THE GREAT MINERS STRIKE 1984-85 – PART FOUR ‘Trying to reconcile the irreconcilable’

Workers Revolutionary Party and Young Socialists banners on the lobby outside  the TUC in Brighton demand the organisation of the General Strike
Workers Revolutionary Party and Young Socialists banners on the lobby outside the TUC in Brighton demand the organisation of the General Strike

THE TUC National Congress held in Brighton during the first week of September 1984 was dominated by the miners’ strike.

Miners from the Cortenwood pit in Yorkshire, whose proposed closure had sparked off the action, had marched for two weeks from Yorkshire to lobby the Congress.

Inside the conference hall delegates gave a standing ovation to NUM President, Arthur Scargill and in a massive show of unity 95% of them pledged to back the blacking on the movement of coal, coke and oil.

Union leaders queued up to announce from the rostrum their support for the NUM and their determination not to see the Tories break the miners.

But behind all these fine speeches and pledges of undying solidarity, there was a strong whiff of treachery in the air.

The mass support of the working class made it impossible for these leaders to do anything but offer fulsome support but some did it through gritted teeth.

David Basnett, leader of the general union the GMBATU, for instance would later attack ‘Scargillism’.

During the whole of the strike, talks between the NUM and the Coal Board, facilitated by the arbitration service ACAS and aimed at a negotiated settlement, had continually been scheduled to take place.

But it was clear that as far as the Coal Board was concerned, or more correctly the Tory government which pulled the strings, these talks were purely cosmetic.

Confident that the TUC leaders were heavy on the rhetoric but reluctant to take action in line with Congress decisions, the NCB continued to break up these meetings including a set of talks that took place just after the Congress.

Scargill spelt out the situation on September 15th when he told a 10,000-strong rally in Barnsley: ‘I am convinced that this government, right from the beginning of this dispute, has been pulling the strings and instructing MacGregor not to resolve this dispute. We are talking about the whole concept of democracy. We’re trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.’

Three days after this speech the right-wing leaders of the TUC came out in their true colours when they brokered a shabby deal to end the dock strike that prevented coal entering the country.

In this the right wing were ably assisted by the Stalinists of the British Communist Party whose members in the leadership of the transport union along with the Scottish TUC and the steel union actually increased the supply of scab coal to the Ravenscraig steel mill.

The Stalinists had always argued that some coal should be sent to steel mills to prevent the furnaces from dying out, something that the miners eventually rejected when they discovered this coal was being diverted to other uses.

The NUM immediately rejected this sell-out deal at the Hunterston port and decided to continue picketing it.

With the miners stepping up picketing and showing no weakening of their resolve the state intensified its physical attacks with fierce clashes between police and pickets at the Maltby pit in South Yorkshire when the police charged the picket line.

Reflecting the desire of the police to be completely unleashed against strikers the Tory MP Eldon Griffiths, who also represented the Police Federation in parliament, proposed that police on picket line duty might soon have to use plastic bullets against strikers.

Five weeks into the miners’ strike and under pressure from their members the pit deputies union NACODS, had balloted on industrial action and, although a majority had voted in favour, they had not achieved the 66% required by the NACODS rules to come out on strike.

The position of the pit deputies is crucial within the mining industry as they have legal responsibility for major aspects of pit safety; a strike by pit deputies would immediately close every mine in the country.

On September 28th NACODS members balloted once again, this time they voted by 82.5% for an all-out strike.

But as we shall see the leadership of NACODS would later settle for a worthless sell-out deal rather than call their members out.

The right of the NUM to take strike action in accordance with union rules and without a state-imposed national ballot once again came under attack when a High Court injunction banned strike action in Yorkshire and the Derbyshire areas.

The NUM leaders took the decision to uphold union and TUC policy and defy these injunctions.

The first week in October saw dramatic events at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool when High Court officials were permitted to enter the conference hall to serve a writ on Scargill.

Whilst the delegates to the Labour Party conference voted to support the miners and condemn police violence against them, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock took the opportunity to turn truth upon its head and blame miners for the violence, referring to the police as ‘the meat in the sandwich’.

The police repaid Kinnock’s admiration for them by launching renewed attacks on miners and their communities in Rossington, Thurcroft, Kiveton Park and Wooley during the conference week.

However, the state did not confine its vicious attacks to just the NUM.

On October 1 eleven men who had occupied part of the Cammell Laird shipyard at Birkenhead as part of a protracted struggle for jobs, were jailed for one month for defying a court injunction to abandon their struggle.

On Friday, October 5th Scargill had a second writ served upon him for the crime of simply stating in public that the strike was official.

The following week the union was fined £200,000 and Scargill was personally fined £1,000 for contempt of court.

The Tory Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, was already demanding that Scargill be jailed for continued contempt.

In the event, on October 17th an anonymous contributor paid the £1,000 fine but the NUM’s funds were later seized by the state and placed in the hands of the sequestrators Price Waterehouse.

Twice during the month of October talks between the NCB and the NUM were scheduled to take place at ACAS, but these talks broke down by October 15th.

In the meantime international solidarity was growing with French trade unionists delivering 400 tonnes of food and £58,000 in cash to the NUM.

On Tuesday, October 16th the pit deputies union NACODS announced strike action by its 15,000 members to start on the 26th.

This decision, as we have said, was never upheld by the leadership of NACODS.

A fascinating insight into what happened in this period has recently been provided by Artur Scargill himself.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper on March 7th 2009, Scargill refuted the accusation still made today that he had refused to negotiate a settlement.

In this article he revealed that the NUM settled the strike ‘on five separate occasions in 1984: on June 8th, July 8th, July 18th, September 10th and October 12. The first four settlements were sabotaged or withdrawn following the intervention of Thatcher.’

The fifth settlement revolved around terms agreed between the leaders of NACODS and the NUM and included the demand: ‘that the NCB withdraw its pit closure plan, give an undertaking that the five collieries earmarked for immediate closure would be kept open, and guarantee that no pit would be closed unless by joint agreement it was deemed to be exhausted or unsafe.’

Unless these demands were met the NACODS strike would go ahead.

According to Scargill he was later told by a Tory who had been a minister at the time: ‘that when Thatcher was informed of the Nacods-NUM agreement she announced to the cabinet “special committee” that the government had no choice but to settle the strike on the unions’ terms.’

At this point of victory the leadership of NACODS reneged on their agreement with the NUM and settled separately with the NCB, agreeing to a modified colliery review procedure that everyone recognised was worthless and Thatcher took strength from this betrayal and stepped up the war against the NUM.

In his article Scargill states: ‘The monumental betrayal by Nacods has never been explained in a way that makes sense.’

The fact is that the entire reformist leadership of the TUC now faced a simple choice, either support the miners with action and bring down the Tories, or work for the defeat of the strike.

These reformist leaders were acutely aware that bringing down Thatcher through strike action would raise point blank the question of power, a question that could only be resolved through the socialist revolution and the seizure of power by the working class.

These men and women stood on the very brink of revolutionary upheaval and having looked over the edge they decided that loyalty to capitalism dictated that they betray the miners and through them the entire working class.

Unbowed the NUM now faced the complete seizure of every penny of its funds by the High Court.

• Continued tomorrow