This post covers the 1984/85 Miners Strike which had implications, not just for South Wales, but for the country as a whole and workers’ rights in general. It also shows how I became involved, albeit in a small way, in one of the most bitter industrial disputes in modern history.
EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE STRIKE
To understand why the 1984/85 Miners Strike had such an impact on the South Wales Valleys and a pivotal point in Britain’s industrial history we really need to go back a few years. In my previous blog, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1, I described how these once lovely valleys became a pretty depressing place for those who worked and lived here. There were other people who worked under difficult conditions, but the miners became one of the most powerful voices to fight for a better life.
By the 1970s some people were arguing that the trade unions had become too powerful, too undemocratic, and organized by extreme left-wing union leaders – and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was at the top of the list that those people were talking about.
In 1971, the incumbent conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, introduced the Industrial Relations Act, which amongst other things, was designed to curb union power. I didn’t think it was a particularly harsh bill, even though I was a strong union supporter, but it didn’t go down well in some circles. In 1972, and then again at the start of 1974, the miners went on strike, and to keep the country functioning – and the lights on – Edward Heath introduced a 3-day week and called for an early election. He didn’t win it, and there was another later in the year, which he didn’t win either. In other words, it was the miners who won, and for the next 5 years the unions had the labour government that they wanted.
In the 1979 General Election, the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, after a disastrous Winter of Discontent, lost to the conservatives who had a new leader in Margaret Thatcher. A Soviet journalist called her the ‘Iron Lady’, and it was a label she was more than happy to be identified with, but in the red corner was the communist-leaning leader of the NUM – Arthur Scargill. The stage was set.
Margaret Thatcher had been waiting over four years for the opportunity to get back at the unions, and so she had plenty of time to prepare. She brought together a cabinet of right-wing politicians who helped her form a government with the same ideas as her own. New bills were passed that included privatisation and legislation to curb union power.
In her sights were the NUM, and to help her defeat the “Enemy Within” was Nicholas Ridley, the Secretary of State for Transport, who drew up what was to become known The Ridley Plan. This plan included the following suggestions, all of which were implemented: –
- The government should if possible, choose the field of battle.
- Industries were grouped by the likelihood of winning a strike; the coal industry was in the ‘middle’ of three groups of industries mentioned.
- Coal stocks should be built up at power stations.
- Plans should be made to import coal from non-union foreign ports.
- Non-union lorry drivers to be recruited by haulage companies.
- Dual coal-oil firing generators to be installed, at extra cost.
- ‘Cut off the money supply to the strikers and make the union finance them’.
- Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.
Choosing the field of battle meant a tactical withdrawal by the government in 1981 when proposed pit closures were met with a threat of strike action. The Prime Minister wasn’t ready for the fight just yet, but two years later she was. In 1983 Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor as head of the National Coal Board (NCB), and followed up his appointment with a reduction in subsidies.
In February 1984 the NCB declared that the tripartite agreement they held with the previous Labour Government and the NUM was now obsolete, and that 20 collieries would close with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Scargill disagreed with the NCB’s figures. He insisted that there was a long-term strategy to close more than 70 pits, which prompted MacGregor to write to every member of the NUM saying they were being deceived by their leader. It was MacGregor who was deceiving the miners. Cabinet papers released in 2014 showed that he was aiming to close 75 pits over 3 years.
THE STRIKE STARTS
On 1st March the NCB announced the closure of Cortonwood Colliery in South Yorkshire, which resulted in the Cortonwood miners voting to strike four days later. On 12th March Scargill calls for a national strike but doesn’t hold a ballot. Even so, 165,000 agreed to walk out, but crucially, miners in Nottinghamshire refused to join in without a ballot, and this was to have far-reaching consequences. This was probably Arthur Scargill’s biggest mistake, but another one was the fact that he’d been lured into the trap of asking the miners to go on strike at the end of winter when the demand for coal was low and coal stocks were high. The first round had gone to the Prime Minister.
The video below is a TV Eye interview with Ian MacGregor a couple of months or so into the strike. It can’t be played directly from the website but links with YouTube. Unless you’re particularly interested in the whole interview you should get a feel for what Ian MacGregor was like as Chairman of the NCB within around 5 minutes. He claims that Arthur Scargill invented the plan of the closure of 20 collieries at around 2 minutes 40 seconds into the video.
