“This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser and Hitler’s armies and never gave in” :Â Harold MacMillan, House of Lords, 1984
In the eyes of Margaret Thatcher’s government, 30 years ago, Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) leader, intended to bring down another elected government, just as they had in 1974, using the miners’ industrial muscle of mass and ‘flying’ pickets supported by transport, dock and steel workers.
Â Ministers from the time still defend the government’s actions and use of state force as a carefully planned and justifiable reckoning with the most over-powerful union in the country. But was this a screen to mask the government’s deliberate plan to provoke the fiery miner’s leader into a battle on grounds of Thatcher and the Coal Board’s choosing?
Was she using the pit closure plans to crush a combative element of the Â trade union movement that Thatcher saw as obstacle to her wider plans to transform Britain? Thirty years later we may be ready to consider this and many other questions provoked by the year-long conflict â€“ at times violent and bloody â€“ the nearest Britain has come to industrial civil war.
We now know that the Thatcher administration’s secret plans included the closure of 75 pits and use of troops to move coal stocks in order to break the strike, categorically denied at the time.
The release of the Downing Street papers for 1984 seem to confirm what Scargill claimed at the time and explain the NUM’s intransigent stance? Of course it was not an entirely united front: the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire miners remained unconvinced about the decision to go for an all-out strike. And the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, was ambivalent towards the tactics of the NUM.
Â Yet all would be swept up into what became not just an industrial strike but a brutal, long drawn-out struggle on many fronts, which drew in much of the labour movement spiritually, if not physically. It was rightly seen as the crucial battle in the Thatcher government’s determination to ‘curb the power’ of the unions.
There is no likelihood of a government apology to coalfield communities for the misjudgments which led to such a protracted conflict, as called for by Michael Dugher MP for Barnsley East and shadow Cabinet Office Minister.
But there is still considerable interest, an opportunity and a need to better understand the causes and course of the strike, and the enduring consequences it had, not only for the coalfield communities, the trade union movement, but the state and law in Britain today.
To understand these issues and the implications for policy makers (in unions and government) leading figures at the time and now – including Neil Kinnock; John Monks; Anne Scargill; John Edmunds; Terry Thomas, NUM; Ian Lavery MP; Nicky Wilson NUM President; Nick Jones, BBC; Robert Taylor, Industrial Relations Correspondent; and Professor Keith Ewing â€“ will come together with labour historians and legal scholars at a public conference on 29th March at King’s College London.
Organised by History & Policy’s Trade Union Forum and the British Universities’ Industrial Relations AssociationÂ the aim of this forum is kickstart the process of producing a more nuanced picture of the year-long coal strike. Click on the above link for full details of speakers and debates.
The Miners’ Strike, 30 Years On, Saturday 29th March, King’s College, London. For more information and booking click here.