Miners Great Strike: Aftermath of defeat

In the last of his series on the miners' Great Strike, Ian Donovan looks at its effects in the years that followed

The miners’ strike lasted one whole year, virtually to the day, from early March 1984 to early March 1985. During that year, the British working class movement underwent a whole series of experiences that had been up till then outside of what was considered ‘normal’ to it.

Even in the General Strike of 1926, and the subsequent defensive, losing miners’ strike that followed it, the level of conflict between striking workers and the police did not reach the pitch that it did in 1984-85. 1926 was still remembered, not entirely apocryphally, as the year when strikers still played football with the police. This despite the significant influence of the early Communist Party among workers at that time. In 1984-85, the level of class bitterness and class hostility of strikers up against a state machine that was tooled up in advance, and determined to crush them at all costs, did not allow for such fellow feeling and friendly frivolity with the helmeted thugs who were running riot through the coalfield communities.

In 1926, despite the strategic nature of the struggle, no-one was actually killed in battle on the picket lines. In 1984-85, not only were two picketing strikers killed by the direct action of strikebreakers - with complete impunity - you also had a number of deaths of people from striking pit communities foraging on slag heaps and the like for the means to keep warm during the winter in which Margaret Thatcher and National Coal Board chairman Ian McGregor were seeking to starve the miners back to work.

To counter that, of course, you had one dead taxi-driver, killed ferrying scabs to work in south Wales in November 1984, when in an attempt to stop the scabbing operation a lump of concrete was dropped from a bridge. The case of Dean Hancock and Russell Shankland, the two young miners from Rhymney, south Wales, who were originally sentenced to life imprisonment for murder for this incident, was the most celebrated of all in the efforts that were made by many in the wider working class movement to roll back the tide of Thatcher’s vindictive class justice, as part of contesting the undeniably deeply unfavourable outcome of the miners’ strike for the wider working class movement.

One thing Britain had never experienced, up to the point of the ascendancy of Thatcher, was a government that was determined to inflict a world-historic defeat on the working class movement at home, and was prepared to go to any length to achieve it. It is arguable that, for all its significance in British labour history, 1926 did not in fact represent such a crushing defeat, but rather signified the end of a period of real militancy in the immediate post-World War I conjuncture. It was not the outcome of a determined drive of the bosses to inflict a crushing blow on the entire working class in the manner of 1984-85.

In fact, while the British working class suffered from very high unemployment levels after the Wall Street crash in 1929, this was an unexpected development from the point of view of the British bourgeoisie, who were in 1926 somewhat intoxicated by the post-World War I economic recovery and boom which was already underway at that time. Unlike in the Thatcher years, when mass unemployment was a key weapon used to crush the working class. In that earlier period, the British ruling class still had its empire and thereby considerable reserves for the future in terms of stability, wealth and strength. While it wanted to defeat the most radical wing of the labour movement - ie, the communists - it had no particular reason to inflict a crushing and embittering defeat on reformist trade unionism itself at that time - with all the risks that would involve for future social peace.

The 1984-85 strike took place in rather different circumstances, where the British ruling class had lost its empire, and had felt itself cursed from at least the mid-1960s onwards by a working class movement that, although not led by anything remotely resembling a revolutionary threat, had nevertheless in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s achieved a high level of organisation, considerable experience of economic struggles in conditions of relative plenty, and equally considerable freedom of action within the workplace. This under a system of welfare capitalism that the British bourgeoisie had semi-willingly conceded at the end of World War II - thus simultaneously bailing out bankrupt sections of British capital and providing a means to undermine the potential growth of communism in the British working class.

As a result of this situation, by the 70s Britain had without doubt the strongest trade union movement in Europe. In 1979, TUC-affiliated unions had over 12 million members. For a British capitalism that was generally identified in the same period as ‘the sick man of Europe’, with an unstable, somewhat backward and statified economy and continually rocked by strikes, the imperative to change this situation radically grew and grew. Hence, what Thatcher represented for the British working class was something quite new. In an attenuated form, while maintaining the parliamentary framework as something that had served the British bourgeoisie well and would therefore not easily be thrown away, the tasks the British bourgeoisie set itself were in many ways similar to those that the European bourgeoisies attempted using Hitler and Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s. That is, to inflict a decisive political and organisational defeat on the workers’ movement itself, to create a qualitative shift in the balance of class forces away from labour towards capital, in a catastrophic manner.