I could never quite understand why Scargill chose not to have a national ballot, but whatever his reasons were, it split the union. The vast majority were in favour of supporting strike action, but the Nottinghamshire miners worked in modern pits and were probably not in the firing line of pit closures, and so they carried on working. ‘Flying Pickets’ from neighbouring South Yorkshire (home of Arthur Scargill) turned up at the working pits to shout verbal abuse at the Nottinghamshire ‘scabs’ who were still going to work, but Thatcher was ready with a robust police force to make sure the miners weren’t intimidated. Tensions started to boil over and things got more and more unpleasant, especially at the Battle of Orgreave.
There was no mention in the Ridley Plan of using the media as a weapon, but I’ve no doubt that it was one of the most persuasive weapons in Thatcher’s armoury. The press in general was strongly right wing in those days and television reporting wasn’t much better. Virtually all the footage was taken from behind police lines. Not only were the miners split, but so was the country, with the majority of the population believing that the miners were just a bunch of thugs and troublemakers. Below is a more balanced view of things, but the blue corner had won round two as well.
VIEW OF THE STRIKE FROM A SOUTH WALES PERSPECTIVE – AND HOW I BECAME INVOLVED
The strike was quite different in South Wales from the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire Coalfields because it was 100% solid. A succession of pit closures over the years and a strong community spirit united the miners in the Valleys like nowhere else in the country as I was about to find out.
It must have been a few months into the strike when a delegation from the Upper Rhondda Miners Support Group paid a visit to the factory where I worked. Purnell’s was a large printing factory in Paulton, a small ex-mining village in North Somerset, and where I was Father of the Litho Chapel (Shop Steward). The reason they came to see us was because the government’s strategy was beginning to bite: Part of that strategy was to force the miners back to work by starving them into submission. The miners’ strike fund was never going to last indefinitely and the government knew it. All they had to do was wait, and coax the miners back to work, one by one if necessary.
I could see why they thought we might help because, not only was our factory located in a former coal mining area, the print unions were also a target for the Prime Minister; the reason being that they were seen to have too much power in Fleet Street, home of the national newspapers at the time. Purnell’s wasn’t Fleet Street, but as we were all part of the same union, we were to suffer a similar fate within a couple of years, but that’s another story. Anyway, to keep it simple, I found myself visiting the miners from Tower pit at the Fernhill and Blaenrhondda Miners Social Club.
Blaenrhondda means ‘Head of the Rhondda’ or something like that, but whatever the exact translation is, the village isn’t far from the source of the Rhondda Fawr. The first pit to be sunk here was the Blaenrhondda Colliery in 1869, and then in 1893 it amalgamated with Fernhill. Fast forward to 1966 and the two mines were merged again, this time with Tower Colliery which was located over in the Cynon valley at Hirwaun. In 1978 Blaenrhondda/ Fernhill was finally demolished and many colliers from Blaenrhondda, Treherbert, Treorchy, and other villages in the Upper Rhondda Valley found themselves working for the pit at Tower. Hopefully, this bit of background info will explain the reason why we were meeting miners from Tower Colliery at Blaenrhondda.
One of the co-ordinators of the support group was a larger than life character called Dai Lewis who lived in the village, and he invited us into his home to show us what they were doing. He and his wife Rae were a point of contact for food parcels which were being donated to the cause. I didn’t really expect to see this, but it had a profound effect on me. Here were ordinary people having to accept food parcels to help them fight for their jobs, their community, and their way of life, which was hardly extravagant anyway.
Afterwards, I had a wander around the village alone and took stock of the situation. When I saw a figure rummaging for pieces of coal on the old Fernhill tip, I’d seen enough and drove home determined to do what I could do help these people. I wasn’t convinced that starving people into submission was the right way to win an argument.
Back at Paulton, I conveyed my feelings to the rest of the Chapel (union) members and got a good response. Each week I made a collection which gave us enough money to take a decent amount of food up to the Rhondda. It was at least a two-hour drive from where I lived and did it as often as I could, but when I couldn’t there was always somebody who would. The Gravure Chapel were extremely generous and did an awful lot as well. I don’t think a week went by when we didn’t get a parcel up there.
