Little monument to stoic heroism

David Douglass reviews Hywel Francis's History on our side: Wales and the 1984-85 miners’ strike Iconau, 2009, pp117, £9.99

The author of this “account of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 as it happened in the Welsh coalfields” is a historian and had been an activist in the miners’ support groups of Wales. Although not a miner himself, he is of a long and distinguished mining union family.

However, although the story of Welsh involvement in the strike and how Wales featured in the immediate run-up to that great clash is one in need of plain explanation, I am not sure Hywel succeeds in that.

He starts with a colourful and interesting description of the history of coal and mining trade unionism in Wales. With the correct observation that any serious review of the 1984-85 strike and the responses of the warring parties has to be placed in its historical context. The presence of the past in mining folklore, and in shaping contemporary responses to it, is very strong. Miners are not workers casually drawn to the industry, but rooted like farming families, generation on generation - if not always to the same lump of land, then at least to the same trade, history and tradition, with personal and family involvement in the major chapters of mining history. Reactions to the assault of 1984-85 found distant echoes from the 1830s and Chartism, through the general strike and communism and the militancy of the 70s. There was never any love lost between the miners and Tories, especially in south Wales.

The title incidentally comes from an expression of confidence in certain victory by one of the Welsh pickets, who makes the comment that “History is on our side”. But a brief canter through workers’ history in Britain prior to the miners’ strike might have reflected that perhaps it was not: mass confrontations had in fact failed. Any mass stand-off with the police and state would fail again and the key was solidarity action. It was this crucial feature, with some heroic exceptions, which was missing. That is not to say we did not turn heaven and hell to win it.

The first response of the Welsh area National Union of Mineworkers to the national call for all-out strike action in 1984 was defeated in a ballot vote of the area. This was to many surprising and even today a little embarrassing to Welsh folk proud of their history of militancy and class-consciousness. A record of that vote, lodge by lodge, would have been useful; a summary of the area executive committee debate and where its members stood would likewise have been useful; but both are absent.

The vote against national action was in fact a sort of retaliatory response to the failure of an earlier national ballot for all-out strike action in support of Lewis Merthyr colliery. Miners in Wales felt severely let down by those elsewhere in Britain. Again, an area-by-area, even lodge-by-lodge, record of who voted what way across the coalfields during that time would have been illustrative. This is a crucial period of history, particularly of events in Wales and their relationship to other coalfields, but it is absent from this book, except for a scant few lines.

In fact, there had been a mass spontaneous walkout spreading across the coalfields in 1981. Beginning in Wales, the action was taken in response to the Thatcher-inspired National Coal Board announcement that between 20 and 50 pits were to close. Pickets spread the action to an almost total shutdown and Thatcher was caught with her pants down. The national union leadership, still de facto under rightwing president Joe Gormley, froze like a rabbit in the headlights - while Arthur Scargill was the president-elect, he had not yet taken up office.

The action had been so sudden and determined, it caught the government unprepared and it withdrew the closure programme. Scargill always says we were fools not to have stuck it out at that juncture until we got a copper-bottomed guarantee on the meanings of the ‘Plan for coal’ and agreement on exploiting coal reserves wherever they were recoverable. However, we did not, and we went back to work knowing, as Mick McGahey said, “They have given us a body-swerve, not a U turn”. The NCB and government went away and prepared its stocks, and its counter-strike measures - all the tools it needed for the coming renewed conflict.

While the author mentions this period, of course, he does not explore it in relation to the renewed struggle around Lewis Merthyr in 1983. The Merthyr pickets were already on the road. At Hatfield in Doncaster, a mass meeting to vote on strike action in support was lobbied by the emerging miners’ wives group, which called for support. Hatfield intended to strike, as did other pits in Donnie, and picket out the rest of the Yorkshire. The action was stayed, however, by the decision to call a national ballot, which failed. There is no discussion here of how that crucial change of strategy came about and under whose direction.

The failure of that national ballot ensured that calls for a subsequent national ballot in 1984 would be treated as an invitation to defeat. Likewise, it would result in a parochial anti-strike vote in Wales - a vote which was overturned, as pickets on the ground, and nationwide action, pulled the Welsh miners back into the fold.

