Class struggle of miners illustrated

David Douglass reviews Peter Arkell and Ray Rising’s Unfinished business: the miners’ strike for jobs 1984-85 Lupus Books, 2009, pp96, £7.99

The authors were photographers during the strike, when the National Union of Mineworkers and pit communities confronted the Thatcher government and the state. Drawing on new sources as well as their own experiences, Peter Arkell and Ray Rising bring out the significance of the longest-ever mass strike in British history.

This book stands in utter contrast to the big self-declared definitive work on the strike, Marching to the fault line, which I previously reviewed.1 This is a slender paperback book, whereas Marching is a bulky hardback volume. The latter sets off with the declared stance of a historian retelling the story of the strike and ends up wearing a journalist’s cap slagging off Arthur Scargill and the NUM. This one sets off with passion and conviction to establish the cause of the striking miners and the trajectory that followed. Marching to the fault line is a mass of mistakes, inaccuracies, gossip and slander. Unfinished business is nigh as damn it accurate. The tale the way I myself will more or less tell it in my forthcoming Ghost dancers, the third part of my autobiographical trilogy (hopefully out next year). As a slender pocket-size summary of all the key events and important issues, this book cannot be matched in my view.

It takes us through the politics of Margaret Thatcher and why the confrontation with the miners and more particularly the NUM was central to her vision and programme. It sets out the forward movement of the miners and the demands to engage solidarity and support from firstly other unions then the TUC as a body - the tale of grief that this reveals is the biggest tragedy in the story.

If there is a shortcoming in this work, it is in its failure to authenticate its statement of undoubted facts. It is not enough that we know these things happened, or that these players acted in this way: we have to able to prove it for the book to have real academic authority. But it is bereft of footnotes and acknowledgement of sources. This is a shame because the work actually corrects (probably without knowing it) the self-opinionated Marching, with its incomprehension of events around, for example, the docks strikes. Marching hasn’t a clue about the relationship between Orgreave, the Immingham clash and the Hunterston dispute - both of the latter sparking national dock strikes in solidarity with the miners and in defence of the National Dock Labour Scheme. That book, apart from disassociating these events, actually sites them the wrong way round, with Hunterston coming first and Immingham second.

This work reminds us of the correct chronology and their vital importance in the strike trajectory, highlighting the centrality of the betrayal by Bill Sirs of the steelworkers’ union in setting up the whole Orgreave and steelworks scab diversion. It is not too complimentary about the leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union during this period either - the authors allege that they effectively pulled the rug from under the dockers’ action when it had brought about the near defeat of the government’s strategy. Norman Tebbit, Thatcher’s trade and industry secretary, admitted that, had the strikes continued, the government would have been forced to abandon its war on the miners.

But I am not sure the authors’ allegation is not an assumption - one of the ‘union leaders are all traitors’ folk myths of the left. We would actually need to see chapter and verse of what transpired, what agreements if any were reached and what the TGWU leadership actually agreed. This is another of the many blind spots in the history of the strike - not just in this book, but from any source. I would be happy for any comrades who have detailed information on these negotiations and their fate to pass them on to me. But I doubt the tale as alleged in this book because I know what happened at a mass meeting of the Immingham dockers addressed by Ron Todd, the TGWU general secretary.

He took the platform to plead with the Immingham men to hold the line, not scab on the miners, plus the Aslef, RMT and NUS unions, which were all blocking fuel and iron ore, or betray their own agreements and standards. My informant tells me he thought they were never going to get out of the hall, as big, burly dockers attacked them. Todd was hit with one of the iron bolts thrown at the stage and I have it on good authority that he ended up making his appeal for solidarity with blood running down his face.

So perhaps the accusation of ‘traitor’ should be directed not at union leaders in this case, but at rank and file scabs. There is a brand of left workerism which refuses to see ‘ordinary workers’ as ever being at fault. Sorry, comrades, but scabs are responsible in the final analysis for their own actions and their own lack of courage.

I suppose another criticism is that the book uses quotes from David Peace’s novel, GB84, to illustrate attitudes to the strike and the police. This is unnecessary - although most of us know the plot, GB84 is actually a description of real events we cannot prove, which had to be drafted into novel form, so there is no need for invented dialogue: 155,000 real miners, plus their wives and children, could input this dialogue without problem. It is actually what we said, and it is actually what we thought, but we did not need the characters from a novel - even a descriptive and historically accurate one - to say it for us.

