Parties and from affiliated trade unions. The result was a sweeping democratic reform in terms of the Labour Party - the passage of mandatory reselection of MPs. Even though it was initiated by left reformists, this was quite a serious attack on the political privileges of the parliamentary careerists, who in general were beholden to those above, in the bureaucracy, not to the Labour Party’s working class base.

This leftwing revolt - which also elevated Michael Foot, a left bogey man in an earlier period, to leader of the Labour Party - was led by the left-moving Tony Benn, by now a hate figure of the bourgeoisie. When Benn stood for the Labour Party’s deputy leadership the following year, against Denis Healey, the former chancellor who had presided over welfare cuts at the behest of the IMF, this represented a key class polarisation - one which came close to tearing the Labour Party apart, at least in the incarnation that had existed up to that point. Healey won by a tiny fraction of one percent in the ballot at the 1981 conference and, so far from being resolved, the left-right confrontation in the Labour Party bubbled on and on.

An important part of Benn’s base of support in the trade unions was the left in the NUM, personified, of course, by Arthur Scargill, the former leader of the Yorkshire NUM and the hero of Saltley Gates in 1972. The Benn-Scargill axis really did come to play a not inconsiderable role in the major struggles that were to come in 1984-85 - in fact it was the political weakness of the Bennite/Scargillite left that made it very difficult for the miners, despite their tremendous militancy, to break out of their isolation and successfully spread the strike.

One other extremely important ramification of events within the Labour Party in this period was the rightwing split from the Labour Party of the ‘gang of four’ (Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen and William Rogers) to form the bourgeois Social Democratic Party (SDP). This pointed a gun at the remainder of the Labour bureaucracy and threatening them with dire political consequences if they did not knuckle under to the bourgeoisie’s plans to inflict major defeats on the working class. Indeed, it was openly advocated in ruling class circles (such as the pages of The Economist) that the SDP should be lined up as a future replacement for Labour as a left party of the bourgeoisie - minus the organic link with the trade unions.

This would resolve the historic problem for the bourgeoisie: the Labour Party’s contradictory class character as a bourgeois workers’ party. The SDP seemed to offer an opportunity to take British politics back to the 19th century, when two bourgeois parties (Tories and Liberals) competed for the loyalty of the working class. Such was the nature of the strategic defeat the bosses aimed to inflict upon us.

During the first Thatcher term, there were three defining events that, in their own way, set the scene for the miners’ strike. One was the 1980 steel strike. The second was the apparent victory of the miners in late 1981 over a premature attempt by Thatcher to impose a wave of pit closures. The third was the war that took place between Britain and Argentina over the disputed territory of the Falklands/Malvinas, a small group of islands in the south Atlantic, in the spring-summer of 1982.

The 1980 steel strike was in some ways an initial foray, a kind of rehearsal for the miners’ strike, for Thatcher. The state-owned steel industry (British Steel Corporation) was saddled with comparatively technologically backward plant, and was struggling, to put it mildly, in the face of much more competitively priced imported steel. Its workforce was led by one of the most rightwing, servile bureaucracies in the labour movement, headed by Bill Sirs, who would later go on to become one of Thatcher’s friends due to his encouraging strikebreaking in 1984-85. When the closure of a number of steel works was announced at the end of 1979, the union called a strike and stayed out until April 1980, when the leadership threw in the towel. Even given the wretched character of Sirs, the steelworkers’ struggle - “for no more closures and 20%” (which was about the rate of inflation at that point) - was hardly a defeatist response to the situation they found themselves in.

Workers fought, and fought hard, with pickets being despatched from Sheffield, Rotherham, Port Talbot and elsewhere to try to stop the use of steel by British Leyland and other companies. On a number of occasions, steelworkers were brutally beaten by the police. Such was the feeling in the class that there was in fact a degree of rhetoric from elements in and around the TUC calling for a general strike at that time. While, of course, given the rightwing character of the TUC, it never materialised, nevertheless leftist material demanding such a strike found an eager audience among steelworkers and their supporters elsewhere, particularly in bitter response to the predictable TUC/Sirs sell-out.

In the aftermath of the defeated steel strike, the jobs massacre really got underway, as BSC chairman Sir Charles Villiers was replaced by a new, hot-shot American boss named Ian McGregor, who was to sack tens of thousands of steelworkers. Again, McGregor was involved in something of a rehearsal - for the role of butcher he would subsequently be appointed by Thatcher to enact against the militant miners.

Conversely, when Thatcher prematurely chanced her luck and the government announced a number of pit closures in the autumn of 1981, the response from the miners was immediate and forceful. A spontaneous walkout swept through the coalfields, and within only a few days the government was in retreat. The miners were at that point confident, and indeed were in the process of electing Arthur Scargill to the NUM presidency.