When I look back though, I think we were probably just helping to prolong the agony, but I didn’t see it like that at the time – and neither did the miners. They were always extremely grateful for the support.
As for the strike itself, it became more and more bitter, but if there were tensions inside the South Wales communities, it didn’t show. The strike didn’t start crumbling like it did elsewhere. Women Against Pit Closures action group were solidly behind the men and joined them in protest marches and on the picket lines. As the saying goes “Behind every good man, there’s a good woman” and there were plenty of both in the valleys.
Nationally, the dispute was getting uglier by the day. On July 4th the BBC reported that since the strike had started there had been 3,900 arrests, 640 injuries, and 2 deaths, both miners. Police were working plenty of overtime and taunting miners with their wage packets, and it didn’t help that miners were facing police on the picket lines that were members of their own families. From different sources I’ve also heard that miners also met members of their family who were in the armed forces dressed in police uniform. It’s not the purpose of this blog to rekindle old bitterness, but I’m trying to make the point that media bias was an extremely strong weapon in Thatcher’s armoury because there were a lot of things that went on that people never knew about.
As the year wore on, more and more miners started to drift back to work, and things didn’t get any better when in October the High Court ordered the seizure of the NUM’s funds. As the return to work accelerated around the country, the South Wales communities remained strong, but as the strike headed towards Christmas, there was an incident which I think knocked the stuffing out of everyone. David Wilkie was a taxi driver who had been regularly taking non-striking miners to work, and on 30th November he was ferrying David Williams to Merthyr Vale Colliery when a concrete block was thrown from an overhead bridge onto his car and killed him. David Williams escaped with minor injuries. Those responsible were two striking miners, who in a later court case were found guilty of murder, although the charge was later reduced to manslaughter. They were sentenced to eight years in jail.
This incident did nothing to further the miners’ cause, and we were finding it harder to raise funds for the food parcels. With Christmas approaching we decided to ask people to donate presents for the miners’ kids instead; after all, this dispute had nothing to do with them. I’m pleased to say that many people saw it the same way and we were able to help provide a decent Christmas for the kids at least.
As I said earlier, these people who I now regarded as friends, were always extremely grateful for our efforts, and they invited us to a Christmas party at the club. Even though I’m sure everybody knew that the miners were losing the battle, we all had a good time – and I think they deserved that.
In the picture below, Dai Lewis, the food parcel co-ordinator is in the centre, with Rae, his wife next to him. I’m second from the right in the white shirt. Dai and Rae may not look like starving miners, but they had a heart of gold and sometimes gave their parcel to others.
In the new year, the number of miners electing to go back to work turned from a trickle into a flood when a peace plan put forward was rejected on February 20th. By the end of the month more than half of the men had gone back to work and it was only a matter of time before the strike would be over.
In Andrew John Richards Book, Miners on Strike, his chart shows that 98% of the South Wales miners were still out on strike on 14th February, by far the biggest percentage of all the mining areas, but the knock-out punch came on March 3rd, when the NUM’s National Executive voted 98-91 in favour of an organised return to work.
The year-long strike may have ended in defeat, but the miners had not conceded to demands that they weren’t prepared to accept, and on the first day back to work they walked with their families behind their lodge banners and colliery bands in an act of defiance. The NUM had survived, but the big question was – how long were their pits going to?
My involvement with the South Wales communities during the dispute enabled me to see it from a different angle than most of the British general public were allowed to, and for that I’m really grateful. I’m also grateful to the good people of Blaenrhondda and the nearby villages for helping me to remember the people and places that I visited 36 years ago. Dai and Rae Lewis, I’m sorry to learn, are no longer with us, but Kevin Morris is, and he’s been a source of information that extends far beyond the scope of this blog. It’s also been a pleasure to be in contact with Dai and Rae’s family, and I thank each and every one of you, both past and present, who have enabled me to have a special bond with a very special place.
I’ve only been able to cover a fraction of what happened during this period of bitter division within the country, but in Part 3 I will be discussing what happened after the strike was over and the effect it had on the Valleys and the rest of the country for years to come. For now I’m going to finish with another clip that shows some pictures of the year-long battle that gives a small taste of what it was like from the side of the striking miners – a side that most of the British public never saw, and one that I think they should have.