Somewhere in this period is an untold chapter of the strike, but I do not get the impression Hywel was aware he was supposed to be looking for it. It would be tempting to suggest some in the leadership were not heart and soul behind the Lewis men, that they thought the action premature, that the ongoing national overtime ban had yet to do its work in weakening the coal stocks at pit heads and power stations, that perhaps Wales ought not to be the central cause of the strike when it broke. I do not know - my suspicions are that those at least were considerations in the national and perhaps some area leaderships: they certainly were not ours in the rank and file. Miners throughout Doncaster, for example, were ‘on sprags’, waiting for the Merthyr miners to arrive and restart the national fightback.

This book is essentially a little monument to the heroism and stoicism of the Welsh miners. It more or less chronicles the trajectory of the strike, though not in any detail. It cites key players and notes their comments made in the period - some of this is based on the author’s and other activists’ diaries. It records the role of the women, and the granite foundation that the NUM rested on in the Welsh pit communities. For all these reasons, it is worth reading.

However, there are weaknesses, some of which I have mentioned. Another is a sort of underlying suggestion that the Welsh miners were used by the national leadership. That the strength and courage of the valleys was misused and squandered by Scargill and the NEC. At the same time, that the Welsh miners were more practical, skilled, militant and loyal than any other area, and that essentially Wales was an exception.

This is overstated; in part, I think the author is unaware of the strength of other coalfields and communities. Whilst it is true that south Wales was the only coalfield in Britain to have pits without any scabs at all, the numbers of blacklegs in the final weeks and months were not so different from some other coalfields. Wales had 5% back at work by the last week; Doncaster with just more than half the numbers employed in Wales had only 1% back at work. South Yorkshire was roughly 3%, while Yorkshire overall was slightly more than 6%. But all of the pits in Yorkshire had scabs, whereas the strategy of placing a scab in every pit to start a demoralising second front against flying pickets failed in Wales.

The author is also wrong on the strategic question of the steel works. He blames Arthur Scargill and his intransigence for the scabbing by steelworkers in Llanwern (and by implication Scunthorpe and Ravenscraig). He says that the Welsh miners had agreed to let limited amounts of coal into the plant, but that Arthur had demanded no coal whatever be allowed in and this caused a breach in the previous agreement, with the steel workers then accepting scab coal and coke from any source.

In fact, a national agreement existed, policed by local areas, which allowed limited amounts of sanctioned union coal into the plants on the understanding that this was necessary to keep the furnaces warm and stop their cooling and collapse. Coal was sanctioned by Scotland, Yorkshire and Wales by agreements with those areas. Arthur believed we were being had, that during the steel strike no plants were kept ticking over in this way, and so demanded all concessions be stopped. We did not agree and continued with the limited supplies under our control. However, for utterly treacherous reasons Bill Sirs, general secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, in collusion with the British Steel Corporation/Corus, broke the agreements and started to run unlimited supplies of coke from Orgreave to Scunthorpe. They abandoned any pretence at not producing steel and reverted to normal working.

Orgreave opened up the biggest breach in the biggest coalfield, and took our pickets out of Nottingham and away from the power stations. It then opened the way for Richard and George Reade, coal transporters from the Forest of Dean, to sue the South Wales NUM for picketing their lorries at Llanwern. The author comments: “The sequestration of the funds [of the South Wales NUM] effectively ended South Wales picketing activities beyond its own coalfield ...” It was a strategic move, at Orgreave, of course, and, following Scargill’s call to stand and fight it out, we felt obliged to rise to the bait. However, it was not Arthur who caused that breach, whatever the weaknesses in making Orgreave our central target.

The book goes on to explore the rapid destruction of the Welsh coalfield, which followed the end of the strike. He looks at the inspirational stand made by the Tower miners in creating the only mine owned and controlled by the workers anywhere in the world. Today two pits only survive in Wales. The lads will still tell you though of underground bonanzas of rich anthracite and coal seams, virgin and thick, still laying underground in Wales - waiting perhaps the advent of clean-coal technology, a world energy crisis and perhaps a workers’ revolution to bring them all together.

I fear it will be too late for any of our remaining miners, now kicking our heels in decimated communities either on the dole or in early retirement for want of mines to work in.