This appeared like a famous victory for the miners, but it had produced such a rapid government retreat that in reality it was obvious, even at the time, that it was only a preliminary skirmish. Thatcher was merely testing the ground: over the next couple of years before the strike the government would close a pit here and a pit there, and succeeded in thwarting the NUM militants who kept losing ballots for national action against these piecemeal attacks - they had not succeeded in convincing the rank and file membership that this was a threat that merited national industrial action.

The 1981 NUM victory had something of the character of ‘Red Friday’ in 1925, when a Tory government, working with then private coal owners, attacked the miners with the attempted imposition of pay cuts. Just like then, in the lead-up to the 1926 General Strike, the bosses had been really just testing the waters, laying the basis for the decisive offensive that were yet to come.

One more crucially important circumstance laying the basis for the assault on the miners was the Falklands war in 1982. When Argentina invaded these disputed islands in the spring of that year, it provided Thatcher’s government, then languishing in the opinion polls, with a unique opportunity to use an unexpected international crisis for domestic advantage. Given the relatively antiquated weaponry of the Argentine military, the war was something of a cakewalk for the expeditionary force Thatcher sent out to the south Atlantic to take back the islands. However, within the political and social context - the sense of ‘national decline’ that had lingered over British capitalism for the whole of the 70s, and the inability of the working class movement to point a way out of this stalemate - Thatcher was able to use this petty little war to whip up large sections of the middle classes and also backward sections of the working class into a rightwing, chauvinist lather.

The result was a sudden transformation for her government. From a situation of being overwhelmingly hated it went to ride high on a reactionary wave. Such was the sudden shift of political climate that, at the end of the war, the return of the troops coincided with a pay dispute on the railways, the Daily Mail felt emboldened to openly express its real view of trade unions with the headline, “Smash Aslef”. Troops returning from the war were pictured displaying a banner with the legend, “Call off the rail strike, or we’ll call an air strike”. The result of all this was a marked chilling effect on the class struggle, and a landslide election victory for Thatcher in June 1983, increasing her parliamentary majority from a couple of dozen or so seats for her first term to one well in excess of 100 for her second.

Enormously strengthened after Thatcher’s election victory, the bosses escalated their attacks on the working class movement. One particularly provocative act was the appointment of McGregor, fresh from sacking tens of thousands of steelworkers, to the chairmanship of the National Coal Board. The autumn of 1983 was to see a fusillade of anti-union attacks - the bosses were testing the resolve of the trade union leadership - and predictably, particularly given the political circumstances, it was found badly wanting.

One important class battle that laid the basis for the miners’ strike was the dispute over the Stockport Messenger, a Manchester-based free paper produced by scab labour with new printing technology and owned by Eddie Shah, a smallish employer who was in fact acting as a front for much more powerful interests. His confrontation with the unions, as he attempted to break the closed shop in the print, led to the sequestration of the assets of the National Graphical Association by the courts, using the new anti-union laws.

That was the moment when the TUC made it quite clear it had no intention of standing up to Thatcher in any way - with the support of Neil Kinnock, the rightward-moving ex-leftist who had been elected leader of the Labour Party after Michael Foot’s humiliation at the polls earlier in the year. The TUC failed, in fact, to even pass an elementary resolution of solidarity with the NGA, let along call the general strike that was obviously necessary to fend off this attack, and which many of the most far-sighted militants were demanding. Indeed, considering also the vilification of Arthur Scargill by the hard-right at the 1983 TUC conference for his Stalinoid views on Solidarnosc, the pro-western mass union movement that was seeking to bring about western-style ‘democracy’ in Poland, it became increasingly clear that the TUC would fail to defend the miners against Thatcher’s cold war, union-smashing government.

In the latter part of 1983, individual ‘uneconomic’ pits outside the Yorkshire area (the centre of NUM militancy) began to be closed, one by one. On a couple of occasions these actually led to strike ballots by the NUM, which were narrowly lost. Arthur Scargill, who had been elected NUM president the year before, was more and more loudly warning about the government’s plans to butcher the coal industry, and was demanding industrial action - without quite achieving it. The government was waiting until early spring to make the move it reckoned would trigger off such a strike - thus minimising the possibility that coal stocks would rapidly run down, as would be the case during the winter.

As the new year dawned in 1984, Thatcher found another way to declare her intentions to break the back of ‘socialism’ and effective trade unionism in Britain. The government suddenly announced that hundreds of civil servants and others in more dubious employment for the ‘security services’, employed at the government’s General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) were to be banned from trade union membership altogether. This was done in the name of ‘national security’. Despite a storm of protest, yet again the TUC and Labour Party leadership did not lift a finger to resist these anti-union attacks, unprecedented in their severity since 1926.

Finally, at the beginning of March 1984, the closure of Cortonwood, a supposedly ‘uneconomic’ pit in Yorkshire, was announced, as the first of a tranche of 20 pit closures. This immediately led to walkouts by Yorkshire miners, who then began to picket out other areas. The most important class battle in Britain for half a century had begun.