Most people, whether religious or not, have a special Christmas. Perhaps it was the one where you got that special toy, or the one after your baby was born or the one where you fell in love. If these things happen at Christmas in a world full of tinsel and lights, somehow they seem more magical.
The Christmas I recall was 1984. At the time we were nine months into the Miners’ Strike and I was Chair of Milton Keynes Miners’ Support Group. We were supporting striking miners from South Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, coalfields where the majority of miners worked throughout the strike. A group of travelling miners, as they had in every town throughout the U.K., had taken root in our support centre and were dispersed in homes throughout the city.
The Miners’ Support Group had, literally, started in the kitchen of my close comrade Dave Meara, as we sat drinking tea following yet another Labour Party meeting in which the most important item on the agenda was the next jumble sale. The motion on Palestine had been held over as we ran out of time to discuss it. And our branch was famed for being left-wing! As we sat there, Dave suddenly said, “This miners’ strike is going to be big. Do you think we should do something to support them?”
Support the miners
Two days later we were out in the shiny new City Centre shopping complex in Milton Keynes with a couple of plastic buckets with hand made signs saying ‘Support The Miners’. We raised a hundred pounds or so and got moved on by the centre security after a couple of hours, but this was the start of what was to become a year long commitment to bring down the, then, Thatcher government.
Thatcher had been elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 following the defeat of Edward Heath’s ill-fated decision to go to the country over the miners in 1974. Thatcher had never forgiven the miners for 1972 and, after ‘74, she was determined to get her revenge. For all her ‘ordinary housewife’ schtick, Thatcher was a right-wing ideologue who had the support of the 1922 Committee and was driven by a dogmatic determination ‘to drive socialism from this land’.
By 1982 the National Union of Mineworkers was led by Arthur Scargill, who had first joined the union at the age of nineteen. He had progressed through the union ranks gaining a reputation as a firebrand and a militant at the Woolley pit in Yorkshire close to where he was born. He had been a member of the Young Communist League before joining the Labour Party in 1962. He was well known on the left, having organised an unofficial strike in 1972 which led to what became known as ‘the Battle of Saltley Gates’, where mass ‘flying pickets’ closed down a coal storage unit and ensured a victory in that year’s strike.
The strike starts
In March 1984, the National Coal Board, led by the highly unpopular Ian MacGregor, was ordered by the Thatcher government to close Cortonwood Mine in South Yorkshire. It was union policy at the time to oppose any closures other than on safety grounds, and the miners at Cortonwood went on strike and sent pickets to the rest of the Yorkshire coalfield. Contrary to popular belief, the strike was neither called by Arthur Scargill nor required a ballot.
On the day the strike broke out, Arthur Scargill was 240 miles away arguing about the use of pension schemes in what became a landmark case. Known as Cowan vs Scargill, the case concerned the right of employees to a say in the way in which their pension monies were invested. In short, Scargill, as a trustee of the pension fund, was arguing that investing in South Africa was in opposition to the anti-apartheid policy of the union. The court ruled, unsurprisingly, that investment decisions were not moral ones and therefore the trustees had no right to prevent an investment which would be to the financial advantage of the fund.
By the end of April, the strike was nationwide, as region after region voted to support the Cortonwood miners. That said, the strike had far from 100% support, with miners in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, South Derbyshire and a few others unwilling to join the strike and being prepared to listen to what turned out to be false promises of ‘super pits’. Most of these closed within five years of the end of the strike, although the last pit in Notts stumbled on, gradually reducing the workforce, until it was closed in 2015.
Coal not Dole
For those too young to remember, that year was not just an industrial battle. It made the mobilisation around Jeremy Corbyn look like a tea party. Up and down the country in kitchens, community centres and pub back rooms the left mobilised. In every town centre there were people out with buckets collecting money. But this was not a charitable collection for a set of victims some way from where we were; mine workers dispersed throughout the country to support their supporters and to tell their stories. In Milton Keynes, hardly a centre of radicalism, we were collecting over £1,000 per week, holding public meetings two or three times a week and playing host to up to a dozen miners at a time. We also flyposted the town. In fact, wherever you went, there were posters declaring ‘Victory to the Miners’, and the ‘Coal Not Dole’ stickers became ubiquitous. Sometimes politics can seem like endless talking and no action. In 1984-85 it was endless action with a very definite aim: bring down the Tory government, and defend our class.
By late October 1984 it was clear that the forces ranged against the miners were immense: the Tories (naturally), the TUC and Labour Party (equivocating then as now), the media (including the BBC transposing film and repeating lies), the police (willing stooges of an authoritarian government then as now), the judiciary (never knowingly supporting the working class) and, of course, the benefits system with its punitive measures aimed at starving the miners back to work. By October, some strikers had lost heart and were drifting back to work and, for those fighting on, the betrayal of what we still saw as ‘our side’ was becoming apparent. At a meeting of a group of activists somebody raised Christmas, and it was resolved to ensure that, whatever the government threw at the miners, their families and children would still be able to celebrate on Christmas Day.