That had never been seriously attempted in Britain in the modern era, and, though the British bourgeoisie was not compelled to resort to extra-parliamentary means (eg, a fascist movement or coup) to carry it out, it nevertheless required a form of authoritarian bourgeois reaction that was quite unfamiliar to the social democratic reformists that dominate the British workers’ movement. Hence the somewhat plaintive pleading against Thatcherite ‘fascism’ by the likes of Michael Foot and Tony Benn, and the flipside of this, the winning over of whole sections of the petty bourgeoisie, parasitic on the working class movement, to Thatcherite ideology - the starting point for Kinnockism and latterly, of course, Blairism, and a major influence in the evolution of many of the Euros in the ‘official’ CPGB. This really bespeaks the political impact of the miners’ defeat on the working class movement in Britain.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike, however, there were a number of urgent political tasks for the left. One was to draw the necessary political lessons. Another was to take up in a class-struggle manner the task of damage limitation, of trying to hold the most militant elements of the working class together, particularly the miners, and to arm them politically for future struggles in the new conditions after their defeat. This was not facilitated by the fact that the National Union of Mineworkers leadership stubbornly denied that there had been a defeat at all. Defiance in the face of defeat was of course a necessary aspect of preserving the fighting capacity of the union, and the miners certainly maintained their defiance to end, marching back to work as a collective with brass bands and the like in many areas. But such defiance ought not to be confused with self-delusion.

NUM president Arthur Scargill simply buried his head in the sand about this. Indeed this insistence was so bizarre, it undoubtedly contributed to the disorientation of many militants - in the union and in the wider movement. Scargill’s warnings of the massive plans the Tories had for closing pits were of course proved right - and this became obvious soon after the strike - but the fact is that the NUM had been defeated in struggle: a completely unnecessary defeat, to be sure, caused by the cowardice and treachery of the trade union bureaucracy, but nevertheless a major defeat. For those miners who were jailed, or for the many hundreds sacked, or for the many thousands who returned to work and found a draconian, vindictive management with its tail up imposing new onerous working conditions in preparation for Thatcher’s earmarked privatisation (and decimation) of the coal industry, the pretence that the NUM had not really been defeated was worse than useless - it was criminal misleadership.

In terms of damage limitation, there were a number of immediate demands to be fought for. One was the freeing of jailed miners, the class war prisoners of the Great Strike - of whom there were many dozens. Thousands had in fact been arrested during the strike. Then there was the question of sacked miners. Hundreds were sacked during the strike often under the most flimsy of pretexts. After the strike, the management had a field day, victimising militants virtually at will, picking and choosing who they wanted to get rid of, relying on the fact that the miners had already fought and lost over a period of a year and it was difficult to see what else the workers could do to stand up to management in those conditions.

Then there was the question of the maintenance of the unity of the NUM itself. This was a particularly sensitive question, not only in view of its recent history, but the history of its predecessor, the Miners Federation of Great Britain, in 1926 and afterwards. It was a well known historical fact that the Nottingham coalfield, after the defeat of the 1926 miners’ strike, had been the centre of a breakaway, known as the Spencer union, after its founder. This pro-management scab union had lasted though the 20s, and had been eventually undermined by the work of more militant miners who in the later 1930s had entered it in order to win over its base to genuine trade unionism - there had been a certain level of compromise in its reincorporation back into the miners’ union and elements of that compromise showed up in some of the federal aspects of the NUM itself. The tradition of Spencerism had of course provided the historical background of the Notts scabbing during the strike.

NUM militants were in no doubt that many of the scab leaders - the likes of ‘Silver Birch’ and his open counterparts in the scab leaders who had taken control of Notts NUM, the likes of Roy Lynk and David Prendergast - intended to follow in the footsteps of the Spencer union and aspired to be willing tools in the hands of Thatcher to split and hopefully wreck the NUM. All these practical questions, questions that would obviously involve the careful weighing up of the best tactical options in a very unfavourable, backs-against-the-wall situation, were necessarily on the agenda for the miners and the left in the post-strike period.

First of all, though, it was quite difficult to discern what the real impact of the defeat was. At the end of the strike, our comrades published a theoretical supplement titled ‘A defeat: but not a strategic one’, that opined: “This strike definitely marks a watershed in the development towards a British revolution, towards the situation where we can start to challenge for state power.

“It marks the end of consensus politics, definitely. Consensus politics in Britain has been wobbling and cracking in front of our eyes … this strike has washed it away. And in place of that consensus politics we see class war politics” (The Leninist May 1985).