The book is produced by A World To Win, a political tendency formed in 2005 by comrades originally in the Workers Revolutionary Party, which imploded in 1985. None of that is covered here and there is no reason why it should be. But, knowing this to be the case, and that Arkell and Rising themselves are former WRP activists, I am surprised the book contains no word of criticism of Arthur Scargill or the union and its tactics, since the WRP made such criticisms during the strike itself. Of course, we ourselves in the union had massive disagreements over strategy and tactics, and the only failing here is the failure to review at least some of these.

Having said that, I am pleased this is not another ‘if only’ book, where the authors dream of what could and should have been rather that what actually happened in the circumstance of real events. The conclusion might correctly be drawn that the true history of the strike has been too many times diverted and thrown off course by focusing on Scargill and his contribution rather than 155,000 striking miners and their families.

Indeed, in that regard, this book, through the agency of its brilliant assembly of photos, corrects the balance. On reflection, we really do not need another book heaping shit on Arthur for real mistakes or the ones the press and critics have invented or misunderstood. Perhaps that is why the authors focus so positively on the magnificent stand of the miners and their communities during that year.

Photos, I think, provide the insight to the soul of a book, and this book excels in that regard. Most of them are taken by journalists on the ground working for News Line, the WRP’s daily paper, in the thick of struggle. A good half of the pages of this work carry highly poignant shots, capturing so much which words cannot. Look closely at these photos - the sheer anger at the police brutality, class pride, heroism, unrestrained joy at the freedom and exhilaration of struggle and defiance. The resistance which took Britain to the brink of civil war and needed only a fraction of the miners’ courage from the trade union movement at large to spark dynamic change in the nature of the society in which we live. The title Unfinished business is well chosen for that reason.

A picture speaks a thousand words, and these photos speak to us perhaps louder than the text. I am not ashamed that they bring tears to my eyes each time I look at them. They record better than anything else what that strike and what that movement meant to the miners, their families and supporters (and me personally).

What the WRP did best during the strike was act as the left’s photographic corps. Their paper-sellers were on the spot and at the fringe of lots of the action. They recorded a priceless archive of visual history of the strike. But politically the fortunes of the WRP had seen better days. Prior to the strike, they were starting to build up a readership around the branches and in the villages. They were good at getting on-the-spot commentary and news on coalfields events.

Then, just five months before the start of the strike, in October 1983, they launched an amazing attack on Arthur Scargill - in particular his views on the Solidarity union in Poland. Arthur, like many on the left, believed this ‘union’ to be a scab organisation, insofar as its aim was the downfall of the Polish ‘workers’ state’, and its allies were Reagan, Thatcher and every enemy of the workers’ movement worldwide. The WRP, along with many Trot and ‘third camp’ organisations, supported Solidarity as a genuine attempt by workers to form an independent fightback organisation free of the party and state.

I issued a four-sided ‘Open letter’ in defence of Arthur and his leadership. News Line had launched daily attacks on him, the leadership of the NUM and in many ways the union itself. I thought Arthur had been set up for a public kicking, as News Line had requested his view on Solidarity knowing damn well he would condemn it and they would then leap to its defence and ‘expose’ him. They kept this ‘coup’ to themselves for six weeks until the 1983 TUC conference, when they let it burst onto the scene just at a time when the bourgeois press was ranting against Arthur’s attempt to win support for the impending NUM action. It was seized upon as a means to trip us up at the first hurdle.

For my sins, Mike Banda, WRP national secretary, ruthlessly condemned me in a massive article in News Line - up until that point he had been a regular visitor to my home. After that subscriptions were cancelled across the coalfields, paper-sellers got banned from miners’ homes, union offices and welfares, just as the union swung into action against Thatcher and the Tories.

It took lots of truthful reporting and good photos to rebuild the fortunes of the WRP and News Line in the succeeding months (Marching to the fault line claims Arthur was “politically close” to the WRP and almost a convert!). The party then had a hard job to make up its lost support and credibility, particularly as we were now invaded by a veritable army of other left groups who had come to show the miners how to win the dispute.

Not long into the strike the Revolutionary Communist Party with their The Next Step got a life ban from the coalfields on pain of being punched on the nose. They ballot-mongered the NUM for the full 12 months, they held meetings with the scabs, they advocated nuclear power, and they were against the union closed shop.

Almost from the word go we had been lobbied by left groups, particularly the WRP, demanding that we demand the TUC call a general strike. At first, we strongly resisted the call. With memories of 1926 still deeply indented in the coalfields, this is hardly surprising. We were fearful of any plan which would hand over control and direction of the strike to the TUC general council. We did not need a general strike as such - we needed basic solidarity at this stage: don’t cross our picket lines, don’t use scab fuel, black scab lorries. That would in a nutshell have clinched it. We thought the demand for a general strike as such should be held as a bigger gun in case of the army coming in to move coal and oil stocks to ports and power stations.

