THE GREAT MINERS’ STRIKE 1984-85 PART ONE: No miner has the right to vote another miner out of a job

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ARTHUR SCARGILL, NUM President on the picket line at Ollerton, where David Jones was killed
ARTHUR SCARGILL, NUM President on the picket line at Ollerton, where David Jones was killed

TODAY marks the twenty fifth  anniversary of the beginning of the year-long miners’ strike, a strike that saw the full force of the capitalist state, its police, its law courts and its secret security apparatus used in an attempt to crush the miners, their wives and families and their entire communities.

Alongside these openly repressive organs of the state, the bourgeois propaganda machine of the national press and broadcasting was put on full alert to disseminate lies and slander against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the leadership of its president, Arthur Scargill.

Against this huge and unprecedented onslaught, the miners’ stood absolutely firm for twelve long months  demonstrating the enormous fighting capacity of the working class.

Above all it demonstrated that on their own these forces of the state could not defeat the miners’ and the massive support they had from the working class in Britain and internationally.

What emerged in the course of this year long bitter struggle was that the state was forced to rely on the treachery of the trade union leadership, the Labour Party leadership and Stalinism to hold back what was an openly insurrectionary strike that confronted the most central issue, the right of capitalism to close pits and destroy entire working class communities.

The events leading up to the 1984 strike started ten years previously in 1974.

This was the year when the Tory government led by Edward Heath was brought down by a miners’ strike, the turning point of which was when a miners’ picket at Saltley coke depot was joined by thousands of workers from local engineering and car plants who spontaneously walked out to defend the picket from police attacks.

Heath, declaring a three day week which he blamed on the miners’ strike, went to the country in a general election called on the slogan of ‘who runs the country’ only to be defeated and replaced by a Labour government led by Harold Wilson.

One junior minister in the Heath government was Margaret Thatcher, and she determined from this defeat that it was necessary to take on and try to smash the trade union movement if British capitalism was to survive the world crisis that was breaking at this point.

To destroy the trade unions meant taking on the most militant and organised section and this was undoubtedly the NUM.

Thatcher consciously set about constructing a plan to smash the NUM, known as the Ridley Plan (named after Nicholas Ridley, a close confidante of Thatcher), this involved switching power stations from coal to oil, thus decreasing the reliance for electricity supplies on coal production, while at the same time building massive reserves of coal in order that the Tories would be in a position to sit out a lengthy strike.

That there would be a strike Thatcher was certain, she would provoke it.

As soon as the Tories came back to power in 1979, the Ridley Plan was set in motion.

The fuse for the strike was lit on March 1st 1984 with the announcement by the Coal Board that Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire would close in 5 weeks.

The well-known policy of the NUM was that they would only accept pit closure in cases where the coal was exhausted, and the Yorkshire NUM area council  announced on March 5th that its 58,000 members would strike following the last shift on Friday, March 9th.

This lead by Yorkshire was followed by the Scottish NUM who faced the threat of closure at the Polmaise colliery.

That this action would become a national strike was ensured when the following day the Chairman of the Coal Board, Ian MacGregor (an industry ‘hatchet man’ brought in by a previous Labour government) made the provocative announcement that about 20 pits nationally had to close with the loss of 20,000 miners jobs in the next 12 months, the figure for the next three years would be 70 closures with the loss of 70,000 jobs, all closures were on the grounds of ‘un-economic production’.

The National Executive of the NUM met and voted overwhelmingly to give official support to any area taking action to prevent closures.

Durham, Kent and South Wales NUM leaders met and called their members out on strike from Monday, March 12th.

The national strike was on as area after area came out against the closure programme.

On that same day miners from the Yorkshire pit at Armthorpe left to picket pits in Nottingham.

These flying pickets were followed the next day by thousands of other Yorkshire miners who descended on the Nottingham coalfields in defiance of a High Court injunction banning flying pickets.

On the fourth day of the strike, Wednesday, March 15th, David Gareth Jones a 24-year-old miner at Ackton Hall pit in Yorkshire, was killed on the picket line at Ollerton pit in Nottingham.

His funeral on March 23rd was attended by five thousand miners from all over the country commemorating the first martyr of the strike.

With the national strike under way the carefully laid plans of the state to smash the miners industrially by preventing miners from picketing out the Notts coalfields swung into action.

Thousands of police from 16 separate county forces were drafted into Nottinghamshire.

The entire national police operation was directed from Scotland Yard by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

For the first time in history Britain no longer had regional policing but instead a national police force answerable to no-one but the Tory government and dedicated to defeating a strike.

Without any recourse to existing principle of ‘law’, Nottinghamshire became a no-go area for striking miners and their supporters.

Police roadblocks were set up to prevent any movement by strikers into non-striking areas, with the Dartford Tunnel being closed to striking Kent miners while Scottish miners crossing into England were sent back on March 16th.

The denial of freedom of movement, something everybody took as a basic right under law, was swiftly upheld by a compliant judiciary, with a High Court Judge dismissing out of hand a demand from Kent NUM that its members be allowed the freedom to travel.

The suspension of the right to travel freely was not the only attack by the courts on the NUM.

In the first case of a court-led attack on the finances and physical existence of the NUM, the National Coal Board (NCB) sought a contempt of court ruling against Yorkshire NUM.

On March 19th two thousands miners surrounded their union headquarters in Barnsley to prevent the seizure of their funds and assets.

In the face of this determined opposition the NCB backed down from pursuing their action.

By March 26th the strike had truly become a national stoppage with pits in Northumberland, North Derbyshire and Lancashire coming out to join the battle.

Nottinghamshire, where scabs were keeping pits open, became the focus of a massive police campaign to try and break the miners physically.

The picket lines around working pits became a battle ground as the police were instructed to make mass arrests.

Pickets’ cars were smashed up at illegal roadblocks and on one day, March 26th, 37 men were arrested.

By now the miners’ struggle had begun to win support from the working class and on March 29th the Rail, Sea and Transport Unions met and agreed to instruct their members to halt the movement of coal and coke.

But divisions also started to appear within the ranks of the trade union leadership when the following day the leaders of the steel unions met and condemned this decision, and refused to cut steel production in solidarity with the miners.

In the propaganda war against the NUM and its leadership, the Tories and their servants in the bourgeois press raised the issue of a national ballot, declaring that the strike was somehow ‘unconstitutional’ and outside the rules of the NUM because it hadn’t been sanctified by a national ballot of the membership.

The demand for a ballot was taken up by Nottinghamshire area leaders who were openly urging their members to continue scabbing, and it was a demand that found favour with the Labour Party leadership of Neil Kinnock.

Striking miners treated this demand with contempt and rejected out of hand the parliamentary concept of ballots and bourgeois democracy.

For the miners the issue was clear, no worker in a pit that had recent investment and therefore an expectation of continued existence, had the right to vote on whether another pit should close and men be thrown out of work.

The slogan of ‘No Ballots!’ dominated the first of several long marches from the Kent coalfields to Nottinghamshire demanding that they join the strike and calling for the entire working class to rally behind the miners.

On April 12th the NUM national executive voted 13 to 8 to reject calls for a ballot and called for all miners to join the fight against closures.