This was in fact a mistake, albeit a fairly common one on the left at this time. The miners’ strike certainly polarised British society and in the process of fighting the NUM the Thatcher government did considerable damage to some of the traditional ‘safety switches’ of class collaboration that had kept the working class a seemingly willing partner in its own exploitation for much of the history of British imperialism. However, what this somewhat underestimated was the importance of the miners to the British working class movement throughout British history. A major, drawn out and apparently decisive defeat of what was perceived by most militants, and indeed most workers, as the strongest and most militant section of the class itself represented a major shift in the balance of class forces.

What followed the miners’ strike was a series of extremely bitter defensive battles - from the inner city immigrant communities that rose up again in rage at police brutality and racism in the summer of 1985, to the Wapping dispute with the union-smasher Rupert Murdoch that dominated the efforts of working class militants in 1986, to the later defensive struggles of the dockers in 1989 and the miners again in 1992.

Many of these events and disputes took their toll on the Tories, who had also sustained damage from their efforts to defeat the miners. Indeed, the Thatcher government itself underwent a mini-crisis at the end of 1985, as some of the contradictions within it over matters of controversy to the bourgeoisie erupted into the open - having been suppressed in the interest of bourgeois class solidarity until the struggle with the working class was considered won. The blowout in the Tory cabinet over Westland Helicopters - in reality over policy toward Europe - was a sign that Thatcher had fulfilled her class purpose and her supporters were beginning to move on to other issues - giving birth to intra-bourgeois conflicts that would eventually bring her and the Tories to their knees.

The post-miners’ strike working class struggles, however, were waged from a position of considerable psychological and material disadvantage - the fact was that the Tories had indeed presided over a “strategic” defeat of our class... Which of course, meant it was qualitatively more difficult to get generalised support and real solidarity from the class as a whole than it had been prior to 1984-85. In terms of the consciousness of the British working class too, a strategic defeat had taken place - one that would necessarily take a considerable number of years, to recover from. That really is something of a truism today, looking back in hindsight, but at the conjuncture of 1985, it was not quite so obvious.

Thus, though a Justice for Mineworkers campaign was initiated in the broader labour movement to take up the case of the jailed and sacked miners, it did not really make much headway. One notable exception was over the case of Hancock and Shankland - their conviction for murder and sentence to life imprisonment produced a real outpouring of protest, walkouts, etc, in the mining communities of south Wales and a much broader sympathy in the working class. The result was that their conviction was rapidly commuted to manslaughter and their sentence reduced to ‘only’ eight years each. But in most other cases, because of the knock-on effect of the defeat, plus the fact that the Tories were accelerating their attacks on the entire coal industry in any case, agitation for amnesties for jailed and sacked miners fell on stony ground. Though not for want of trying by a determined minority of politically conscious miners.

It was that minority that also attempted to get off the ground a National Rank-and-File Miners Movement, which held a conference in Sheffield in April 1985, and attempted to cohere something that could organise independently of the bureaucracy, even of Scargill. Around 120 attended this conference. The main purpose in the eyes of the participants was to find ways to mobilise in defence of the victimised and the jailed, and begin to build a rank-and-file organisation at pit level. However, even in the eyes of the initiators of the conference, the attendance was considered disappointing - and in hindsight this again related to the nature of the strategic defeat that had been inflicted.

As 1985 wore on, the question of the divisions in the NUM in the aftermath of the strike became more and more ominous, with the formation of the scab breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers - initially in Notts, but also with a base of support in other smaller regions, threatening at times to even break into Yorkshire as a result of demoralisation at the outcome of the strike. Again, there was only a limited amount that could be done about this in the political situation had come about in these circumstances. The UDM gained the support of around 70% of Notts miners and thereby dominated this region, which itself amounted to around 17% of the entire strength of the NUM. In this difficult situation, our comrades were moved to advise NUM loyalists in Notts to enter the UDM and attempt to fight the scab leadership from within, and hopefully lay the basis for destroying this new Spencerism and thereby reunify the miners for future struggles.