By November 1984, however, we were running out of options. We needed to take the movement by the scruff and shake it from its indifference, inaction or worse - scabbing. The first formal call was made at to a Yorkshire area NUM council meeting by Darfield Main. Its resolution urged that the TUC recognise that the attack on the NUM was the prelude to a war on all. That what was going on nationwide with anti-union legislation, common law, and militarised, partisan police was an attempt to break and roll back all the rights and achievements the whole trade union movement had made over decades. The resolution was more mature than the bland call though: it urged that if the TUC refused to mobilise such action the NUM directly make that call to all members of unions, over the head of the TUC. That a call for one-day general strikes be the prelude to a general fightback.

A few days earlier, the Northumberland area had proposed a similar resolution to the NUM executive, calling for a two-week general strike by the whole movement, as a prelude to ongoing action. Darfield’s resolution was heartily supported by all the Doncaster branches, who urged the EC and officials not to reject this motion out of hand unless they had some strategy as good to offer in its place. Indeed some suggest any strategy offered from the leadership would have been an improvement on where we were now.

Delegates urged that, as it was obvious the NUM could not win this dispute on our own, other sections of the working class must be drawn into the fight. We could not wait for the TUC to move, and so we should make concerted efforts to organise direct appeals to the unions and, failing that, over their heads to their members - not just those in fuel and power: all workers everywhere.

For a moment we had the flash of a vision of a new and bold strategy - we could see where we had to take this movement. All the officials rose to tell us how impractical it was, that we had not been able to get the Yorkshire TUC to take part in a Yorkshire-wide general strike/day of action. The moderate North Yorkshire area delegates all spoke against, saying that we could alienate the unions who were supporting us, and end up with no support whatever. When it came to the vote, only 19 branches voted for the resolution - all Doncaster, plus seven others (mainly South Yorkshire and Barnsley branches, though not all or we would have carried it).2

A couple of weeks later the demand had won support in branches in North and South Yorkshire and ultimately we all voted in favour of it, but the terms of settlement, we insisted, were to be in the hands of the NUM and not the TUC. This demand rattled general council members, who thought we should put ourselves in their hands and they would ‘settle’ the strike. We would never go for that, of course - 1926 saw the TUC ‘settle’ the dispute without us, and then tell the movement that ‘only the miners’ didn’t agree! The terms were entirely those of the coal owners. As things unfolded, we were to be offered similar terms in our dispute.

As it evolved, we won assurances from the power workers and the transport workers that they would respect our picket lines, and not use scab fuel (with the exception of the northern, Scottish and Welsh power stations this never ever happened). And the dockers sailed into the wide blue yonder with their two strikes when they had Thatcher by the throat.

This book is refreshing in reminding us of these issues and the political debates around them. It criticises Ken Smith’s 2004 Socialist Party book, A civil war without guns, as “essentially a reformist one”. I hope they will not be too mad when I conclude that actually both these works are complementary (I thought at the time that Smith had nicked most of his analysis from me, but maybe great minds think alike). Both are useful and both are essentially accurate. And they are right in concluding that this was a political struggle, a struggle for class power. Certainly it had the clear potential of defeating Thatcher and the Tories, impacting hard on the nature of any incoming Labour government and giving rise to more leftwing alternative structures. There is no doubt Thatcher and the state were well aware of this.

If there is any inaccuracy in Unfinished business, it is in relation to the period after the strike and final tranche of closures in the 90s. The book concludes: “Today there are only 19 working deep mine pits in the country.” Would that we were that strong. I can think of no more than seven or eight, unless one includes little day-hole drifts with a handful of men working in them.

However, this is a small point. The truth is, we are hanging on by our fingertips and we no longer pose any industrial threat to the state or its governments. We only fought so hard because we wanted to pose that threat, because we wanted the strength to intervene and change society to an alternative social system. That is our ongoing tragedy - although the NUM, in its history and continuing existence, is still important from an inspirational viewpoint: it could yet stage some minor (no pun) comeback with a policy for clean coal and the redevelopment of British mining - not that any of us are holding our breath.

Highly recommended.

  1. Weekly Worker July 9.
  2. There are descriptions of the internal NUM debates and resolutions in my Pit sense versus the state London 1994, this particular one on pp62-63.