As the nights drew in, and October morphed into November, Operation Christmas Miners went fully operational. The Unemployed Workers Centre in Wolverton where we were based had a large meeting room which we had commandeered previously as the home of Milton Keynes Union for the Unemployed, and which by May had been transformed into a permanent home for the Miners’ Support Group. That meeting room started to resemble Santa’s grotto as we contacted all our trade union and socialist contacts to contribute. Every day somebody would walk in off the street with gifts of toys or money. We were convinced that, if we could get through Christmas, the miners could break the resolve of the government in the long winter months ahead.
The Ridley Plan
We were naively unaware that the government had drawn up its own plans to ensure that the NUM, their bête noir, would be defeated. The Tories were implementing what was known as the ‘Ridley Plan’ drawn up by right-wing cabinet member Ian Ridley on Thatcher’s orders to devise a scheme to beat the miners. Its rationale was not economic or environmental; its rationale was to break the trade union movement and exact revenge for 1972 and 1974. A special group of covert operatives from MI5, under the leadership of soon-to-be agency boss Stella Rimington, were conducting a secret campaign supported by the government. As Seamus Milne documents in his account of the campaign to destroy the miners, The Enemy Within, a huge financial war chest was made available to the police and ‘security’ forces to use whatever means were necessary, regardless of legality, to ensure the miners were broken.
As we loaded vans full of Christmas presents and attended Christmas parties for the kids of striking miners in welfare halls, we felt we were on the verge of a historic victory. But, by this stage, the media were already sowing the seeds of doubt in many miners’ minds. Early in January 1985, we were asked to host two young miners who had barely been near a picket line since the strike began and were talking about joining the drift back to work. Usually the miners who came to Milton Keynes would attend meetings to raise awareness and spend their time on the streets raising cash. In these cases we billeted them with a couple of our more enthusiastic supporters who we knew would talk them out of any doubts they were having. These scenes were being repeated throughout the land, as activists from the NUM, supported by an army of left-wingers, sought to maintain the resolve of the 142,000 striking miners and their families in the face of daily intimidation from working miners, the police, social security and the media.
Every day we opened the papers to new smears of how striking miners were intimidating those who wanted to work. In fact, the intimidation was the other way round. If there was one man who epitomised the miners’ resolve, it was NUM President Arthur Scargill. The papers and TV threw every lie they could think of at him, including accusing him of being undemocratic because he understood the NUM rule book rather better than his critics, taking money from donations to pay a mortgage he never had, and being in the pay of foreign governments. The striking miners never wavered in their support for him, but sections of the so-called left began calling for a ballot and blaming Scargill personally for the fact that the strike was not going to plan. I don’t know whether those who wrote for Marxism Today and similar weather vane publications were simply turncoats, anti-working class or in the employ of the state, but their role seemed to be to demoralise the strikers by spreading misinformation and pessimism at a time when what was needed was solidarity and resolve.
The strike ends
By March 1985, the miners had come to accept that they could not win. Their resolve had gone. The battle was lost. They returned to work, defiant and proud. Within 10 years the coal industry was all but gone. It was a catastrophic defeat for the working class and put the Labour movement back twenty or thirty years. In truth, we have not yet recovered. But, for those brief few months it felt the world was there for the taking. To be part of that struggle was to feel a sense of comradeship I have never felt since. It really is difficult to express clearly what it meant to pick up a bucket and go to a town centre to stand in solidarity with those confronting not just the government but an entire ideology. There was nothing like rising early in the morning to drive 150 miles, with a strong possibility of getting turned back, to join a picket line trying to stop scabs from undermining the strike. To face off against police was a reminder that class was not an academic construct, but real, and class struggle wasn’t just a slogan but what happened when the forces of your side came face to face with the forces of their side.
People will tell you we won because the miners marched back or will point to the Women’s Support Groups as evidence that it was only a partial defeat. Nonsense. It was a defeat of epic proportions. Following March 1985, mining areas were eviscerated, the trade unions were placed in more and more shackles, the Labour Party went into permanent retreat and the ideology of individualism almost completely replaced that of community and solidarity. It paved the way for where we are now; a divided movement fighting for scraps as the rich push their noses deeper and deeper into the trough.
And yet those of us involved in the year long struggle, and it was always about much more than the miners, cannot but have had their lives changed by the experience. I’ve personally been involved in plenty more struggles and a few which were marginally more successful. 1985 did not end class struggle, trade unionism or the Labour Party. It severely weakened them. But, for 12 months, every progressive minded person in the country (and beyond) looked to the miners and knew our hopes and theirs were entwined. Of course, we argued about tactics but the arguments would stop when there was a picket to organise or a collection to be made. For once, the entirety of the progressive forces in the U.K. stood as one with a common purpose. At Christmas 1984, as Band Aid’s ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ beat Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ to the number one spot, and the family could settle down to watch The Two Ronnie’s Christmas Special, activists throughout the land could enjoy a mince pie safe in the knowledge that when future generations asked, “What did you do in the miners strike?”, they could answer, “Everything I could”.
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Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.