A perspective that was completely in the tradition of communist trade union tactics; however, it was always going to be a long and difficult struggle, particularly as the extent of the Tories butchery of the coal industry became clear. By the end of 1992, after the Tories had taken great care to arrange a massive increase in the use of imported coal and gas to fire British power stations, Heseltine stuck the boot in and announced plans to close all but a small minority of pits. Including, of course, many pits dominated by the UDM, whose reward for their ‘loyalty’ was a kick in the teeth. There was of course a major outburst of anger in the working class over this, but, marked by the strategic defeat that had taken place in 1984-85, one thing that did not happen (and was not really on the agenda) was any kind of mass strike movement to stop the butchery.

The Tories were forced to manoeuvre in the face of a mass protest movement, to concede an ‘inquiry’ into their pit closure plans and the future fuelling of power stations, etc, but this was in reality just a means of demobilising a mass movement whose political level was way below that of 1984-85. Two massive demonstrations (one on a weekday) mobilised masses of workers, albeit briefly. But the movement was overtly led by the rightwing, ‘traditionalist’ Labour leader, John Smith, and class traitors like TUC leader Norman Willis (who had been so reviled in 1984 that miners had dangled a noose before him), and depended for much of its political weight on the ‘support’ of dissident Tory Europhobes who feared that Britain would become completely dependent on the nasty European Union for energy supplies. This movement was easily brushed aside.

The 1984-85 miners’ strike was one of those occasions in history when the political currents that dominated an entire labour movement were put to the test - and shown to be completely inadequate. Fundamentally, what was found utterly wanting was the politics of social democracy - Labourism. The British Labour Party was formed as a half-step towards a genuine class party of the workers at the beginning of the 20th century. The party was fundamentally a political crystallisation of the world outlook of the trade union bureaucracy: it sought the ‘representation’ of working class interests entirely within the framework of the capitalist parliamentary system. The party’s ‘socialism’ was a later innovation, to a large extent an attempt to undermine the appeal of revolutionary communism, which massively increased its potential attractiveness to the working class as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Labourism in Britain reached its apogee in the post-World War II social democratic settlement and welfare state. And when the bourgeoisie came to consider it could no longer afford such a situation, Labourism went into crisis. One wing began to distance itself more and more from the trade unions and workers’ struggles - prefigured by the anti-working class attacks under the 1974-79 Labour government and then the split of the short-lived SDP, it took its first initial coherent form under Neil Kinnock. The defeat of the miners - which Kinnock of course did an enormous amount to bring about, stabbing them in the back at every available opportunity - in turn gave it the chance to come out more openly with its anti-working class programme. Following the strike, the anti-left witch-hunts that had been threatening for a number of years in the Labour Party really got underway. From the expulsion of Militant to the abolition of the Labour Party’s clause four by Tony Blair, it was a relatively uninterrupted progression.

Opposed to this, of course, were the old-style reformists: Tony Benn and Scargill, and the Labour left more generally. However, 1984-85 put them to a major political test, and they were found to be incapable of breaking with the increasingly openly anti-strike, anti-working class right wing. If ever there was an opportunity to launch a new party of the working class, breaking with the likes of Kinnock, Hattersley and the treacherous TUC leadership, 1984 was it. But the lefts, Scargill included, did not have the politics to do this - only 12 years later did Scargill move to try to set up a new political party, the Socialist Labour Party, after the Labour Party had formally renounced its socialist verbiage by abandoning clause four. By that time, there were no masses of workers in struggle, and thus really comparatively little available human material to make the SLP a viable mass party. The result was, tragically, a sect that proved to be incapable of pointing a way forward for the working class.

All these negative lessons, in their own way, point to the absence of the one thing that could have positively resolved the many problems for the working class posed by the great events of 1984-85. That is, they point to the absence of genuinely working class political party, or - to give it the correct name - a Communist Party. A revolutionary organisation that embraces the advanced section of the working class, and provides a means whereby strategic and tactical questions can be thrashed out and resolved on the basis of the historic interests of the proletariat, making use of the most advanced theoretical conquests of the labour movement - Marxism. This kind of party is the very opposite of the Labour Party, which defends the interests of an essentially middle class labour bureaucracy, subordinating the interests of the workers to its own careerist interests - whether in the trade unions or the Labour oligarchy. The bankruptcy of social democracy, highlighted in this period by the abandonment even of reformism by sections of this bureaucracy, demonstrated the illusory nature of the notion that the working class can depend on such reformism to achieve emancipation.

But there was so much that had a revolutionary logic, so much that pushed at the very limits of this society, that was manifest in the miners’ Great Strike, as to point to the potential of such struggles in the future to interlace with the building of a real revolutionary force, and win decisive victories against capital itself.