Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

THE MINERS’ STRIKE: thirty years on

In A.Graham on March 31, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The Miners’ Strike dragged on from March 1984 until March 1985.

Alistair Graham looks back.

During the bloody, dogged years of the miners’ strike I was living “up north”. At the time I was assistant secretary of the Halifax District Trades Council, and was closely involved in giving what support we could to the miners’ struggle.

During the bloody, dogged years of the miners’ strike, I was living “up north”. At the time I was assistant secretary of the Halifax Trades Council. And was closely involved in giving what support we could to the miners’ struggle.

We had “adopted” two local pits, Emley Moor, near Huddersfield, and Park Mill collieries. We collected food and money for those on strike and their families and did what we could to publicise the miners’ cause.

Others, too, were involved. Indeed, a network of support groups had sprung up to back the miners and provide what help we could. And through my membership of the ILP I also found myself involved in support for two pits in South Yorkshire, Hatfield and Armthorpe.

PROVOKING THE STRIKE:

There’s no doubt in my mind that the strike was provoked, and that the Thatcher Government was well prepared. It came to a head when Ian McGregor (head of the NCB) abruptly announced the closure of two pits (Polmaise in Scotland and Cortonwood in Yorkshire). McGregor then told the National Union of Miners that he was planning further closures, with the loss of at least 21,000 jobs.

The strike was on, and by the end of March, it was solid throughout Yorkshire, Scotland, the North East, South Wales and Kent. Only in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire did the bulk of miners choose to remain at work.

The Government, though, had planned ahead and was ready for the conflict. Stockpiles of coal had been built up. Haulage firms with “scab” crews were hired to transport the coal – and the police were brought in to face the picket lines at the pits.

POLITICISING THE POLICE:

The use of the police, however, went much further than merely keeping order at the picket line. They were deployed to blockade motorways, instigated “stop and search” tactics – far from the picket lines and away from TV cameras and news photographers. Indeed, an investigation in the Guardian (March 1985) concluded that “there has been a widespread abuse of the criminal law in relation to arrests, road blocks and bail. In general the law appears to have been used as a means of social control rather than for its intended purpose.”

You can say that again. Effectively the police had been politicised to serve a government whose leader described the miners as “the enemy within”. The violations of the law included imposing bail conditions that amounted to house arrest or exile for many miners.

And sometimes the police went further – such as the invasion of the pit village of Armthorpe in South Yorkshire in the summer of 1984, when they charged through the community in riot gear, smashing up the place. The incident was later re-created in the film “Billy Elliot”.

And, at Orgreave coking depot, near Sheffield, police on horseback wielding truncheons indiscriminately caused havoc as they mounted a charge through picket lines. And Arthur Scargill was arrested.

The Miners’ union funds were also under attack as they were sequestered by the law courts. But still the strike dragged on. But it was beginning to take its toll. By December, many miners, particularly those with wives and children found themselves facing a bleak Christmas. In many cases, debts were mounting and there seemed no end in sight.

It wasn’t surprising that the solid support for the strike amongst the miners began to haemorrhage. As March approached it was becoming obvious that the strike could no longer be sustained.

On March 5th 1985 the striking miners returned to work. Along with others from our Trades Council and other support groups from Huddersfield and the Colne Valley, I joined the procession as miners and their families marched back to Park Mill colliery. There was no brass band to lead us, but the banner was there at the head of the column.

Not long after that, Park Mill pit was closed. And over the next few years, the lights at the pitheads in coalfields all over the country went out.

Thatcher had won. But the human scars remained – and in many old mining communities they remain to this day.

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